The South in Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon: Initiation, healing, and home Lee, Catherine Carr
Song of Solomon, Toni Morrison's third novel in an increasingly varied and rich body of work, is a remarkable narrative. The novel's power lies not only in its recovery and representation of African American experience in the midtwentieth century but also in Morrison's insistence on the necessity of healing her broken, alienated protagonist, Milkman Dead. Central to both his maturation and his healing is Milkman's recognition that the cultural past of the African American South continues to create his twentieth-century present in ways that are not constraining but liberating. Critics have typically understood Milkman's growth and his healing in the context of the mythic quest or the classic initiation story.' To be sure, Morrison's novel reflects archetypal initiation patterns found throughout western literature, as Milkman follows a quest, first for gold, then for knowledge about his ancestors. Like his predecessors in the bildungsroman, Milkman moves from a selfish and juvenile immaturity to a complex knowledge of adulthood.2 Yet, Morrison does not merely reinscribe the initiation motif. Rather, the novel subverts the dominant model of initiation found both in American fiction in general and in African American literature in particular, as Morrison rewrites the classic American initiation story. In stories as diverse as Nathaniel Hawthorne's "My Kinsman, Major Molineaux" and Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, the American protagonist usually moves from a rural to an urban area, from the protection and identity of the nurturing family and friends to the isolation and alienation of western individualism. Such a movement allows the youth to escape the confines of the past in order to create himself as an individual acting outside of time and convention. This freedom comes with a price, however: such an initiation typically brings separation, restriction, and a knowledge of evil.3 This trope is problematized in many African American works, such as Frederick Douglass's Narrative and Harriet Jacobs's Incident in the Life of a Slave Girl, in which the protagonist moves from an oppressive, enslaving, agrarian South to an enabling, industrial North. For the authors of these slave narratives, leaving behind family, friends, and even names was often essential for escape. For the African American community in the twentieth century, however, Morrison suggests that the isolating individualism that erases the memory of the South destroys spiritual and moral identity. Thus, the trip to the South is central to Morrison's subversion of the classic American initiation story. For the conventionally poor, naive, sensitive youth from the provinces, Morrison substitutes Macon Dead III, nicknamed Milkman, an emotionally isolated, alienated black man who has grown up in the industrial northern midwest, in a Michigan city on the shores of Lake Superior. 4 As the protagonist, he is youthful only because he has "stretched his carefree boyhood out for thirty-one years" (Morrison 98). Still living in his parents' home, collecting rents for his father, Milkman has yet to reach emotional and social maturity. His poverty is spiritual, not material; his sensitivity is that of adolescent self-centeredness. His initiation takes him physically from the urban North through a progressively rural and southern landscape to the home of his ancestors in Shalimar, Virginia. What begins as a selfish quest for gold, for material success and escape, becomes a quest for knowledge of his family history and an identity based on that history. Song of Solomon is, finally, the story not just of one man's individualization but of the potential for healing of a community. Milkman is indeed naive about himself, his family, and his community, but the very nature of the knowledge he acquires marks Song of Solomon as a different kind of initiation story. The initiate's knowledge is...
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