Ralph Ellison Ellison, Ralph (Vol. 1)

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Ellison, Ralph (Vol. 1)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Ellison, Ralph 1914–

Ellison, a Black American, won the National Book Award in 1952 for his first novel Invisible Man. He has since published essays, stories, and parts of a second novel. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 11-12.)

Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man is a series of episodes, but the screaming crescendo on which the book opens—the hero in his Harlem cellar, all the stolen lights ablaze, collaring the reader and forcing him to notice and to hear—is an unforgettably powerful expression, at the extreme of racial experience, of the absurdity, the feeling of millions that the world is always just out of their reach.

Alfred Kazin, "The Alone Generation," in Harper's, October, 1959, pp. 127-31.

Ellison's Invisible Man is comic … almost in spite of its overtly satirical interests and its excursions into the broadly farcical. Humorous as many of its episodes are in themselves—the surreal hysteria of the scene at the Golden Day, the hero's employment at the Liberty Paint Company, or the expert dissection of political entanglements in Harlem—these are the materials which clothe Ellison's joke and which, in turn, suggest the shape by which the joke can be comprehended. The pith of Ellison's comedy reverberates on a level much deeper than these incidents, and as in all true humor, the joke affirms and denies simultaneously—accepts and rejects with the same uncompromising passion, leaving not a self-cancelling neutralization of momentum, but a sphere of moral conquest, a humanized cone of light at the very heart of the heart of darkness. Invisible Man, as Ellison has needlessly insisted in rebuttal to those critics who would treat the novel as fictionalized sociology or as a dramatization of archetypal images, is an artist's attempt to create a form….

Invisible Man achieves an expert evocation of that "mid-kingdom," that demimonde of constant metamorphosis where good and evil, appearance and reality, pattern and chaos are continually shifting their shapes even as the eye strains to focus and the imagination to comprehend. The Kafkaesque surrealism of the novel's action, the thematic entwinement of black-white and dark-light, and the psychic distance from the plot-development which the use of the Prologue and the Epilogue achieves posit the moral center of the novel in that fluid area where experience is in the very process of being transformed into value. The narrator, the author, and the reader as well are caught in the "mid-kingdom" which seems to me to be the characteristic and unavoidable focus of American literature. For this mid-kingdom, this unutterable silence which is "zero at the bone," seems to me to be the one really inalienable birthright of being an American.

Earl H. Rovit, "Ralph Ellison and the American Comic Tradition," in Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 1, No. 1, 1960 (© 1960 by the Regents of the University of Wisconsin).

Anger and art: these are … the poles which define Ellison's pursuit of the old question of an American Negro identity, masks black or white shimmering in a vortex of light. For there is nothing simple, nothing that does not reek of violence and betrayal, in this question of identity; nothing that can be resolved in the spirit of liberal generosity or romantic primitivism….

Ellison, who has the formal sense of a jazz musician and the instinct of a singer of blues, understands that anger or agony is transient without art. Turbulence, in private or political life, amounts to a denial of the dignity of man. To acknowledge the innate dignity of mankind is also to reconcile the idea of freedom prescribed in the founding political documents of America with the violence of a Harlem race riot. The act of reconciliation is an action of what Ellison calls Mind, a fact of form . The "Negro question" becomes a question of determining the essence of the human in a way that the questioning and tormented Mind can grasp. This, if any, is the artistic credo of Ellison. The credo is one that...

(The entire section is 2,479 words.)