The first African American to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature (1993), Toni Morrison has achieved a place in the first rank of American writers and is considered by many critics the greatest American novelist of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century. Born Chloe Anthony Wofford in 1931, Morrison earned a bachelor of arts degree from Howard University in 1953 and a master of arts degree from Cornell University in 1955, writing her master’s thesis on the theme of suicide in the fiction of William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf, whose influence is apparent in her novels. She later taught at Howard and at the State University of New York at Purchase and served as a senior editor at Random House. She received a National Book Award nomination in 1975 for her second novel, Sula (1973), the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1977 for her fourth novel, Song of Solomon, and the Pulitzer Prize in 1988 for her fifth novel, Beloved (1987). Perhaps more than any other writer, Morrison is responsible for asserting the influence of African American literature and culture on American culture as a whole. She uses modernistic techniques such as multiple narrators, interior monologues, and discursive, nonchronological narration, so Morrison’s fiction is highly complex, but because she possesses a rare skill in breathing life into settings and characters, her prose is also highly readable. Song of Solomon combines these qualities in a narrative that frequently employs the grotesque and occasionally the bizarre, yet seldom strains credulity. Telling the story of one man’s quest for identity, the novel explores several important African American themes.
The primary theme of the novel is gaining identity through the recovery of a stolen and a forgotten past. Multiple narrators in Song of Solomon reveal the plot slowly, as Milkman learns his own story piecemeal from his father, his mother, Guitar, Pilate, and the people he meets in Pennsylvania and in Virginia on his search for the lost gold. In one sense these characters serve as guides on a journey in the long tradition of the epic quest in Western literature. In another sense, they are red herrings, tempting the reader to a misreading of the novel just as Western materialism tempts Milkman and his family to misread their own history, from which they are cut off by slavery, by the drunken Union Army officer’s accidental renaming of Milkman’s grandfather, and by their quest for a materialistic white lifestyle. Milkman’s parents and sisters have little knowledge of their history. Like many African Americans, they derived their identities from absence rather than presence. They are, after all, the Deads, they live on Not Doctor Street, and their values are borrowed from the dominant white culture. Milkman’s mother, Ruth Foster Dead, is known chiefly as Dr. Foster’s daughter, and her family history seems to begin with her father. Milkman’s father, Macon Dead, remembers very little of his heritage but, like his father, embraces the American values of rugged individualism and the relentless pursuit of profit. He disowns Pilate, evicts Guitar Bains’s family from one of...
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