The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison Analysis

Ralph Ellison

Literary Career

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

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.

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,...

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Creative Possibilities

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

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...

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Becoming an American Writer

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

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...

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Going to the Territory

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

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...

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(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

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.