On Day 5, the writers took a trip to Danville. Their journal prompt is: Choose your favorite part of Song of Solomon that deals explicitly with the Susquehanna Valley region and write about the impression of place that you derive from your selection.
This prompt asks us to write about our impressions of the Susquehanna Valley region based on the sections of Song of Solomon set in the area. To explore this topic, I chose the section in Chapter 10, about 8 pages from the end of the chapter, which begins with “After a while he sat up and put on the wet socks and shoes,” and ends with “Milkman took a deep breath and began to negotiate the rocks.” I'm also considering the line a few pages later, “The low hills in the distance were no longer scenery to him. They were real places that could split your thirty-dollar shoes.”
In the beginning of this passage, we see the “nature” that Milkman saw from a distance starting to become solid. Although Morrison doesn't use the word “green,” the impression I have is of greens, browns, and greys. The hills are distant, and everywhere there are trees. We know that the land here is difficult to pass – he sweats on his shirt. And the idea of grey comes from the rocks, small ones in his feet, longer ones he has to climb up.
Through this landscape, Morrison develops a sense of how difficult life is in this area. For one thing, Milkman's grandfather's achievement seems legendary to him. The forest and rock is so dense and difficulty, Milkman doesn't understand how his grandfather cleared ten acres of it. But aside from the physical difficulty of it, the writing also reveals the despair of those trapped in this region. The “pitiful hungry eyes of the old men” reveal how, within this cultural landscape, a black man comes to have no hope for himself, living instead through the successes of others.
One other piece that I find interesting is the transition from this attempt to reach the hills and that other line I quoted. Through this difficult scrambling through the landscape, through the actual physical destruction of his shoe, the Susquehanna Valley becomes real for Milkman. Without this experience, the hills would have been pleasant far-off places, but because he struggled through it, he understands better the struggle that exists there. This reminded me a bit of an experience I had today, not quite as physical, but with a similar effect. While we were on Blue Hill, we saw in the distance the house where Joseph Priestly lived, and the site of the Moravian mission and Shikellamy's house. In that moment, those people became so much more real to me. Instead of being simply Joseph Priestly, the man who discovered oxygen, the Moravians, people who lived with the Native Americans, or Shikellamy, an almost mythic Native American chief, they became real people, who lived in real houses, walked on real feet, ate real food and looked out on the real Susquehanna, the same Susquehanna I see. Hearing about them, reading about them, or gazing at a picture still leaves a distance between us. The best way to gap time and make something immediate and real for you is to experience it. Although we did not visit the houses, just seeing them sparked that truer sense of reality in me.
My favorite representation of Danville in The Song of Solomon is not an instance of live action that takes place there, but of Macon’s storytelling about his childhood. When he tells Milkman about Lincoln’s Heaven and his father, I feel that Macon’s depth as character is truly revealed for the first time. With his fond and open reminiscence, he becomes more than a strict businessman, a cold father, or a cruel husband. From this point on, Morrison continues to develop Macon’s complexity, but it is interesting that the roundness of his character is first introduced in connection with the Danville landscape. It is as if the country is responsible for, crucial to his wholeness. Therefore the reader gets the impression that Lincoln’s Heaven is not an entity detached from Macon Dead; it is not just a space that he grew up in, it is a part of him. Danville is represented as a beautiful, fruitful, permeating place. It is infused even into the severe person of Macon Dead, and its power and pleasure has not dulled over decades of absence.
As Macon opens up to Milkman, he softens. He speaks about things he certainly has never revealed to his son, things that he hasn’t even allowed himself to think about for quite some time. Danville and the first Macon Dead become a bonding point for father and son. This again expresses the importance of the landscape to wholeness. Even in its stories it is able to bring people together, to inspire well-being.
On a more structural level, the language that Macon uses when describing his childhood on the farm is an obvious indicator of his love for the land. It conveys pride – both in his family’s connection to the place, the productivity it was able to provide, and his father’s dedication and mastery of it. Lincoln’s Heaven was bountiful land, but not exploited. It’s a place that deserves respect as much as it invites opportunity.
Danville is strongly linked to identity in this novel. The inhabitants of Lincoln’s Heaven are not passive inhabitants; the land and its people are deeply interactive. This makes the landscape seem inviting, captivating, and irresistible. This landscape is also involved with identity through language, more specifically, through naming. Macon Dead, previously Jake, gets his name on the way to the north. He is able to name his land and his animals, indicating that the land can empower a person and provide them with something that is truly and exclusively their own. The Eden-like quality of the Susquehanna Valley that was mentioned in the “Looking to the River” documentary is apparent in the novel’s portrayal on Danville. There is a strong spiritual power exuded by the land that has a lasting effect on its fictional inhabitants and also on the reader.
As Milkman finds himself searching for his family’s lost gold in Danville, PA, both he and the reader sense an entirely different culture and way of living than had been felt in Michigan, where most of Song of Solomon takes place. Even though both of these places are “North,” the two are not as similar as might be expected, and economic and historical factors intermesh with a still-present but different shade of racial tension.
But there is also a new sense of wilderness. Back in Michigan, it often seemed as though Southside, the part of town where many poorer black families lived, was a wilderness to Milkman. In Danville, however, the wilderness is the forest where his grandfather once cultivated a farm. Like the almost magical impression we have of Pilate in her dirty, unembellished home in Michigan, Milkman meets another quasi-magical figure in the woods of Danville: Circe, the old woman who had helped his father and aunt to hide after their father had been killed for his land. Circe looks ancient, and Milkman imagines her as a witch; but before she dies, she wants to see the once beautiful, derelict house around her to crumble, to collapse.
The magic and wildness about Circe and the woods of Danville seem to be created mostly by Milkman’s outside perception of this world which had before only existed in the tales told by his father. As he leaves Circe to find the gold, he becomes drenched crossing a deep stream and strenuously climbs a rock face—only to discover later in both cases that there were easier paths to be taken if he had been less hasty. One of the most fascinating aspects of this part of the book is how magical the perfectly real can seem through Milkman’s perception. The magic and “wilderness” of Danville is mostly the product of its unfamiliarity and the mythological place it holds in Milkman’s mind.
When we traveled to Mount Carmel, I couldn’t brush off the sense of some sort of magic or allure in the abandonment of that town. All the houses nestled along the hilly expanse of the town sat pleasantly and brightly, but they were mostly dead. I was astounded when I learned how many of those houses were empty. The streets were virtually empty; huge onion domed churches loomed authoritatively and strangely in this small former coal mining town; and I couldn’t shake the post-apocalyptic fantasies that ran through my mind....Did something happen to the world as we traveled safely in the magical protection of our Bucknell minibus? Are we some of the few humans left in the world? I felt like I was stuck in the middle of a made-for-TV miniseries adaptation of a Stephen King novel. And I guess this is one of the fascinating qualities of place—the wonder and fear and curiosity it can evoke as it reveals its secrets and it continually twists, opens, and closes; shaped by circumstances both tangible and intangible.
Today my favorite part of Song of Solomon is where Milkman climbs, up. It’s probably because we just went to the top of Blue Hill—no, sorry, it’s because we stood across the river from it and looked, up. In Morrison’s story it comes right after Milkman leaves Circe to her postscript revenge, and before his biggest transformations. Or perhaps it is the start of them. No matter.
As my sense of direction isn’t, well, there I can’t say positively that the hill Milkman climbed was the same one I saw. This particular one, even though he did head for Danville the next day. Was he in Montour County? I usually just let the author worry about the road map, which can be a little embarrassing in a workshop on landscape writing.
In any case, I just flipped open the book to find a place. I think I was looking for one of the important water scenes. But I happened to instead find the page about the wilderness: “‘He leased ten acres of virgin woods and cleared it all,’ said the men describing the beginning of Old Macon Dead’s farm. Cleared this? Chopped down this? This stuff he could barely walk through?” (Morrison 250) I’ve been hearing this all week, I feel like. Perhaps especially after the hiking, the kayaking, the endless stories of industrial rabies.
So I scanned down a paragraph, to find Milkman “sweating into his wet shirt and just beginning to feel the result of sharp stones on his feet” (Morrison 250). I thought of Thom Fantasky’s stories about cannons and caves, and improbable leaps. The image of a man scrambling up a sheer hill, through grit and scree, it sort of snapped into place. I guess it doesn’t matter if Morrison thought her character was climbing the hill I looked up at and down from. It’s a hill, and Milkman found a cave where Thom found none.
But that’s how stories go.
One of the sections in the course of Song of Solomon that really stood out to me was when Milkman was trekking through the forested land toward the cave where his father and aunt had hidden and killed. Having spent some time in what I assume to be similar woods, I can sympathize with the manner in which the land is described. When thinking upon this, I am forced to juxtapose the motivations of Milkman with my own when I am in a similar location. Generally, when I am in the woods, moving toward a particular destination, I walk with the forest. Usually it is when I am with my father and we have gone on deer-hunting or something akin to that. Milkman was walking against the forest, which increased the difficulty dramatically. In most cases, when in the woods, despite the heavy undergrowth that is often present, there are other ways of moving through that simplify the journey. The game use their own paths which can be adopted by myself as a visitor. The ideal pace for a journey through wooded regions is somewhat slow though steady. Studying the landscape and the wend of a path is important when trying to move quickly and silently. Ironically, moving slowly enables one to move more quickly. Basically, it comes down to the mindset one has when there, and placing things in the proper perspective that allows one to move more seamlessly with the natural course of things. Milkman's preoccupation with riches caused him undue difficulties that most likely could have been avoided had he been of the mindset to carefully gauge his surroundings and observe seemingly disparate elements, such as the path only somewhat hidden from his view.
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