Song of Solomon does not sit comfortably in one single category when it comes to labeling its genre. In fact it has characteristics of a variety of different novel types such as the detective novel and folktale. Drawing from a variety of styles Morrison blends history with folktale and myth to create a novel that seeks meaning of the present by looking to the legends of the past. Although Song of Solomon cannot be wholly regarded as a ‘historical novel,’ its use of the historic and the consequent relationships with other genres, such as the bildungsroman and quest novel, can help us to interpret meanings within the narrative.
Song of Solomon is largely set in the 1950s and 60s but what we see in the novel is very much influenced by previous historical events of the twentieth century including the Great Migration and the aftermath of a World War conflict. There is an immense and passionate sense of history within Morrison’s novel that is clearly influenced by her own experiences as an African-American woman. For example, her own parents experienced migration from rural Georgia and Alabama and her great grandfather had land taken away from him, subsequently being forced to become a sharecropper. These real events in Morrison’s family history become part of the fictional narrative of the novel. Rigney adds great significance to this historical aspect, not only in Song of Solomon, but in all of Morrison’s novels, stating that they are, ‘in a real sense “historical novels,” quasi documentaries that bear historical witness. Her characters are both subject of and subject to history.’ This is to suggest that these characters are not only caught up in and influenced by the large-scale events of history, but are also involved in smaller, component parts of history. For Morrison, the focus within this more personal history is that of family history and tradition. This is where the term ‘historical novel’ perhaps becomes less useful to our interpretation of the novel. Ordinarily historical authenticity can be checked by referring to previous records and historical documents, but in the case of family histories and experiences, the influences that Morrison draws from are not necessarily documented.
The historic oral tradition of African-American folklore is one of the major characteristics of black art.
It stems from a time when laws prohibited the teaching of slaves and is characterised by communication through word of mouth. In the words of Bjork, ‘oral narratives and songs spoke of alienation and frustration in black people’s search for freedom and equality which, for many black writers, began in the quest for cultural literacy.’ Clearly, historical events have had a bearing on the forms of communication open to the black community in the past, particularly the effect of a ruling against slaves being able to receive education. The fact that the information it conveys is concealed from the average historian does not make it any less historically significant. Throughout the novel, Milkman constructs his identity through the stories of others as these are the only sources available to him. In fact, the power and longevity of verbal communication is presented to the reader very early on in the form of street and place names. ‘Doctor Street’ is merely changed to ‘Not Doctor Street’ when a notice is put reminding the community that it should be referred to as Mains Avenue. Consequently, a street name that grew popular through word of mouth is merely transformed by the same means and ‘gave Southside residents a way to keep their memories alive.’ The oral tradition seems to strengthen the bonds of the community and give them something to belong to. In interviews Morrison herself frequently refers to the huge importance she attaches to the oral tradition: ‘Because it is the affective and participatory relationship between the artist or the speaker and the audience that is of primary importance…to make the story appear oral, meandering, effortless, spoken…’ This narrative technique enables the reader to be drawn into the story, even if they cannot relate directly to the history it portrays. Thus, an active, universally inclusive history is offered to a much broader readership. Where Zora Neale Hurston uses narratives involving authentic speech patterns of the black folk tradition to recreate the spoken word, Morrison aims to take on the role of the storyteller while the reader interactively pieces together the information they are given. This process is similar to the experience of Milkman who is also presented with numerous narratives with a view to solving the puzzle in a manner somewhat like that of a detective novel.
Biblical allusions in Song of Solomon benefit greatly from a historical reading of the novel. Even from reading the title of the novel (alluding to the biblical book of the same name) we begin to expect a text concerned with Christianity on some level. Knowledge of the book of Solomon can perhaps also provide us with a hint at issues to be approached in the novel: this book describes a conversation between the two lovers of King Solomon and his black bride. However, this is not the only interpretation of the novel’s title, an issue that will be dealt with in a later discussion of conflicting myth interpretations across different cultures. In a continuation of this theme, Morrison gives many of the female characters in the novel biblical names. This means that not only do they own a personal history, but also that of their namesake. This creates a double history so to speak, which can only prove to bring to their attention the importance of history concerning identity. In most cases characters succeed in mirroring their namesake in some way. For example, the biblical Hagar is a handmaiden who is banished after bearing Abraham’s son; similarly, the Hagar of Song of Solomon is used by Milkman only to be tossed aside when he grows tired of her. By comparing female characters to such epic biblical figures as Magdalene and Pilate, such characters seem to take on more symbolic meaning and come to represent more than just an individual being. These biblical allusions can be used as points of reference as we watch the female characters develop. They serve to give a starting-block with regard to characterisation and introduce the important related topics of identity and history.