The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison

by Ralph Ellison

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Literary Career

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 559

Despite his relatively few major works, Ralph Ellison stands as one of the most influential modern African American writers and cultural critics. Ellison published one novel, Invisible Man (1952), and two essay collections, along with a number of uncollected essays, speeches, and reviews; he also labored for decades on a second novel that remained unfinished at the time of his death. As an essayist and critic, Ellison held to an optimistic view of the possibilities of American life, celebrated African American cultural contributions, especially in jazz and blues, and criticized sociological views that emphasize the bleakness of African American life.

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Ralph Ellison grew up in Oklahoma City during the years shortly after the territory became a state. He partook of the optimism of frontier life and imagined himself something a renaissance man, capable of achieving whatever he set his mind to accomplish. His interest in writing was at first a response to his wide reading, and he focused more of his time and interest in music, especially jazz and blues, being particularly attentive to craft and technique. After he was graduated from the Frederick Douglass School, a scholarship brought him to Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, where he studied music for three years before leaving for New York to study sculpture. In Harlem, he met the poet Langston Hughes, who introduced him to novelist Richard Wright. Wright encouraged Ellison’s interest in writing, giving him book review assignments and challenging him to write a short story for New Challenge, a magazine Wright edited. Ellison started a novel, Slick Gonna Learn, in 1939 and published eight short stories by 1944. During that time, he worked for the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in New York and edited Negro Quarterly for a year before entering the merchant marine in 1943. During his time in the service, Ellison started a novel dealing with a black American pilot in a German prisoner-of-war camp, but a serious kidney ailment forced him to put the novel aside.

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When Ellison returned to his writing after the war, he found a different story emerging from his interest in African American folklore and from images of the hero in myth and history. Ellison continued to work on the manuscript of Invisible Man for the next seven years before publishing it in 1952. His first novel was well received and won the National Book Award in 1953.

Ellison’s first essay collection, Shadow and Act (1964), serves as something of an intellectual autobiography in which he discusses the formative influences of his childhood in Oklahoma City, touching upon themes of racial and cultural identity, folklore, music, and literature. The book’s title alludes both to a line from T. S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men” (“Between the motion/ And the act/ Falls the Shadow”) and to the role of cinema as a cultural mythmaker. Ellison comments in his introduction that the essays are concerned “with literature and folklore, with Negro musical expression—especially jazz and the blues—and with the complex relationship between the Negro American subculture and North American culture as a whole.” There are three sections in Shadow and Act: “The Seer and the Seen,” with ten mainly literary reviews; “Sound and the Mainstream,” with seven essays on jazz and the blues; and “The Shadow and the Act,” with five essays on African American culture. The entire collection includes Ellison’s essays and reviews from 1942 to 1964.

Creative Possibilities

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Throughout his essays, Ellison stresses the freedom and creative possibilities inherent in African American culture. A tough-minded individualist, Ellison is more the product of the frontier than the ghetto, more influenced by the library than the storefront church. He is more concerned with the possibilities inherent in his life as a writer than with the limitations. He views the question of identity as universal, not as limited by race, class, or culture. Ellison has always insisted upon his right to define himself, to choose his identity, in the broadest and most expansive terms, rather than to accept the limitations of a sociological description of African American culture. On this point Ellison defines himself most clearly in opposition to Richard Wright’s artistic vision. He insists upon the richness of the African American experience and rejects any sense of impoverishment of spirit, insisting upon his broader literary connections with other American and European writers such as Mark Twain, Henry James, Stephen Crane, Ernest Hemingway, T. S. Eliot, William Faulkner, André Malraux, and Fyodor Dostoevski.

The two essential essays by Ellison on the question of the African American writer’s identity are “The World and the Jug” and “Hidden Name and Complex Fate.” The second is a fascinating personal and critical essay about Ellison’s reasons for becoming a writer and the formative influences upon him. He defines the act of becoming a writer as a complex act of choice and will. Writers may be “forged in injustice,” Ellison observes, but they transform that experience into a significant art form, rather than insisting upon the importance of the experience itself. In the end, it is the quality of the African American writer’s art, rather than his political engagement, that is primary.

Ellison consciously chooses the stance of the African American writer as artist—which is to a certain degree isolating, even alienating—but he disparages what he calls the “stylized recitals” of the African American writer’s past, because that suffering is not necessarily of special interest in itself. Ellison asserts that the process of claiming one’s identity, what he calls making “our names . . . our own,” is basically a personal experience, often an intensely private one. Here is where the writer must struggle to master his or her own craft. Better, he claims, to accept the ironies implicit in one’s condition than to invent an entirely new, untainted identity. In this way, he leads up to a discussion of what it meant for him to be named by his father after Ralph Waldo Emerson. It was at first a puzzlement, a burden, an embarrassment for “such a small brown nubbin of a boy carrying around such a heavy moniker,” but it later became a source of pride. Emerson’s transcendentalism, he implies, provided an ideal inspiration for the young African American writer determined to transcend the barriers of racism and claim his freedom and identity as an artist.

Becoming an American Writer

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Accepting his identity as a writer, however, also entailed certain obligations—to master a bit of technique, to develop a sense of taste, and to address the central cultural issues of his nation and his time. This is what it means to be an American writer. One of the most important of these themes is the disparity between national ideals and the actual behavior and practices of the American people. Ellison insists upon the importance of the African American writer working within the American literary tradition, not outside it. He addresses a broader question of identity beyond that of individual peculiarities—how Americans are all, despite their differences, recognizably “American,” and what that means for the society and for its literature. Thus he would enrich his art as an American writer with the resources of African American speech, folklore, and music to express the complex reality of American experience. Ellison concludes “Hidden Name and Complex Fate” by alluding to Henry James, affirming that being an American is an arduous task, and that difficulty begins with one’s name.

Ellison takes great pains to deny that there is a separate African American tradition or aesthetic in American literature. This distinction becomes clear in his essay “The World and the Jug,” in which he answers critic Irving Howe’s attack on Ellison and James Baldwin for ignoring Richard Wright’s militant tradition. Ellison castigates Marxist critics who would tell the African American writer how to think and feel. He rejects the notion that the African American experience is limited to suffering and deprivation, and that to be “authentic” the African American writer must write only of these things. As Ellison insists, the real question is “How does the Negro writer participate as a writer in the struggle for human freedom?” Works of literature are less ideological weapons than affirmations of life, or a particular vision of life.

Ellison also warns against any “literary apartheid” of artistic performance or evaluation. African American culture is not a steel jug; it does not isolate the African American writer from white cultural experience. Richard Wright freed himself to become a writer because he had the talent and imagination to do so, not because of any segregated view of his identity or aspirations. His novels are his most important achievement, but his characters should not be confused with the author himself. Nor should Wright’s rather bleak artistic vision be held up as a standard for subsequent African American writers. Ellison insists upon the right to those dimensions of his identity as a writer that do not depend upon race. He refuses to be cast as a protest writer and argues furthermore that what the African American writer must guard against is not lack of anger or indignation but failure of craft—bad writing. Ellison’s goal has been to transcend the conditions of his fate, not be bound by them.

In part 2, “Sound and the Mainstream,” Ellison offers portraits of jazz, gospel, and blues performers such as Mahalia Jackson, Charlie Parker, Charlie Christian, and Jimmy Rushing. These Saturday Review sketches from the late 1950’s show Ellison to be a keen and appreciative critic of a variety of African American musical traditions. He praises the improvisational freedom and discipline of the jazz musician as growing out of a musical tradition as demanding as that of European classical music. “The Golden Age, Time Past” offers a nostalgic reminiscence of the Harlem jazz scene in the 1940’s, especially of Minton’s Playhouse on 118th Street, the home of bebop. In “On Bird, Bird-Watching, and Jazz,” he criticizes the followers of Charlie Parker for promoting Parker’s self-destructive side without really understanding the sources of inner pain that drove the legendary jazz performer to become a kind of sacrificial figure for a decadent and culturally disoriented public. Ellison much prefers the quiet, underappreciated talent of jazz guitarist Charlie Christian or the funky exuberance of blues and big-band singer Jimmy Rushing.

Going to the Territory

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Ellison’s second essay collection, Going to the Territory (1986), continues his interest in literature, music, and cultural identity. Lacking an introduction or subsections, the book is not as well organized as Shadow and Act, but it does contain sixteen additional essays, speeches, interviews, and book reviews that Ellison wrote between 1957 and 1985. The title of the collection alludes to the end of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), when Huck announces that he is going to light out for “the Territory,” as well as to a blues song by Bessie Smith with the same theme.

Ellison’s first essay, “The Little Man at Chehaw Station,” is based on an autobiographical recollection of his music teacher at Tuskegee, Hazel Harrison, a highly respected concert pianist and teacher who insisted that Ellison must always play his best, regardless of the audience. The essay’s title comes from the image of a hypothetical little man behind the stove at the railway station at Tuskegee who can recognize a poor performance because he knows the music, the traditions, and the standards of performance. Regardless of the supposedly egalitarian nature of American culture, there will always be someone in the audience with high aesthetic standards who can recognize a mediocre performance. Ellison uses this argument to affirm the “melting pot” metaphor of cultural integration, asserting that some knowledge of high culture works its way down through the layers of a democracy. Using the image of a young African American with an eclectic wardrobe, Ellison observes that Americans have continually ransacked and appropriated each other’s cultural forms and modes of expression.

In his West Point talk “On Initiation Rites and Power,” Ellison discusses some of the formative influences from his Oklahoma boyhood in shaping his later art. He affirms the richness and diversity of his native Southwestern culture, despite the burden of segregation, and implies that in the tendency to ignore the variety of their society’s cultural expression, Americans are victims of inadequate conceptions of themselves. Ellison affirms the importance of America’s geographical diversity in shaping its national identity, and he reminds his audience that American society cannot define the role of the individual, because “it is our fate as Americans to achieve that sense of self-consciousness through our own efforts.”

In the talk “What These Children Are Like,” given at the Bank Street School of Education, Ellison talks about the rich linguistic skills of culturally deprived children and reminisces about the rich jazz traditions to which he was exposed as a child. He emphasizes that the term “culturally deprived” is relative, and that, as he discovered in his teaching at Bard College, even white, middle-class college students can be culturally deprived if their education does not adequately prepare them for the real world that they will enter.

“The Myth of the Flawed White Southerner” is a defense of Lyndon Baines Johnson against attacks from black militants, and “If the Twain Shall Meet” reflects on the discontinuities of southern history. The title essay, “Going to the Territory,” was originally given at Brown University as part of the Ralph Ellison Festival and as a tribute to the African American educator Inman Page, the principal of Douglass High School in Oklahoma City, which Ellison attended.

“An Extravagance of Laughter” presents Ellison’s recollection of a Broadway production based upon Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road (1932). The essay is both a brilliant discussion of the nature of humor and a passionate plea to recognize the full humanity of all Southerners. Ellison points out that he found the production hilarious and laughed to the point of embarrassing his host because he found Caldwell’s poor white stereotypes, grotesques, and caricatures to be so similar to southern racist stereotypes of African Americans. He talks about the power of laughter in defeating discrimination and recalls the “laughing barrels” that boisterous Negroes were required to use in small southern towns so as not to offend white sensibilities.

“Remembering Richard Wright,” given as a talk at the University of Iowa in 1971, pays tribute to Wright’s early influence on Ellison, dating back to their initial meeting in New York in 1937. Ellison acknowledges Wright’s impressive self-education and his influence on Ellison’s intellectual development. Ellison argues that Wright had enough confidence in his talent and ability to accept the artistic challenge of making America conscious of itself, especially in regard to race.

“Homage to Duke Ellington on His Birthday” pays tribute to the great African American composer and arranger who demonstrated through his work that American jazz possessed a range of expressiveness comparable to that of European classical music. Ellison regrets that, because of the musical and racial prejudices of some of the members of the awards committee, Ellington did not receive a special Pulitzer Prize in music.

In his last three essays, Ellison shows a keen knowledge and appreciation of the American literary tradition. “Society, Morality and the Novel” offers a theoretical discussion of the nature of the novel and the social responsibility of the novelist. Ellison differs from Richard Wright and critics such as Irving Howe in insisting that the novel has a broader mandate than merely to serve as a vehicle for social change. In “The Novel as a Function of American Democracy,” Ellison affirms that the health of the novel reflects the health of society. He praises Hemingway and Faulkner for their truthful depictions of American life. The United States is only a partially achieved nation, Ellison affirms, but in times of change people lose their sense of who they are and look to the novel and other art forms for reassurance. He criticizes contemporary literature for its cynicism and lack of optimism about the possibilities of American life. In “Perspectives of Literature,” he celebrates the African American as the keeper of the American conscience, the symbol of American hope. The creative imagination of the writer is essential for American democracy because laws and freedom expand in response to the challenges posed by American writers.

In Shadow and Act and Going to the Territory, Ellison demonstrates his growth as an American literary and social critic, from the young Marxist-oriented WPA worker of the 1930’s to the polished and mature novelist and essayist of the 1980’s. Throughout his essays, Ellison remained a consistent cultural integrationist, insisting upon the central contributions and importance of the African American writer and resisting calls by Black Nationalists for a new black separatist literary aesthetic. Working in the mainstream of American literature helped him, he wrote, to avoid any “segregation of the mind.”

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 203

Benston, Kimberly, ed. Speaking for You: The Vision of Ralph Ellison. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1987. Part 2 of this collection of critical essays on Ellison’s works contains discussions of Shadow and Act by Hollie West, R. W. B. Lewis, John M. Reilly, and John Wright.

Busby, Mark. Ralph Ellison. Twayne’s United States Authors Series. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1991. Chapter 6 of Busby’s critical biography contains an excellent discussion of Ellison’s nonfiction.

Hershey, John, ed. Ralph Ellison: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1974. Contains some early reviews of Ellison’s work, including an important critical evaluation by Robert Penn Warren, and the two essays by Irving Howe and Stanley Edgar Hyman that Ellison responds to in Shadow and Act.

Nadel, Alan. Invisible Criticism: Ralph Ellison and the American Canon. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1988. Nadel’s new critical analysis evaluates Shadow and Act within the larger corpus of Ellison’s work. A good discussion of the influences on Ellison’s art.

O’Meally, Robert G. The Craft of Ralph Ellison. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1980. Perhaps the best critical discussion of Ellison’s art. Chapter 8 examines Ellison’s aesthetics in terms of Shadow and Act.

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