Ellison, Ralph (Vol. 11)
Ellison, Ralph 1914–
Ellison is an American novelist, essayist, short story writer, and editor. His best work, Invisible Man, is generally considered an outstanding contribution to American postwar fiction. Although this work deals specifically with the black American's fight to overcome the anonymity caused by social stereotypes, many critics see the novel as a more universal portrayal of the human struggle for identity. Ellison effectively uses a surrealistic and ambiguous narrative to recreate the absurdity and irrationality of black repression. Invisible Man won the National Book Award in 1953. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 3, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)
Ralph (Waldo) Ellison stands at the opposite end of the writer's world from Richard Wright. Although he is as aware of the issues of the race war as anyone else, he is no more a consciously active participant than, say, Gwendolyn Brooks or William Faulkner. "I wasn't, and am not, primarily concerned with injustice, but with art." He achieves his extraordinary power through artistry and control, through objectivity, irony, distance: he works with symbol rather than with act. He is at least as much an artist as a Negro. He accepts both roles so naturally, in fact, that he has made them one. His one novel [Invisible Man], the supreme work of art created by an American Negro, is essentially a Negro's novel. It is written entirely out of a Negro's experience, and reveals its full dimension, I am convinced, only to the perfect Negro reader. But it is not a "Negro novel." Like Gwendolyn Brooks, like Faulkner, like most serious artists, he has transmuted himself and his experience almost entirely into his art. Only by turning to his essays and interviews can one discover the degree to which his own opinions, on racial issues or any other, are implicit in Invisible Man.
Invisible Man (1952) was not, Ellison insists, "an attack upon white society."… It is not, really, a race-war novel. But as no Negro's life in America, not even in the symbolic recreation, can be entirely free of racial combat, there are elements in...
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Ellison's Invisible Man presents the theme of the individual activist quest for spiritual freedom in a [pure,] abstract form…. Ellison's narrative does not compromise with its theme: there are no resolutions in love. The invisible man, the Southern Negro narrator, elects to call himself only "invisible man." This anonymous Negro thrusts again and again, in a series of episodes, parallel and repetitive more than sequential and developing, against the walls of his environment. That he does not prevail against the environment does not lessen the dramatically-perceived nature of his quest: the search for an authentic identity beyond the labels the world would give him. Frustration is everywhere, and he finds the group with which he most identifies, the Negro group, most susceptible to the world's labels for it, most confined, and most self-defeating in its pursuing of group purposes.
In electing to be an invisible man, the narrator elects to be free of all labels, white or Negro, for himself; he elects to lose his group identity and to live alone, alienated and free. The choice of invisibility (by living underground) as freedom is the end-choice, after the above-ground struggles of the novel…. The Prologue and the Epilogue of the book deal with the idea of invisibility, giving a surreal context and emphasis to many of the realistically described scenes inside the main narrative. Ironically, anonymous is what the Negro is in a...
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For his novel of the American scene, Ralph Ellison uses American authors to support major ideas, ideas controlled by the dominant image of vision inherent in the title of Invisible Man and fully exploited in the fiction. References to American authors are sophisticated jokes, often very funny. As aware as Mark Twain that humor is a weapon, and as aware as T. S. Eliot that juxtaposition of allusions contributes to a total effect, Ellison plays with names of American authors and teases with allusions to American literary works. Flashing briefly here and developed there, the references reveal illuminating and humorous support of themes concerned with identity, with black leadership, and with the state of American society, a contemporary Ellisonian waste land.
Booker T. Washington, Emerson, Whitman, and T. S. Eliot figure prominently in comic handling of names and/or allusions, the tone set in the opening lines of the Prologue. To declare the quality of his invisibility, the naive narrator informs readers that he is "not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe."
Names used in serious jests are Booker T. Washington and Emerson, and each allusive shot is like b-b spray hitting in different directions. Washington was an educator and a leader—and a writer because of his leadership—and references to his name, in Ellison's unique handling, serve several purposes. (p. 69)
The bronze statue of...
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Joseph T. Skerrett, Jr.
"The Birthmark" … displays, I think, enough of Wright's influence—as well as Hemingway's—to justify some concern on Wright's part that Ellison might be able to steal his thunder, in time. In the story, a black man and his sister have been brought to the scene of an alleged auto accident to identify the body of their brother; they discover, when they attempt to find an identifying birthmark below the navel, that he has been lynched and castrated. Outraged but helpless, they must return home and accept the lie that Willie was hit by a car, because, as the white policeman puts it, "We don't allow no lynching round here no more."
Like a Hemingway story, "The Birthmark" is immediate and dramatic; it begins with Matt and Clara emerging from the police car to approach Willie's body. Its power is developed through the cumulative effect of the dialog, rather than through the sparse interpretive commentary of the narrator. But the dialog is dialectal rather than idiomatic; the particularities of black Southern speech are indicated orthographically. This is, of course, Wright's style and not Hemingway's—or Ellison's as we have become familiar with it in later work.
Like Wright's "Big Boy Leaves Home," Ellison's story draws a strong contrast between the summer calm of nature—"the green stretch of field fringed with pine trees" and "the pine needle covered ground" where Willie's body lies—and the human violence and...
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Ellison, after Poe, is the American writer most self-consciously committed to the ideas of the mind thinking, of the mind, that is, as the ultimate source of transcendence or salvation. But he is also the inheritor of a wellspring of emotional pain, the collective black experience in America, that has received its traditional artistic expression in the blues beat and lyric. Several critics … [as well as] Ellison himself have emphasized the influence of blues forms and themes on the structure of [Invisible Man], but some of these critics, perhaps wishing for Ellison to be more black than American, have not given proper emphasis to its intellectual framework.
In fact, the novel amounts to a critique of both the intellectual and the emotional dimensions of the American experience. The Brotherhood (an obvious pseudonym for the Communist Party), which prides itself on its "reasonable point of view" and "scientific approach to society,"… represents the head of the social structure, as do also such characters as Bledsoe, Norton, Emerson, and all who think without feeling; and characters like Trueblood, Emerson Jr., Lucius Brockway, Tarp, Tod Clifton, and Ras, all those who feel without thinking, represent the heart. Given the two dimensions, the invisible man's problem … is "How to Be!" And … salvation is the attainment of a balance, of a unification of mind and body, thought and feeling, idea and action, that...
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