I first read Toni Morrison in 1977 when a proof copy of her novel, Song of Solomon, was on offer to the then-independent publisher, Chatto & Windus, for whom I was working as a young editor. Part of my background reading for this, her third book, involved discovering, and falling in love with, her debut, The Bluest Eye (1970), and its successor, Sula (1973). Since then, I have followed most of Morrison’s subsequent fiction, notably Beloved and Jazz, but I remain a diehard fan of the novel that established her name. From 1977 on, she only grew in stature as a contemporary writer of extraordinary power and vision, ultimately becoming, in 1993, the first African-American woman to win the Nobel prize for literature.

Song of Solomon blazed that trail. It was the first book by a black American woman writer to be chosen as a main selection of the all-powerful Book of the Month Club, a recognition unknown to the black community since Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940).

Song of Solomon takes off, and finally comes back to earth, with an exhilarating leap of danger. The idea of “fly” and “flight” (as an escape, or challenge) runs through the story of Macon “Milkman” Dead III, who gets his nickname from being breastfed into childhood by his dominant mother.

“Who am I ?” is a central premise of many classic novels in this series, including David Copperfield (No 15) and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (No 23). From the arresting first scene of an insurance agent’s suicidal leap, to the closing pages, when Milkman hurls himself into the air against his best friend and nemesis, Guitar, the novel traces Milkman’s coming of age as an African American in search of a better understanding of his heritage. To achieve this, in a telling reversal of traditional black migration, Milkman makes his way to the warm and nurturing south from the frozen and alienating north.

The novel is partly set in an unspecified Michigan town, and the unfolding story, replete with buried treasure, violent deaths and slavery tales, moves steadily south to Pennsylvania, where Milkman’s grandfather had died, and finally to Shalimar in Virginia, the home of his slave ancestors. In the words of the song that Milkman sings:

Solomon done fly, Solomon done gone

Solomon went across the sky, Solomon gone home.

Where, in the first and northern half of the novel, Milkman battles his origins, in the south he embraces them, and by the end is at one with his roots.

Song of Solomon is full of characters, especially Milkman’s mysterious sister, Pilate, whose symbolic lives play an important role in the weaving of Morrison’s narrative. The story loops and swoops, in its evocation of the black American experience in the 20th century, expressing a complex literary surface in a musical and often poetic language that’s infused with the rhythms of African American speech and song. Morrison has acknowledged that Song of Solomon liberated her from traditional models in her writing. In a style she would perfect in novels such as Beloved, Morrison conjures her tale from many voices and stories. The overall effect is a kaleidoscope of many gorgeous colours and patterns, evocative of memory and history, and actualised through the compelling figure of Macon Dead, one of the great characters of contemporary American fiction.

A note on the text

In her “Forward” to the Vintage edition, Morrison writes that she used to despise “artists’ chatter about muses – ‘voices’ that could speak to them and enable a vision, the source of which they could not otherwise name… I regarded the ‘mystery’ of creativity as a shield erected by artists to avoid articulating, analysing, or even knowing the details of their creative process – for fear it would fade away.”

She goes on: “Writing Song of Solomon destroyed all that.” She describes how her late father became her “muse”, how his voice was absorbed into her writing, and how the challenge of the novel became the management of “a radical shift in imagination from a female locus to a male one”.

This use of voices has enabled her, writes Morrison, to break away from what she identifies as “a totalising view”. For Morrison, American literature has become “totalised – as though there is only one version. We are not one indistinguishable block of people who always behave the same way… I try to give some credibility to all sorts of voices, each of which is profoundly different. Because what strikes me about African-American culture is its variety.”

Song of Solomon was Morrison’s first step down a road that would become increasingly original and would lead her to the achievements and mastery of Jazz and Beloved.

Three more from Toni Morrison

The Bluest Eye (1970); Beloved (1987); Jazz (1992).

Song of Solomon is available in Vintage (£8.99). Click here to order it for £7.19