Toni Morrison’s third novel, Song of Solomon, established her as a major American writer. The story of a black man’s search for his identity through a discovery of his family history, it became a best-seller and drew praise from readers and critics when it was published in 1977. The novel has been especially admired for the beauty of its language and its grounding of universal Themes in the particularity of the African American experience, as well as for its use of folklore.
Like her character Milkman Dead, Toni Morrison came of age in a family that had only recently left the South and moved to the Midwest. Her mother’s family migrated north from Greenville, Alabama, around the turn of the century as part of the Great Migration of southern blacks to the urban North. Morrison was born Chloe Anthony Wofford in 1931-the same year as Milkman Dead’s birth-in Lorain, Ohio, where her first book, The Bluest Eye, is set. She recalled a childhood in which she was “intimate with the supernatural,” and read the classics of the Western tradition.
A Part I
Song of Solomon begins with the flight of Robert Smith, an insurance agent, from the roof of Mercy Hospital. Smith appears on the roof of the hospital with two handcrafted wings on his back. A small crowd gathers to witness the impending jump. Many believe he won’t jump, but to the amazement of some and horror of others, Smith does jump. Because of Smith’s attempt to fly, Ruth Foster Dead is able to deliver her child inside the hospital instead of on its steps. Negro women during this time are not allowed to give birth inside the hospital due to segregation. Thus Macon Dead becomes the first Negro child to be born inside Mercy Hospital.
A Guitar Bains
Guitar is Milkman’s best friend. As a child, his father was killed in a terrible industrial accident, and his mother abandoned the family when she couldn’t cope. Because his mother gave him candy after his father’s death, sweets make Guitar sick. After Guitar’s grandmother took responsibility for him, Macon Dead evicted Guitar’s family from their home for nonpayment of rent. Later, Guitar befriends Milkman after defending him in a fight, and introduces him to Pilate and the community of Southside. As an adult, Guitar is the Sunday man of the Seven Days, responsible for choosing white victims at random in retaliation for white atrocities against blacks. He tries to kill Milkman because he believes that Milkman has cut him out of their plot to recover the gold from the cave. At the end of the novel, he kills Pilate after she and Milkman bury her father’s bones at Solomon’s Leap.
In some respects, Milkman’s story is a classic Bildungsroman, a coming-of-age story about the moral and psychological development of the main character. However, Milkman is thirty-two when he finally comes of age, unlike traditional heroes and heroines of the Bildungsroman. In part, Milkman postpones his adulthood because he is comfortable as the pampered only son of an upper-middle-class family. But Milkman also resists the sense of connection and commitment to others that are required of adults. As he seeks the lost gold, he discovers instead his family’s history: the ambivalent legacy of his great-grandfather, who abandons his family to fly back to Africa; the injustice of his grandfather’s murder; the Indian roots of his grandmother; and the child his father had been. He begins to define himself as the descendant of a man who could fly, but also to recognize the costs of his great-grandfather’s transcendence. In so doing, he learns his duty to his family and community. One major turning point occurs when he is lost in the woods, and he realizes that “[a]pparently he thought he deserved only to be loved-from a distance, though-and given what he wanted. And in return he would be … what? Pleasant? Generous? Maybe all he was really saying was: I am not responsible for your pain; share your happiness with me but not your unhappiness.” Milkman’s growth into maturity depends on his realization that in order to share the happiness of others, he must also share their unhappiness and that in some cases he is in fact responsible for the pain of others. It is this lesson that he learns throughout the course of the novel, ultimately becoming a mature, responsible adult.
The main motif in Song of Solomon is flying: the novel begins with Robert Smith’s flight from the roof of Mercy Hospital and ends with Milkman’s flight from Solomon’s Leap. The motif of flight is a complicated one: it represents transcendence as well as loss. Milkman’s great-grandfather Solomon was able to transcend his circumstances by flying back to Africa, but in doing so he abandoned his wife and children. Milkman finds a better example of flight in Pilate, who can fly without leaving the ground.
A Post-World War I America
Though Song of Solomon is set during the 1950s and 60s, much of its action results from events that happened at the turn of the century, including the Great Migration and World War I and its aftermath. The Great Migration involved the movement of millions of southern blacks to the urban North in search of jobs and freedom in the first few decades of the nineteenth century. In her novel, Morrison gives voice to one of those families, the Deads, showing their progression from Virginia to Pennsylvania to Michigan. Likewise, Guitar has left the South with his family after his father’s death, and no doubt many of the other inhabitants of Southside are relatively recent migrants from the rural South. The Great Migration, though it represented marginal material progress, is also portrayed by Morrison, among others, as representing the loss of a traditional rural culture. Certainly her characterization of Macon Dead, whose loss of his father and his rural lifestyle makes him emotionally stingy and materially greedy, represents this loss.
One of the catalysts for Guitar’s increased involvement in politics is the Emmett Till case. Discuss the impact of Emmett Till’s lynching on the political involvement of blacks at the time.
1963: President Kennedy is assassinated, plunging all Americans into mourning. 1970s: President Nixon resigns after being implicated in the Watergate scandal. Today: President Clinton is impeached, becoming the butt of jokes because of his affair with Monica Lewinsky.