My rating: 5 of 5 stars
In her memorial remembrance of her late friend Toni Morrison, Fran Lebowitz observed that “Toni would always take into account the problems that the person you were angry at had.” She was speaking of how Morrison behaved as a friend, but a great novelist needs to think the same way when practicing the art.
Morrison was always insulted by those who called her writing “poetic,” and I suspect this sense of the novelist’s specific vocation is why: the poet can and should express her own sensibility, but the novelist, populating imagined worlds with imagined people, has to be able to express every sensibility. Hence her rejection of the “feminist” label for her novel Paradise: she said, “I would never write any ‘ist.’ I don’t write ‘ist’ novels.”
Morrison also insisted, though, that her fiction was “political.” That is, she designed her novels to have certain social effects. First was to introduce into the public sphere imaginative narratives about black people not informed by the “white gaze.” Prior black novels, she observed, like Native Son or Invisible Man, argued with and against certain dominant-culture expectations that she, at the starting-point of her own work, refused to consider or countenance at all.
The “white gaze” refers to an ideology (not to the literal eyes of white readers), one that would read black-authored texts as sociological evidence or narrowly political argument, rather than seeking to find the intellectual and emotional significance of artistic narratives about the cultural and historical particularities of the African-American experience. (A skeptic might say, though, that the strenuous avoidance of the white gaze is itself a response to that gaze.)
Second, as she reveals in her 1984 essay “Rootedness: The Ancestor as Foundation,” Morrison had a pragmatically Marxist understanding that the novel as a literary form is a tool of class consciousness. Just as the new middle classes of England in the late 18th and early 19th centuries required myths and manuals and therefore produced the novels of Richardson, Austen, Dickens, etc., so 20th-century African-Americans, especially those newly urbanized, required similar books of origins and ethics.
Insofar as such imaginative guidebooks are so formally intelligent and powerful that they become classics, they may also prove instructive for very different readers than the first intended audience—think, for example, of a young Toni Morrison reading Jane Austen, or even of the present critic reading Morrison as a teenager. She was not a canon-smasher, but a canon-expander; as she said of efforts to revise the literary curriculum in her 2001 C-Span In-Depth interview, “The whole point is to read more not less,” an assertion that flies in the face both of the know-nothing right and the #cancel-happy left.
Morrison thought even the dead white men and women of the canon had been deliberately misread by the powers-that-be to leach them of particularity and dissidence. They achieve the universal by attending to the local—Dante’s Florence, Dostoevsky’s Petersburg, Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha—and so does she. As she explained to Claudia Tate in 1983, in Conversations with Toni Morrison:
A woman wrote a book on woman writers, and she has an apology in the preface in which she explains why the book doesn’t include any black women writers. She says she doesn’t feel qualified to criticize their work. I think that’s dishonest scholarship. I may be wrong but I think so, and I took the trouble to tell her that. I feel perfectly qualified to discuss Emily Dickinson, anybody for that matter, because I assume what Jane Austen and all those people have to say has something to do with life and being human in the world. Why she could not figure out that the preoccupation of black characters is this as well startled me, as though our lives are so exotic that the differences are incomprehensible.
Neither of these very broad political mandates requires fiction to be propagandistic or didactic, however—neither entails a totalizing “ist.” The Biblical epigraph to Morrison’s much-neglected fourth novel, Tar Baby, speaks of “contentions” in “the house of Chloe,” which is to say (“Chloe” being Morrison’s given name) conflicts within the psyche and soul of the author herself and of her “house” or community.
These contentions are explored no less in Morrison’s celebrated 1977 third novel, often cited alongside Beloved as her masterpiece, Song of Solomon, a book that so takes into account all its characters’ problems that we can hardly stand in absolute judgment, pro or con, of any. And a book, moreover, structured around oppositions: north and south, city and country, male and female, reason and magic. While the novel gently opts for the latter term in each of these binaries, even rising at times from the secular and dialogic plane of the novel to the univocal and spiritual level of myth, it does the work of fiction too: we are left with an open ending and a set of not fully answerable ethical questions.
Song of Solomon is abundant: a family saga, a bildungsroman, even an epic. While Morrison writes back to her precursors, most obviously Ralph Ellison (who wrote the canonical black male bildungsroman) and the Faulkner of Go Down, Moses (which provides Morrison the two motifs of the farcical quest for gold and the hunting-expedition-as-initiation-rite), the novel is her own, suffused with her unique blend of the mordant and the mythic. This paradoxical tone reminds me of Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s observation of Wuthering Heights: “true believers gossip by the prayer wheel.”
Song of Solomon tells the story of the Dead family—their portentously odd surname a result of a mix-up with a drunk agent of the Freedmen’s Bureau during Reconstruction. It begins in 1931 in an unnamed city very like Detroit with the birth of Macon Dead, Jr., soon to be called Milkman by everyone because his mother nurses him well into his childhood. Macon Dead, Sr., is a callous slumlord who lives in a loveless marriage with his wife Ruth, daughter of “the only colored doctor in the city,” in the dead doctor’s own house, along with Milkman and his older sisters, Magdalene called Lena and First Corinthians.
In counterpoint to the emotional deep freeze of the acquisitive and respectable black bourgeoisie represented by Macon’s household is the warm order-in-disorder of his sister Pilate’s. Pilate, a woman born without a navel (her stomach “blind as a knee”), makes her living as a dealer in homemade wine. The moral center of the novel, she opens Milkman’s eyes early on—when he visits her forbidden house with his best friend Guitar—to the possibility of a life beyond his father’s greed and his mother’s repression:
Her voice made Milkman think of pebbles. Little round pebbles that bumped up against each other. Maybe she was hoarse, or maybe it was the way she said her words, with both a drawl and a clip. The piny-winy smell was narcotic, and so was the sun streaming in, strong and unfettered because there were no curtains or shades at the windows that were all around the room, two in each of three walls, one on each side of the door, one on either side of the sink and the stove, and two on the farther wall. The fourth wall must back on the bedrooms, Milkman thought. The pebbly voice, the sun, and the narcotic wine smell weakened both the boys, and they sat in a pleasant semi-stupor, listening to her go on and on…. (Morrison’s ellipses)
Soon enough, however, Milkman is an adult, working for his father collecting rents. He has tired of his long affair with his first love Hagar (Pilate’s granddaughter and his cousin) and lives a life empty of purpose. Until, that is, his father becomes convinced that Pilate is keeping a hoard of gold they took in childhood from the man who shot their father and stole his property. Guitar wants the gold for his own purposes; he has joined a secret conspiracy of black men, a group called the Seven Days, who seek to redress America’s racial balance by killing a white person for every black victim of a racist murder. Milkman protests, but Guitar has become a fanatic:
“You? You’re going to kill people?”
“Not people. White people.”
“I just told you. It’s necessary; it’s got to be done. To keep the ratio the same.”
“And if it isn’t done? If it just goes on the way it has?”
“Then the world is a zoo, and I can’t live in it.”
Tasked with vengeance for the four girls murdered in the Baptist Church bombing of 1963, Guitar needs funds for an equally explosive reprisal, so he too joins the quest for gold.
By the midpoint of the novel, the walls of Milkman’s life are closing in him as he enters his 30s: since he abandoned her, Hagar has been half-heartedly trying to kill him; Guitar’s newfound militancy affronts his more normative moral and political sense; he is weary of his father’s avaricious way of life; he is increasingly disturbed by the behavior of his mother, who appears to have been, before she entered her marriage to her abusive husband, entangled in an incestuous relationship with her father. So he decides to pursue the wild gold chase first to his father’s and aunt’s childhood home of Danville, PA, and then to his grandfather’s and grandmother’s place of origin in Virginia. In its final third, the novel becomes a quest story and a mystery novel as Milkman begins seeking less the gold than the secret of his family’s origins.
Traveling from city to country, from north to south, Milkman finds his pampered middle-class urban preconceptions literally broken down by the landscape and its people: by rocks and streams and vegetation that don’t respect his thin-soled shoes or beige suit, by brawling men who rightly feel slighted by his metropolitan condescension. But he eventually makes his peace with the male citizens of Shalimar, VA (pronounced Shalleemone, or perhaps even Solomon), and joins them on a bobcat hunt.
In the dark of the woods, he communes with the immensity of nature and rejoins the cosmic consciousness of his ancestors, an epiphany brought on by his newfound awareness of the complex codes of communication among men and beasts, earth and trees, that these southerners (and his forebears) understood:
No, it was not language; it was what there was before language. Before things were written down. Language in the time when men and animals did talk to one another, when a man could sit down with an ape and the two converse; when a tiger and a man could share the same tree, and each understood the other; when men ran with wolves, not from or after them. And he was hearing it in the Blue Ridge Mountains under a sweet gum tree. And if they could talk to animals, and the animals could talk to them, what didn’t they know about human beings? Or the earth itself, for that matter.
The novel’s climax—before it soars to its absent, midair denouement—comes when Milkman learns the myth that has undergirded his story, echoing through the novel subliminally in the lyrics of a blues song his aunt Pilate used to sing:
Sugarman done fly away
Sugarman done gone
Sugarman cut across the sky
Sugarman gone home.
Milkman’s own drive to slip the confines of his life was prefigured by that of his great-grandfather, Solomon, who escaped slavery by flying back to Africa. (Morrison is riffing on Gullah lore—the same lore, incidentally, that underlies Julie Dash’s stunning 1991 film Daughters of the Dust, a superb cinematic companion to Morrison’s mostly—and inexplicably—unfilmed oeuvre.)
Yet Solomon’s triumphant, mythical, male flight—and Morrison means us to feel its triumph—comes at the cost of the everyday reality lived by those, particularly women, whom the flying man left behind. This, too, is part of the myth, though, the grounded feminine corollary to its soaring masculinism.
In Shalimar’s landscape, both Solomon’s Leap, from which the ancestor launched his flight, and Ryna’s Gulch, in which his abandoned wife weeps eternally for his absence, are commemorated. Both together make up the cosmos of the novel, and Morrison likewise interrupts her otherwise phallic and orgasmic climax to measure the depths of sorrow occasioned by Milkman’s own flight: namely, the death of Hagar, memorialized by Pilate in perhaps the novel’s most moving and indelible scene:
Suddenly, like an elephant who has just found his anger and lifts his trunk over the heads of the little men who want his teeth or his hide or his flesh or his amazing strength, Pilate trumpeted for the sky itself to hear, “And she was loved!”
It startled one of the sympathetic winos in the vestibule and he dropped his bottle, spurting emerald glass and jungle-red wine everywhere.
Throughout the final third of the novel, Guitar, convinced his friend will betray him and abscond with the gold, has been stalking Milkman, and the novel ends ambiguously with their final and perhaps fatal confrontation. Such an open ending invites us to consider what it all means. What are the novel’s themes?
First, is the matter of names. Consider an example from early in the book. The city’s black populace once referred to the street the Deads live on, officially Mains Avenue, as Doctor Street in deference to the profession of Ruth’s father. Then the city instructed them that it was “not Doctor Street,” whereupon they began to refer to it as Not Doctor Street, a satirical pseudo-accommodation to authority. Similarly, the names of Milkman’s sisters, Magdalene and First Corinthians, and of his aunt, Pilate, and of her daughter Reba and granddaughter Hagar, are plucked at random from the Bible. Milkman, meanwhile, has to take his belittling but unforgettable name from the community’s mocking judgment on his mother.
In short, the novel reminds us that African-Americans, who suffered upon enslavement deracination from African cultural continuities, “get their names the way they get everything else—the best way they can.” Morrison celebrates their counter-hegemonic creativity of self-denomination, but Song of Solomon overall leads us to see it as merely a stopgap measure. Real liberation comes, Morrison implies, not with the invention of brilliant counter-names, but with the discovery of the true names that run like a river beneath black culture’s artistic productions: from the blues song’s Sugarman back to Shalimar.
Hence the failure of politics in the novel: what is politics compared to myth? The only political organization we see in the book is the Seven Days. They are both one of the novel’s glories and one of its stumbles. This rather mystical terrorist group is an enviably ingenious literary invention, but Morrison does very little with it—we never see them in action, nor do we hear much of their justifying ideology, probably because Morrison can’t do much to make their mission anything but ethically and politically preposterous. In consequence, they end up feeling extraneous to the story and its themes, a concept that wandered in from a very different book, perhaps an absurdist political thriller by Ishmael Reed or Don DeLillo. But this lapse in narrative design itself makes the point that there is no political solution to the problem posed by the forgetting of heritage and authenticity.
As for the politics of gender, Morrison’s attitudes are, as ever, a bit different from what her canonical status among left activists and left academics would lead audiences to expect. Read without preconception, Morrison’s early fiction in particular discloses an implicit skepticism about today’s social constructionism. She said in a 1974 interview, collected in Conversations with Toni Morrison, presumably at the outset of composing Song of Solomon:
We are different. There’s a male consciousness and there’s a female consciousness. […] All I’m saying is that the root of a man’s sensibilities are different from a woman’s. Not better, but different.
Writing a sympathetic novel from a male point of view, Morrison did not contribute to the misandry fashionable during feminism’s second-wave (and again today), as she explained to Anne Koenen in a 1980 interview, again in Conversations with Toni Morrison:
Contemporary hostility to men is bothersome to me. Not that they are not deserving of criticism and contempt, but I don’t want a freedom that depends largely on somebody else being on his knees.
In Song of Solomon, men are air and fire, women water and earth. Men’s primal impulse is outward and aggressive (though this may decay into mere avarice or brutality); women’s primal impulse is inward and nurturant (though this can be corrupted into helplessness and stupidity). To prevent the male and female principles from collapse into their untenable extremes, men and women must honor and treat each other well, act as complements rather than either abusive rivals or atomized individuals.
Morrison holds modern capitalist society responsible for these gendered extremes, for creating greedy, violent men like Macon, Sr., and helpless, doll-like women such as Ruth. Male freedom, Milkman learns, should not mean the neglect or abandonment of women, while female freedom, as Ruth (and Hagar) are never quite permitted to learn, but as Pilate embodies, requires that women free themselves of the desire to possess or dominate men, or to be possessed or dominated by them. The novel’s ethics of gender are centered on the man Milkman becomes, rather than the stunted and over-nursed boy he was, and on the woman his true mother Pilate was born to be, her self-sufficiency signified by her blank stomach.
These primordial themes are echoed by the novel’s geography. Morrison pointedly reverses the direction of freedom: if the imperative in the great 19th-century slave narratives and anti-slavery novels, from Douglass and Stowe to Jacobs and Twain, was north, to the cities, then Morrison insists that cultural emancipation after slavery (and before any successful Civil Rights movement, hence the novel’s conclusion in 1963) requires a journey back to the south, back to Africa, back to nature, to restore the heritage ruptured by capitalist modernity, whether in its cruel guise as southern slavery or its seductive mask of northern prosperity.
As for whatever is true in modernity—whatever in it is genuinely emancipatory rather than exploitative, the hopeful potentials latent in socialism and modernism—it was always already tradition. Song of Solomon recalls for me these lines from Oswald de Andrade’s Brazilian modernist “Cannibalist Manifesto” of 1928: “We already had Communism. We already had Surrealist language. The Golden Age.”
To end where I began, though, Song of Solomon is a novel of abundant storytelling, richly dream-like imagery, incisive psychology, and intense narrative drive. It makes its meanings plain—Morrison did think novels should instruct their readership—but its marvelous excess offers so much nuance that the book could never be confused with a tract or pamphlet, an “ist” or an “ism.”
Pilate may be the novel’s moral center, the narrative’s own navel, but her self-reliance robs her granddaughter of community, causes Hagar to live alone in the cruel world and succumb to its fatal lies about beauty and romance. Conversely, if he hadn’t been reared in the matrix of the Deads’ prosperity, how would Milkman have gotten the resources or the impetus to go on his quest? Modernity’s impasses must be gone through, not retreated from, an implication that heavily qualifies what otherwise appears to be the narrative’s investment in “primitivism”—a word Morrison would not have used in the pejorative.
Morrison does not equivocate about who were the victims and who the perpetrators, but she still presents the baleful, deracinating effects of modernity as afflicting even those groups and individuals who seem to benefit from them, precisely because the benefits were either material wealth or unwarranted self-esteem and therefore from her perspective ultimately meretricious. Given that premise, almost everyone in the modern world could stand to undertake a quest like Milkman’s. The specifics will differ for members of different cultures, but the victory over soulless greed and the triumph for art and imagination will be universal. Lebowitz concludes her recollection of Morrison with this, and here I’ll end too:
Once I was working on something and Toni asked to read it. She said, “Do you want my suggestion?” And I said, “No, I do not.” But she said, “I have just one suggestion: here, where you say ‘you,’ you should say ‘we.’” And I said, “Why?” She said, “Because that invites the reader in.”