Because most of Ralph Ellison’s short fiction was written before his career as a novelist began, his short stories are often analyzed biographically, as the training ground for the novelist he was to become. This is not entirely unjustified because a biographical overview of his literary output reveals that he tried out the voices, techniques, and ideas that he was to present so boldly in Invisible Man and almost completely abandoned the form after his success as a novelist, devoting himself to his essays and to his never-to-be-completed second novel.
It is true that in his two most accomplished stories, “The King of the Bingo Game” and “Flying Home,” he develops themes of the chaos of the modern world and the affliction of racial conflict that would later be combined and expanded in his famous novel. On the other hand, his earlier stories show him working out many of the same ideas from different perspectives. While the voice that informs his most accomplished work is a mature voice that is uniquely Ellison’s own, the voices in his other stories show more clearly the influences of Ernest Hemingway, Richard Wright, and James Joyce.
In relating his short fiction to his overall work, Edith Schor in Visible Ellison: A Study of Ralph Ellison’s Fiction (1993) has aptly observed that Ellison’s short stories provided experimental laboratories for testing the translation of the forms and experiences of African American life into literature. In evaluating the stories themselves, however, Robert Bone best summarized their lasting value when he observed in “Ralph Ellison and the Uses of Imagination” (1966) that Ellison’s short stories are about “adventurers” testing “the fixed boundaries of southern life.”
Flying Home, and Other Stories
Flying Home, and Other Stories is a posthumous collection of stories edited by Ralph Ellison’s literary executor, John F. Callahan, which brings together in one volume all of the principal short fiction Ellison wrote (excepting pieces that were published as excerpts of his novels). Callahan arranged the stories according to the age of the main characters, thereby highlighting the stories’ thematic unity regarding the growth of young persons’ ideologies, which might not otherwise be evident.
The collection opens with “A Party Down by the Square,” a story told in an intentionally flat style by a young man from Cincinnati who visits his uncle in Alabama and witnesses a lynching on a stormy night. Confused by the cyclone that moves through the town, an airplane pilot mistakes the fire of the lynching for an airport flare and flies too low through the town, knocking loose a wire and electrocuting a white woman. Undaunted, the crowd continues with the lynching and the anonymous narrator watches a nameless black man being burned, marveling at the victim’s resiliency but showing no moral awareness of the horror of the act.
Four of the stories in the collection focus on two young friends, Buster and Riley, as they explore their world and their friendship. The first story, “Mister Toussan,” finds them making up imaginary exploits for Haitian liberator Toussaint L’Ouverture, a name they have heard but with which they have only vague associations and upon which they hang various fantasies. Similarly, “Afternoon” and “That I Had Wings” find the boys involved in imaginative games to stave off boredom. “A Coupla Scalped Indians” focuses on Riley, who has just been “scalped” (circumcised) at the age of eleven, having a sexually charged encounter with old Aunt Mack, an eccentric healer Riley sees naked in her shack as he is making his way home from a carnival. “All was real,” Riley tells the reader after leaving her shack, in wonderment about his discovery of the encroaching adult reality.
“Hymie’s Bull” and “I Did Not Learn Their Names” are stories about riding freight trains, and together with “The Black Ball” and “A Hard Time Keeping Up,” they are about young men finding their way in a world that can be violent and harsh but that can also contain friendship and tenderness in unexpected places. The importance of learning to discern the tenderness amid the harshness of the world becomes the central theme of two of the most important stories in the collection, “In a Strange Land” and “Flying Home.”...
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