"Song of Solomon": Reception History
Morrison’s third novel, Song of Solomon, catapulted her into mainstream literary consciousness. The text drew a number of comparisons to other American writers, including Ralph Ellison and William Faulkner, Gayl Jones, Alice Walker, and Toni Cade Bambara. Reviewers also noted the transcendent journey into the past of the book’s central character, Milkman, and agreed on the futility of any review’s attempt to summarize the novel. For Larson, “Morrison’s novel is too good a work to be reduced to mere plot summary” (“Hymning the Black Past”), and Reynolds Price, noting the novel’s fantastical elements—its “negotiations with fantasy, fable, song and allegory—and the plot’s unpredictability, would “make a summary of its plot sound absurd” (“Black Family Chronicle”). Indeed, Larson writes that the “narrative never flags—rather it constantly surprises us with its intricate shifts in time and place.”
(A fuller list of early reviews of Song of Solomon can be found in Robert Fikes, Jr.'s 1979 Bibliography in Obsidian Magazine, here.)
Price, Reynolds. "Black Family Chronicle." The New York Times Book Review, 11 Sept. 1977, p. 244.
Its negotiations with fantasy, fable, song and allegory are so organic, continuous and unpredictable as to make a summary of its plot sound absurd; but absurdity is neither Morrison’s strategy nor purpose. The purpose seems to be communication of painfully discovered and powerfully held convictions about the possibility of transcendence within human life, on the time-scale of a singe life. - Reynolds Price
Reynolds Price admires Morrison’s literary progression, noting that, while her first books—The Bluest Eye and Sula—were “strong novels,” they did not “fully forecast” Song of Solomon. Whereas these first two texts were “firm” in “achievement and promise” and certainly had depth, Morrison’s craft pushes those depths “into wider fields, for longer intervals, encompassing many more lives.” Indeed, as Price later writes, it’s “a long story, then, and better than good.” Price concludes his review by noting the well-earned praise and attention Morrison has received and argues that “few Americans know, and can say, more than she has in this wise and spacious novel.”
Price argues that, “while there are problems,” the novel “easily lifts above them on the wide slow wings of human sympathy, well-informed wit and the rare plain power to speak wisdom to other human beings.” However, one of their “problems” itself proves problematic. The first examples Price offers are the “occasional abortive pursuits of a character who vanishes” and “occasional luxuriant pauses on detail.” However, the final issue that Price has with Song of Solomon is the “understandable but weakening omission of active white characters.” To read a novel that, as the reviewer themselves acknowledges, centers around “a large cast of Black Americans, most of them related by blood” as well as “nearly a century of American history as it impinges upon a single family,” and find “omission of active white characters” to be a fault, a problem, or “weakening” in any way, is a peculiar conclusion to arrive at when we consider the visceral and violent actions of the white characters we do have. For instance, what about the family that the midwife Circe works for, the Butlers, who murdered Macon Dead Jr.’s father? And what about the larger, sociopolitical and cultural implications of the society run rampant with white supremacy serving as the backdrop for these characters?
Larson, Charles R. "Hymning the Black Past." The Washington Post Book World, 4 Sept. 1977, p. 37.
Not unlike Reynolds Price, Charles Larson comments on the transcendental nature of Song of Solomon. Price detailed it as “transcendence within human life”; Larson describes it as “a profound examination of the individual’s understanding of and, perhaps, even transcendence of the inevitable fate of life.” Larson introduces his review of Song of Solomon by first surveying the contributions of post-Civil Rights Black writers. He laments what he describes as the lack of “creative writing of a lasting nature,” noting first that “Eldridge Cleaver, H. Rap Brown, even Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) have come and gone their separate ways, scattering their curious and now dated writings somewhere on forgotten shelves in public libraries.” Others, like Black Arts Movement-era poets, have become defanged, putting aside their “anti-establishment” polemics in favor of “comfortable positions in university English departments.” For Larson, Alex Haley’s Roots appeared “to be the only major piece of black writing from the era,” but notes the “serious doubts about the accuracy of Haley’s research.” Instead, Larson argues that when the “black cultural explosion” intersected with the “subsequent feminist movement[,] the result was much more satisfying,” noting the talent of Gayl Jones, Alice Walker, and Toni Cade Bambara as among the most significant.
So marvelously orchestrated is Morrison’s narrative that it not only excels on all of its respective levels, not only works for all of its interlocking components, but also—in the end—says something about life (and death) for all of us. - Charles Larson
However, for Larson, the most talented is Toni Morrison, and, as he argues, Song of Solomon “places her in the front rank of contemporary American writers.” Indeed, Larson argues that Morrison’s third novel “is the most substantial piece of fiction since Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man,” published fifteen years earlier. Larson also compares Morrison to Faulkner, in that she “has created the wildest set of comic characters in serious fiction since William Faulkner’s Snopeses.” Larson argues that her “affinities with Faulkner” are not just “limited to the comic bawdy but also embrace his darker, more profound recesses.” Calling Faulkner the “greatest American novelist,” Larson suggests he would “herald Toni Morrison’s emergence as a kindred spirit.”
Unlike Price’s curious suggestion that the lack of active white voices in the text is a problem, Larson understands and acknowledges the “origins of black consciousness in America, and the individual’s relationship to that heritage,” as central subject matter within the text. Morrison illustrates this by contrasting Black consciousness with a white power structure, which reveals the tensions of, for instance, Macon Dead, who, as Larson notes, “for all practical purposes has become white,” and in fact “managed to instill” in his children “a reverence for the white world and an abhorrence of the black one.”
Wigan, Angela. "Native Daughter." TIME Magazine, 12 Sept. 1977.
Angela Wigan has nothing but praise for Song of Solomon. Like Larson, Wigan notes the text’s similarity to Roots, that it was will “inevitably be compared with” Haley’s novel. However, Wigan contends that Morrison’s “imagination and prose” is of a superior quality. She opens her review by quoting five stages which, according to Morrison, denote the “progress of black American writing”:
Wigan believes Morrison accomplished this with The Bluest Eye and Sula. However, her third novel is “an exuberant expansion of her themes and literary techniques.” In fact, she believes Morrison achieves her “fifth stage” with Song of Solomon: “an artistic vision that encompasses both a private and a national heritage.”
First comes the heat of protest, and then the more reflective search for personal identity. This is followed by an exploration of culture, a refinement of craft and finally a wider vision of the world. But the important thing, says Morrison, is not to explain but ‘to bear witness, to record.’”
Leonard, John. "To Ride the Air to Africa." The New York Times, 6 Sept. 1977, p. 37.
John Leonard adds Song of Solomon to a list of “special” books that he considers himself “lucky” to have reviewed—a list that also includes Lolita, Catch-22, The Golden Notebook, The Tin Drum, Bullet Park, One Hundred Years of Solitude, and The Woman Warrior. And, like Charles Larson, he makes the comparison to Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man. Moreover, while Leonard is full of praise, he does appear adamant about not letting the author’s identity overshadow the novel itself. He argues that it runs the risk of being “foolishly fussed over as a Black Novel, or a Woman’s Novel, or an Important New Novel by a Black Woman,” when, as Leonard believes, it is “closer in spirit and style to One Hundred Years of Solitude and The Woman Warrior." He also flirts with a comment similar to Reynolds Price in that he reminds the reader of the absence of white voices or a white world during a strangely long parenthetical:
The first two-thirds of Song of Solomon are merely wonderful. The last 100 pages are a triumph. - John Leonard
(All three novels, by the way, have very little to do with the white world. It is there, of course, a condition and an oppression, but she won’t be deflected from the truths of her characters to score a political point. They must work themselves out according to what they know and feel. They are not allowed merely to be victims.)
One wonders whether the insistence of mentioning this absence is a result of author or intended reading audience.