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“It Was All Language”: Oral Tradition and the Journey into Myth in Toni Morrison’s

Song of Solomon

Isaac Sligh proofreader & copy editor par excellence - Proofreading, Lektorat Englisch, Copyediting, copy editing I am a literary translator and copy editor. I have over 5 years of experience translating and editing everything from novels to graduate theses. I copy edited the book Spirits of Place in American Literary Culture by John Gatta (Oxford University Press, 2018), and an upcoming novel by Donald Huber. My main project at the moment is a translation of a bestselling Russian author's latest novel. I went to school at Sewanee, a small liberal arts school in the mountains Tennessee, USA. Sewanee is well known for its English program, and I received intensive training on close reading of texts there. I worked on the side as a tutor and writing fellow at the university's writing center, editing students' writing and tutoring them on essential skills for communicating their ideas clearly and effectively.

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“It Was All Language”: Oral Tradition and the Journey into Myth in Toni Morrison’s

Song of Solomon

Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon is a motive work. Movement and travel define the lives of all the main characters, both in the case of the ancestral character Solomon’s legendary flight home to Africa and the multitude of his descendants’ journeys that this one primordial flight sets in motion. Throughout this complicated web of kinetic action and reaction, one theme remains constant: the oral tradition and mythology of Milkman Dead’s family, stretching back to the time of Solomon and his family in Shalimar, Virginia shortly after the Civil War. Milkman’s general ennui growing up springs from a detachment from this hidden knowledge, cut off due to the changing of his family name as well as distance in time and place. His desire to rediscover the animating mythology of “his people,” as he puts it, spurs him on his journey southward. Morrison links each movement towards the south and into the country with the incremental steps of Milkman’s initiation into the mysteries of the Dead family. This recovering of his family mythology through the power of oral tradition and folk memory allows Milkman to achieve a reconciliation with himself and those around him, as well as a deeper communion with the natural world as a whole.

Over the course of Song of Solomon, Morrison signals Milkman’s journey into the realm of mythology not only through actual revelations of his family history, but also through gradual shifts away from realism and into a markedly more fantastic style. Morrison maintains a realistic narrative voice as a frame for a world which increasingly breaks with reality, introducing witches, ghostly dogs, lost gold, and more. Morrison facilitates these fantastic interludes without ever explicitly validating their existence within the narrative frame, allowing each instance of the supernatural to manifest psychologically in the minds of each of the characters. It is a mark of the effect that the induction into myth has on Milkman’s psyche that, as he gains a deeper communion with his past, so does he also with its potentially supernatural aspects.

Milkman’s childhood is defined by a subconscious longing for access to the mythology of his family, and a general ennui arising from his detachment from it. Milkman possesses a strange desire to fly, and upon discovering that “only birds and airplanes could fly . . . loses all interest in himself” (9). “To have to live without that single gift saddened him and left his imagination . . . bereft,” writes Morrison (9). The pull of history also manifests in his preoccupation with “things behind him” from a young age, both physically and temporally: “It was becoming a habit—this concentration on things behind him,” writes Morrison, “almost as though there was no future to be had” (35). His father, Macon Dead Jr., feels the lure of the past as well but chooses to eschew it, wondering “if he and his sister had some ancestor, some lithe young man with onyx skin and legs as straight as cane stalks, who had a name that was real . . . . given to him at birth with love and seriousness . . . . not a joke, nor a disguise, nor a brand name . . . . But who this lithe young man was, and where his cane-stalk legs carried him from or to, could never be known” (18-19). For his son, however, his past and even this “lithe young man” will become discoverable in the form of his great-grandfather Solomon. All of this is to say that all members of the Dead family feel the inescapable pull of their ancestry, despite their separation across the bounds of time and space and the obfuscating change of the family surname to Dead.

A series of revelations of family lore guide Milkman’s progress throughout Song of Solomon. Each one of these is a manifestation of oral tradition—no paper records, photographs, or news clippings serve to enlighten Milkman along the way. Every scrap of knowledge that he gathers comes from oral knowledge passed down through the ages by relatives and acquaintances. This hereditary strand of information is closely intertwined with the equally strong “traditions” which run through the Dead family, manifesting, for example, in Milkman’s desire to fly and his relationship with Hagar, which closely mirrors Solomon’s treatment of Ryna. During the episode of Milkman’s first visit to Shalimar, Morrison writes of this phenomenon of heredity in story and in action: “[Milkman] didn’t feel close to them, but he did feel connected, as though there was some cord or pulse of information they shared” (293). Milkman shares a genetic connection with the residents of Shalimar—both literally, in terms of blood relation, and metaphorically, through the connectedness of the oral tradition across time and space.

The character of Pilate facilitates the first set of these revelations for Milkman, and acts as a gateway into the Dead family mythology, the key for Milkman to unlock the secrets of his past. Pilate’s house is a mysterious place, set “eighty feet from the sidewalk and . . . backed by four huge pine trees” (27). Additionally, Pilate and her people are, as Guitar puts it, “not regular. They don’t have regular habits . . . . They’re not clock people” (182). Pilate, not just strictly in terms of her habits and sense of time, is in this regard much like her ancestors in Shalimar (and Milkman himself, as he learns on his final clockless sojourn through the woodland)—she is not a “clock person.” In other words, she is set apart from society and refuses to conform to it, a willing outcast with an air of the supernatural about her. It is in this liminality that her strongest bond with her Shalimar ancestors lies. In line with this liminality, Pilate introduces the reader and Milkman to their first encounters with the Dead family mythology. In the book’s opening scene, in which insurance agent Robert Smith commits suicide, Pilate sings “Sugarman Done Fly Away,” a song from her childhood (although she is unaware of its true meaning), sowing the myth’s first seeds in the book’s narrative consciousness.

After piecing together a scattered puzzle of hints about his family’s origins from various relatives in Michigan, Milkman sets out for Danville, Pennsylvania, ostensibly in search of lost gold. It is here that Milkman’s communion with the mythic begins in earnest. His move southward and into the country signals this; as he continues to move further in these two directions, the communion will only deepen. Milkman’s interaction with the locals who recall “his people” (his father and grandfather) awakens him to a “tremor” in relating these memories and discovering a heretofore unknown feeling of renewal and connection with his family’s past—“links,” as he puts it (229). Morrison writes:

Milkman smiled and let his shoulders slump a little. It was a good feeling to come into a strange town and find a tremor in the word: ‘I live here, but my people . . .’ or: ‘She acts like she ain’t got no •people • ,’ or: ‘Do any of your •people • lie there?’ But he hadn’t known what it meant: links. (229)

Milkman’s subsequent visit to the Butler mansion and talk with Circe—almost certainly a ghost, but left up for interpretation—is imbued with an aura of the supernatural. Motifs of the color green and the smell of ginger pervade this passage, hallmarks of the supernatural in the book. Milkman approaches the house by entering through a “green maw . . . a greenish-black tunnel, the end of which was nowhere in sight” (238). By passing through this tunnel and entering the house, Milkman penetrates into the very heart of the family myth, the oral tradition itself, represented physically in a dreamlike state. Moving even further southward and into the country, Milkman arrives at his final destination, Shalimar. Here, in the middle of rural Virginia, not only civilization but also communication and human activity are reduced to their most basic, “where all a man [has] is what he was born with, or had learned to use,” as Morrison writes later of Milkman in the woods (277). Here, at the •omphalos • of the family myth, Milkman sheds all earthly possessions and enters the woods to hunt with the locals in the climactic scene of the novel. As he leans back against a tree, he becomes gradually attuned to the “language” and information all around him:

The dogs, the men—none was just hollering, just signaling location or pace. The men and the dogs were talking to each other. In distinctive voices they were saying distinctive, complicated things. . . . It was all language. . . . 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 . . . . 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. It was more than tracks Calvin was looking for—he whispered to the trees, whispered to the ground, touched them, as a blind man caresses a page of Braille, pulling meaning through his fingers. (278)

This dialogue of dogs and men reduces the oral strand of information and consciousness to its purest form: song. Milkman is now able to communicate and listen with a whole new range of faculty; he is conscious in a way he never has been before. Using this newfound awareness, Milkman is able to finally understand Pilate’s “Sugarman Done Fly Away” when he hears it as part of a children’s game in Shalimar—“Sugarman” is, in fact, a corruption of his own ancestor’s name, Solomon. Milkman’s initial thought is to write the song down as soon as possible; he quickly realizes, however, that his only option is to memorize it on the spot, directly participating in the continuation of the oral tradition. This is the actual “Song of Solomon,” and the song of Milkman himself. It contains within it the genetic strand of everything Milkman was and is, and holds the collective consciousness of every past Dead, interconnected, stretching back to Solomon.

What Milkman discovers in Shalimar is something much more valuable than the gold for which he initially set out. Each revelation of family lore, accumulating polyphonically from various sources, leads Milkman further and further towards a kind of gnosis and induction into the myth of himself and his family. In it, he finds peace and all the “complete power, total freedom, and perfect justice” which the lost gold falsely promised (185). As seen in the case of the Iliad , myth’s most important role in its epic form is as the animating song of a people. In this case it manifests as the song of Milkman’s “people,” the Song of Solomon, and the sound of a collective soul, both of the Dead family and, by extension, all African Americans.

Works cited: Morrison, Toni. Song of Solomon . Vintage International, 2004. Print.

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