The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison

by Ralph Ellison
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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2062

Ralph Ellison published his first novel, Invisible Man (1952), at thirty-eight. When he died in April of 1994, a little more than a month after his eightieth birthday, he had not yet completed his second. In the interim, he became the best known and most influential one-book novelist in American literary history.

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The fact that the only novel he published during his lifetime is a masterpiece explains Ellison’s place in American literature, but it does not fully explain the larger role that he played in the debates of postwar American culture or the attention and respect that he gained and kept for the more than forty years in which he struggled to complete his second novel. The essays, reviews, addresses, and interviews that he wrote and gave during his long fictional silence do that. Taken together, they are his autobiography, his apologia pro vita sua, his contribution to both creating and understanding the culture and character of America, and his claim to being one of his country’s most important twentieth century men of letters.

In the years after Invisible Man, Ellison published only ten short stories, eight of which reportedly were excerpts from his novel-in-progress. Nevertheless, in the years between the appearance of his first book review in 1937 and his last public address in 1992, he wrote more than seventy-five essays, reviews, addresses, and conference talks. In the absence of a second novel, this nonfiction became the vehicle for Ellison to express the ideas about art, race, and American culture for which he was both praised and attacked by his contemporaries. He collected less than half of this work in the two nonfiction books he published: Shadow and Act (1964) and Going to the Territory (1986). The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison, issued as part of Random House’s Modern Library and edited and introduced by John F. Callahan, includes the complete texts of both these books, as well as eleven previously published but uncollected essays, nine essays and talks that have never been published before, and two of Ellison’s most extensive interviews.

While this does not make this handsome one-volume compilation a complete collection of Ellison’s nonfiction, it certainly makes it an indispensable one. In his introduction, Callahan mentions that Ellison wrote more than thirty essays and reviews for New Masses and other publications on the political Left in the 1930’s and 1940’s. Taking his cue, however, from Ellison, who republished only one of these early pieces (“The Way It Is”) in his collections, Callahan chooses to ignore most of the work Ellison wrote while enamored with Marxism and includes only one essay from this period of Ellison’s career (“A Congress Jim Crow Didn’t Attend”) in The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison. At a minimum, it would seem, the collection should have also included Ellison’s first published essay—a review of Waters Edward Turpin’s novel These Low Grounds, commissioned by Richard Wright and published in the magazine he edited, New Challenge—and “Stormy Weather,” Ellison’s 1940 New Masses review of Langston Hughes’s memoir The Big Sea. While the former may only be of historical interest, the absence of the Hughes review is particularly unfortunate, both because it would have provided readers with a fuller sense of Ellison’s political and intellectual journey and because it is an important early example of Ellison’s willingness to challenge demands for racial solidarity by measuring other African American writers against the same high artistic standards that he sought to meet himself. The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison adds two of the best Ellison interviews—James Alan McPherson’s “Indivisible Man” and John Hersey’s “A Completion of Personality”—to the three interviews Ellison collected in Shadow and Act; yet since Ellison’s practice was to work with interviewers to review and revise his initial comments until they met his exacting standards for prose, there are a number of other, equally interesting interviews that might have been included. The reader who wishes to have a fuller sense of Ellison’s public statements will want to go on from the five interviews included in The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison to the nineteen others that Maryemma Graham and Amritjit Singh have gathered in Conversations with Ralph Ellison (1995).

While the previously unpublished and uncollected essays and speeches included here do not alter the shape or character of Ellison’s achievement as a thinker and writer, The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison offers a welcome occasion to reconsider his achievement. The essence of that achievement is his insistence on the inextricable connection between black and white Americans as cocreators of a distinctly American culture. For Ellison, that culture is inevitably complex, pluralistic, fluid, and challenged to realize fully the democratic ideology expressed in its founding documents.

American history, he argues repeatedly, is the story of the working out of the conflict engendered by the Declaration of Independence’s assertion that “all men are created equal,” the Constitution’s refusal to acknowledge this principle, and American society’s failure to keep faith with it. Yet during the more than two hundred years in which the struggle to realize the democratic promise and humanist commitment of the Declaration of Independence has persisted, Ellison believed, Americans of every race and color have shaped one another’s consciousnesses, constantly creating and re- creating the American character in the process.

Ellison’s commitment to cultural pluralism and the American promise made him a target for vicious attacks and ugly rhetoric, especially during the 1960’s, when literary and political radicals in the Black Arts and Black Power movements cast him as a self- hating Uncle Tom. He weathered these attacks with dignity and lived long enough to see his ideas inspire a new generation of black artists and thinkers such as Leon Forrest, Charles Johnson, Stanley Crouch, Wynton Marsalis, and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Since Ellison believed that integration was a cultural given—that is, Americans of every race are part of a culture that all of them have shaped—he rejected visions of a future for black Americans based on separation or a return to Africa and African culture as both impractical and undesirable. As fashion and politics changed, as the preferred terms for black Americans shifted from “colored” to “Negro” to “Black” to “African American,” Ellison also angered many and made himself seem archaic to others by continuing to insist on speaking about “Negro Americans.” His reason for this insistence, articulated in the interview “Some Questions and Some Answers,” is the foundation upon which all of his writing about race, art, and American culture is built.

The term “Negro American,” he argues, “describes a people whose origin began with the introduction of African slaves to the American colonies in 1619, and which today represents the fusing with the original African strains of many racial bloodlines.”

The American Negro people are North American in origin and have evolved under specifically American conditions: climatic, nutritional, historical, political and social. They take their character from the experience of American slavery and the struggle for, and the achievement of, emancipation; from the dynamics of American race and caste discrimination; and from living in a highly industrialized and highly mobile society possessing a relatively high standard of living and an explicitly stated equalitarian concept of freedom. Its spiritual outlook is basically Protestant, its system of kinship is Western, its time and historical sense are American (United States), and its secular values are those professed, ideally at least, by all of the people of the United States.

Culturally this people represents one of the many subcultures which make up that great amalgam of European and native American cultures which is the culture of the United States. This “American Negro culture” is expressed in a body of folklore, in the musical forms of the spirituals, blues and jazz; an idiomatic version of American speech (especially in the Southern United States); a cuisine; a body of dance forms. . . .

It must, however, be pointed out that due to the close links which Negro Americans have with the rest of the nation, these cultural expressions are constantly influencing the larger body of American culture and are in turn influenced by them. . . . Nor should the existence of a specifically “Negro” idiom in any way be confused with the vague, racist terms “white culture” or “black culture”; rather, it is a matter of diversity within unity.

Every piece in The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison is, finally, an exploration, elaboration, defense, or clarification of these assertions. In essays on James Armistead Lafayette, William L. Dawson, Alain Locke, Roscoe Dunjee, Inman Page, and Romare Bearden, Ellison calls attention to the largely unrecognized extent of the role that Negro Americans have played in American political and cultural history. In essays on jazz, the blues, spirituals, and individual musicians such as Charlie Parker, Mahalia Jackson, Charlie Christian, Jimmy Rushing, and Duke Ellington, he recalls the Negro American origin of America’s unique contribution to world music. In interviews, Ellison explains the importance of Negro American folklore to both his own work and the larger American culture. In essays such as “Twentieth-Century Fiction and the Black Mask of Humanity,” “Change the Joke and Slip the Yoke,” “The Shadow and the Act,” and “An Extravagance of Laughter,” he argues—as Toni Morrison would later argue in Playing in the Dark (1990)—that the ways in which black Americans are present in the best-known works of American fiction and the ways in which they are absent speak volumes about the essential nature of American life and literature.

Because Ellison considered himself a Negro American, he resisted the oversimplifications that he thought were too often applied to writers based on their race. As Invisible Man demonstrated, his comments in interviews emphasized, and his most famous essays such as “The World and the Jug” and “The Little Man at Chehaw Station” underlined, Ellison viewed himself as an artist whose work must be measured against the greatest achievements of all other artists—not only other black artists. He would not let anyone tell him what or how to write, and as vehemently and eloquently as he could, he resisted having his work classified as black rather than American.

“Complexity” was Ellison’s favorite word. Music was his first love. So it is no surprise that his description of the education of a jazz musician in his homage to the birth of bebop, “The Golden Age, Time Past,” reads as his version of T. S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” The jam session, he writes, is the “jazzman’s true academy.” There he learns

tradition, group techniques and style. . . . After the jazzman has learned fundamentals of his instrument and the traditional techniques of jazz . . . he must then “find himself,” must be reborn, must find, as it were, his soul. All this through achieving that subtle identification between his instrument and his deepest drives which will allow him to express his own unique ideas in his own unique voice. He must achieve, in short, his self-determined identity.

In the intellectual autobiography that emerges over the course of The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison, Ellison describes his own education in Oklahoma, at Tuskegee Institute, and in New York as the acquisition of a characteristically hybrid American culture that combined Ernest Hemingway and Fyodor Dostoevski, Richard Wright and André Malraux, Langston Hughes and T. S. Eliot, Duke Ellington and Richard Wagner, the street and the library, the jazz club and the symphony hall. He acquired it as an individual with the encouragement and example of other individuals, Ellison writes, not because he was born into a particular race, and he struggled to make something lasting of it as an individual, not as a member of a group. This process of self-determination, he says, is the reality that our stereotypes mask; and it is what each of us must finally undergo.

In The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison, readers will discover an important part of what Ellison learned about himself, his country, and his art, will find “his own unique ideas in his own unique voice.” That voice—articulate, intelligent, thoughtful, personal, witty, well-read, stubborn, yet gracious—will be missed.

Sources for Further Study

Boston Globe. December 24, 1995, p. 39.

Callaloo. XVIII, April, 1995, p. 273.

The Chronicle of Higher Education. XLII, July 14, 1995, p. A5.

The New York Times. December 20, 1995, p. C19.

The New Yorker. LXXI, December 25, 1995, p. 410.

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