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Critical Overview

(Novels for Students)

Song of Solomon, the first of Toni Morrison's works to become a best-seller, also established her as a major American writer. As Carol Iannone wrote in Commentary, "[i]n Song of Solomon Miss Morrison at last permits herself to work her material through." The novel won Morrison the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1977, and though most critics found flaws in the book, on the whole they praised Morrison's blend of fantasy and reality and her use of myths and folktales to portray Black life. In an early review, Anne Tyler commented, "I would call the book poetry, but that would seem to be denying its considerable power as a story. Whatever name you give it, it's full of magnificent people, each of them complex and multi-layered, even the narrowest of them narrow in extravagant ways." Other critics have also praised the power of her language; Vivian Garnick, in The Village Voice, wrote that "[t]he world she creates is thick with an atmosphere through which her characters move slowly, in pain, ignorance and hunger. And to a very large degree Morrison has the compelling ability to make one believe that all of us … are penetrating that dark and hurtful terrain—the feel of a human life—simultaneously." New York Times Book Review contributor Reynolds Price praised the novel's "negotiations with fantasy, fable, song and allegory" as "organic, continuous and unpredictable," while Maureen Howard noted in The Hudson Review that Song of Solomon is both "rich in its use of common speech" and "sophisticated in its use of literary traditions and language."

Song of Solomon was the first of Morrison's books to have a male hero, but some critics, including Vivian Garnick, have written that Milkman never really comes to life as a character. Some scholars, including Reynolds Price and Bill Moyers, have also wondered at Morrison's exclusion of white characters, but as Cynthia Price wrote, "the destructive effect of the white society can take the form of outright physical violence, but oppression in Morrison's world is more often psychic violence. She rarely depicts white characters, for the brutality here is less a single act than the systematic denial of Black lives." Price noted that Morrison's artistic challenge is one in which her characters must act in spite of the limitations placed on them, and that Morrison turns to myth because of, as Roger Rosenblatt suggested, its "acknowledgement of external limitation and the anticipation of it."

Critics have also commented on the "diffuse" nature of the narrative; as Rainwater pointed out, "Chapter 4, for example, skips to Milkman's adulthood, some twelve years after the events of the previous chapter. However, almost immediately, the narrator begins to search backward through time to account for the present. This attempt, however, laterally deflects attention onto the stories of other characters. Before the chapter concludes, the narrative has taken at least four different directions in an effort to amass information convergent upon, and apparently explanatory of, Milkman's life." Some early critics, such as Newsweek's Margo Jefferson, saw "a structural conflict between these embellishments and the demands of Macon's tale which weakens the focus" but later critics have seen,...

(The entire section is 784 words.)