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.
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...
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