Song of Solomon

Introduction

Song of Solomon is a 1977 novel by American author Toni Morrison. It follows the life of Macon "Milkman" Dead III, an African-American man living in Michigan, from birth to adulthood.

This book won the National Books Critics Award, was chosen for Oprah Winfrey's popular book club, and was cited by the Swedish Academy in awarding Morrison the 1993 Nobel Prize in Literature.[1] In 1998, the Radcliffe Publishing Course named it the 25th best English-language novel of the 20th century.[2]

Plot summary

Song of Solomon opens with the suicide of Robert Smith, an insurance agent and member of The Seven Days who crafts for himself blue silk wings with which he attempts to fly from the top of Mercy Hospital. Smith's attempt at flight and subsequent death functions as the symbolic heralding of the birth of Macon "Milkman" Dead III. A crowd of around fifty people gather to watch the attempted flight, including Milkman's mother, Ruth, his two sisters First Corinthians and Magdalene called Lena, his aunt Pilate, and his friend later in life, Guitar. The appearance of Smith on the roof causes Ruth to go into labor. Given the chaos that follows and the immediate need of the pregnant mother, the hospital admits her and she delivers her son, Macon Dead III—the first African American child to be born in the hospital. This scene is also the first instance of Pilate singing her song of "Sugarman," which becomes an important detail in uncovering the mysterious heritage of the Dead family.

The novel then picks up again with Macon Dead III at four years old. "Mr. Smith's blue silk wings must have left their mark, because when the little boy discovered, at four, the same thing Mr. Smith had learned earlier—that only birds and airplanes could fly—he lost all interest in himself."[3] This childhood disappointment becomes a key influence in Macon Dead III's life, as he grows to become stifled, alienated, and chiefly disinterested in his home life and life in Southside. Also at four-years-old, Macon is given his nickname, Milkman. Functioning as an escape from her repetitive life and loveless marriage and also as a way to feel a mothering connection to her son, Ruth still breastfeeds Milkman. One day, she is caught in the act by Freddie, one of Macon Dead Jr.'s employees who proclaims Macon Dead III to be "A milkman. . . . Look out, womens. Here he come."[4] This moniker becomes less an embarrassment for Milkman over the course of his life than a mantle that allows him entry into the male community of Southside, as most men go by nicknames over their given names.

As for given names, Milkman's follows his paternal familial tradition with first sons being named after their fathers. Macon Dead III (Milkman) is named for his father Macon Dead Jr. who is named for his father, the original Macon Dead. The reader comes to find that the name Macon Dead, is actually a clerical error made by a white man when recording information about Macon Dead Sr. when he moved following the end of slavery in the South. The reader comes to discover that Macon Dead Sr.'s real name was Jake. The names for Milkman's sisters also follow a paternal tradition. The father points to a random spot in the Bible and the daughter is then given the name that appears wherever the father's finger lands. Thus, Milkman's sisters are named First Corinthians and Magdalene called Lena. Milkman's aunt named by the same process and is called Pilate. Pilate also follows the tradition with her own daughter Reba who applies the tradition to her daughter Hagar.

Pilate, a bootlegger and quasi witch-woman, becomes a central figure in the novel as Milkman grows through adolescence and into his thirties. Pilate was highly influential in Milkman's birth and conception. With her sister-in-law, Ruth Foster Dead, locked in an abusive and loveless marriage with Pilate's brother Macon Dead Jr., Pilate brews a "love potion" of sorts to coerce Macon Dead Jr. into conceiving Milkman with Ruth. Macon later becomes aware of the deceit and attempts to undermine the child's birth, but is thwarted by a "voodoo" doll that Pilate creates and threatens him with. Macon Dead Jr. is estranged from his sister, partially because of her meddling and also because he sees Pilate as beneath his standing. Travelling up from Pennsylvania, Macon Dead sought to make a life for himself and was successful both in terms of managing real estate and in marrying Ruth, the daughter of the only black doctor in town. But Macon is also estranged from his sister because of their past. Their father, an illiterate farmer, is swindled into giving up his land and is subsequently murdered when he refuses to move. Fleeing, Macon and Pilate as children come across a cave that contains bags of gold. An old man is asleep in the cave and approaches Macon and Pilate and Macon kills him. Because they killed the man, Pilate will not allow Macon to take the gold, claiming that it would be stealing and that they would be in enough trouble for killing the white man. Consequently, Macon resents his sister for the missed opportunity at riches. The two siblings parted ways shortly after the incident in the cave. Pilate wanders for a time, working in New York State as a migrant worker and again in Virginia, continually ousted by the communities for her absence of a navel. She eventually settles in a community on an island off of the coast of Virginia and there becomes pregnant with her daughter Reba. Seemingly motivated to wander by the geography book Pilate keeps with her, she roams for a period of around twenty years collecting rocks from everywhere she lives until Reba becomes pregnant with Hagar. Deciding that Hagar needs her extended family, Pilate moves her daughter and grand daughter to Michigan to be nearer her brother Macon. For Milkman, while in his teens, Pilate becomes the first glimpse into his family's past. He also forms a romantic and highly sexually driven connection with his cousin Hagar through his relationship with Pilate.

Milkman's relationship with his family is strained, particularly towards his father. This is partially because Milkman is so removed from his family's identity—and his own—that his family serves to isolate him. He has very little connection with his sisters and "Part One" of the novel ends with Lena admonishing Milkman for his selfishness and connecting the novel back to its beginning where Milkman, as a child, accidentally urinates on his sister alongside the road on a Sunday outing in the family's car. Milkman's relationship with his mother and father is strained by the ambiguity of truth. Macon's resentment for Ruth comes from his perception that she had an obsessive, sexual relationship with her father and her daily attempts at emasculating him. Ruth, however, maintains that the scene that Macon describes to Milkman is exaggerated by Macon, and that she was merely kissing her father's hands, a part of him that was unaffected by the illness that killed him. For Milkman, then, the context of his parents' history is untrustworthy and it only serves to alienate him more from his family. Milkman is equally alienated from the community of Southside and this alienation is manifested chiefly in his relationship with Guitar. Guitar is a member of the Seven Days, an organization that kills white people in retaliation the racial killing of blacks. Guitar is a foil to Milkman. Where Milkman is stifled and disinterested, Guitar is motivated and ambitious in his pursuit of vengeance against white oppression. Where Milkman is a person missing a life to "risk all for," Guitar is the opposite, and continually "risks all" in his endeavors. Additionally, Milkman becomes alienated from Hagar, whose sexual attention becomes easier to obtain the longer they are together. Milkman eventually spurns Hagar and she becomes obsessed with him, attempting to kill him once a month, but never following through. Even the threat of death is not enough to move Milkman, as the final attempt on his life by Hagar is met with disinterest by him and inevitable failure by her.

Milkman eventually mentions to Macon the bag that hangs from the ceiling of Pilate's modest home. The bag is heavy and Pilate mentions that it contains her "inheritance." Macon interprets "inheritance" to mean the gold that was left behind in the cave. Macon assumes that Pilate returned to the cave and claimed the gold for her own. Macon then sends Milkman and Guitar on a "quest" to steal the bag of gold from Pilate. As Milkman and Guitar form their plan, they observe a white peacock on a vehicle nearby.The peacock is interpreted differently by each man, with Guitar claiming that all of its "jewelry" weighs it down, and Milkman seeing the symbol of flight and escape that he longs for. In fact, Milkman only agrees to Macon's plan to steal the gold from Pilate because it will give him the means to leave the town and his family, as Milkman has grown tired and impatient of working for his father. Milkman and Guitar succeed in stealing the bag from Pilate, but are stopped by the police and arrested after the police discover that the bag contains, not gold, but human bones. Macon Dead and Pilate both go to the police station to try to free the two young men. Macon attempts to use his influence and money to persuade the police to release the men, but ultimately it is Pilate who frees them by acting like a worn-out, subservient, old black woman. The performance hurts Milkman, as he has never seen his aunt to be anything less than tall, strong, and commanding. For Guitar, Pilate's performance elicits hatred toward her and deepens his already manifested misogyny.

While the novel tracks the many goings-on of Milkman, his sisters are active as well. First Corinthians becomes the "amanuensis" of Michael-Mary Graham, a local poet. However, her role is less that of a secretary and more of a housekeeper. Hiding her status as a cleaning-woman from her family and her community, she buses to her job and changes into her work clothes when she arrives. It is upon the bus that she meets Mr. Porter, a tenant of Macon Dead's who is encountered earlier in the novel drunk and causing trouble. Mr. Porter is older than First Corinthians, and at first she spurns his advances. Eventually she comes to date him and the reader is shown clues that Mr. Porter is a member of the Seven Days when First Corinthians visits his room to see many calendars on the walls. Milkman discovers the relationship and informs his father, who then evicts Mr. Porter and hampers his relationship with First Corinthians. Milkman's selfishness in regards to First Corinthians is part of what prompts Lena to admonish him at the end of "Part One" of the novel.

"Part Two" of the novel positions Milkman making the journey south to Danville, Pennsylvania in search of the gold that must still be in the cave. While there, he meets Reverend Cooper who knew Milkman's father when he lived near Danville as a boy.Cooper shares tales of Macon Dead that surprise Milkman and begin the connection between Milkman and his past. However, Milkman is there to find the gold, and to find it, he has to find the land where his grandfather lived in order to find the cave. He eventually finds the land and an old house that stands upon it. In the house, he encounters Circe, an impossibly old ex-servant of the Butler family who has outlived their last descendant to view the collapse of the family and their estate. In the filthy house, she raises dogs that used to belong to the Butlers and revels in their destruction of the house. To Milkman she relates the tale of Macon Dead Sr.'s body washing up from his grave and being moved to the cave where Macon Dead's children found the gold. She also tells Milkman of Virginia, a Native American woman named Sing, and a black man whom she married named Jake. Circe makes no direct connection to Milkman's family, but plants in his mind the knowledge of his roots being in Virginia. Milkman leaves and finds the cave, but he finds no gold and only one human skeleton where there should have been two. Milkman deduces that Pilate must have retrieved the gold and took it to Virginia, so he sets off in search of it.

Milkman does not find Shalimar, Virginia right away, but stumbles across it by accident. Upon his arrival, he discovers that Guitar has followed him south and that Guitar had inquired after him at the store in Shalimar. Milkman is perplexed by this information. Milkman quickly makes a poor impression upon the men gathered at Mr. Solomon's store, his wealth and privilege that isolated him in Michigan seeming to do the same in Virginia. But he is soon approached by the older men of Shalimar who ask if he wants to accompany them on a wild-cat hunt in the evening. Milkman accepts and is provided with clothes appropriate for the task and a gun. On the hunt, Milkman is utterly unqualified for the task, but learns a great deal about the men with whom he hunts. They know the lay of the land and make it work to their advantage. What begins as indistinct shouts, whistles, and grunts from the men to their hunting dogs, Milkman discovers is actually a form of communication; the hunters and their dogs share a secret, natural language that they use to corral the cat. Milkman falls behind the hunters and sits at the foot of a tree. While sitting, he suddenly communes with nature, letting it speak to him and share its wisdom. Just in time, nature warns Milkman that someone is behind him and he is able to shield his neck from the strangling cord that Guitar has attacked him with. Guitar is under the impression that Milkman has taken the gold and shipped it away, thus he wants revenge. However, Milkman, at this point, has become convinced the gold is lost and is more interested in his family history than the riches his father seeks. Struggling, Milkman discharges his gun, missing Guitar and scaring him off. The hunters return, their wild-cat slain and Milkman tells them that he discharged his gun by accident, never mentioning that his friend had just tried to murder him. The men laugh at Milkman's expense, but later give him the honor of removing the cat's heart when they clean the animal. At this point, Milkman becomes accepted into the community and provided information and pointed to a woman with whom he can stay the night, Sweet.

Shortly thereafter, Milkman is told of the Byrd house, where he can find a woman, Susan, who may be able to connect the fragments of Milkman's ancestry. Once more, the woman named Sing that Circe mentioned earlier is spoken of to Milkman and he feels that he is getting closer to discovering his family history. When Milkman goes to the Byrd house the first time, he is greeted warmly, offered refreshments, gets his watch casually taken from him, and is offered little information. He leaves the house, wary that Guitar is stalking him in the woods somewhere, but promises to visit again. On his way back to town he encounters Guitar again. Guitar claims that Milkman took the gold for himself and Milkman, very reasonably, explains that there never was any gold and that he did not take it. Guitar does not believe Milkman, of course. They part ways and Milkman spends another night with Sweet.

The next day, Milkman is trying to decide his next course of action when he observes the children of the town playing and signing the "Song of Solomon," a song about an African slave married to a wide named Ryna and who fathered twenty-one children. In the song, "Solomon" flies away, attempting to take one of his children with him, but dropping him along the way. This child's name was Jake. His wife Ryna is consumed by her grief and reportedly "haunts" the nearby ravine that bears her name. Milkman hears the song for the first time and remembers that Pilate sang a similar song back in Michigan. Slowly, in his mind, Milkman begins to piece together what little he knows about his family history and the history of the song. Eventually, it dawns on him that the song is about his family. He later returns to the Byrd house and is able to confirm his suspicions through the information that Susan relates to him. After this, he heads back to Michigan to find Pilate.

While Milkman is gone in Virginia, however, Hagar has sunk into a terrible depression from him spurning her earlier in the novel. She simply cannot come to terms with why he would not want her. She eventually catches a glimpse of herself in a mirror and comes alive again, thinking that if she fixes herself up, then Milkman would want her. Rallying behind her, Pilate and Reba scrape up around two-hundred dollars and Hagar spends it all on dresses, makeup, and a haircut. Unfortunately, the effort amounts to little and Hagar succumbs to her grief in similar fashion to Ryna. A collection is take up by the community to bury Hagar and Pilate sings a mournful song at her grand-daughter's funeral.

Milkman returns to Michigan to find that Guitar is still in Virginia. He meets with his father and relates to him all of the praises, memories, and well-wishing that Reverend Cooper and the community of Danville lavished on Macon Dead Jr. Macon ponders revisiting his hometown, but the novel implies that he will never, realistically, make the journey. Milkman's chief concern is with Pilate, as he has come to understand that the bones that she carries in her bag are actually the bones of her father. Milkman thinks it only appropriate that Macon Dead Sr. be finally laid to rest in his ancestral home in Shalimar. Milkman finds Pilate at her home and is greeted by her knocking him unconscious as repayment for the grief he caused to kill her grand-daughter. They eventually talk and Milkman convinces her to come with him back to Virginia and bury her father. They make the journey and decide to bury Macon Dead Sr. overlooking the ravine. After placing the bones in the grave, Pilate is killed by a gunshot from Guitar that was intended for Milkman. The novel ends with Milkman leaping toward Guitar for a final battle. The novel leaves it unresolved as to the outcome, but this is intentional as finally, Milkman has learned to "fly."

Setting

The novel is set mostly in an unnamed city in Michigan ("Southside" being the only title given for a part of the city), where the protagonist lives; in Danville, Pennsylvania, where Milkman’s grandfather lived and was killed and where Milkman learns the story of his family; and in Virginia, a little town named Shalimar, where his ancestors are from. The events take place mostly between the 1930s and 1963, but there is also reference to the 19th-century lifetime of Milkman´s grand and great-grandfathers, Jake, real name of Macon Dead l and Solomon.

Style

Song of Solomon is also a multicultural reading, with elements of Native American culture being intertwined with African-American culture in Shalimar, Virginia. Equally, Morrison employs Islamic imagery in the actual "Song of Solomon", including in the "nonsense" language of the song. Note in the second line of the fourth quatrain the words "Medina" and "Muhammet".[5] Medina is a holy city in Islam, second perhaps only to Mecca, and Muhammet is an allusion to Muhammad, the Islamic prophet. This is an interesting implication on the part of Morrison, as she is subtly suggesting and remembering the reality that some slaves imported from Africa were Muslim.

Genres

The novel is, as all the other works of Toni Morrison, an example of African-American literature. It challenges the question of African-American identity and relationships among African Americans and between black and white individuals and communities. The main conflict of the novel is the Milkman’s search for ways of becoming independent from his family, ways of self-realization, and to answer the questions of who he is, how he lives and why.

Reception

The novel has faced several challenges and bans in schools throughout the U.S. since 1993.[6] As recently as 2010, the novel was challenged and later reinstated at Franklin Central High School in Indianapolis, IN.[7] Literary critic Harold Bloom, writing in 2000, called Song of Solomon Morrison's "most permanent achievement" to date.[8] Shortlist.com listed Song of Solomon as Barack Obama's favorite book in its list: "40 favorite books of famous people".[9]

The main character was the naming inspiration for the band The Dead Milkmen.

References
  1. ^ "The Nobel Prize in Literature 1993" (Press release). Swedish Academy. October 7, 1993. Retrieved June 1, 2009. 
  2. ^ "Radcliffe's Rival 100 Best Novels List", Modern Library, 1998.
  3. ^ Morrison, Toni (1977). Song of Solomon. New York: Plume Printing. p. 9. ISBN 0-452-26011-6. 
  4. ^ Morrison, Toni (1977). Song of Solomon. New York: Plume Printing. p. 15. ISBN 0-452-26011-6. 
  5. ^ Morrison, Toni (1977). Song of Solomon. New York: Plume Printing. p. 303. ISBN 0-452-26011-6. 
  6. ^ "Banned and/or Challenged Books from the Radcliffe Publishing Course Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century", American Library Association.
  7. ^ Van Wyk, Rich. "Song of Solomon won't be silenced at Franklin Central". WTHR NBC Eyewitness News, May 17, 2010.
  8. ^ Bloom, Harold (2000). How to Read and Why. Fourth Estate Limited. p. 269. 
  9. ^ "40 FAVOURITE BOOKS OF FAMOUS PEOPLE". ShortList. Retrieved May 24, 2012. 
External links
  • Essays and General Info about Song of Solomon
  • Analysis of Song of Solomon on Lit React
  • Stanford University's free on-line video course The Art of Living includes the following three 50-minute lectures about moral interpretations of Song of Solomon:
    • "The Narrative Construction of the Self" by Kenneth Allen Taylor on Vimeo
    • "The Flight of Self" by R. Lanier Anderson on Vimeo
    • "It's not about you Living Longer. It's About how you Live and Why" by Joshua Landy on Vimeo

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