Toni Morrison: A Teaching and Learning Resource Collection

Morrison Criticism: Folktales, Folklore, African American Oral Tradition

The Blues Aesthetic in Toni Morrison's the Bluest Eye
Author(s): Cat Moses
Source: African American Review , Winter, 1999, Vol. 33, No. 4 (Winter, 1999), pp. 623- 637
Published by: Indiana State University
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Keywords: Blues, African American Folk culture, African American oral traditions, Cultural Transmission, Music, Colorism

Main Claim: "The catharsis and the transmission of cultural knowledge and values that have always been central to the blues form the thematic and rhetorical underpinnings of The Bluest Eye. The narrative's structure follows a pattern common to traditional blues lyrics: a movement from an initial emphasis on loss to a concluding suggestion of resolution of grief through motion. In between its initial statement of loss and its final emphasis on movin' on, The Bluest Eye contains an abundance of cultural wisdom. The blues lyrics that punctuate the narrative at critical points suggest a system of folk knowledge and values that is crucial to a young black woman's survival in the 1930s and '40s and which supports Claudia's cathartic role as storyteller. The lyrics also illustrate the folk knowledge and values that are not transmitted to Pecola-information without which she cannot survive as a whole and healthy human being."

Key Citations in Works Cited: 

Baker, Houston A., Jr. Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature: A Vernacular Theory. Chicago: U Chicago P, 1984.
Bell, Bernard. The Afro-American Novel and Its Tradition. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1987.
Cataliotti, Robert H. The Music in African American Fiction. New York: Garland, 1995.
Davis, Angela Y. "Black Women and Music: A Historical Legacy of Struggle." Wild Women in the Whirlwind: Afra-American Culture and the Contemporary Literary Renaissance. Ed. Joanne M. Braxton and Andr6e Nicola McLaughlin. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1990. 3-21.
Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., and K. A. Appiah, eds. Toni Morrison: Critical Perspectives Past and Present. New York: Amistad, 1993.
Miner, Madonne. "Lady No Longer Sings the Blues: Rape, Madness, and Silence in The Bluest Eye." Conjuring: Black Women, Fiction, and Literary Tradition. Ed. Marjorie Pryse and Hortense J. Spillers. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1985. 176-91.
Morrison, Toni. "Afterword." Bluest Eye, 209-16. 
--"An Interview with Toni Morrison." With Nellie McKay. Gates and Appiah 396-411.
--"'Intimate Things in Place': A Conversation with Toni Morrison." With Robert B. Stepto. Gates and Appiah 378-95. .
--"That Language Must Not Sweat: A Conversation with Toni Morrison." With Thomas LeClair. Gates and Appiah 369-77.
Oakley, Giles. The Devil's Music: A History of the Blues. New York: DaCapo, 1997.
Southern, Eileen. The Music of Black Americans: A History. 3rd ed. New York: Norton, 1997.

“‘Unruly and Let Loose’: Myth, Ideology, and Gender in Song of Solomon.”
Author(s): Michael Awkward
Source: Callaloo, Vol. 13, No. 3. (Summer, 1990), pp. 482-498.
Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press
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Keywords: Afrocentric, Mythology, Feminism, Folk tales, Gender, Black Feminism

Main Claim: “A careful analysis of the subtle, appropriative nature of Morrison’s mythic figurations (including what is apparently a traditional heroic male act of archaeology—its protagonist Milkman Dead’s ‘archetypical search for self and for transcendence,’ (Lee 43) reveals her complex inscription of ideology, or, more accurately, ideologies: the afrocentric and feminist politics that inform Song of Solomon” (482-483). 

Key Quotation(s): 

“[Morrison] strongly suggests a dual—and, in some respects, potentially conflictive—function for the novel, and, particularly, for a purposefully ‘classical, mythological, archetypal’ text such as Song of Solomon. Three dual functions are: 1) to preserve the traditional Afro-American folktales, folk wisdom, and general cultural beliefs, and 2) to adapt to contemporary times and needs such traditional beliefs by infusing them with ‘new information,’ and to transmit the resultant amalgam of traditional and ‘new’ to succeeding generations” (483). 

“What the criticism devoted to Song of Solomon has failed to respond to in an adequate manner where Morrison’s employment of myth and epic is concerned is the author’s inscription of the ‘new.’ For Morrison’s version of the myth of the flying African is in several crucial respects strategically altered in the form of an updated version of the traditional narrative” (483). 

“The conflict between the archetypal and the ‘new’ in Song of Solomon, then, is of particular significance where gender is concerned because, as is generally the case in Western mythic systems, including the genre of the epic, Morrison’s updated version suggests that masculinity has become a virtual prerequisite for participation in transcendent action” (484). 

“The text of Song of Solomon serves as a wonderfully appropriate site for a black feminist criticism—for a discourse attuned to intersections between afrocentric and feminist ideologies” (484). 

Key Citations in Works Cited:

Lee, Dorothy H. “Song of Solomon: To Ride the Air.” Black American Literature Forum 16 (1982): 64-70. 
Hughes, Langston, and Arna Bontemps, eds. The Book of Negro Folklore. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1958.
Lester, Julius. Black Folktales. New York: Grove, 1969. 
Stotkin, Richard. “Myth and the Production of History.” Ideology and Classic American Literature, Eds. Sacvan Bercovitch and Myra Jehlen. New York: Cambridge UP, 1986. 70-90.

Song of Solomon: Morrison’s Rejection of Rank’s Monomyth and Feminism
Author(s): Gerry Brenner
Source: Studies in American Fiction, Vol. 15, No. 1, Spring 1987, pp. 13-24.
Published by: Johns Hopkins University Press
DOI (Digital Object Identifier):

Keywords: Myth, Otto Rank, Monomyth, Feminism

Main Claim: “Despite Morrison’s shrewd use of the monomyth on Milkman’s behalf, she skillfully mocks him and the novel’s other men. Offsetting his and their deflation is a subtle spectrum of praiseworthy women, prime among whom is the novel’s only character of heroic stature, Pilate. ‘Marvelous’ details circle her with a mythic nimbus that—combined with the humane values by which she conducts her life—rejects the sexism of Rank’s monomyth and the expectations of feminists” (13). 

Key Quotation(s): 

“Although Morrison follows each of the road signs along the map of Rank’s monomyth, she obscures that map by blurring the dates of the novel’s events and, more important, undercuts its conventional celebration of the role of the hero in a modern American culture” (15). 

“Beneath the positive thrust of her imaginative prose and the seemingly upbeat ending of her novel lies Morrison’s disdain for Milkman because of what he fails to learn on his journey, that in his gene pool also swims the congenital habit of desertion” (18). 

“By appropriating Rank’s monomyth, tailoring her hero to fit its criteria, and then bringing him close to showcase the incongruity of her thirty-two-year-old wearing a suit leagues larger than he, Morrison continues the ambiguous and ambivalent analysis of myths on which all of her novels pivot” (18). 

Key Citations in Works Cited:

De Weaver, Jacqueline. “Toni Morrison’s Use of Fairy Tale, Folk Tale, and Myth in Song of Solomon, SFQ, 44 (1980), 131-44. 
Harris, A. Leslie. “Myth as Structure in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon,” MELUS 7.3: Ethnic Women Writers 1 (1980) 70. 
Lee, Dorothy H. “Song of Solomon: To Ride the Air.” Black American Literature Forum 16 (1982): 64-70. 
Lester, Julius. Black Folktales. (New York: Grove Press, 1970), pp. 147-52. 
Scruggs, Charles. “The Nature of Desire in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon,” Arizona Quarterly, 387 (1982), 311-35. 
Willis, Susan. “Eruptions of Funk: Historicizing Toni Morrison,” BALF, 16 (1982), 34-42. 

Folklore and Community in Song of Solomon
Author(s): Blake, Susan L.
Source: MELUS, Vol. 7, No. 3, Ethnic Women Writers 1 (Autumn, 1980), pp. 69-76
Published by: Oxford University Press on behalf of Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States (MELUS)
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Keywords: Folklore, Community, Identity, Individual

Main Claim: “In basing Milkman’s identity on a folktale, Morrison calls attention to one of the central themes in all her fiction, the relationship between individual identity and community, for folklore is by definition the expression of a community—of the common experiences, beliefs, and values that identify a folk as a group. The use of the folktale of the flying Africans in this quest seems to establish equivalence between Milkman’s discovery of community and his achievement of identity, but paradoxes in the use of the folktale suggest a more complex relationship and help to define just what Morrison means by the concept of community, a concept which she vigorously endorses” (77). 

Key Quotation(s): 

“The ‘song of Solomon’ that provides the title of Toni Morrison’s third novel is a variant of a well-known Gullah folktale about a group of African-born slaves who rose up one day from the field where they were working and flew back to Africa” (77). 

“Community is not only the end of his quest but the means; Milkman makes progress only as he acknowledges community” (78). 

“Milkman finds his connection with his ancestors as he acknowledges his connection with his contemporaries; he finds community through community” (79).

“The multiple ways of seeing Milkman’s discovery as a discovery of community suggest that Song of Solomon is an elaborate, and entertaining, expansion of the equation between identity and community” (79). 

“The significance of both Milkman’s quest and the folktale his search is founded on are paradoxical. One the one hand, his quest leads Milkman to his kin, close and remote; on the other, it sets him apart, like the quest hero of myth and fairy tale( whom he also resembles) as one who overcomes obstacles and plumbs mysteries with the help of magical guides (like Pilate), but who ascends the throne or transcends mortality (as Milkman does when he dares to fly) alone…these apparent contradictions make us question the relationship between individuality and community in Song of Solomon and help to define both Morrison’s concept of community and her sense of the relationship of present to past” (80).  

Key Citations in Works Cited:

Christian, Barbara. “Community and Nature: The Novels of Toni Morrison,” The Journal of Ethnic Studies 7, 4 (Winter, 1980), 65-78.
Lounsberry, Barbara, and Grace Ann Hovet. “Principles of Perception in Toni Morrison’s Sula,” Black American Literature Forum, 1, 3 (Winter, 1979), 126-29. 
Georgia Writers’ Project. Drums and Shadows, Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1972. 

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