Going to the Territory Essay - Critical Essays

Going to the Territory

It has been more than thirty years since the appearance of Ralph Ellison’s classic novel INVISIBLE MAN (1952), more than twenty years since the appearance of his first nonfiction collection, SHADOW AND ACT (1964). This eloquent collection of sixteen pieces composed between 1957 and the present testifies that Ellison has not stagnated during the lengthy silence which had been broken only by occasional public lectures and excerpts from his long- and still-awaited novel-in-progress.

Reasserting the democratic vision of Ellison’s earlier writing, the new collection incorporates many of his public speeches. Pieces written for specific occasions celebrate the achievements of composer Duke Ellington, novelist Richard Wright, artist Romare Bearden, and educator Inman Page. Each testifies to the diversity and style--the words are crucial to Ellison’s sensibility--of Afro-American culture. Similarly, his responses to both white liberalism and black separatism insist that while Afro-American culture is unique, it is not separate from the pluralistic mainstream of the American experience.

The core of the book, however, lies in the more fully developed essays on the complexly intertwined aesthetic and moral responsibilities of the novelist in a democratic society. Although he remains curiously insensitive to the voices of women, Ellison is particularly perceptive concerning the ways in which mutually antagonistic cultures incorporate one another’s influence through parody and unconscious imitation. “Society, Morality, and the Novel,” “The Little Man at the Cheehaw Station,” “An Extravagance of Laughter,” and the title essay all rank with the finest prose of Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, William Carlos Williams, James Baldwin, and Adrienne Rich as classic statements of the constantly undervalued pluralistic ideal.