Going to the Territory
One of the most venerated of American writers, Ralph Ellison was honored by a National Book Award in 1953 for his novel Invisible Man (1952), by his appointment in 1964 to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, by the Medal of Freedom in 1969, by the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et Lettres in 1970, and in 1985 by the National Medal of Arts. These official honors are but one indication of Ellison’s literary stature; he occupies almost a unique position among American writers because of the critical reputation of his powerful novel, Invisible Man. It is the kind of novel which only comes along once in a generation—a Book World poll of two hundred American writers and critics named it as the most significant work of fiction written between 1945 and 1965. The novel is the odyssey of a black man in contemporary America; it is characterized by the symbolic significance of the protagonist’s experience, and it is narrated within an original intellectual context. This same formidable intellectual context is found in Ellison’s nonfiction.
Although Ellison’s essays, articles, criticism, and reviews have appeared in national publications since 1939, his first collection, Shadow and Act, did not appear until 1964. This present collection, Going to the Territory, is in many ways a companion volume to that first collection. Ellison’s major concerns have not changed: He remains committed to exploring the nature of individual experience—particularly black experience—within the context of the social reality of the United States. He also remains committed to art—especially narrative art in the form of the novel—as an essential instrument in that exploration. All these essays, except for the longest in the collection, “An Extravagance of Laughter,” which was written especially for this volume, have appeared previously in magazines, literary journals, or anthologies, most of them since the publication of Shadow and Act.
One of Ellison’s foremost concerns is to define the nature of democracy for the individual in the United States. In several of these essays, he explores that concept of democracy in terms of a pluralistic society with one essential segment composed of the black experience. Ellison’s position is that the experience of the black American has been the ultimate test of the democratic concept from the very founding of the nation to the present. With a critical eye on American history, he discusses the basic conflict between the ideal of equality for all people and the institution of slavery within the context of the framing of the Constitution. He points out that the most significant event in the nation’s history—the Civil War—was a continuing development of that basic conflict. Ellison views the Reconstruction effort after the Civil War as a great failure of the democratic ideal. Instead of bringing the ideal of equality for all people closer to reality, the Jim Crow laws which were formulated during that period perpetuated a discrepancy between the ideals of the nation and the actual social reality of the country, particularly the social reality of the Deep South.
This discrepancy between the expressed ideals of the nation and its social reality is at the heart of much of Ellison’s thought. He believes that it accounts for the way in which history has been written in the United States; those events which correspond to the ideals of the nation have been recorded formally, and they have been taught and consciously held dear by the people. Many of the events in the history of the nation, however, have not been recorded formally. This “unwritten history,” or “underground” history, characterizes much of the black experience, and it is vitally important to the attempt to determine the nature of the country’s moral identity. Folklore is one element of this unwritten history, and the very language in which black folklore is formed—black English—contains symbolic phrases and terms that indicate its subject. “Going to the Terr’tor’”—a line from a song of the great jazz singer Bessie Smith—is one such phrase, a phrase which Ellison identifies as indicating symbolic freedom for the black American.
Thus, Ellison believes that the experience of the black American is a factor which has not been adequately defined within the context...
(The entire section is 1787 words.)