Ralph Ellison Ellison, Ralph (Vol. 3)

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Ellison, Ralph (Vol. 3)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Ellison, Ralph 1914–

A Black American whose reputation as a major novelist still rests on Invisible Man, his first and only novel, Ellison is also a short story writer and essayist. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

What astonishes one most about Invisible Man is the apparent freedom it displays from the ideological and emotional penalties suffered by Negroes in this country—I say "apparent" because the freedom is not quite so complete as the book's admirers like to suppose. Still, for long stretches Invisible Man does escape the formulas of protest, local color, genre quaintness and jazz chatter. No white man could have written it, since no white man could know with such intimacy the life of the Negroes from the inside; yet Ellison writes with an ease and humor which are now and again simply miraculous….

Ellison has an abundance of that primary talent without which neither craft nor intelligence can save a novelist: he is richly, wildly inventive; his scenes rise and dip with tension, his people bleed, his language sings. No other writer has captured so much of the hidden gloom and surface gaiety of Negro life….

The observation is expert: he knows exactly how zootsuiters walk, making stylization their principle of life, and exactly how the antagonism between American and West Indian Negroes works itself out in speech and humor. He can accept his people as they are, in their blindness and hope:—here, finally, the Negro world does exist, seemingly apart from plight or protest. And in the final scene Ellison has created an unforgettable image: "Ras the Destroyer," a Negro nationalist, appears on a horse dressed in the costume of an Abyssinian chieftain, carrying spear and shield, and charging wildly into the police—a black Quixote, mad, absurd, unbearably pathetic.

Irving Howe, in his A World More Attractive: A View of Modern Literature and Politics (© 1963; reprinted by permission of the publisher, Horizon Press, New York), Horizon, 1963, pp. 112-14.

Because he refuses to join the chants for "black power," Ellison is sometimes dismissed as an "Uncle Tom"; but since his temper is hardly servile or humble and he has the courage of his convictions, often to the point of personal pain, as well as refuses to repress his anger, and has long supported the cause, that derogatory stereotype is no more appropriate than other reductionist clichés. Ellison does not deny that injustice, discrimination, hypocrisy, and poverty all exist; but he insists, partly from personal experience, that these disadvantages are not as totally determining as certain social commentators make them out to be.

Richard Kostelanetz, "Ralph Ellison: Novelist as Brown-Skinned Aristocrat," in Shenandoah (copyright by Shenandoah; reprinted from Shenandoah: The Washington and Lee University Review with the permission of the Editor), Summer, 1969, pp. 56-77.

Threatened by his own unfolding personality as much as by the whites, the Negro learns to camouflage, to dissimulate, to retreat behind a protective mask. There is magic in it: the mask is a means of warding off the vengeance of the gods….

In his own prose, Ellison employs various masking devices, including understatement, irony, double entendre, and calculated ambiguity. There is something deliberately elusive in his style, something secret and taunting, some instinctive avoidance of explicit statement which is close in spirit to the blues. His fascination with masquerade gives us two memorable characters in Invisible Man: the narrator's grandfather, whose mask of meekness conceals a stubborn resistance to white supremacy, and Rinehart, whom Ellison describes as "an American virtuoso of identity who thrives on chaos and swift change"…. A master of disguise, Rinehart survives by manipulating the illusions of society, much in the tradition of Melville's Confidence Man, Twain's Duke and Dauphin, and Mann's Felix Krull.

Masking, which begins as a defensive gesture, becomes in Ellison's hands a means of...

(The entire section is 5,933 words.)