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Ellison, Ralph 1914–

Ellison is an American novelist, essayist, short story writer, and editor. His best work, Invisible Man , is generally considered an outstanding contribution to American postwar fiction. Although this work deals specifically with the black American's fight to overcome the anonymity caused by social stereotypes, many critics...

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Ellison, Ralph 1914–

Ellison is an American novelist, essayist, short story writer, and editor. His best work, Invisible Man, is generally considered an outstanding contribution to American postwar fiction. Although this work deals specifically with the black American's fight to overcome the anonymity caused by social stereotypes, many critics see the novel as a more universal portrayal of the human struggle for identity. Ellison effectively uses a surrealistic and ambiguous narrative to recreate the absurdity and irrationality of black repression. Invisible Man won the National Book Award in 1953. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 3, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

David Littlejohn

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Ralph (Waldo) Ellison stands at the opposite end of the writer's world from Richard Wright. Although he is as aware of the issues of the race war as anyone else, he is no more a consciously active participant than, say, Gwendolyn Brooks or William Faulkner. "I wasn't, and am not, primarily concerned with injustice, but with art." He achieves his extraordinary power through artistry and control, through objectivity, irony, distance: he works with symbol rather than with act. He is at least as much an artist as a Negro. He accepts both roles so naturally, in fact, that he has made them one. His one novel [Invisible Man], the supreme work of art created by an American Negro, is essentially a Negro's novel. It is written entirely out of a Negro's experience, and reveals its full dimension, I am convinced, only to the perfect Negro reader. But it is not a "Negro novel." Like Gwendolyn Brooks, like Faulkner, like most serious artists, he has transmuted himself and his experience almost entirely into his art. Only by turning to his essays and interviews can one discover the degree to which his own opinions, on racial issues or any other, are implicit in Invisible Man.

Invisible Man (1952) was not, Ellison insists, "an attack upon white society."… It is not, really, a race-war novel. But as no Negro's life in America, not even in the symbolic recreation, can be entirely free of racial combat, there are elements in the book that can be legitimately read in a race-war context. (pp. 110-11)

Several instances of direct propaganda occur, although each time in so organically convincing a situation that one does not think of attributing them to Ellison directly. They are simply taken as true, dramatically and substantially. (pp. 111-12)

[This] book is, among other things, a complete story of Negro life in America. By nature something of a pacifist, a quietist, Ellison is much more free than the embattled protestors like Wright to try to tell all of the Negro's story. It has been the theme of his entire creative life, in fact, that there is far, far more to the Negro's story in America than oppression, suffering, and hate: "The view from inside the skin," he insists, "is not so dark as it appears to be." (p. 113)

The focus of all [his] propaganda and history and ironic sociology is the nameless hero, the Invisible Man ("invisible," that is, to white men's eyes), the Negroes' Joseph K. It is his story, really, not the race's, not the war's, except insofar as he is of the race and in the war. (His non-naming, through five hundred pages, never becomes obvious or ominous—a testimony to the subtlety of Ellison's art. It is simply never needed.) The creation and loving sustenance of this narrator-hero, with all his follies and limitations, are among the triumphs of the book.

Reaching out from the central artifice of the narrator-hero are other displays of Ellison's art. His style, the "fine texture," is exact and acute, the language (usually) at fingertip control. Hear the crisp offhandedness of wicked ironies, the cool black humor; or … the needle-sharp evocations of sensation and interior pain. He can manipulate language, as he can character, event, and design, for the optimum effects of irony, of a balanced double vision. Certain devices, tiny tricks, he leaves about like fingerprints: the strange selectivity of detail that leaves characters and objects and events undefinably charged, "off," ever so slightly left of real; the pre-announcement of a thing some lines before it is identified, giving to it an eerie surreality. Ellison has also, to move to items of slightly larger focus, the fullest sense of drama; he knows when to signal and advance a key moment, how to pace and position effects for the fullest buildup of artful tension or comedy or suspense: he can work up cool quiet horror like Harold Pinter, or handle the giant crescendo of effects needed for pageants like Clifton's funeral or the Harlem riots.

His rhetorical skill is prodigious, and he is not reticent about displaying its range. Not only does he indulge himself in perfect mimicry of the tall tale, the emotion-charged address, the Negro sermon; he also allows himself chances for Joycean word display, and makes his hero's hold on history a "way with words," a gift of tongues, an awesome and dangerous eloquence like his own.

Ellison's creative imagination, if such a talent can be singly regarded, is also more prolific than that of his peers. His exotic range of living characters, their vividness and magnitude; the extraordinary sequence of scenes and situations, each rendered with overflowing fullness—rooms, inner states, mob scenes, the fantasia of the hospital, the unforgettable battle royal at the Southern white men's smoker with which the novel opens: such independent creations bear witness to one of the most awesomely fertile living imaginations in American writing. (pp. 114-16)

His proper tradition is that of the great American novelists, as he so hoped it would be, and it is among them, rather than among the New Negroes, that he should be judged. Hawthorne and Melville, certainly, are of the family, and Faulkner and Fitzgerald: all the great ironists of the double vision, the half-romantic, half-cynical creators and retailers of the corrupted American dream. They are all symbolic artists, who charged their objects and events and effects with preternatural significance, who designed their fictions into national myths. He is not up there, of course; but I see no reason not to assign him a place—even for one unbalanced book—at least in the high second rank, with such other ironic idealists as Sherwood Anderson or Nathanael West. (p. 119)

David Littlejohn, in his Black on White: A Critical Survey of Writing By American Negroes (copyright © 1966 by David Littlejohn; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission of Viking Penguin Inc.), Viking Penguin, 1966.

Helen Weinberg

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Ellison's Invisible Man presents the theme of the individual activist quest for spiritual freedom in a [pure,] abstract form…. Ellison's narrative does not compromise with its theme: there are no resolutions in love. The invisible man, the Southern Negro narrator, elects to call himself only "invisible man." This anonymous Negro thrusts again and again, in a series of episodes, parallel and repetitive more than sequential and developing, against the walls of his environment. That he does not prevail against the environment does not lessen the dramatically-perceived nature of his quest: the search for an authentic identity beyond the labels the world would give him. Frustration is everywhere, and he finds the group with which he most identifies, the Negro group, most susceptible to the world's labels for it, most confined, and most self-defeating in its pursuing of group purposes.

In electing to be an invisible man, the narrator elects to be free of all labels, white or Negro, for himself; he elects to lose his group identity and to live alone, alienated and free. The choice of invisibility (by living underground) as freedom is the end-choice, after the above-ground struggles of the novel…. The Prologue and the Epilogue of the book deal with the idea of invisibility, giving a surreal context and emphasis to many of the realistically described scenes inside the main narrative. Ironically, anonymous is what the Negro is in a white society: by electing this condition for himself, as a defense against white society's labels for him, which he has found set him and his brothers against one another, he makes the only free choice which remains available to him. Living underground in a hole, full of light from 1,369 lights lit by voltage stolen from the Monopolated Light and Power Company, and full of sound …, he feels he truly lives at last. "I myself, after existing some twenty years did not become alive until I discovered my invisibility," he says.

The invisible man is both the victim hero trapped in an absurd world and the activist hero. In the Epilogue to the novel, he says, "All life seen from the hole of invisibility is absurd," and he has experienced throughout his adventures above ground a cruel victimization from the absurdities, black and white, of the world. Yet he has acted; he has sought himself and finally found himself in the ironic recognition of his own invisibility. (pp. 188-89)

In an essay, "Black Boys and Native Sons," Irving Howe has attacked … Ellison for having deserted what he considers to be the authentic tradition of Negro writing, the social protest novel best characterized by the work of Richard Wright. One of his complaints against Ellison is his making the narrator-hero of Invisible Man speak of his life as one of "infinite possibilities" at the time that he is living in a hole in the ground. Ellison, in answering Howe's essay, accuses Howe of having missed the irony in this. Not only does Howe, a social literary critic, miss the irony, it seems to me he also missed the specific evasion of social considerations in the quest for personal and spiritual freedom proposed here by a Negro writer whose concept of his own novel is that

it's a novel about innocence and human error, a struggle through illusion to reality…. Before he could have some voice in his own destiny he had to discard [all his] old identities and illusions; his enlightenment couldn't come until then….

The hole is twofold: the ultimate trap and the freely chosen place where he may burn the old papers and roles behind him before going to his next activist phase above ground.

While the main theme is uncompromisingly one of identity and freedom in Invisible Man, Ellison, like [James Baldwin in his Another Country], finds it necessary to invoke love. Ellison, however, does not culminate his hero's quest in the conclusive and resolved terms which love, as the final truth, gives to Another Country; he rather sees that the freedom of a Negro person may evaporate in hate, and love becomes necessary to supply a balance that enables progress toward freedom of the self. (pp. 190-91)

Helen Weinberg, in her The New Novel in America: The Kafkan Mode in Contemporary Fiction (copyright © 1970 by Cornell University; used by permission of the publisher, Cornell University Press), Cornell University Press, 1970.

Jane Gottschalk

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For his novel of the American scene, Ralph Ellison uses American authors to support major ideas, ideas controlled by the dominant image of vision inherent in the title of Invisible Man and fully exploited in the fiction. References to American authors are sophisticated jokes, often very funny. As aware as Mark Twain that humor is a weapon, and as aware as T. S. Eliot that juxtaposition of allusions contributes to a total effect, Ellison plays with names of American authors and teases with allusions to American literary works. Flashing briefly here and developed there, the references reveal illuminating and humorous support of themes concerned with identity, with black leadership, and with the state of American society, a contemporary Ellisonian waste land.

Booker T. Washington, Emerson, Whitman, and T. S. Eliot figure prominently in comic handling of names and/or allusions, the tone set in the opening lines of the Prologue. To declare the quality of his invisibility, the naive narrator informs readers that he is "not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe."

Names used in serious jests are Booker T. Washington and Emerson, and each allusive shot is like b-b spray hitting in different directions. Washington was an educator and a leader—and a writer because of his leadership—and references to his name, in Ellison's unique handling, serve several purposes. (p. 69)

The bronze statue of the Founder is described by the narrator as a "cold Father symbol" of outstretched hands grasping a veil over the head of a kneeling slave; the problem for the narrator at that moment is interpretive. Is the Founder removing or replacing the veil?… More than one reader has called attention to the similarity of this description to the actual statue of Booker T. Washington on the Tuskegee campus…. (p. 70)

It is in the recounting of Dr. Homer Barbee's sermon immediately preceding the moonlit view of the statue that another playful dig is taken at the black educator as leader. This time, allusions to a work by Walt Whitman, the poet of democracy, stimulate alert response. In his tribute to the Founder, Barbee also praises Dr. Bledsoe for carrying on after the death of the Founder, suggesting that though there might be a difference in time, there is little difference in the type of educator—translated leader for the purpose of Ellison's theme….

Both the portrait of the "black and mythical Lincoln" and the tribute to Bledsoe are presented by Barbee, an invited guest of Bledsoe. Since Barbee is blind, anything he says should be suspect; again, vision or seeing is the image in control. He cannot see the truth. This passage, therefore, seems to reinforce the theme of black leaders not being leaders of black people. The Whitman symbols are reversed by the blindness of the black Homer; the Founder was not Lincolnesque, and his successor, Dr. Bledsoe, is not the man so elevated by preacher rhetoric, a fact soon to be discovered in the narrative by the invisible man. With a created character type, with an actual name, and with allusions, the black-educator-leader in American society is put down. (p. 71)

Invisible Man is wide-ranging; the narrator is not the only black American with an identity problem. There are the veterans of the episode at the Golden Day….

If the name of Washington suggests at least two different motifs, the name of Emerson, as Ellison toys with it in Invisible Man, is certainly no less multileveled. Sometimes it means a private joke referring to the actual nineteenth century writer, sometimes it refers to a created character of that name who has several functions, and sometimes it is used as a kind of type—merged with other characters in the novel.

The name is introduced in the novel by Norton when he asks the narrator if he had studied Emerson. Readers knowing the full Ralph Waldo of Ellison's name, are able to smile as the narrator is embarrassed because he hadn't, and Norton tells him, "You must learn about him, for he was important to your people. He had a hand in your destiny."… Later, in his final campus interview with Norton, the narrator announces his intention of reading Emerson. Norton approves. "Very good. Self-reliance is a most worthy virtue."… The private joke slips in again when the narrator is at the paint factory, worrying about using "Emerson's name without his permission."… (p. 72)

The final use to which Ellison puts the name of Emerson is to have the narrator recognize him as a manipulator like others. "And now I looked around a corner of my mind and saw Jack and Norton and Emerson merge into one single figure. They were very much the same, each attempting to force his picture of reality upon me and neither giving a hoot in hell for how things looked to me. I was simply a material, a natural resource to be used. I had switched from the arrogant absurdity of Norton and Emerson to that of Jack and the Brotherhood, and it all came out the same—."… In his confrontation with Ras during the riot in Harlem, the narrator takes another step forward: "… I had no longer to run for or from the Jacks and the Emersons and the Bledsoes and Nortons, but only from their confusion, impatience, and refusal to recognize the beautiful absurdity of their American identity and mine."… The list of those who had run him gets longer, and in the castration dream, there are "Jack and old Emerson and Bledsoe and Norton and Ras and the school superintendent, and a number of others."… Is the Emerson referred to in these passages the character created in the novel or the actual writer? Or both? Ellison riddles a riddle.

Because Ellison has referred to T. S. Eliot as a literary ancestor and has acknowledged several times the impact upon him of "The Waste Land," readers should not be surprised that Invisible Man is also a comic waste land in prose. There is no naming of Eliot in the novel, but Ellison quotes Harry's speech from Eliot's Family Reunion in his frontispiece with an excerpt from Melville's Benito Cereno; Harry's remarks anticipate the general theme of seeing. But an early allusion sets the stage for the Ellisonian waste land, and other imagery and characters develop it. Readers familiar with Eliot's work are brought up sharply as the narrator describes his college campus: "If real, why is it that I can recall in all that inland of greenness no fountain but one that was broken, corroded and dry? And why does no rain fall through my recollections, sound through my memories, soak through the hard dry crust of the still so recent past? Why do I recall, instead of the odor of seed bursting in springtime, only the yellow contents of the cistern spread over the lawn's dead grass?" (pp. 73-4)

The waste land, it becomes clear, is not only the college campus. Eliot's work draws heavily on the fertility myths, in which society is represented by the land, its sterility or barrenness symbolizing lust, its fertility, love. In addition, Eliot's "The Waste Land" is his parallel to Dante's Inferno as his "Ash Wednesday" is his parallel to the Purgatorio; in "Ash Wednesday" love and women are redemptive. Invisible Man suggests all of these elements. After the narrator leaves the college, many of the scenes are set in an underworld, literal or figurative. (p. 74)

With the story of Trueblood, of obviously ironic name, Ellison plies ironies, revels in the tall-tale, and goads readers into laughing response. There is ironic foreshadowing when Norton twice remarks to the narrator that the land had been barren before the Founder came and now it is fertile…. He soon discovers confirmation; incest gives concurrent paternities. Norton rewards Trueblood with a hundred dollars, matching the response of white society as they lapped up his story. The grim humor has a sharp point. Toward the end of the visit, Trueblood mentions his other children. "'Lissen to the younguns,' he said in embarrassment, 'Playin' "London Bridge's Falling Down"'."… In Part V of "The Waste Land" Eliot had written: "London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down." And, for Ellison, American society is falling down as it envies known incest, as with Norton, and rewards, as with the white citizens near the campus. (p. 75)

[References] to sex extend the range of association, but none of them represent love. The prostitutes at the Golden Day speculate hilariously about Mr. Norton, and Emma, although she is Jack's mistress, has an eye for the narrator. Sex is a joke, and society is sick. Women are used and use others.

Exceptions in the novel in the presentation of women are Miss Susie Gresham of the black college to whom the narrator pays tribute in retrospect … and Mary Rambo, a mother-figure who takes in the narrator when he needs help after the explosion at the paint factory and to whom he is trying to return during the Harlem riot. Although her suggestive name is not so simply interpreted because of Rambo, Mary is an obvious allusion to Christ's mother, a redemptive figure. Eliot uses Mary in "Ash Wednesday," his Purgatorio, as representative of a different role for women, helping to redeem the time. Ellison seems to do the same.

There are other clues in Eliot's work and in Ellison's that all is not completely lost. In the fertility myths, the burial of a princely figure, or a king, can help the land to become fertile again, can help society to become healthy. Tod Clifton (whose first name means death) is the most princely character in Invisible Man, his qualities so marked that even Ras, the Harlem enemy of the Brotherhood, cannot destroy him: "Youth! Intelligence! The mahn's a natural prince."… Clifton's bolting from the Brotherhood, his being shot on the streets of New York, and his moving funeral planned and executed by the narrator alone are key episodes which prompt the action of the narrator. After Clifton's funeral, there come the rupture with the Brotherhood, the Harlem Riot—and the bursting of the water main which ultimately sends the narrator to the coal cellar to think. Salvation by water is suggested in Eliot's work; water helps to "save" the narrator in Ellison's work. Near the end of "The Waste Land" the protagonist asks, "Shall I at least set my lands in order?" Shall he assume some personal responsibility? At the end of Invisible Man, in the Epilogue, the narrator ponders leaving his hibernation "since there's a possibility that even an invisible man has a socially responsible role to play."… (pp. 76-7)

Jane Gottschalk, "Sophisticated Jokes: The Use of American Authors in 'Invisible Man'," in Renascence (© copyright, 1978, Marquette University Press), Winter, 1978, pp. 69-77.

Joseph T. Skerrett, Jr.

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"The Birthmark" … displays, I think, enough of Wright's influence—as well as Hemingway's—to justify some concern on Wright's part that Ellison might be able to steal his thunder, in time. In the story, a black man and his sister have been brought to the scene of an alleged auto accident to identify the body of their brother; they discover, when they attempt to find an identifying birthmark below the navel, that he has been lynched and castrated. Outraged but helpless, they must return home and accept the lie that Willie was hit by a car, because, as the white policeman puts it, "We don't allow no lynching round here no more."

Like a Hemingway story, "The Birthmark" is immediate and dramatic; it begins with Matt and Clara emerging from the police car to approach Willie's body. Its power is developed through the cumulative effect of the dialog, rather than through the sparse interpretive commentary of the narrator. But the dialog is dialectal rather than idiomatic; the particularities of black Southern speech are indicated orthographically. This is, of course, Wright's style and not Hemingway's—or Ellison's as we have become familiar with it in later work.

Like Wright's "Big Boy Leaves Home," Ellison's story draws a strong contrast between the summer calm of nature—"the green stretch of field fringed with pine trees" and "the pine needle covered ground" where Willie's body lies—and the human violence and hatred which brings brother and sister, white man and black man to this place. But Ellison's is a very brief tale, without the extensiveness of one of Wright's long tales. And Ellison's hero is frustrated, entirely stalemated by the cynical insistence of the white police that Willie was not lynched because lynchings don't happen there anymore. (p. 147)

Ellison's insight into the social conditions that block Matt's impulse to wrench the gun from the white man's hand is more cynical than Wright's. In the stories of Uncle Tom's Children, as well as in "Silt," white economic power is an important aspect of the characters' sense of frustration. Nature is indifferent. The flood in "Silt" has ruined all the land; it is Tom's economic servitude to Burgess that makes the flood almost "too hard" to bear. But in Ellison's story, as Matt and Clara alight from the police car, nature gives the reader a foresight of its complicity: "two large birds circled slowly, black shapes against the still blue sky." And it is the white policeman who interprets the sign, giving it its proper name: "'Them damned buzzards,' he said." The narrator and the reader are thus let in on the tragic complexity of the experience in store for Matt and Clara. (pp. 147-48)

The rapid development in the direction that has since become characteristic of his work—a style and structural habits closely related to patterns of speech and behavior—can be traced in the three stories which followed these earliest efforts.

["Afternoon"] is almost without formal structure. It follows the two young boys, Buster and Riley, through what seems a typical pre-adolescent day…. The story, for all the effectiveness of its rhetoric, has no dramatic center, nor organizing narrative idea. Its movement is manipulated, rhetorically, by the narrator, who otherwise does not have a presence in the story. Despite the references to Jack Johnson and to other, more general folkloristic elements, Ellison does not shape the narration so as to transcend the typicalness of the boys' daily experience. "Afternoon" is a rhetorically sophisticated "slice-of-life" fiction, and has a lot in common with the pastoral opening of Wright's "Big Boy Leaves Home." But Wright's adolescent's idyll is a contrast to the stark reality of racial violence, while Ellison's seems nostalgic, self-contained, rather pointless.

["Mister Toussan"] is a brilliant exercise in brevity. Buster and Riley demonstrate the uses of the imagination as each tells his creative version of Mr. Toussan—Toussaint L'Ouverture utterly transformed by hearsay, ignorance and projection—and his rejection of Napoleon. The boys quite consciously create Mr. Toussan's dismissal of the oppressive whites, building narrative details in the dialogical manner of formulaic sermonizing or teaching. After Buster has told his version, with Riley chorusing good lines, asking questions and adding details, he begins his version with "Come on, watch me do it now." The imagination in the act of performance is what matters; the boys are left at the end of their flight of fancy wondering why such "good stories" are not "in the books." The story as performance event, which seems to be Ellison's main point here, is structurally underlined by Ellison's virtuosic closure…. Riley closes the story-telling with a formulaic closure to which Buster cannot object, for it is part of the rules of performance events that they not be artificially prolonged. When the rhythm and spirit are exhausted, the story-telling ends.

      "Aw come on man," interrupted Buster.
      "Let's go play in the alley…."
                       And that's the way
      "Maybe we can slip around and get some
      cherries," Buster went on.
                       … the story ends, chanted
      Riley.

Thus both the boys' and the author's performances end simultaneously. Ellison structurally reiterates his theme. In this story he found his voice and struck a balance between an expressive narrative presence and a dramatic narrative structure. The narration contains an example of storytelling which is in itself a commentary on the "truth," the validity and usefulness of narration. In affirming the meaning of narration as an act of the imagination in its own right, Ellison took a major step away from Wright's ideological aesthetic.

The third Buster and Riley story, "That I Had the Wings,"… is a more thoroughly developed but more conventional fiction than "Mr. Toussan." Here the boys' imaginative play gets them into trouble while revealing to the reader their real yearning for escape from the confining supervision of the adult world. Riley is scolded by his Aunt Kate for singing a song about being "President of these United States" and swinging on the White House gates, for not only does the boy's song take the Lord's name in vain, it also voices dangerous ambitions…. Though Riley apologizes, he angers Aunt Kate by refusing to sing an alternative song—"That I Had the Wings of a Dove" to satisfy her that the day's dangerously secular vision has been expunged. For it has not. Riley has his eye on the birds, all right, but not with a view toward heaven. Their symbolic value for him is in their freedom to fly…. He and Buster make parachutes for the chicks and toss them off the roof of the barn. Aunt Kate interrupts them, the chicks land hard and are killed. Worse than the failure of the parachute plan is the shame Riley feels at Aunt Kate's scolding. (pp. 150-52)

"That I Had the Wings" is a sensitive and dramatic perception of the emotions of childhood. Like something from the hand of Mark Twain, it reaches out from a firm grounding in the world of the child to comment on the human desire for freedom from limiting discipline, be it loving and protective or not. Riley's desire to see the birds fly is a projection of his own rebellion against "his place" both as a child and as a Negro. Riley is a kind of Bigger Thomas, the black child who has not accepted the rationale of the black community concerning ambition, self-assertion and other aspects of the individualist ethic. But the narrator puts no large interpretations on the action of the story; there is no suggestion that Riley will become a rebel like Bigger. Ellison is satisfied to present the boy facing a boy's version of a universal human problem, the battle with family and authority. (pp. 152-53)

[These] three stories demonstrate not only a broadening of literary models to include more distant—i.e., less proximate—figures like Twain, but also a successful effort to draw upon more personal, more intimate data. The change from the public themes and representative figures of the earlier work to the private and closely observed world of the boys involved a reintroduction of the self and marked the achievement of control over the narrator-effacing techniques of Hemingway and Joyce. Ellison has acknowledged in an interview that the central incident of "That I Had the Wings," the business with the chicks and the toy parachutes, was drawn from memories of his own childhood. "Mister Toussan" and "That I Had the Wings" are, furthermore, finished and polished manipulations of "the simple structural unities of beginning, middle and end" which had eluded Ellison's control in his earliest work. (p. 153)

Joseph T. Skerrett, Jr., "Ralph Ellison and the Example of Richard Wright," in Studies in Short Fiction (copyright 1978 by Newberry College), Spring, 1978, pp. 145-53.

Richard Finholt

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Ellison, after Poe, is the American writer most self-consciously committed to the ideas of the mind thinking, of the mind, that is, as the ultimate source of transcendence or salvation. But he is also the inheritor of a wellspring of emotional pain, the collective black experience in America, that has received its traditional artistic expression in the blues beat and lyric. Several critics … [as well as] Ellison himself have emphasized the influence of blues forms and themes on the structure of [Invisible Man], but some of these critics, perhaps wishing for Ellison to be more black than American, have not given proper emphasis to its intellectual framework.

In fact, the novel amounts to a critique of both the intellectual and the emotional dimensions of the American experience. The Brotherhood (an obvious pseudonym for the Communist Party), which prides itself on its "reasonable point of view" and "scientific approach to society,"… represents the head of the social structure, as do also such characters as Bledsoe, Norton, Emerson, and all who think without feeling; and characters like Trueblood, Emerson Jr., Lucius Brockway, Tarp, Tod Clifton, and Ras, all those who feel without thinking, represent the heart. Given the two dimensions, the invisible man's problem … is "How to Be!" And … salvation is the attainment of a balance, of a unification of mind and body, thought and feeling, idea and action, that forms a pattern of existence with the potential to transcend the "biological morality" … imposed from within and the social morality imposed from without. (pp. 98-9)

[It] is Ellison's vision that all men, whether powerful or weak, are puppets controlled by invisible strings …, like Clifton's dancing Sambo doll…. Ellison's vision is of a complex chattering-monkey society composed of blind, mindless puppets wearing the masks assigned to them, playing the roles demanded of them, striking out blindly at the targets provided for them. A metaphor for this society is the battle royal …, in which the young black boys are set plunging and swinging wildly about a boxing ring. Blindfolded, they fight "hysterically," in a "confused" state of "terror" and "hate," while not one blow reaches the southern whites who are the makers of their pain and confusion…. (p. 99)

Tatlock and the invisible man use each other as scapegoats, and the invisible man will go on to strike out at a long string of scapegoats, each representing a different social or political affiliation (Bledsoe, Brockway, Ras, Brother Jack), will himself serve as a scapegoat for all these groups, before he is finally driven from society by an ironic amalgamation of black revolutionaries and white reactionaries. The invisible man is accused of treachery by the spokesmen of every group represented in the novel …, is haunted by his grandfather's confession to having been a "traitor" to his people …, is overcome by the irony that even his grandfather's formula for avoiding treachery ("overcome 'em with yeses") leads him to betray his race…. The ultimate question in Ellison is: To what "society of gods" can the "dispossessed" … reverse-pharmakos give ultimate allegiance?

[Ellison] envisions no unifying force at the center of the cosmos; where … others see a pattern of meaning on which to build what Ellison calls a "plan of living," Ellison sees only "chaos." The human problem then becomes how "to give pattern to the chaos which lives within the pattern" of the "certainties" … upon which blind men have built their societies…. Ellison's philosophy might be called existential transcendentalism. As he told John O'Brien in Interviews with Black Writers, "Human life is a move toward the rational. Whatever man must do in order to bring order to the society is what he considers rational. For a moralist, the problem is to point out that such order is not imposed by nature and it is not imposed by God. It's a human thing." In other words, just as man creates his own damnation, he must create his own salvation, just as man has spent his existence imposing pseudorational strings on himself, he must train himself to be true to the truly rational. (pp. 100-01)

Therefore, the invisible man discovers that salvation is ultimately a function of "the mind,"… and his allegiance passes over to an ethereal realm of intellectual principles. (p. 101)

The invisible man discovers, almost too late, that the Brotherhood's ideal of reaching people "through their intelligence" is the mask for a sinister, paternalistic policy of taking advantage of people "in their own best interest."… The true principle … can be discovered only at the conclusion of an arduous rite of passage through the underworld (expressed metaphorically by ubiquitous images of tunnels, subways, and basement rooms …), through the "lower frequencies" … of the human psyche where the blues originates, the unconscious world of primitive human emotions and instincts where the thinking man discovers that beneath the social and racial allegiances he is "linked to all the others in the loud, clamoring semi-visible world."…

The American black man, Ellison seems to be suggesting, is in a special positon to achieve the balance of thought and feeling, of responsibility and freedom necessary for "transcendence" over society's death grip on the individual unconscious. On the one hand, owing to the "given circumstances" of his "origin," the blues experience, he has had "not much, but some" of the "human greed and smallness" and "fear and superstition,"… which has corrupted the white mind, burned out of him. On the other hand, to remain isolated from the intellectual patterns that structure history …, isolated in an albeit free world of pure feeling, is to remain in "that world seen only as a fertile field for exploitation by Jack and his kind, and with condescension by Norton and his."… The blues experience has purified the emotions of the black man, Ellison seems to be saying, but unless his mind can learn to see the meaning underlying the blues form, and to take the responsiblity for his own salvation, he will never be able to transcend the imprisoning social structure.

The theme of the blues is emotional pain, not as triumphed over, but as lived with, endured. (pp. 101-02)

[Ellison] suggests that the blues expression of the southern Negro is the only response possible in his violence-prone world, "the consolation of philosophy" having been denied to him….

Ellison associates the blues and the black experience with the hysteria of "confusion," a motif which recurs again and again in the novel …; it is the confusion that arises, presumably, from suppressing intellectual energy…. [For example] the invisible man finds himself echoing the blues refrain of Louis Armstrong, "What did I do/To be so black/And blue?"… after he discovers, but cannot understand, the "joke" played on him by Bledsoe…. (p. 103)

Confusion is in turn linked to what Raymond M. Olderman in "Ralph Ellison's Blues and Invisible Man" calls the "scapegoat" motif of the blues. Super-Cargo (superego), for example, represents internalized white authority … to the mental patients in the Golden Day …, and when given the opportunity to express their suppressed intellectual energy physically, they instinctively attack him and not Mr. Norton…. Both Super-Cargo and Norton represent some truth beyond the limited roles they play in the social structure, but since the blues mentality of the inmates is not prone to intellectual analysis, a symbolically appropriate scapegoat satisfies the emotional demands of the occasion…. (pp. 103-04)

In Natives Sons Edward Margolies has described Ellison's hero/narrator as a blues "singer," who sings "a record of past wrongs, pains, and defeats," each episode serving "almost as an extended blues verse." While the novel is certainly an episodic account of painful defeats at the hands of a number of different scapegoat figures, Margolies, who seems to see blues as the sole structuring purpose of the novel, fails to recognize that the invisible man comes to reject the illogic of the blues form when he realizes that he has become a scapegoat for Ras…. His mind has developed to the point where, like Powerhouse and unlike the waitress, he can separate the personifications from the principles they represent. But the frightening discovery is that this "confoundingly complex arrangement" of marionette strings has corrupted even the black man's treasured emotional heritage.

Just as Ellison links confusion to the blues, he in turn links the blues to the nature of southern Negro preaching. At the lowest level of his blues reverie in the prologue, the invisible man finds a black preacher perpetuating confusion by patterning the words of his sermon on the emotional response of his congregation rather than on any pattern demanded by the sense of their meaning…. But, ironically, it is precisely the invisible man's gift for the sound of words that the Brotherhood will harness to its corrupt purpose…. Brother Jack rebukes the invisible man at one point by telling him, "You were not hired to think,"… which seems an inappropriate thing to say to a lecturer, but of course he was hired to sing the blues. (pp. 104-06)

[Ellison has a] Freudian understanding of mankind's sense of its own insufficiency, a sense that motivates the "simple yet confoundingly complex arrangement of hope and desire, fear and hate." The marionette strings project outward from the collective unconscious to confuse not only the black man's feelings but the society's truest principles.

The "escape" of the hero from the regressive patriarchy of the South … to the more egalitarian North is an ontogenetic recapitulation of the phylogenesis of Western society; it mirrors the transformation of the "primal horde," in Freud's formulation, into the "brother horde." The "Brotherhood" (dropping the "r" in horde) represents the new cooperative society (the first act of cooperation being the murder of the father)…. But the implicit irony of the brother horde is that one cannot transcend the father, and to murder the father is merely to institutionalize murder, and thereby perpetuate the need to murder the father. (pp. 106-07)

Ellison has written in "Richard Wright's Blues," the blues offers "no scapegoat but the self,"… the self that discovers "on the lower frequencies" that it is "linked to all the others" by a shared heritage of fear and viciousness. That is the "beautiful absurdity" of the "American identity," and that, the invisible man discovers, is the meaning of the blues.

But the brother horde can work only if the shared heritage is denied. So, when a universal desire surfaces somewhere, as in the case of Trueblood's incest, it must be treated as a gross perversion and the offending individual excised brutally from the community, made a symbolic scapegoat. The blues is a danger to the social fabric because of its emphasis on the commonality of human emotions…. For this reason Trueblood can bear the "guilt" heaped upon him. By making him feel the universality of his emotions …, the blues has led him to face and accept the fear that society is constructed to deny: the fear of individuality…. (p. 108)

But there is a danger in emotional freedom. There really is a "chaos" out there on the borders of society; an individual needs "a socially responsible role to play,"… or he will revert in his "cynicism" … to the barbaric condition of anarchy and chaos, where the unconscious rules unrestrained by anything except necessity. This is what the invisible man calls "Rinehartism"; "Rine the runner and Rine the gambler and Rine the briber" seems at first to be the essence of individual "possibility" …; his "possibility" seems to be the antidote to the "social responsibility" … preached by society, which turns out to mean nothing more than the "SACRIFICE" … of the individual. But Ellison understands that the social morality (the brother horde) is ultimately determined by the biological morality (the primal horde) that enslaves us all and that there cannot be, therefore, any ultimate freedom from, only moderation of, evil and pain.

When the individual submits to society's ideal of responsibility, the "uncreated features of his face," the surface idiosyncrasies that make him different from all other men, remain uncreated…. In Aristotelian terms, he is all substance and no form. Since this "formless" … man is invisible to both others and himself, he must wear a mask assigned to him, as the invisible man does throughout the novel, merely exchanging one mask for another as his affiliations shift. However, when the individual becomes too free from responsibility, when his possibilities are without limit, he becomes nothing but face, all form and no substance, having denied the common substance that makes him one with all other men. (p. 109)

The invisible man transcends the dangers of the dialectical opposites, collective responsibility and individual possibility, by achieving a synthesis of them. Thus, he drives Brother Jack into a frenzy when he espouses a new, balanced ideal called "personal responsibility."… He becomes a whole man, both substance and form, body and mind, emotion and reason when he learns how to balance between … his "duty toward others" and his "duty toward himself." (pp. 109-10)

[He] will not accept the scapegoat role society has chosen for him to play, but neither will he overstay his "hibernation" in an underground world of pure possibility. The promise of the invisible man is that he will emerge with enough balance to articulate the feelings that we all have locked in our minds…. (p. 110)

Richard Finholt, "Ellison's Chattering-Monkey Blues," in his American Visionary Fiction: Mad Metaphysics as Salvation Psychology (copyright © 1978 by Kennikat Press Corp.; reprinted by permission of Kennikat Press Corp.), Kennikat, 1978, pp. 98-111.

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