Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon (1977)

December 25th, 2012 § 0 comments

The North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance agent promised to fly from Mercy to the other side of Lake Superior at three o’clock.  Two days before the event was to take place he tacked a note on the door of his little yellow house:

     At 3:00 p.m. on Wednesday the 18th of February,
     1931, I will take off from Mercy and fly away on
     my own wings.  Please forgive me.  I loved you all.
                                (signed) Robert Smith, Ins. agent (p. 9)

Toni Morrison’s 1977 novel, Song of Solomon, is perhaps the closest American equivalent to the magic realism found in Gabriel García Márquez’s classic One Hundred Years of Solitude.  Comparison to other authors’ works, unless done well, often fails to place properly the book being considered.  However, Song of Solomon‘s intricate weaving of nearly a half-century of one fictional African American family’s history with the complex social and political situations, not to mention that this admixture also includes lyrical passages that combine elements of the spiritual, the apocalyptic, and the speculative, leads to a novel whose closest spiritual counterpart is the above-mentioned One Hundred Years of Solitude.  However, this is not to say that the two novels share much in the way of plot structure or internal dynamics; the main similarity is in how powerful of an effect the entire story ends up having on the reader.

Song of Solomon covers the life of the Dead family from the 1920s until the time of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s.  There are four main characters:  Pilate, Milkman, Corinthians, and Guitar.  In each of these characters, two male and two female, Morrison explores a whole host of issues, ranging from how African American females are treated by both Caucasians of either gender and by African American males to issues of racial injustice to dreams to the conflict between received spoken culture and the dominant, mass communication-oriented culture surrounding the African American families of Mercy.

Morrison deftly weaves all of these elements together into a tapestry that as one critic put it, serves not “a window into African American experience, but into the kitchen of its creation.”  Character is at the heart of these narratives of the Dead family.  From how Milkman’s mother reacted to the news of Mr. Smith’s attempted flight to the college-educated Corinthians dealing with the eccentricities and cluelessness of her Caucasian employer to discussions of race-related murders, Morrison imbues each of these conflicts with a vivid sense of just how difficult and (at times) how transformational these changes were for the characters.  It is easy for readers to shift back and forth between “liking” and “disliking” the characters based on their actions; they feel “real” and even for those such as myself who have not experienced most of what Morrison details, there is the sense of a shared human contact, of a emphatic bond developing between imagined characters and the readers trying to grasp the import of what is transpiring.

There is a strong metaphorical element that runs throughout the novel, starting with the family name of Dead.  Consider that in light of this key exchange between Milkman and Guitar:

Guitar stretched his legs.  “They want your life, man.”

“My life?”

“What else?”

“No.  Hagar wants my life.  My family…they want – “

“I don’t mean that way.  I don’t mean they want your dead life; they want your living life.”

“You’re losing me,” said Milkman.

“Look.  It’s the condition our condition is in.  Everybody wants the life of a black man.  White men want us dead or quiet – which is the same thing as dead.  White women, same thing.  They want us, you know, ‘universal,’ human, no ‘race consciousness.’  Tame, except in bed.  They like a little racial loincloth in the bed.  But outside the bed they want us to be individuals.  You tell them, ‘But they lynched my papa,’ and they say, ‘Yeah, but you’re better than the lynchers are, so forget it.’  And black women, they want your whole self.  Love, they call it, and understanding.  ‘Why don’t you understand me?’  What they mean is, Don’t love anything on earth except me.  They say, ‘Be responsible,’ but what they mean is, Don’t go anywhere where I ain’t.  You try to climb Mount Everest, they’ll tie up your ropes.  Tell them you want to go to the bottom of the sea – just for a look – they’ll hide your oxygen tank.  Or you don’t even have to go that far.  Buy a horn and say you want to play.  Oh, they love the music, but only after you pull eight at the post office.  Even if you make it, even if you stubborn and mean and you get to the top of Mount Everest, or you do play and you good, real good – that still ain’t enough.  You blow your lungs out on the horn and they want what breath you got left to hear about how you love them.  They want your full attention.  Take a risk and they say you not for real.  That you don’t love them.  They won’t even let you risk your own life, man, your own life – unless it’s over them.  You can’t even die unless it’s about them.  What good is a man’s life if he can’t even choose what to die for?” (pp. 242-243)

This scene, part of a much longer one that forms a key linchpin of the novel, deals with life and the control of one’s life.  Much of the novel’s tension revolves around this, how one group (whites, other blacks, men and women toward the other group) wants to dictate what the other can believe or do.  From things as silly as the naming of (Not) Doctor Street to as serious as the series of racial killings hinted at throughout the course of the novel, Song of Solomon takes these conflicts and creates a multi-layered tale that shows happiness and sadness, frustration and joy, that each member of the Dead family finds over the course of the novel.  It is for this, among several other reasons, that Song of Solomon is widely considered to be one of the best American novels of the past 50 years and certainly the main reason why Morrison won the Nobel Prize for Literature.  A true classic in every sense of the word.

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