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 the book that can be legitimately read in a race-war context. (pp. 110-11)
Several instances of direct propaganda occur, although each time in so organically convincing a situation that one does not think of attributing them to Ellison directly. They are simply taken as true, dramatically and substantially. (pp. 111-12)
[This] book is, among other things, a complete story of Negro life in America. By nature something of a pacifist, a quietist, Ellison is much more free than the embattled protestors like Wright to try to tell all of the Negro's story. It has been the theme of his entire creative life, in fact, that there is far, far more to the Negro's story in America than oppression, suffering, and hate: "The view from inside the skin," he insists, "is not so dark as it appears to be." (p. 113)
The focus of all [his] propaganda and history and ironic sociology is the nameless...
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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 white society: by electing this condition for himself, as a defense against white society's labels for him, which he has found set him and his brothers against one another, he makes the only free choice which remains available to him. Living underground in a hole, full of light from 1,369 lights lit by voltage...
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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 the Founder is described by the narrator as a "cold Father symbol" of outstretched hands grasping a veil over the head of a kneeling slave; the problem for the narrator at that moment is interpretive. Is the Founder removing or replacing the veil?… More than one reader has called attention to the similarity of this description to the actual statue of Booker T. Washington on the Tuskegee campus…. (p. 70)
It is in the recounting of Dr. Homer Barbee's sermon immediately preceding the moonlit view of the statue that another playful dig is taken at the black educator as leader. This time, allusions to a work by Walt Whitman, the poet of democracy, stimulate alert response. In his tribute to the Founder, Barbee also praises Dr. Bledsoe for carrying on after the death of the Founder, suggesting that though there might be a difference in time, there is little difference in the type of educator—translated leader for the purpose of Ellison's theme….
Both the portrait of the "black and mythical Lincoln" and the tribute to Bledsoe are presented by Barbee, an invited guest of Bledsoe. Since Barbee is blind, anything he says should be suspect; again, vision or seeing is the image in control. He cannot see the truth. This passage, therefore, seems to reinforce the theme of black leaders not being leaders of black people. The Whitman symbols are reversed by the blindness of the black Homer; the Founder was not Lincolnesque, and his successor, Dr. Bledsoe, is not the man so elevated by preacher rhetoric, a fact soon to be discovered in the narrative by the invisible man. With a created character type, with an actual name, and with allusions, the black-educator-leader in American society is put down. (p. 71)
Invisible Man is wide-ranging; the narrator is not the only black American with an identity problem. There are the veterans of the episode at the Golden Day….
If the name of Washington suggests at least two different motifs, the name of Emerson, as Ellison toys with it in Invisible Man, is certainly no less multileveled. Sometimes it means a private joke referring to the actual nineteenth century writer, sometimes it refers to a created character of that name who has several functions, and sometimes it is used as a kind of type—merged with other characters in the novel.
The name is introduced in the novel by Norton when he asks the narrator if he had studied Emerson. Readers knowing the full Ralph Waldo of Ellison's name, are able to smile as the narrator is embarrassed because he hadn't, and Norton tells him, "You must learn about him, for he was important to your people. He had a hand in your destiny."… Later, in his final campus interview with Norton, the narrator announces his intention of reading Emerson. Norton approves. "Very good. Self-reliance is a most worthy virtue."… The private joke slips in again when the narrator is...
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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...
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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...
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