Ralph Ellison

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Ralph Ellison with Alfred Chester and Vilma Howard (interview date Spring 1955)

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SOURCE: An interview in Paris Review, Spring, 1955, pp. 53-55; reprinted as "The Art of Fiction: An Interview," in Conversations with Ralph Ellison, edited by Maryemma Graham and Amritjit Singh, University Press of Mississippi, 1995, pp. 6-19.

[In the following interview, Ellison discusses his life and his views on writing and literature, specifically addressing his own works, so-called "protest literature," and contemporary African-American writers and literature.]

When Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison's first novel, received the National Book Award for 1952, the author in his acceptance speech noted with dismay and gratification the conferring of the award to what he called "an attempt at a major novel." His gratification was understandable, so too his dismay when one considers the amount of objectivity Mr. Ellison can display toward his own work. He felt the state of U.S. fiction to be so unhappy that it was an "attempt" rather than an achievement which received the important award.

Many of us will disagree with Mr. Ellison's evaluation of his own work. Its crackling, brilliant, sometimes wild, but always controlled prose warrants this; so does the care and logic with which its form is revealed, and not least its theme: that of a young Negro who emerges from the South and—in the tradition of James' Hyacinth Robinson and Stendhal's Julien Sorel—moves into the adventure of life at large.

In the summer of 1954, Mr. Ellison came abroad to travel and lecture. His visit ended with Paris where for a very few weeks he mingled with the American expatriate group to whom his work was known and of much interest. The day before he left he talked to us in the Café de la Mairie du VI about art and the novel.

Ralph Ellison takes both art and the novel seriously. And the Café de la Mairie has a tradition of seriousness behind it, for here was written Djuna Barnes' spectacular novel, Nightwood. There is a tradition, too, of speech and eloquence, for Miss Barnes' hero, Dr. O'Connor, often drew a crowd of listeners to his mighty rhetoric. So here gravity is in the air and rhetoric too. While Mr. Ellison speaks, he rarely pauses, and although the strain of organizing his thought is sometimes evident, his phraseology and the quiet steady flow and development of ideas are overwhelming. To listen to him is rather like sitting in the back of a huge hall and feeling the lecturer's faraway eyes staring directly into your own. The highly emphatic, almost professorial intonations, started with their distance, self-confidence, and warm undertones of humor.

[Ellison:] Let me say right now that my book is not an autobiographical work.

[Chester and Howard:] You weren't thrown out of school like the boy in your novel?

No. Though, like him, I went from one job to another.

Why did you give up music and begin writing?

I didn't give up music, but I became interested in writing through incessant reading. In 1935 I discovered Eliot's The Waste Land which moved and intrigued me but defied my powers of analysis—such as they were—and I wondered why I had never read anything of equal intensity and sensibility by an American Negro writer. Later on, in New York, I read a poem by Richard Wright, who, as luck would have it, came to town the next week. He was editing a magazine called New Challenge and asked me to try a book review of E. Waters Turpin's These Low Grounds . On the basis of this review Wright suggested that I try a short story, which I did. I...

(This entire section contains 5361 words.)

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tried to use my knowledge of riding freight trains. He liked the story well enough to accept it and it got as far as the galley proofs when it was bumped from the issue because there was too much material. Just after that the magazine failed.

But you went on writing

With difficulty, because this was the Recession of 1937. I went to Dayton, Ohio, where my brother and I hunted and sold game to earn a living. At night I practiced writing and studied Joyce, Dostoevski, Stein and Hemingway. Especially Hemingway; I read him to learn his sentence structure and how to organize a story. I guess many young writers were doing this, but I also used his description of hunting when I went into the fields the next day. I had been hunting since I was eleven but no one had broken down the process of wing-shooting for me and it was from reading Hemingway that I learned to lead a bird. When he describes something in print, believe him; believe him even when he describes the process of art in terms of baseball or boxing; he's been there.

Were you affected by the Social Realism of the period?

I was seeking to learn and Social Realism was a highly regarded theory, though I didn't think too much of the so-called proletarian fiction even when I was most impressed by Marxism. I was intrigued by Malraux, who at that time was being claimed by the Communists. I noticed, however, that whenever the heroes of Man's Fate regarded their condition during moments of heightened self-consciousness, their thinking was something other than Marxist. Actually they were more profoundly intellectual than their real-life counterparts. Of course, Malraux was more of a humanist than most of the Marxist writers of that period—and also much more of an artist. He was the artist-revolutionary rather than a politician when he wrote Man's Fate, and the book lives not because of a political position embraced at the time, but because of its larger concern with the tragic struggle of humanity. Most of the social realists of the period were concerned more with tragedy than with injustice. I wasn't, and am not, concerned with injustice, but with art.

Then you consider your novel a purely literary work as opposed to one in the tradition of social protest.

Now mind! I recognize no dichotomy between art and protest. Dostoyevsky's Notes from the Underground is, among other things, a protest against the limitations of 19th century rationalism; Don Quixote, Man's Fate, Oedipus Rex, The Trial—all these embody protest, even against the limitation of human life itself. If social protest is antithetical to art, what then shall we make of Goya, Dickens and Twain? One hears a lot of complaints about the so-called "protest novel," especially when written by Negroes; but it seems to me that the critics could more accurately complain about their lack of craftsmanship and their provincialism.

But isn't it going to be difficult for the Negro writer to escape provincialism when his literature is concerned with a minority?

All novels are about certain minorities: the individual is a minority. The universal in the novel—and isn't that what we're all clamoring for these days?—is reached only through the depiction of the specific man in a specific circumstance.

But still, how is the Negro writer, in terms of what is expected of him by critics and readers, going to escape his particular need for social protest and reach the "universal" you speak of?

If the Negro, or any other writer, is going to do what is expected of him, he's lost the battle before he takes the field. I suspect that all the agony that goes into writing is borne precisely because the writer longs for acceptance—but it must be acceptance on his own terms. Perhaps, though, this thing cuts both ways: the Negro novelist draws his blackness too tightly around him when he sits down to write—that's what the anti-protest critics believe—but perhaps the white reader draws his whiteness around himself when he sits down to read. He doesn't want to identify himself with Negro characters in terms of our immediate racial and social situation, though on the deeper human level identification can become compelling when the situation is revealed artistically. The white reader doesn't want to get too close, not even in an imaginary recreation of society. Negro writers have felt this and it has led to much of our failure.

Too many books by Negro writers are addressed to a white audience. By doing this the authors run the risk of limiting themselves to the audience's presumptions of what a Negro is or should be; the tendency is to become involved in polemics, to plead the Negro's humanity. You know, many white people question that humanity but I don't think that Negroes can afford to indulge in such a false issue. For us the question should be, what are the specific forms of that humanity, and what in our background is worth preserving or abandoning. The clue to this can be found in folklore which offers the first drawings of any group's character. It preserves mainly those situations which have repeated themselves again and again in the history of any given group. It describes those rites, manners, customs, and so forth, which insure the good life, or destroy it; and it describes those boundaries of feeling, thought and action which that particular group has found to be the limitation of the human condition. It projects this wisdom in symbols which express the group's will to survive; it embodies those values by which the group lives and dies. These drawings may be crude but they are nonetheless profound in that they represent the group's attempt to humanize the world. It's no accident that great literature, the products of individual artists, is erected upon this humble base. The hero of Dostoyevsky's Notes from the Underground and the hero of Gogol's The Overcoat appear in their rudimentary forms far back in Russian folklore. French literature has never ceased exploring the nature of the Frenchman … Or take Picasso—

How does Picasso fit into all this?

Why, he's the greatest wrestler with forms and techniques of them all. Just the same he's never abandoned the old symbolic forms of Spanish art: the guitar, the bull, daggers, women, shawls, veils, mirrors. Such symbols serve a dual function: they allow the artist to speak of complex experiences and to annihilate time with simple lines and curves; and they allow the viewer an orientation, both emotional and associative, which goes so deep that a total culture may resound in a simple rhythm, an image. It has been said that Escudero could recapitulate the history and spirit of the Spanish dance with a simple arabesque of his fingers.

But these are examples from homogeneous cultures. How representative of the American nation would you say Negro folklore is?

The history of the American Negro is a most intimate part of American history. Through the very process of slavery came the building of the United States. Negro folklore, evolving within a larger culture which regarded it as inferior, was an especially courageous expression. It announced the Negro's willingness to trust his own experience, his own sensibilities as to the definition of reality, rather than allow his masters to define these crucial matters for him. His experience is that of America and the West, and is as rich a body of experience as one would find anywhere. We can view it narrowly as something exotic, folksy, or "low-down," or we may identify ourselves with it and recognize it as an important segment of the larger American experience—not lying at the bottom of it, but intertwined, diffused in its very texture. I can't take this lightly or be impressed by those who cannot see its importance; it is important to me. One ironic witness to the beauty and the universality of this art is the fact that the descendants of the very men who enslaved us can now sing the spirituals and find in the singing an exaltation of their own humanity. Just take a look at some of the slave songs, blues, folk ballads; their possibilities for the writer are infinitely suggestive. Some of them have named human situations so well that a whole corps of writers could not exhaust their universality. For instance, here's an old slave verse:

     Ole Aunt Dinah, she's just like me
     She work so hard she want to be free
     But ole Aunt Dinah's gittin' kinda ole
     She's afraid to go to Canada on account of the cold.

     Ole Uncle Jack, now he's a mighty "good nigger"
     You tell him that you want to be free for a fac'
     Next thing you know they done stripped the skin off your back.

     Now ole Uncle Ned, he want to be free
     He found his way north by the moss on the tree
     He cross that river floating in a tub
     The pataleroller give him a mighty close rub.

It's crude, but in it you have three universal attitudes toward the problem of freedom. You can refine it and sketch in the psychological subtleties and historical and philosophical allusions, action and what not, but I don't think its basic definition can be exhausted. Perhaps some genius could do as much with it as Mann has done with the Joseph story.

Can you give us an example of the use of folklore in your own novel?

Well, there are certain themes, symbols and images which are based on folk material. For example, there is the old saying amongst Negroes: If you're black, stay back; if you're brown, stick around; if you're white, you're right. And there is the joke Negroes tell on themselves about their being so black they can't be seen in the dark. In my book this sort of thing was merged with the meanings which blackness and light have long had in Western mythology: evil and goodness, ignorance and knowledge, and so on. In my novel the narrator's development is one through blackness to light; that is, from ignorance to enlightenment: invisibility to visibility. He leaves the South and goes North; this, as you will notice in reading Negro folktales, is always the road to freedom—the movement upward. You have the same thing again when he leaves his underground cave for the open.

It took me a long time to learn how to adapt such examples of myth into my work—also ritual. The use of ritual is equally a vital part of the creative process. I learned a few things from Eliot, Joyce and Hemingway, but not how to adapt them. When I started writing, I knew that in both The Waste Land and Ulysses ancient myth and ritual were used to give form and significance to the material; but it took me a few years to realize that the myths and rites which we find functioning in our everyday lives could be used in the same way. In my first attempt at a novel—which I was unable to complete—I began by trying to manipulate the simple structural unities of beginning, middle and end, but when I attempted to deal with the psychological strata—the images, symbols and emotional configurations—of the experience at hand, I discovered that the unities were simply cool points of stability on which one could suspend the narrative line—but beneath the surface of apparently rational human relationships there seethed a chaos before which I was helpless. People rationalize what they shun or are incapable of dealing with; these superstitions and their rationalizations become ritual as they govern behavior. The rituals become social forms, and it is one of the functions of the artist to recognize them and raise them to the level of art.

I don't know whether I'm getting this over or not. Let's put it this way: Take the "Battle Royal" passage in my novel, where the boys are blindfolded and forced to fight each other for the amusement of the white observers. This is a vital part of behavior patterns in the South, which both Negroes and whites thoughtlessly accept. It is a ritual in preservation of caste lines, a keeping of taboo to appease the gods and ward off bad luck. It is also the initiation ritual to which all greenhorns are subjected. This passage states what Negroes will see I did not have to invent; the patterns were already there in society so that all I had to do was present them in a broader context of meaning. In any society there are many rituals of situation which, for the most part, go unquestioned. They can be simple or elaborate, but they are the connective tissue between the work of art and the audience.

Do you think a reader unacquainted with this folklore can properly understand your work?

Yes, I think so. It's like jazz; there's no inherent problem which prohibits understanding but the assumptions brought to it. We don't all dig Shakespeare uniformly, or even Little Red Riding Hood. The understanding of art depends finally upon one's willingness to extend one's humanity and one's knowledge of human life. I noticed, incidentally, that the Germans, having no special caste assumptions concerning American Negroes, dealt with my work simply as a novel. I think the Americans will come to view it that way in twenty years—if it's around that long.

Don't you think it will be?

I doubt it. It's not an important novel. I failed of eloquence and many of the immediate issues are rapidly fading away. If it does last, it will be simply because there are things going on in its depth that are of more permanent interest than on its surface. I hope so, anyway.

Have the critics given you any constructive help in your writing, or changed in any way your aims in fiction?

No, except that I have a better idea of how the critics react, of what they see and fail to see, of how their sense of life differs with mine and mine with theirs. In some instances they were nice for the wrong reasons. In the U.S.—and I don't want this to sound like an apology for my own failures—some reviewers did not see what was before them because of this nonsense about protest.

Did the critics change your view of yourself as a writer?

I can't say that they did. I've been seeing by my own candle too long for that. The critics did give me a sharper sense of a larger audience, yes; and some convinced me that they were willing to judge me in terms of my writing rather than in terms of my racial identity. But there is one widely syndicated critical bankrupt who made liberal noises during the Thirties and has been frightened ever since. He attacked my book as a "literary race riot." By and large, the critics and readers gave me an affirmed sense of my identity as a writer. You might know this within yourself, but to have it affirmed by others is of utmost importance. Writing is, after all, a form of communication.

When did you begin Invisible Man?

In the summer of 1945. I had returned from the sea, ill, with advice to get some rest. Part of my illness was due, no doubt, to the fact that I had not been able to write a novel for which I'd received a Rosenwald fellowship the previous winter. So on a farm in Vermont where I was reading The Hero by Lord Ragland and speculating on the nature of Negro leadership in the U.S., I wrote the first paragraph of Invisible Man, and was soon involved in the struggle of creating the novel.

How long did it take you to write it?

Five years with one year out for a short novel which was unsatisfactory, ill-conceived and never submitted for publication.

Did you have everything thought out before you began to write Invisible Man?

The symbols and their connections were known to me. I began it with a chart of the three-part division. It was a conceptual frame with most of the ideas and some incidents indicated. The three parts represent the narrator's movement from, using Kenneth Burke's terms, purpose to passion to perception. These three major sections are built up of smaller units of three which mark the course of the action and which depend for their development upon what I hoped was a consistent and developing motivation. However, you'll note that the maximum insight on the hero's part isn't reached until the final section. After all, it's a novel about innocence and human error, a struggle through illusion to reality. Each section begins with a sheet of paper; each piece of paper is exchanged for another and contains a definition of his identity, or the social role he is to play as defined for him by others. But all say essentially the same thing, "Keep this nigger boy running." Before he could have some voice in his own destiny he had to discard these old identities and illusions; his enlightenment couldn't come until then. Once he recognizes the hole of darkness into which these papers put him, he has to burn them. That's the plan and the intention; whether I achieved this is something else.

Would you say that the search for identity is primarily an American theme?

It is the American theme. The nature of our society is such that we are prevented from knowing who we are. It is still a young society, and this is an integral part of its development.

A common criticism of "first novels" is that the central incident is either omitted or weak. Invisible Man seems to suffer here; shouldn't we have been present at the scenes which are the dividing lines in the book—namely, when the Brotherhood organization moves the narrator downtown, then back uptown?

I think you missed the point. The major flaw in the hero's character is his unquestioning willingness to do what is required of him by others as a way to success, and this was the specific form of his "innocence." He goes where he is told to go; he does what he is told to do; he does not even choose his Brotherhood name. It is chosen for him and he accepts it. He has accepted party discipline and thus cannot be present at the scene since it is not the will of the Brotherhood leaders. What is important is not the scene but his failure to question their decision. There is also the fact that no single person can be everywhere at once, nor can a single consciousness be aware of all the nuances of a large social action. What happens uptown while he is downtown is part of his darkness, both symbolic and actual. No; I don't feel that any vital scenes have been left out.

Why did you find it necessary to shift styles throughout the book; particularly in the Prologue and Epilogue?

The Prologue was written afterwards, really—in terms of a shift in the hero's point of view. I wanted to throw the reader off balance—make him accept certain non-naturalistic effects. It was really a memoir written underground, and I wanted a foreshadowing through which I hoped the reader would view the actions which took place in the main body of the book. For another thing, the styles of life presented are different. In the South where he was trying to fit into a traditional pattern and where his sense of certainty had not yet been challenged, I felt a more naturalistic treatment was adequate. The college of Trustee's speech to the students is really an echo of a certain kind of southern rhetoric and I enjoyed trying to recreate it. As the hero passes from the South to the North, from the relatively stable to the swiftly changing, his sense of certainty is lost and the style becomes expressionistic. Later on during his fall from grace in the Brotherhood it becomes somewhat surrealistic. The styles try to express both his state of consciousness and the state of society. The Epilogue was necessary to complete the action begun when he set out to write his memoirs.

After four hundred pages you still felt the Epilogue was necessary?

Yes. Look at it this way. The book is a series of reversals. It is the portrait of the artist as a rabble-rouser, thus the various mediums of expression. In the Epilogue the hero discovers what he had not discovered throughout the book: you have to make your own decisions; you have to think for yourself. The hero comes up from underground because the act of writing and thinking necessitated it. He could not stay down there.

You say that the book is "a series of reversals." It seemed to us that this was a weakness, that it was built on a series of provocative situations which were cancelled by the calling up of conventional emotions—.

I don't quite see what you mean.

Well, for one thing, you begin with a provocative situation of the American Negro's status in society. The responsibility for this is that of the white American citizen; that's where the guilt lies. Then you cancel it by introducing the Communist Party, or the Brotherhood, so that the reader tends to say to himself: "Ah, they're the guilty ones. They're the ones who mistreat him; not us."

I think that's a case of misreading. And I didn't identify the Brotherhood as the C.P., but since you do I'll remind you that they too are white. The hero's invisibility is not a matter of being seen, but a refusal to run the risk of his own humanity, which involves guilt. This is not an attack upon white society! It is what the hero refuses to do in each section which leads to further action. He must assert and achieve his own humanity; he cannot run with the pack and do this—this is the reason for all the reversals. The Epilogue is the most final reversal of all; therefore it is a necessary statement.

And the love affairs—or almost-love-affairs—.

(Laughing) I'm glad you put it that way. The point is that when thrown into a situation which he thinks he wants, the hero is sometimes thrown at a loss; he doesn't know how to act. After he had made this speech about The Place of the Woman in Our Society, for example, and was approached by one of the women in the audience, he thought she wanted to talk about the Brotherhood and found that she wanted to talk about brother-and-sisterhood. Look, didn't you find the book at all funny? I felt that such a man as this character would have been incapable of a love affair; it would have been inconsistent with his personality.

Do you have any difficulty controlling your characters? E. M. Forster says that he sometimes finds a character running away with him.

No, because I find that a sense of the ritual understructure of the fiction helps to guide the creation of characters. Action is the thing. We are what we do and do not do. The problem for me is to get from A to B to C. My anxiety about transitions greatly prolonged the writing of my book. The naturalists stick to case histories and sociology and are willing to compete with the camera and the tape recorder. I despise concreteness in writing, but when reality is deranged in fiction, one must worry about the seams.

Do you have difficulty turning real characters into fiction?

Real characters are just a limitation. It's like turning your own life into fiction: you have to be hindered by chronology and fact. A number of the characters just jumped out, like Rinehart and Ras.

Isn't Ras based on Marcus Garvey?

No. In 1950 my wife and I were staying at a vacation spot where we met some white liberals who thought the best way to be friendly was to tell us what it was like to be Negro. I got mad at hearing this from people who otherwise seemed very intelligent. I had already sketched Ras but the passion of his statement came out after I went upstairs that night feeling that we needed to have this thing out once and for all and get it done with; then we could go on living like people and individuals. No conscious reference to Garvey is intended.

What about Rinehart? Is he related to Rinehart in the blues tradition, or Django Rheinhardt, the jazz musician?

There is a peculiar set of circumstances connected with my choice of that name. My old Oklahoma friend, Jimmy Rushing, the blues singer, used to sing one with a refrain that went:

     Rinehart, Rinehart,
     It's so lonesome up here
     On Beacon Hill,

which haunted me, and as I was thinking of a character who was a master of disguise, of coincidence, this name with its suggestion of inner and outer came to my mind. Later I learned that it was a call used by Harvard students when they prepared to riot, a call to chaos. Which is very interesting because it is not long after Rinehart appears in my novel that the riot breaks out in Harlem. Rinehart is my name for the personification of chaos. He is also intended to represent America and change. He has lived so long with chaos that he knows how to manipulate it. It is the old theme of The Confidence Man. He is a figure in a country with no solid past or stable class lines; therefore he is able to move about easily from one to the other. (He pauses, thoughtfully.)

You know, I'm still thinking of your question about the use of Negro experience as material for fiction. One function of serious literature is to deal with the moral core of a given society. Well, in the United States the Negro and his status have always stood for that moral concern. He symbolizes among other things the human and social possibility of equality. This is the moral question raised in our two great 19th century novels, Moby Dick and Huckleberry Finn. The very center of Twain's book revolves finally around the boy's relations with Nigger Jim and the question of what Huck should do about getting Jim free after the two scoundrels had sold him. There is a magic here worth conjuring, and that reaches to the very nerve of the American consciousness—so why should I abandon it? Our so-called race problem has now lined up with the world problems of colonialism and the struggle of the West to gain the allegiance of the remaining non-white people who have thus far remained outside the Communist sphere; thus its possibilities for art have increased rather than lessened. Looking at the novelist as manipulator and depictor of moral problems, I ask myself how much of the achievement of democratic ideals in the U.S. has been affected by the steady pressure of Negroes and those whites who were sensitive to the implications of our condition; and I know that without that pressure the position of our country before the world would be much more serious than it is even now. Here is part of the social dynamics of a great society. Perhaps the discomfort about protest in books by Negro authors comes because since the 19th century American literature has avoided profound moral searching. It was too painful and besides there were specific problems of language and form to which the writers could address themselves. They did wonderful things, but perhaps they left the real problems untouched. There are exceptions, of course, like Faulkner who has been working the great moral theme all along, taking it up where Mark Twain put it down.

I feel that with my decision to devote myself to the novel I took on one of the responsibilities inherited by those who practice the craft in the U.S.: that of describing for all that fragment of the huge diverse American experience which I know best, and which offers me the possibility of contributing not only to the growth of the literature but to the shaping of the culture as I should like it to be. The American novel is in this sense a conquest of the frontier; as it describes our experience, it creates it.


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Ralph Ellison 1914–1994

(Full name Ralph Waldo Ellison) American novelist, essayist, short story writer, critic, and editor.

The following entry presents criticism on Ellison's works through 1997. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 1, 3, 11, 54, and 86.

Ellison is considered among the most influential and accomplished contemporary American authors for his highly acclaimed novel Invisible Man (1952). Honored with the National Book Award for fiction, Invisible Man is regarded as a masterpiece of twentieth-century American fiction for its complex treatment of racial repression and betrayal. Shifting between naturalism, expressionism, and surrealism, Ellison combines concerns of European and African-American literature to chronicle the quest of an unnamed black youth to discover his identity within a deluding, hostile world. Although critics have faulted Ellison's style as occasionally excessive, Invisible Man has consistently garnered accolades for its poetic, ambiguous form, sustained blend of tragedy and comedy, and complex symbolism and characterizations.

Biographical Information

Born in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, Ellison was raised in a cultural atmosphere that encouraged self-fulfillment. After studying music from 1933 to 1936 at Tuskegee Institute, a college founded by Booker T. Washington to promote black scholarship, Ellison traveled to New York City, where he met Richard Wright and became involved in the Federal Writers' Project. Encouraged to write a book review for New Challenge, a publication edited by Wright, Ellison began composing essays and stories that focus on the strength of the human spirit and the necessity for racial pride. Two of his most celebrated early short stories, "Flying Home" and "King of the Bingo Game," foreshadow Invisible Man in their portrayal of alienated young protagonists who seek social recognition. Although he originally envisioned writing a war novel, Ellison instead began work on Invisible Man following his honorable discharge from the United States Merchant Marines in 1945. A meticulous craftsman, Ellison was working on his long-awaited second novel at the time of his death in 1994.

Major Works

Invisible Man chronicles an unnamed black youth's quest for self-identity in a hostile world. Narrating his story from an underground cell, the anonymous protagonist describes his experiences as a student in the South, his travels in Harlem following his undeserved expulsion from college, his work with a political organization named the Brotherhood, and his participation in the Harlem race riots of the 1940s; he explains in the prologue that he is involuntarily invisible—and has thus gone underground—because society sees him only in terms of racial stereotypes. Additionally known as an essayist and nonfiction writer, Ellison collected twenty-two years of reviews, criticism, and interviews concerning such subjects as art, music, literature, and the influence of the black experience on American culture in Shadow and Act (1964). This volume is often considered autobiographical in intent and is noted for its lucidity and the insights it provides into Invisible Man. Going to the Territory (1986), which contains speeches, reviews, and interviews written since 1957, echoes many of the concerns of Shadow and Act. Making use of ironic humor in the manner of Invisible Man, Ellison here reflected on and paid tribute to such personal influences and creative mentors as Richard Wright and Duke Ellington. Two collections of Ellison's works have been published posthumously, The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison (1996) and Flying Home and Other Stories (1997). The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison contains twenty previously unpublished essays, as well as all of the essays published in Going to the Territory and Shadow and Act. Flying Home and Other Stories is comprised of thirteen short stories written between 1937 and 1954, and includes such stories as "A Party Down at the Square," which relates the story of the lynching and burning of a black man from a young white boy's perspective. "Out of the Hospital and Under the Bar" (1963), a short story published in the anthology Soon, One Morning: New Writing by American Negroes, 1940–1962, was originally intended to be a chapter of Invisible Man.

Critical Reception

Although attacked by black nationalists for lacking stringent militancy toward civil rights issues, Invisible Man garnered laudatory reviews immediately following its publication and has continued to generate scholarly exegeses. Many critics have commented on how the book's dexterous style, dense symbolism, and narrative structure lend intricacy to its plot. The narrator, who reflects on his past experiences, is observed as both an idealistic, gullible youth and as an enlightened, responsible man who actively addresses problems that may result from social inequality. The foremost controversial issue of Invisible Man involves its classification as either a work particularly for blacks or a novel with universal import. Critics who insist the book strictly concerns black culture maintain that the experiences, emotions, and lifestyles described could not possibly be simulated by white authors, while supporters of the more prevalent view that Invisible Man transcends racial concerns contend that the protagonist's problems of illusion, betrayal, and self-awareness are experienced by every segment of society. Ellison is also highly regarded for his accomplishments as an essayist. Shadow and Act is often considered autobiographical in intent and has been acclaimed for its lucidity and insights into Invisible Man. Although Ellison's collected short stories and essays are often viewed by critics as valuable only in terms of their capacity to illuminate aspects of Invisible Man, these works also have been lauded by critics who have noted particularly Ellison's ability to convey the universality of his characters' concerns and experiences, irrespective of race.

Principal Works

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Invisible Man (novel) 1952
Shadow and Act (criticism) 1964
Going to the Territory (essays) 1986
The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison (essays) 1995
Flying Home and Other Stories (short stories) 1997

Herbert Mitgang (essay date 1 March 1982)

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SOURCE: "Invisible Man, As Vivid Today as in 1952," in Conversations with Ralph Ellison, University Press of Mississippi, 1995, pp. 378-82.

[In the following essay, which originally appeared in The New York Times, March 1, 1982, Mitgang uses the occasion of the thirtieth anniversary of the publication of Invisible Man to reflect on Ellison's life and career.]

Ralph Ellison is 68 years old today. Relaxing in his art-and-book lined apartment on Riverside Drive above the Hudson the other day, he took a little time away from his electric typewriter to talk about his working life.

"My approach is that I'm an American writer," he said. "I write out of the larger literary tradition—which, by the way, is part Negro—from Twain to Melville to Faulkner. Another element I'm aware of is American folklore. And then all of this is part of the great stream of literature.

"Americans didn't invent the novel. Negroes didn't invent poetry. Too much has been written about racial identity instead of what kind of literature is produced. Literature is color-blind, and it should be read and judged in a larger framework."

In March 1952, Mr. Ellison's first novel, Invisible Man, was published, and Random House is marking the occasion this month by bringing out a 30th-anniversary edition, which is also being distributed by the Book-of-the-Month Club. Since 1952, Invisible Man has gone through 20 hardcover and 17 Vintage Books paperback printings, and there has been a Modern Library edition.

The novel can also be read in Czech, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, French, German, Hebrew, Hungarian, Italian, Japanese, Norwegian, Portuguese, Slovak, Spanish and Swedish. The author's wife, Fanny, who magically finds just about everything he has written in their home files, says that a request came in for a Polish edition just before martial law was declared in Poland. He says that the Russians are aware of his writings, but that if a translation exists in Russian, he hasn't seen any edition.

What provides the greatest continuity for Invisible Man is that it is recognized as an essential 20th-century American literary work in just about every high school and college in the country. Anne Freedgood, a Random House editor, enjoys telling the story of the 17-year-old student she knows who recently learned that Mr. Ellison had not written a second novel. "How could he?" the young woman said. "This novel has everything in it."

It won the National Book Award in 1953 and, in 1965, some 200 authors, editors and critics, polled by The New York Herald Tribune, picked Invisible Man as the most distinguished novel written by an American during the previous 20 years.

The novel, which defies easy summary because of its subtleties (a thumbnail description: It is about one nameless black man's dilemma about his position in the white world), builds from one of the most memorable opening paragraphs in modern American fiction:

I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids—and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.

Mr. Ellison revealed that he had meant to write a different novel—a war story rooted in some of his own experiences at sea and observations ashore as a merchant seaman in Europe in the 1940's—when he was seized by the notion of invisibility.

"I had come back on sick leave from my service in the Merchant Marine and, after a hospital stay, in the summer of 1945, my wife and I went to a friend's farm in Waltsfield, Vt. Sitting in a lumberman's cabin, looking at the hills, I wrote the first line of the book: 'I am an invisible man.'"

The original interest in his book came from Frank Taylor, who had read his short stories, and Albert Erskine, who were with the publishing house of Reynal & Hitchcock after the war. When those respected editors moved to Random House in 1947, the contract for Mr. Ellison's book went with them. Mr. Taylor went to Hollywood, and Mr. Erskine remained as his editor.

Mr. Ellison said, "Once the book was gone, it was suggested that the title would be confused with H. G. Wells's old novel, The Invisible Man, but I fought to keep my title because that's what the book was about." Mr. Erskine recalled. "His novel doesn't have the article in its title, although the mistake keeps cropping up, and I've been telling people to drop the word 'the' ever since the book came out."

The author was born in Oklahoma City, educated at Tuskegee Institute, worked as a researcher on the New York Federal Writers' Project before World War II and hoped to enlist as a trumpeter (he still has a trumpet, but he says, no lip anymore) in the Navy—"but they were not taking any more musicians. So, instead, I became a second cook on a Liberty ship. I was in charge of making breakfast, and I also turned out cornbread, biscuits and fried pies."

The war background—his own experiences in Europe and his father's as a soldier during the Spanish-American War—led to planning a novel that would show how Negroes (the word he usually uses rather than "blacks" in conversation, explaining that it has historical roots) fought not only for their country but for their own recognition and rights.

He had the unwritten novel's theme worked out. It was focused on the experience of a captured black American pilot who found himself in a Nazi prisoner-of-war camp. As the officer of highest rank, the pilot became the spokesman for his white fellow prisoners. The resulting racial tension was exploited by the German camp commander for his own amusement. "My pilot was forced to find support for his morale in his sense of individual dignity and in his newly awakened awareness of human loneliness," Mr. Ellison notes in an introduction to the 30th anniversary edition of Invisible Man.

But then, creatively, "the spokesman for invisibility intruded," and he was captured by a richer theme that grew more out of himself—"the voice of invisibility issued from deep within our complex American underground." Today, he says, he doesn't know where the manuscript about the captured black pilot is—"I probably tore it up."

Inevitably, a talk with Mr. Ellison turns to his long-awaited work-in-progress. It will be his third book. Shadow and Act, a book of essays, came out in 1964. It can be reported that his second novel is progressing, and apparently it is working—certainly, the author is, steadily, every day. He has given the novel his full attention since he retired in 1980 from his teaching duties as a Schweitzer Professor of Humanities at New York University.

Author and novel suffered a setback in the summer of 1967, when 300 pages of manuscript were lost in a fire in Mr. Ellison's home in the Berkshires. "It was quite a traumatic experience watching the house burn and losing typewriters, cameras and other personal property," he said. "The only thing we saved was our Labrador retriever. After that, I tried to put together as much as I could, and I began to reconceive some of the characters; Now, we have a photocopier at home and I keep at least two copies of what I write."

Some Ellison fans, waiting so many years for his next novel, have wondered if he had writer's block.

"If so, it's a strange kind of thing, since I write all the time," Mr. Ellison replied. "The blockage is that I'm very careful about what I submit for publication. I learned long ago that it's better not to have something in print that you feel isn't ready. It's not a difficult thing to turn out more books. I had a hell of a lot more material that didn't get into Invisible Man. It may be a wasteful way of writing but I'm careful about what is published. There is a lot of formula writing today. I can't do certain things as a writer, but I enjoy the act of writing even if it isn't published immediately."

There is a strong metal file cabinet containing much of the manuscript of the untitled novel. He unlocked it for a visitor, pulled out the drawer and measured the sections of manuscript with a tape measure: it came to 19 inches.

"It looks long enough to be a trilogy," he said, smiling. "It all takes place in the 20th century. I'm convinced that I'm working with abiding patterns. The style is somewhat different from Invisible Man. There are different riffs in it. Sections of it are publishable and some parts have already appeared, in American Review, Noble Savage, Partisan Review, Iowa Review, the Quarterly Review of Literature.

"I'm dealing with a broader range of characters, playing with various linguistic styles. Quite a bit of the book is comic. The background is New York, the South, an imaginary Washington—not quite the world I used to encounter on the board of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts there."

He has seen Washington from on high, in public service positions, such as membership on the Carnegie Commission on Educational Television. He was given the highest civilian honor, the Medal of Freedom, from President Lyndon B. Johnson, and he is a member of the American Academy-Institute of Arts and Letters, the ranking cultural body in the country.

"The novel has to be more than segments, it has to be a whole before it's ready for publication." He didn't say, nor was he asked, when. "But if I'm going to be remembered as a novelist, I'd better produce it soon," he said cheerfully.

Mary Ellen Williams Walsh (essay date December 1984)

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SOURCE: "Invisible Man: Ralph Ellison's Wasteland," in CLA Journal, Vol. XXVIII, No. 2, December, 1984, pp. 150-58.

[In the following essay, Walsh delineates the relationship between Invisible Man and T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land.]

In Shadow and Act, Ralph Ellison credits an early reading of The Waste Land as the impetus for his "real transition to writing." Invisible Man reveals the profundity of this experience. Important scenes, characters, and events in Invisible Man recreate prototypes from The Waste Land. Identifying his avatars by strong patterns of allusion, Ellison creates a dry, devastated land of the human spirit which reaches into the mythic past. The protagonist of Invisible Man reenacts the journey of the quester in The Waste Land. His search for the truths which will bring spiritual renewal ends with his perception of his invisibility and his corresponding acceptance of the ideal precepts of American democracy.

Ellison establishes the connection between Invisible Man and The Waste Land early in the novel in the protagonist's description of the agricultural college he attends:

For how could it have been real if now I am invisible? If real, why is it that I can recall in all that island 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 spring-time, only the yellow contents of the cistern spread over the lawn's dead grass?… I'm convinced it was the product of a subtle magic, the alchemy of moonlight; the school a flower-studded wasteland, the rocks sunken, the dry winds hidden, the lost crickets chirping to yellow butterflies.

By describing the lush and fruitful agricultural college with the images of aridity and decay used by Eliot to portray the dying land of the impotent Fisher King, Ellison implies that the source of the isolation and dislocation felt by the protagonist is a spiritual sterility like that which devastates the Fisher King's kingdom. He further implies that the protagonist, like the quester in The Waste Land, must seek the truths which will restore spiritual vitality to black intellectual, cultural, and social life as it is symbolized by the college.

Ellison underscores the larger purpose of the protagonist's journey by unmistakably identifying the Founder of the college with the Fisher King. The Founder was impotent; his "seed" was "shriveled" in infancy. Referred to at all times by his regal title, rather than by name, the Founder has "the power of a king, or in a sense, of a god." The imagery Homer A. Barbee uses in describing the Founder's death strengthens his identification with the fertility myths: "[T]hink of it not as a death, but as a birth. A great seed has been planted. A seed which has continued to put forth its fruit in its season as surely as if the great creator had been resurrected." Fertility does invest the physical landscape of the Founder's kingdom. The spiritually deformed people who inhabit the immediate environs—the venal Bledsoe, the incestuous Trueblood, the maimed veterans—remain as evidence, however, that a spiritual rebirth has not accompanied the transformation of the "barren clay to fertile soil."

As Ellison shapes the powerful myth to include the experience of black Americans, he transforms Eliot's brittle, European characters and scenes into appropriate counter-parts in the life of the protagonist. The Trueblood episode is clearly an adaptation of "A Game of Chess." Ellison parodies Eliot's "O O O O that Shakespeherian Rag—" with the following line which announces the episode: "And Oh, oh, oh, those multimillionaires!" The petulant woman of "A Game of Chess" is the source of the woman in Trueblood's dream. The room in the mansion in which the dream woman appears is "full of lighted candles and shiny furniture and pictures on the walls, and soft stuff on the floor"; Eliot's woman sits in a similar room. Eliot's lines, "In vials of ivory and coloured glass / Unstoppered, lurked her strange synthetic perfumes, / Unguent, powdered, or liquid—troubled, confused / And drowned the sense in odours …," undoubtedly are the source of Ellison's description of the smell of the dream woman which gets "stronger all the time." When the woman attempts to hold Trueblood with her, she acts out the line which Eliot's woman speaks: "My nerves are bad to-night. Yes, bad. Stay with me." The bartender's call in the second scene of "A Game of Chess" perhaps suggested the clock through which the woman appears and Trueblood escapes. The account of the incestuous rape and its aftermath conjoins allusions to both scenes in "A Game of Chess." Trueblood's act parallels the rape of Philomel. His wife's attempt to obtain abortions for herself and their daughter reflects the talk of abortion by Eliot's women in the bar. The response of the white community to Trueblood's act suggests Eliot's line, "'Jug Jug' to dirty ears."

The Trueblood episode, like "A Game of Chess," demonstrates the perversions of love and potency which are symptomatic of spiritual aridity. The impotence of the king makes potency monstrous. Lust, not love, prevails. Rape and incest result. At the end of the episode, when Trueblood's young children play "London Bridge's Fallin' Down," Ellison alludes to Eliot's line in "What the Thunder Said": "London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down." In the novel, as in the poem, the words of the children's game comment on the decay and disintegration of a spiritually bereft land in which such perversions occur. The episode at the Golden Day Tavern—peopled with whores and mad veterans—further exhibits distorted and perverse sexuality. Like Eliot's bar in "A Game of Chess," the tavern is filled with "demobbed" men. In the course of the episode, the "multimillionaire" Norton inadvertently reveals an incestuous lust for his own daughter, the source of his great interest in Trueblood's story.

The chapel scene in which Homer A. Barbee delivers his eulogy to the Founder further establishes the need for spiritual regeneration in the Founder's kingdom. In this scene, Ellison alludes to "The Fire Sermon" and to "What the Thunder Said." The Founder's chapel is dedicated to his "'vast' and formal ritual." What his people celebrate, however, is "the black rite of Horatio Alger," an economic, not a spiritual, success story. Like Eliot's ruined Chapel Perilous, the Founder's chapel extends no hope for the renewal of his land. The "thunder and lightning" in this chapel is uttered by white men. Their message to the young blacks parodies that of the sacred Thunder in The Waste Land; the young people must "accept and love" the limited universe proscribed for them "and accept even if [they do] not love."

In this setting, Homer Barbee narrates the life and death of the Founder, drawing parallels between the Founder and Jesus Christ, as Eliot associates Christ with the Hanged Man/Hanged God in "What the Thunder Said." Barbee, the black Buddha, describes the Founder's being saved from his enemies by a "fire that burned without consuming," a parody of the fire in the sermon of Buddha to which Eliot alludes. Ultimately, the restorative promise of the birth, death, and resurrection imagery which pervades the chapel scene collapses under the rites practiced there. The rites are devoted to economic success, not to spiritual regeneration.

Although the protagonist leaves the college, he remains in a ritual landscape when he travels north. Ellison develops one of the protagonist's first encounters in New York through allusions to the closing section of "The Burial of the Dead." Just as Stetson is hailed in the poem, a man who alludes to the life of Christ ("Why you trying to deny me?") hails the protagonist and asks, "[I]s you got the dog?" Furthermore, when the protagonist goes to work at Liberty Paints, Ellison identifies the action as the beginning of his descent into a hell by a brief narration of the protagonist's trip to the plant: "The plant was in Long Island, and I crossed a bridge in the fog to get there and came down in a stream of workers." The narration is an adaptation of Eliot's lines which allude to the Inferno: "Unreal City, / Under the brown fog of a winter dawn, / A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many."

When the protagonist becomes involved with the Brotherhood, Ellison establishes the mythic importance of the organization by characterizing its leader in the terms of The Waste Land. The head of the organization, one-eyed Jack, who lapses in a moment of fury into a "foreign language," parodies the one-eyed Smyrna merchant, who speaks in "demotic French." Ellison's naming the one-eyed leader Jack identifies him with the figure found in a deck of common playing cards and provides thereby a particularly complex allusion to the Tarot card figure with which Eliot associated Mr. Eugenides. The Smyrna merchant's proposal in "The Fire Sermon" debases the messages of the fertility cult mysteries carried throughout the Mediterranean area by early Phoenician and Syrian merchants. Jack's promise to the protagonist similarly perverts the already perverse message of the rites celebrated in the Founder's chapel. The Brotherhood, nonetheless, does offer the narrator a kind of ritual rebirth, giving him a new name, new clothes, and a new address.

Ellison's continued allusions to The Waste Land throughout the Brotherhood section maintain the parallel between the journey of the protagonist and that of the quester in the poem. The protagonist stages a massive funeral procession—the burial of Tod—thereby literally rendering Eliot's "The Burial of the Dead." The line from de Nerval which Eliot uses in "What the Thunder Said" doubtless suggested the bell tower setting for the funeral oration, Tod Clifton having earlier been called a "natural prince" by Ras the Destroyer. When the Brotherhood denounces the protagonist for planning and executing the funeral ceremony, he seeks an answer to some of the mysteries of the cult from Sybil, the wife of one of its leaders. Ellison thus transforms the Sibyl at Cumae, the subject of the quotation from Petronius's Satyricon which forms the epigraph to The Waste Land, into a chubby, middle-aged woman who knows nothing of the mysteries but desires to be raped by a black Apollo in order to give herself an illusion of youth and desirability.

The chaos of the Harlem riot recalls Eliot's description of the chaos in Europe in "What the Thunder Said." The protagonist encounters the riot first as a "sound high in the air," then finds himself in a city which "Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air/Falling towers." As Harlem—a symbol of social and cultural freedom for the protagonist's black contemporaries—explodes, Ras the Destroyer singles out the protagonist for sacrifice in a death by hanging, because "only hanging would settle things, even the score." Eliot associates the Hanged Man of the Tarot with the Hanged God, who restores fertility to the land following his resurrection. While the protagonist refuses to accept the role of the Hanged Man, and death at the hands of Ras, he nonetheless thinks as he escapes down the manhole, "It's a kind of death without hanging … a death alive."

The underground death in life that the protagonist does accept has been foreshadowed by a series of figurative deaths by water. The first follows the explosion at Liberty Paints when he "seemed to sink to the center of a lake of heavy water"…. That experience leaves him feeling engulfed by an emotional ice which begins "melting to form a flood in which [he] threatened to drown…." When he rides down Riverside Drive toward the riot, he feels "as if drowned in the river." During the riot, the shattered glass in the streets appears to him "like the water of a flooded river" in which he suddenly "seemed to sink, sucked under…." After being pummeled by water from a broken main, he "lay like a man rescued from drowning…."

Underground, alive but dead, the protagonist assumes the role that the Founder had been unable to fulfill. His dream of castration, beside a "river of black water" that suggests Eliot's Thames which "sweats/Oil and tar," profoundly identifies his assumption of the role. As Ellen Horowitz observes, "The castration acts as the ultimate dispelling of illusions whereby the hero gains the right to see. Like the Fisher King his impotence seems a prerequisite for his life-giving role." That role is the role of seer. Eliot noted that "What Tiresias sees … is the substance of [The Waste Land]." What the protagonist sees is the substance of Invisible Man. He sees that his individual plight—his invisibility to white Americans—must be viewed in the larger context of a spiritual failure in American society. By withholding from black Americans the rights and privileges of humanity. American society has dehumanized itself.

Just as The Waste Land closes with the ancient answers for the restoration of the Fisher King's domain, the Epilogue to Invisible Man contains the answers the protagonist finds for the revitalization of America and the restoration of humanity to black people. The answers rest in the affirmation of "the principle on which the country was built and not the men, or at least not the men who did the violence," and in a recognition of both the diversity and the unity of the nation: "America is woven of many strands; I would recognize them and let it so remain…. Our fate is to become one, and yet many—." Despite the hope thus proffered, the protagonist recognizes that the sickness remains. In a passage which alludes to the opening lines of "The Burial of the Dead," he cautions: "There's a stench in the air, which, from this distance underground, might be the smell either of death or of spring—I hope of spring. But don't let me trick you, there is a death in the smell of spring…."

For Ellison and for his protagonist the identity of black Americans depends upon the renewal of the spirit which formed the country of which they are citizens. In his National Book Award acceptance speech, Ellison remarked that he considered his attempt "to return to the mood of personal moral responsibility for democracy" to be one of the major strengths of Invisible Man. Ellison made this attempt because he saw his characters and their situations from a broadly human perspective. His allusions to The Waste Land demonstrate the perspective. The mythic tradition—the urge for spiritual renewal, the necessity for sacrifice, the desire for rebirth—speaks as strongly to the condition of black people in America as it does to the isolated and alienated condition of any people. To emphasize this concept, the closing question of the novel contains a final significant allusion to The Waste Land. When the protagonist asks, "Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?" he echoes Eliot's use of Baudelaire's line, "You! hypocrite lecteur!—mon semblable—mon frére!" Both the question and the exclamation demand the reader's identification with their speakers. The protagonist thereby insists on the universality of his experience, an experience which Ellison has nonetheless firmly tied to a failure in American values.

Further Reading

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Nadel, Alan. Invisible Criticism: Ralph Ellison and the American Canon. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1988, 181 p.

Full-length bibliography.


Callahan, John F. "Frequencies of Memory: A Eulogy for Ralph Waldo Ellison (March 1, 1914–April 16, 1994)." Callaloo 18, No. 2 (Spring 1995): 298-309.

An expanded version of a eulogy delivered at Ellison's funeral on April 19, 1994.

Cannon, Steve. "Reminiscin' in C: Remembering Ralph Waldo Ellison." Callaloo 18, No. 2 (Spring 1995): 288-91.

Cannon reminisces about his experience with Ellison and his perceptions of the author's works.

Forrest, Leon. "Ralph Ellison Remembered." Callaloo 18, No. 2 (Spring 1995): 280-82.

Writer and educator Forrest remarks on various aspects of Ellison's life.

Stern, Richard. "Ralph Ellison." Callaloo 18, No. 2 (Spring 1995): 284-87.

Stern recalls his acquaintance and experience with Ellison.


O'Meally, Robert G. "On Burke and the Vernacular: Ralph Ellison's Boomerang of History." In History and Memory in African-American Culture, edited by O'Meally and Geneviève Fabre, pp. 244-60. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Explores Ellison's approach to history and links that approach to Kenneth Burke's notion that history is "the flow of experience or even 'the world.'"

Scott, Nathan A., Jr. "Ellison's Vision of Communitas." Callaloo 18, No. 2 (Spring 1995): 310-18.

Essay in which Scott examines Ellison's treatment of the concept of community, or communitas, in his novel and essays.

C. W. E. Bigsby (essay date 1987)

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SOURCE: "Improvising America: Ralph Ellison and the Paradox of Form," in Speaking for You: The Vision of Ralph Ellison, edited by Kimberly W. Benston, Howard University Press, 1987, pp. 173-83.

[In the following essay, Bigsby examines Ellison's paradoxical treatment of chaos and form.]

Writing in 1937, Richard Wright insisted that "black writers are being called upon to do no less than create values by which the race is to struggle, live and die" ["Blueprint for Negro Literature," Amistad, Vol. 2, 1971]. In 1941 Ellison echoed this sentiment. His responsibility, he felt, was "to create the consciousness of his oppressed nation" ["Recent Negro Fiction," New Masses, August 5, 1941]. It was a stance he was later to be accused of abandoning by those who, in the 1960s and 1970s, proposed their own prescriptions for cultural and political responsibility and who found his determined pluralism unacceptable. For although he undeniably concentrated on the black experience in America, he tended to see this experience in relation to the problem of identity, the anxieties associated with the struggle for cultural autonomy, and the need to define the contours of experience. His central concern was with the relationship between raw experience and the shaping power of the imagination. And, for him, the "imagination itself is integrative," in that it is essentially involved in the process of "making symbolic wholes out of parts" ["Study and Experience: An Interview with Ralph Ellison," Massachusetts Review, Autumn, 1977]. Such a stance plainly has implications on a moral and social level no less than on an artistic one.

He has, indeed, always been fascinated, politically, ethically, and aesthetically, with the struggle to discover form in diversity. To his mind this was equally the problem of the Negro in America, of the individual in a democracy, and of the artist confronted with the sheer contingency and flux of events. The imaginative linking of these experiences, indeed the metaphoric yoking of the processes of invention in life and art, is a characteristic of Ellison's artistic strategy and of his moral assumptions. But it is a process which, from the beginning, he acknowledged to be fraught with ambiguity, for he was not unaware that form could imply entrapment as well as release. Thus, he argued that "for the novelist, of any cultural or racial identity, his form is his greatest freedom and his insights are where he finds them" [Shadow and Act], while acknowledging that that form potentially defines the limits of his freedom. To use story or myth to control experience is also, potentially, to imprison oneself in the prison house of myth. Archetype too easily becomes stereotype. To deploy language as a means of inducing coherencies is to subordinate oneself to the constraints of that language, which is, at the very least, historically stained. Thus for the writer, as for the American pioneer, "the English language and traditional cultural forms served both as guides and as restraints, anchoring Americans in the wisdom and processes of the past, while making it difficult for them to perceive with any clarity the nuances of their new identity" ["Study and Experience: An Interview with Ralph Ellison"]. It is a paradox that lies at the heart of all of his work. For Ellison, the act of writing is an act of shaping inchoate experience into moral meaning no less than aesthetic form. But it is an act that implies its own coercions. It implicates the imagination in the process of control.

This tension between chaos and form, this recognition of a profound ambivalence, is a fundamental trope of Ellison's work. He seems captivated by paradox, fascinated by apparent contradictions, drawn to the polarities of American experience, simultaneously attracted and repelled by the nervous energy of the unformed and the compelling grace of coalescence. Even his prose style seems often to turn around sets of dualities that are fused together by the writer, contained by the imagination, and exemplified in the linguistic structure, as he believes they can be so fused in the world beyond the page.

Thus, while he readily identified the metonymic reductivism implied in white attempts to mythologize Negro life, insisting that "the Negro stereotype is really an image of the unorganized, irrational forces of American life, forces through which, by projecting them in forms of images of an easily dominated minority, the white individual seeks to be at home in the vast unknown world of America," he nonetheless asserted that without myths, "chaos descends, faith vanishes and superstitions prowl in the mind" [Shadow and Act]. The same process contains a generative and a destructive potential.

So, too, with language. We are, Ellison insists, "language using, language misusing animals—beings who are by nature vulnerable to both the negative and the positive promptings of language as symbolic action" ["The Little Man at Chehaw Station," American Scholar, Winter, 1977–78]. He addresses this ambivalence directly in an essay called, "Twentieth-Century Fiction and the Black Mask of Humanity," where he suggests, "Perhaps the most insidious and least understood form of segregation is that of the word. And by this I mean the word in all its complex formulations, from the proverb to the novel and stage play, the word with all its subtle power to suggest and foreshadow overt action while magically disguising the moral consequences of that action and providing it with symbolic and psychological justification. For if the word has the potency to revive and make us free, it also has the power to blind, imprison and destroy." Indeed, to him "the essence of the word is its ambivalence" [Shadow and Act], more especially in a society in which the nature of the real is problematic for reasons of racial ideology. This suspicion marks all of his work, from the nonfunctional articulateness of his protagonist in the early short story "Flying Home," through the deceptive speeches and documents of Invisible Man, to the uncontrolled rhetoric of the narrator of his later short story, "A Song of Innocence," who observes, "They say that folks misuse words but I see it the other way around, words misuse people. Usually when you think you're saying what you mean you're really saying what the words want you to say…. Words are tricky…. No matter what you try to do, words can never mean meaning."

Melville had made much the same point and addressed the same ambivalence with respect to the urge to subordinate chaos to form. He, too, was aware that language itself constitutes the primary mechanism of the shaping imagination and it was not for nothing that Ellison chose to quote from Benito Cereno as an epigraph to his own novel. For Captain Delano, in that story, uses language as an agent of power and control, albeit a language rendered ironic by his moral and intellectual blindness; while Benito Cereno, imprisoned by a cunning and dominant black crew, who for the most part remain potently silent, deploys a language which is willfully opaque, hinting at truths that language cannot be entrusted to reveal. And yet language is the only medium through which the novelist can attempt to communicate his own truths. It was a familiar conundrum of nineteenth-century American writing and one to which Ellison was compulsively drawn.

The strict discipline and carefully sustained order of Delano's ship is an expression of his fear of an anarchy that he dare not imagine and cannot confront. And the image of that anarchy, for Delano and Cereno alike, is the Negro, whose shadow they see as falling across American history. But Melville suggests that just as their own ordered world contains its virus of moral anarchy, so what Delano takes for anarchy is perhaps a coherence he is afraid to acknowledge; the hieroglyphs of action that he chooses to translate as pure chaos can be decoded in a wholly different way. Indeed, Melville's story turns precisely on this ambiguity. So does much of Ellison's work.

Chaos and order constitute the twin poles of experience, promising, simultaneously, vital energy and destructive flux, necessary from but threatening stasis. Indeed, he is quite capable, in a single paragraph, of presenting both order and chaos as promise and threat. Speaking of the process where by national identity coalesces from its constituent elements, he asserted, in 1953, "Our task then is always to challenge the apparent forms of reality—that is, the fixed manners and values of the few, and to struggle with it until it reveals its insights, its truth…. We are fortunate as American writers in that with our variety of racial and national traditions, idioms and manners we are yet one. On its profoundest level, American experience is of a whole. Its truth lies in its diversity and swiftness of change" [Shadow and Act]. The task for the writer would seem to be to inhabit these ambiguities and thereby to cast light not merely on processes endemic to art but also on the struggle that the individual and the race wage with contingency. Irresistibly drawn to the primal energy of flux, the writer, nonetheless, is inevitably committed to the creation of coherent form, thereby offering hintself as a paradigm of the processes of self-invention and the distillation of cultural identity.

It is a theme that echoes throughout Ellison's work. Thus, he quotes approvingly André Malraux's observation that "the organized significance of art … is stronger than all the multiplicity of the world … that significance alone enables many to conquer chaos and to master destiny" [Shadow and Act], while in an introduction to Stephen Crane's Red Badge of Courage he chose to stress "the shaping grace of Crane's imagination," whereby "the actual event is reduced to significant form … each wave and gust of wind, each intonation of voice and gesture of limb combining to a single effect of meaning … the raging sea of life" [Shadow and Act] thereby being contained by an act of imaginative economy. He even insists that "in the very act of trying to create something there is implicit a protest against the way things are—a protest against man's vulnerability before the larger forces of society and the universe … a protest against that which is, against the raw and unformed way that we come into the world … to provide some sense of transcendence over the given" ["On Initiation Rites and Power: Ralph Ellison Speaks at West Point," Commentary, Spring, 1974]. And yet he equally acknowledges that it is precisely the fear of anarchy that leads to the creation of coercive models that express nothing more than a fear of the uncontrolled and the unknown. Thus, when Leslie Fiedler identifies a homoeroticism in the relationship between Twain's Huck Finn and the Negro slave Jim, he is, according to Ellison, in reality simply shouting out "his most terrifying name for chaos. Other things being equal he might have called it 'rape,' 'incest,' 'patricide' or 'miscegenation'" [Shadow and Act]. Order has no preemptive rights. It requires a moral as well as an aesthetic elegance.

The history of Ellison's creative life, from his early days as a putative musician throughout his career as a novelist and essayist, has in effect been concerned with exploring this paradox and identifying a way, at least on a metaphoric level, in which it could be resolved. To some degree he found it in music. He began his career as a would-be composer, and music has always provided a central source of imagery for him. Thus, in describing the reaction of the reader of fiction, he suggests that "his sensibilities are made responsive to artistic structuring of symbolic form" through "the rhetorical 'stops'" of his own "pieties—filial, sacred, racial" ["The Little Man at Chehaw Station"]. The writer, meanwhile, is described as playing upon these sensibilities "as a pianist upon a piano" ["The Little Man at Chehaw Station"]. But, what is more significant, he found in jazz and the blues a powerful image of the struggle to imprint meaning on experience, to reconcile the apparently contradictory demands of order and freedom. Like Richard Wright, he saw the blues as an attempt to "possess the meaning of his life" [Shadow and Act], while jazz offered a model for the act of improvisation that lies at the heart of personal experience. Indeed the key word becomes "improvisation," which is made to stand for the act of self-invention that is the essence of a private and a public drive for meaning and identity. It is an integrative metaphor that links his sense of racial distinctiveness to what is essentially a pluralist position: "The delicate balance struck between strong individual personality and the group during those early jam sessions was a marvel of social organization. I had learned too that the end of all this discipline and technical mastery was the desire to express an affirmative way of life through its musical tradition and that this tradition insisted that each artist achieve his creativity within its frame … and when they expressed their attitude toward the world it was with a fluid style that reduced the chaos of living to form" [Shadow and Act].

Thus, it is characteristic that in his account of growing up in the Southwest he chose to stress what he calls "the chaos of Oklahoma," as he elsewhere spoke of "the chaos of American society" ["On Becoming a Writer," Commentary, October, 1964], but set this against his own growing fascination with the ordered world of music and literature. It is characteristic, too, that through an extension of this logic he should identify that same tension first with the nature of the American frontier experience (still recent history for the Oklahoma of his birth), then with the jazz which emerged from that same region, and then with the nature of artistic creativity itself. The move is one from the real to the metaphoric, from the pure tone to its significant resonances. Thus, he insists, "ours was a chaotic community, still characterized by frontier attitudes and by that strange mixture of the naive and sophisticated, the benign and the malignant, which makes the past and present so confusing" ["On Becoming a Writer"], only to go on to suggest that it is possible to "hear the effects of this in the Southwestern jazz of the 30s, that joint creation of artistically free and exuberantly creative adventurers, of artists who had stumbled upon the freedom lying within the restrictions of their musical tradition as within the limitations of their social background, and who in their own unconscious way set an example for any Americans, Negro or white, who would find themselves in the arts" ["On Becoming a Writer"].

And this was a key to Ellison's attempts to square the circle, to resolve the paradox. The problem for the jazz musician, as for any artist, was how to celebrate versatility and possibility in a form that seemingly denied both. The key is seen by Ellison as lying precisely in improvisation, the exercise of a personal freedom within the framework of the group, an act of invention that builds on but is not limited by inherited forms. This becomes both his metaphor for the process of artistic invention and the means whereby individual and group identity coalesce. In terms of writing this tended to be translated into an instinctive existentialism, at the level of theme, a picaresque narrative drive, and a prose style that could prove as fluid and flexible, and yet as controlled and subject to the harmonies of character and story, as the jazz musician is free and yet responsive to the necessities of rhythm and mood. In terms of social process it became a description of the means whereby diverse elements are harmonized. Thus, speaking of the origins of American national identity, Ellison remarked, "Out of the democratic principles set down on paper in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights they were improvising themselves into a nation, scraping together a conscious culture out of the various dialects, idioms, lingos, and mythologies of America's diverse peoples and regions." Similarly, in describing the relationship between black and white cultural forms, he observed that "the slaves … having no past in the art of Europe … could use its elements and their inherited sense of style to improvise forms through which they could express their own unique sense of African experience … and white artists often found the slaves' improvisations a clue to their own improvisations" ["Study and Experience: An Interview with Ralph Ellison"].

As a boy he had been taught the rudiments of orchestration, the blending, the integration, of different instruments to form an harmonic whole. It was offered to him as a lesson in the deconstruction of a score which was to enable him to "attack those things I desired so that I could pierce the mystery and possess them"; but in retrospect it becomes a lesson in civics. True jazz, he insists, "is an act of individual assertion within and against the group. Each true jazz moment … springs from a contest in which each artist challenges all the rest; each solo flight, or improvisation, represents … a definition of his identity; as individual, as member of the collectivity and as a link in the chain of tradition. Thus, because jazz finds its very life in an endless improvisation upon traditional materials, the jazzman must lose his identity even as he finds it" [Shadow and Act]. And, beyond this, jazz becomes an image of America itself, "fecund in its inventiveness, swift and traumatic in its resources" [Shadow and Act].

The parallel between jazz and his own social circumstances, growing up in postfrontier Oklahoma, seems clear to Ellison in retrospect. "It is an important circumstance for me as a writer to remember," he wrote in 1964, "because while these musicians and their fellows were busy creating out of tradition, imagination, and the sounds and emotions around them, a freer, more complex, and driving form of jazz, my friends and I were exploring an idea of human versatility and possibility which went against the barbs and over the palings [pickets] of almost every fence which those who controlled social and political power had erected to restrict our roles in the life of the country" ["On Becoming a Writer"].

And as a boy, he and his friends had constructed their heroes from fragments of myth and legend, from the movies ("improvising their rather tawdry and opportunistic version of a national mythology" ["The Little Man at Chehaw Station"]), from music and religion, from anything "which violated all ideas of social hierarchy and order" and "which evolved from our wildly improvisatory projections" ["On Becoming a Writer"]. In a sense this can stand as a model of Ellison's fictive and moral strategy, as of his conception of cultural identity and American pluralism. A complex eclecticism is presented as a moral necessity as much as a natural product of American circumstances. And "complexity" is a favorite word—sometimes "a stubborn complexity." For his is a sensibility that reaches out to absorb the variegated realities of American life, rejecting those who see the process of self-invention as necessitating a denial of that complexity.

The problem is to discover a means of rendering that complexity without reducing it through the sheer process of transmuting experience into art. Pure energy has no shape. The challenge confronting the artist, no less than that confronting the uncodified, free-floating sensibility of the American individual, is to sustain some kind of creative tension between a liberated and liberating imagination and the aesthetic and moral demands of an art and a life which require the subordination of random energy and an anarchic imagination to the constraints of order. For just as the artist operates "within the historical frame of his given art" ["The Little Man at Chehaw Station"], so the individual is located within the triangulation of time, space, and cultural inheritance. Thus the writer's responsibility in America is to define the diversity of American experience in such a way as to bring to bear the "unifying force of its vision and its power to give meaningful focus to apparently unrelated emotions and experience" ["The Little Man at Chehaw Station"].

The problem is that the democratic ideal of "unity-in-diversity and oneness-in-manyness" ["The Little Man at Chehaw Station"] creates a vertigo which he sees as sending too many plunging into the reassurance of simplified cultural models, preferring fragment to complexly formulated whole. There is a clearly positive and negative model of chaos in his mind. On the one hand, there is a fructifying interaction of differing cultural traditions, "always in cacophonic motion. Constantly changing its mode … a vortex of discordant ways of living and tastes, values and traditions, a whirlpool of odds and ends" ["The Little Man at Chehaw Station"] which inspires a profound unease but which is the source of a creative flux. On the other hand, there is a negative chaos, a fearful splintering into component elements. And this is how he saw the black aestheticians of the 1960s. "In many ways," he insisted, "the call for a new social order based upon the glorification of ancestral blood and ethnic background acts as a call to cultural and aesthetic chaos." Yet, "while this latest farcical phase in the drama of American social hierarchy unfolds, the irrepressible movement of American culture toward the integration of its diverse elements continues, confounding the circumlocutions of its staunchest opponents" ["The Little Man at Chehaw Station"].

For Ellison, strength lies precisely in diversity, in the sustained tension between chaos and form, the Apollonian and the Dionysian, and this is no less true of a racial identity which he refuses to grant the simple self-evident contours demanded by some of his contemporaries. To his mind, that identity can only express itself multivocally. And so in his essay "The Little Man at Chehaw Station," which is a crucial statement of his artistic and social principles, he recalls seeing a black American who seemed to combine a whole kaleidoscope of cultural influences: and whatever sheerly ethnic identity was communicated by his costume depended upon the observer's ability to see order in an apparent cultural chaos. The essence of the man, his complex identity, existed less in the apparent clashing of styles than in the eclectic imagination, the unabashed assertion of will, which lay behind it—"not in the somewhat comic clashing of styles, but in the mixture, the improvised form, the willful juxtaposition of modes" ["The Little Man at Chehaw Station"]. But, as ever, Ellison is not content to leave it there for, he insists, "his clashing of styles … sounded an integrative, vernacular note—an American compulsion to improvise upon the given," and the freedom he exercised was "an American freedom" ["The Little Man at Chehaw Station"].

It is not hard to see what infuriated the cultural nationalists of the 1960s. Ellison seems to be appropriating supposedly unique and definitional aspects of black life to an American cultural norm. Since America was diverse, loose-limbed, disparate, self-displaying, free-wheeling and concerned with the question of identity, with delineating its own cultural boundaries, with negotiating a relationship with its own past which would give it space for its own critical act of self-invention, the black American was apparently simply an expression of this process, one component of the American diorama. But such an assumption ignored Ellison's central conviction—the basis, indeed, of his whole aesthetic and social theory—namely, that the American identity he described was as it was precisely because of the presence of the Negro. While rigidly subordinating and segregating the black American, the whites had been shaped by what they had tried so hard to exclude. Their imagination had been penetrated, their sensibility infiltrated, by those whose experience of adjusting to a strange land and whose necessary cultural improvisations were more intensely, more deeply scarring, more profoundly disturbing than their own. As the victims of violence, as the evidence of a failure of American idealism, as an extreme case of adjustment to a hostile environment, they represented not merely a constant reminder of the poles of American moral experience but a model of possibility, a paradigm of those acts of desperate self-creation that were at the heart of the American myth. The shadow of the Negro does indeed fall across American history but not merely as promise and threat. His existence defines the nature of the American experience.

Ellison was less inclined than many to abandon the notion of the "melting pot," though he saw the image less as a promise of homogeneity than as a metaphor of "the mystery of American identity (our unity-within-diversity)," and as a symbol of those who "improvised their culture as they did their politics and institutions" ["The Little Man at Chehaw Station"]. The potency of the image lay in its acknowledgment of the fact that, in America, cultural traditions were brought into violent contact, that past and future were made to interact, that ideals, and the evidence of the failure of those ideals, were placed in intimate and ironic counterpoint. And, as a consequence, a series of adjustments were enforced, a process of action and reaction which, to his mind, was the very essence of Americanness. It was precisely on the level of culture that such interactions operated. Cultural appropriation and misappropriation were, to Ellison, the essence of an American development that would scarcely stand still long enough for confident definition. Indeed, since America was to him more a process than an isolable set of characteristics, such definitions carry the threat of a menacing stasis. The essence of improvisation lies in the energy released by the pure act of invention in process. In Invisible Man the protagonist is at his most vulnerable when he allows himself to be contained and defined by simple racial or political models. He radiates the energy of pure possibility (like the light bulbs with which he illuminates his darkness) when he abandons these restrictive definitions for the sheer flux of being—a state controlled only by the imagination, and those moral commitments that lead him out of his isolation and into the dangerous interactions of the outside world and the complex symbols of the novel, with which he seeks to address that "variegated audience" for whom the little man at Chehaw Station was Ellison's image. As he himself insists, "it is the very spirit of art to be defiant of categories and obstacles…. They [the images of art or the sound of music] are, as transcendent forms of symbolic expression, agencies of human freedom" ["The Little Man at Chehaw Station"]. For Ellison, "the work of art" itself "is … an act of faith in our ability to communicate symbolically" ["The Little Man at Chehaw Station"].

Invisible Man opens and concludes with references to jazz. At the beginning the protagonist sits in his cellar and "feels" rather than listens to the music of Louis Armstrong who has "made poetry out of being invisible." High on drugs, he responds to the off-beats, seeing meaning in the unheard sounds, the resistances to simple rhythmic structure. Music becomes a clue to his past and future. The music pulls him back to his origins, conjuring up an image of his slave past; but it also offers him a clue to his future, outside the determined structures of social life. The music, like the novel the protagonist writes, emerges from "an urge to make music of invisibility," to set it down. It is a paradoxical enterprise. But, then, as we are told at the end of the novel, the music, too, is characterized by "diversity." It, too, contains an essential conflict. And that conflict mirrors the conflict of the protagonist who reminds himself that "the mind that has conceived a plan of living must never lose sight of the chaos against which that pattern was conceived." And this, he assures us, "goes for societies as for individuals" [Invisible Man]. It is the virtue of jazz that its improvisations remind us of precisely this. Improvisation has its risks. In the form of Rinehart, a protean figure (whose first name is actually Proteus) who refuses all content and all commitment, it becomes pure chaos; but for the protagonist, willing, finally, to chance his own dangerous act of self-creation in the public world outside his cellar, it becomes a commitment to sustaining the tension between the twin compulsions of freedom and order.

Jazz operates in Ellison's work as image and fact. The thematic uses he makes of it have been usefully traced by Robert G. O'Meally in The Craft of Ralph Ellison. Jazz exists as a constant source of reference, an ironic counterpoint to the protagonist's earnest struggles, a celebration of his growing understanding. Ellison himself has spoken of his desire to capture the "music and idiom" of American Negro speech, but in fact his concern with musical structures goes much further than this. In "A Song of Innocence" the prose owes less to idiomatic speech than to jazz rhythms, the words being of less significance than the free flow of sound. Indeed the inadequacy of language, which is in part the subject of that story, implies the need to turn to other models, other symbols as a means of explaining the conflicting demands of pattern and chaos, form and experience, tradition and innovation. And throughout his career, Ellison turned to the improvisational thrust of jazz for that symbol, finding there a clue to the commitments required of the artist, the race, and the individual concerned with developing their own identities in the face of inherited forms: "I had learned from the jazz musicians I had known as a boy in Oklahoma City something of the discipline and devotion to his art required of the artist … the give and take, the subtle rhythmical sharpening and blending of idea, tone and imagination demanded of group improvisations" [Shadow and Act]. And "after the jazzman has learned the fundamentals of his instrument and the traditional techniques of jazz—the intonations, the mute work, manipulation of timbre, the body of traditional styles—he must 'find himself,' must be reborn, must find, as it were, his soul. All this through achieving that subtle identification between his instrument and his deepest drives which will allow him to express his own unique ideas and his own unique voice. He must achieve, in short, his self-determined identity" [Shadow and Act]. Like Charlie Parker, he is involved in a struggle "against personal chaos" [Shadow and Act]. To Ellison, much the same could be said of the writer in America, as of the individual struggling to make sense of his racial and cultural inheritance while defining a self strong enough to stand against the centripetal pull of the chaos that could manifest itself equally as pure contingency or deceptive consonance.

In an essay titled "Society, Morality, and the Novel" [in The Living Novel: A Symposium, edited by Granville Hicks, Macmillan, 1957], Ellison observed that "the writer has an obsessive need to play with the fires of chaos and to rearrange reality to the patterns of his imagination," while the novel achieves its "universality" precisely through "accumulating images of reality and arranging them in patterns of universal significance." Indeed, it seemed to him possible that the novel, as a form, had evolved in order "to deal with man's growing awareness that behind the facade of social organization, manners, customs, myths, rituals, religions of the post-Christian era, lies chaos." But since we can live neither "in the contemplation of chaos" nor "without awareness of chaos," the novel simultaneously acknowledges and seeks to transcend the fact that "the treasure of possibility is always to be found in the cave of chaos, guarded by the demons of destruction." The writer's responsibility, in Ellison's eyes, is to improvise a response that denies nothing of the force and power of disorder but will "strengthen man's will to say No to chaos and affirm him in his task of humanizing himself and the world" ["Society, Morality, and the Novel"], without submitting to stasis. Change and diversity are, to him, the essence of the American experience. The challenge is to bring to "the turbulence of change" an "imaginative integration and moral continuity" ["Society, Morality, and the Novel"]—to improvise America, as the individual creates the uncreated features of his face, and as the black American had struggled to "create the consciousness of his oppressed nation."

David J. Herman (essay date September 1991)

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SOURCE: "Ellison's 'King of the Bingo Game': Finding Naturalism's Trapdoor," in English Language Notes, Vol. XXIX, No. 1, September, 1991, pp. 71-74.

[In the following essay, Herman explains how Ellison both follows and deviates from the conventions of literary naturalism in "King of the Bingo Game."]

Prima facie, Ralph Ellison's "King of the Bingo Game" fits squarely into the tradition of literary naturalism. Ellison's extended treatment of the bingo wheel, for one thing, figures the same overriding concern with the issue of fate versus chance—the issue of determinism—manifest in, say, the famous open-safe scene in Dreiser's Sister Carrie, or in the closing pages of Norris's The Octopus. If anything, Ellison's story addresses the notion of determinism even more explicitly than is customary in naturalistic works. For Ellison's (literally) nameless protagonist attempts self-consciously to eliminate chance, to control the wheel of fortune itself, by refusing to relinquish his grasp on the button whose release determines where the bingo wheel will stop. Ellison, in orthodox naturalistic fashion, also stresses the protagonist's gnawing hunger and his craving for the alcohol he hears gurgling appealingly in the bottle of his fellow movie-goers. Indeed, in accordance with the logic of the naturalistic genre, we witness the bingo-player's last-ditch effort to beat not only the odds, but also the resistance of a hostile or at the very least indifferent environment. Against such an environment the protagonist, having been displaced from the rural South into the urban North, must struggle, much as he struggles against the now bored and impatient, now aggressive and jeering movie audience. Rhetorically speaking, furthermore, Ellison, like Flaubert and, later, Joyce and Faulkner, mimics the disjointed thought-processes of his protagonist, a hungry, tired, desperate man, his mind roving, in the space of a single paragraph, from attempts to concentrate on the movie; to thoughts about his dying wife; to reflection on the mechanism of movie-projection itself; to a hypothetical revision and eroticization of the movie's script; to the fleeting and repugnant memory of a bedbug crawling on an unknown woman's neck.

Yet certain elements taken from this same compendium of thought-associations point to an emphasis in Ellison's story that competes with, and to some extent undermines, the deterministic, social-Darwinistic manner in which the author portrays the protagonist's fight to survive. What I wish to isolate in this context is the protagonist's preoccupation with the modes of projection, as well as the (possible) revision, of the film being shown as the story begins. For instance, the bingo-player finds himself drawn to "the white beam filtered from the projection room above the balcony," and amazed that "the beam always landed right on the screen and didn't mess up or fall somewhere else." Here, the protagonist's momentary fascination in effect undercuts the overt naturalism of Ellison's entire account. For the bingoplayer's thoughts gesture toward the contingency, the capacity to "mess up" or "fall somewhere else," in the face of which we project cultural stories—narratives in general and Ellison's own tale in particular. The limits of Ellison's deterministic fiction are thereby exposed from within; a narrative that explains accident by fate at the same time designates as accidental the success, the cogency and coherence, with which any given narrative explains a personal, projects a collective destiny.

Consider how the notion of projection, along with those of staging and theatricalization, in fact operate throughout "King of the Bingo Game," assimilating what Ellison represents as fated or determined to what the author portrays as made, constructed, "art." This assimilation of nature to art tends not only to suggest how every putatively naturalistic account remains the product of certain (literary) conventions, but tends also to break down the difference between levels or orders of representation within Ellison's narrative itself. For example, in the opening paragraph we watch, through the protagonist's eyes, the movie's "hero stealthily entering a dark room and sending the beam of a flashlight along a wall of bookcases" and then finding a trapdoor. Likewise, Ellison's bingo-player, Ellison's "hero," at first sees by means of the projector flashing images on the screen, and at last finds himself in dire need of a trapdoor of sorts at the story's end. The girl that the movie's hero finds tied to a bed, moreover, brings to mind the bingo-player's own sick and presumably bed-ridden wife. The analogy Ellison thus creates between the (in principle) alterable narrative sequence of the film, and the (in principle) unalterable or deterministic account of the protagonist's battle against fate, suggests how Ellison's own naturalistic presentation counts as only one among other possible ways of constructing the bingo-player's experiences. Ellison's staging or theatricalization of the protagonist's desperate bid to win—after all, he makes that bid before footlights and in front of an audience—further approximates ostensibly fated or determined actions to the process by which narratives are in the first place fabricated, made up. Once fate is staged, destiny theatricalized, nature itself becomes a cultural production.

In short, Ellison's treatment of the bingo wheel on the one hand implies freedom only within a limited, predetermined set of possibilities; the bingo-player finally runs around in circles in attempts to elude the police. But on the other hand, Ellison simultaneously places the closed circle of destiny within a narrative frame that, by breaking down the barrier between convention and nature, representation and what is represented, makes of fate itself an open-ended process, no more and no less "fixed" than the accounts through which we project our experiences onto the stage of culture at large. Ellison's story, by inviting speculation on the contingency of any narrative that feigns to be fixed, thereby parodies the naturalistic tradition in which "King of the Bingo Game" is also heavily invested. It is in the resulting dissonance of conceptual schemes that we find the only space of freedom—the sole trapdoor into alternative cultural logic—on which the bingo-player might have staked a well-calculated risk.

Sandra Adell (essay date June 1994)

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SOURCE: "The Big E(llison)'s Texts and Intertexts: Eliot, Burke, and the Underground Man," in CLA Journal, Vol. XXXVII, No. 4, June, 1994, pp. 377-401.

[In the following essay, Adell examines Invisible Man according to the theory of intertextuality expressed by Roland Barthes, noting the connections between Ellison's novel and such works as T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land and Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Notes from Underground.]

Mallarmé might well have been, as Michael Gresset and Noel Polk claim, the first of the moderns to point to intertextuality as a key operation in literary activity when he wrote that

all books, more or less, contain the fusion of a certain number of repetitions: even if there were but one book in the world, its law would be as a bible simulated by the heathens. The difference from one work to the next would afford as many readings as would be put forth in a boundless contest for the trustworthy text among epochs that are supposedly civilized or literate.

                          [Intertextuality in Faulkner]

Of course, Mallarmé did not know that he was articulating a theory of intertextuality; that word has only recently come into literary terminology. But he obviously had no doubt that this "fusion of a certain number of repetitions" is not only the basis, but the very essence of literature. This notion of intertextuality and its attendant concepts, the "work" and the "text" are, of course, founding principles for structuralist and post-structuralist criticism.

Prior to the late 1970s, when a few black writers and intellectuals began to reconsider and reevaluate the relationship between black writing and the critical discourses of the literary mainstream, and the space(s) occupied by Ralph Ellison and his writing in those discourses, a dominant issue in Afro-American literary criticism was what in Barthian terms would be called the "writerliness" of Ellison's Invisible Man. In what John Wright refers to in "Shadowing Ellison" [in Speaking for You: The Vision of Ralph Ellison, Howard University Press, 1987] as an intense "war of invective" waged against Ellison by his more ideologically oriented opponents, the novel has often been attacked because it subverts much of what characterizes the "work" or classic text, and because, like the "writerly" text as Roland Barthes defines it, what "traverses it from one end to the other" are references and echoes of texts from systems that lie outside of the parameters of what has been very loosely defined as the black "experience."

An essay published in 1970 by the black aesthetician Clifford Mason entitled "Ralph Ellison and the Underground Man" [Black World, December, 1970] is symptomatic of this "war of invective." Guided by what the one-time-but-now-much-reformed black aesthetician Houston Baker calls the "romantic Marxism" of the black aesthetic, Mason speaks of a "proper position" with regard to black literature and white American culture which he feels that Ellison, through his "literary references," has violated:

Black literature deserved its own references, its own standards, its own rules. Not in an abberrant denial of anything that came from white American culture, valid or otherwise, but as conscious insistence on the creating of an African-American text that derived its raison d'etre from an African-American truth that exists in spite of the fact that it has never, until very recently, had a really pervasive life in the world of literature.

Without specifying what that "truth" is, Mason argues that the amplitude of Ellison's literary references and his insistence on giving structural credit for Invisible Man to a number of mainstream writers rather than to Richard Wright not only makes this kind of "aggressive Black literary independence" impossible; it makes Ellison's nationalism suspect as well:

[H]is insistence on giving structural credit for Invisible Man to William Faulkner, and Ernest Hemingway and Feodor Dostoevsky and T. S. Eliot and James Joyce and God knows who else, when it's as plain as it can be that he owes the basic design of the book to a Richard Wright short story … called, prophetically enough, "The Man Who Lived Underground," certainly makes his nationalism suspect. I suppose a case can be made for Dostoyevsky based on his Notes From Underground. But Notes deals with the outsider who is estranged because he is the son who cannot conform, not because he is the bastard who was never allowed to conform in the first place.

Ignoring the well-known fact that both writers read and were very influenced by Dostoevsky, Mason goes on to argue that rather than basing his writings on a "white substructure," Ellison should have stood against white literary values as did Du Bois and Alain Locke. One need look no further than Du Bois and Alain Locke themselves to see the fallacy of this argument; for indeed, their aesthetics is heavily implicated in the Western philosophical tradition and therefore inextricably bound to the "white substructure." In fact, Du Bois's thesis in "Criteria of Negro Art" is that black folk will not be recognized as human until their art is equal to that of white folk. Alain Locke shared Du Bois's thesis and defined the "poise and cultural maturity" of the black artist in terms of his ability to "bring the artistic advance of the Negro sharply into stepping alignment with contemporary artistic thought, mood, and style." He called for the kind of "transfusions of racial idioms with the "modernistic styles of expression" which he felt had already occurred in music so that "Negro thoughts" would wear the "uniform" of the modern age. Like Du Bois, he practiced what Houston Baker calls an "integrationist Poetics." His critical and theoretical perspective was based on a faith in "American pluralistic ideals" that were to be effected through an art whose impetus was lodged within the "spirit" of the restless and urbanbound Negro masses.

Ellison, whose interest in music and sculpture exposed him very early to these "modernistic styles of expression," responds to Locke's imperative for black participation in the modernist movement through his appropriation of T. S. Eliot and Kenneth Burke in Shadow and Act, and to Locke's and Du Bois's cultural pluralism through the many intertextual instances—Dostoevsky's Notes From Underground is but one of those instances—that permeate Invisible Man.

From Eliot's critical perspective, a writer's contemporaneity is contingent upon the extent to which he perceives, simultaneously, the pastness and the presence of the past. This historical sense, which Eliot refers to as "tradition," therefore paradoxically involves an indebtedness to the past without which a work of art not only would not be new; it would not be a work of art. The new work of art must emerge out of the past, out of the "ideal order" of the "monuments" existing prior to it. It must "reorder" and readjust the ideal order so that there is conformity between the old and the new and a parallel reciprocal relation between the past and the present: "the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past." The imperative for the artist or poet in this relationship is that he surrender his "private mind" or personality to a "continuing developing consciousness" of the "main current" which, while abandoning nothing en route, proceeds from the past through the mind of Europe and his own country. Through this process of a continuing developing consciousness, his mind must become a medium, not for expressing his personality, but for combining, in "peculiar and unexpected ways," the passions, impressions, and experiences which constitute its (the mind's) materials. What Eliot therefore proposes—and this is a founding principle for modernism in general—is a "formal" approach to art. The poet or artist must become subordinate to the work of art. Interest must be diverted from the subject to the object, from the poet to the poem, from the artist to the art work; that is, to the way everything that has come before is recombined, reconcentrated, recast, and refined to form something new.

When Ellison writes in the introduction to Shadow and Act that "[b]ehind each artist there stands a traditional sense of style,"… he reiterates Eliot, whose notion of tradition, as we have seen, is related to one's perception of the past as a living present. This "traditional sense of style" was the source from which Ellison drew the forms and figures that inhabited the imaginary realm which he often shared with his boyhood friends as they attempted to escape an environment—post-World War I Oklahoma—which he describes as one which "at its most normal took on some of the mixed character of nightmare and of dream" [Shadow and Act]. He writes that "part of our boyish activity expressed a yearning to make any and everything of quality Negro American; to appropriate it, possess it, recreate it in our own group and individual images" [Shadow and Act]. There is, therefore, in his fiction a convergence of the styles of black jazz and blues men with those of the heroes of American and African-American literature and folklore, which in turn combine with those of the "literatures of Europe."

From out of this "vortex" of cultural contexts emerged Ellison's "Invisible Man." He resembles his Russian "ancestor" in that, like Notes From Underground, his memoir is "one long, loud rant, howl and laugh" [Shadow and Act]. He resembles Wright's "underground man" in that his underground hole is a refuge from a society determined to "keep this nigger boy running." He is also very different in that his experience, i.e., his quest for self-realization and self-definition, takes him through what Ellison describes as the black American language.

… a language swirling with over three hundred years of American living, a mixture of the folk, the Biblical, the scientific and the political. Slangy in one stance, academic in another, loaded poetically with imagery at one moment, mathematically bare of imagery in the next.

                                 [Shadow and Act]

As a being born into this intertextual linguistic field, the black writer, like the Invisible Man, is irrevocably linked to the "white substructure" upon which it is grounded. Consequently, despite the contention of the black aestheticians and the more recent black "anti-theory theorists" that there is something called a "unique" black experience out of which should develop "unique" cultural artifacts (with the power to transform an "American Negro into an African-American or a black man"), and "unique" critical tools for evaluation, the literary work of even the most radical black writer, and Baraka is an excellent example of this, will to some extent reflect the values—cultural, political, social, aesthetic, etc.—of that "substructure." Such is the nature of art, and particularly of literature. A work of art does not develop out of a vacuum. From Ellison's (and Eliot's) perspective, every work proceeds from the totality of works that preceded it. Thus, a more practical critical approach to African-American literature in general, and to Ellison's texts in particular, would seem to be that taken up by the writers included in Kimberly Benston's Speaking for You: The Vision of Ralph Ellison—that is, to analyze the skill with which the black writer is able to "rewrite" or recontextualize the literary references that echo, resound, and reverberate throughout his or her texts rather than to criticize, for purely social, political, or ideological purposes, the fact that they are there.

Ellison writes that his constant concern with the craft and technique from which his literary styles emerged and his "constant plunging back into the shadow of the past" were necessary precisely in order to transcend the limitations "apparently imposed by [his] racial indentity" and to resist the temptation to "interpret the world and all its devices in terms of race" [Shadow and Act]. He therefore takes a decidedly formal approach to literature and to literary criticism.

Ellison attributes his preoccupation with form and technique to his 1935 encounter with Eliot's The Waste Land and to his formal training in music with its emphasis on theory. In fact, he writes that he began to make the transition from the study of music to the study of literature after having read The Waste Land during his second year as a music major at Tuskegee Institute. He describes the influence it had upon him in "Hidden Name and Complex Fate":

The Waste Land seized my mind. I was intrigued by its power to move me while eluding my understanding. Somehow its rhythms were often closer to those of jazz than were those of the Negro poets, and even though I could not understand then, its range of allusion was as mixed and varied as that of Louis Armstrong. Yet there were its discontinuities, its changes of pace and its hidden system of organization which escaped me. There was nothing to do but look up the references in the footnotes to the poem, and thus began my conscious education in literature.

                                [Shadow and Act]

Thus by reading The Waste Land, with what F.O. Mathiessen calls its "series of scholarly notes," Ellison "inscribes" himself into modernism and the entire Western literary tradition. However, as we have seen, in so doing, he situates himself in opposition to many of his more ideologically oriented contemporaries vis-a-vis the literary "text." As Ellison explains in Shadow and Act, what concerned him was not an ideological or sociological interpretation of the "Negro's experience" but the conversion of that experience into "symbolic action." For Ellison, the "text" is therefore not a sociological or political construct, although it does perform a social function: "[I]t brings into full vision the processes of [man's] current social forms." Following Kenneth Burke, to whom he claims to be "especially endebted," Ellison thinks of reading/writing as symbolic actions—in the introduction to Shadow and Act he writes that writing was an "acting out, symbolically" of a choice (between music and writing) he dared not acknowledge—and the "text" as a "symbolic act." As William Dowling puts it in his discussion of the relationship between Frederic Jameson and Kenneth Burke, the "text," accordingly, is paradoxical, for it is at once a symbolic act and a symbolic act. This means that it is as act genuine, for it tries to do something to reality or the world, but this something is unabashedly symbolic, for it leaves the world unmarked. Thus we come to a point of ambiguity or ambivalence, which is perhaps at the heart of modernism (certainly in the form of the New Criticism) and about which Ellison is keenly aware: the relationship between the text and the world or reality or the Symbolic and the Real. One choice would be to stress the symbolic status of the text, to view it as a kind of passive reflection of a ("politically") chaotic reality. A second would be to stress act whereby the language of the text would be seen as having the power both to organize and, as it were, constitute the world. This is important, for it is perhaps the case that the world or its reality cannot be independent of language: without language the world would simply disappear. Our question is, then, where does Ellison place the stress? On the symbolic or on the act? This brings us to yet another problem: Ellison's understanding of "reality" or the "real."

In pursuing this last question, let us not forget that Ellison was greatly influenced by Burke, who believes that what we call the real is in fact the symbolic. In Language as Symbolic Action Burke writes that as symbol-using/misusing animals, we cling to "a kind of naive verbal realism that refuses to realize the full extent of the role played by symbolicity in [our] notions of reality," which he defines as "but a construct of our symbol system." Thus reality is for Burke, and for Ellison as well, a "clutter of symbols about the past combined with our knowledge of the present" which is dispersed through writing—through books, magazines, maps, and newspapers. Indeed, Ellison's exposure as a child to a reality different from the one he inhabited was stimulated by the media: by the radio he enjoyed tinkering with and the discarded opera records, books, and magazines—he mentions specifically Vanity Fair—his mother would bring from the home of her white employer. Needless to say, this reality (or symbol system) often clashed with the one to which he was confined by virtue of his being black. In any event, what is implicit here but is made explicit by Ellison in the essay entitled "Twentieth-Century Fiction" is that what is taken for the real, particularly in literature, is in fact the symbolic. All of its constructs, including the sociological and racial, reside in linguisticality—in the word, which Ellison describes as an "insidious" form of segregation:

Perhaps the most insidious and least understood form of segregation is that of the word. And by this I mean the word in all its complex formulations, from the proverb to the novel and stage play, the word with all its subtle power to suggest and foreshadow overt action while magically disguising the moral consequences of that action and providing it with symbolic and psychological justification. For if the word has the potency to revive and make us free, it has also the power to blind, imprison, and destroy.

                                      [Shadow and Act]

Ellison's concern here and in "The Shadow and the Act," is with what Burke calls "language as a species of action—symbolic action [whose] nature is such that it can be used as a tool." As symbolic action, language posits a myth—that of the stereotypical black—(Burke refers to this stereotype as a symbol of "contented indigence") and a ritual—that of keeping the black in his place. (Jim Crow is but another symbolic [juridical] system.) Hence, according to Ellison, what is represented as a "black" reality in much of twentieth-century fiction is not the Real but the Symbolic—a system of symbols governed, as in the case of Faulkner's Chick in Intruder in the Dust, by "an inherited view of the world with its Southern conception of Negroes" [Shadow and Act]. His imperative in "Brave Words for A Startling Occasion" is that, like Menelaus, who in the Odyssey must struggle with Proteus's ever-changing forms in order to find his way home, the modern American novelist must struggle against this "inheritance of illusion" and challenge the "apparent forms of reality" in order to find his way home:

The way home we seek is that condition of man's being at home in the world, which is called love, and which we term democracy. Our task then is always to challenge the apparent forms of reality—that is, the fixed manners and values of the few, and to struggle with it until it reveals its mad, vari-implicated chaos, its false faces, and on until it surrenders its insight, its truth.

                                      [Shadow and Act]

In addition to his very Burkian notion of reality as the symbolic rather than the real, what Ellison reveals here is his own paradoxical relationship to modernism. On the one hand, Ellison, like most modernists, is involved in a serious reevaluation of the limits of literary form and the possibilities for a new aesthetic in the arts generally. On the other hand, through his concern with value, he refuses to be modern. Furthermore, by invoking the idea of homelessness, he raises a problem with which modernism tries to grapple: what does it mean to be-in-the-world in the twentieth century? Indeed, Ellison tells us in the introduction to Shadow and Act that the question of Being is what underlies his fiction: "Fiction became the agency of my efforts to answer the questions: Who am I, what am I, how did I come to be?" In other words, as we shall see, Ellison—like the Invisible Man and his Russian counterpart, Dostoevsky's Underground Man, whose narrative we will argue forms a kind of "frame" upon which Invisible Man is superimposed—writes out of an urgent (metaphysical) need to act.

We have called Notes from Underground a "frame" for Invisible Man because it is in the novel's Prologue and Epilogue that Ellison's close proximity to Dostoevsky is most evident. In both novels we have an "I," a speaking subject who, after having endured about twenty years of "sickness," is suddenly compelled to write a kind of confessional. "I am a sick man…. I am a spiteful man," declares the Underground Man, while Ellison's protagonist writes, "I am an invisible man." The first sentence of each novel is important because it raises the question, "Who is behind the 'I?'" "Who is writing, and to whom does he address himself?" According to Barthes, the "I" has a double status, that of character and figure, which he distinguishes as follows:

In principle, the character who says "I" has no name…. [I]n fact, however, I immediately becomes a name, his name. In the story (and in many conversations), I is no longer a pronoun, but a name, the best of names; to say I is inevitably to attribute signifieds to oneself; further, it gives one a biographical duration, it enables one to undergo, in one's imagination, an intelligible "evolution," to signify oneself as an object with a destiny, to give a meaning to time…. The figure is altogether different: it is not a combination of semes concentrated in a legal Name, nor can biography, psychology, or time encompass it: it is an illegal, impersonal, anachronistic configuration of symbolic relationships. As figure, the character can oscillate between two roles, without this oscillation having any meaning, for it occurs outside biographical time, (outside chronology …).

In short, as character, the "I" is full, a complete subject; as figure, the "I" is decentered, dispersed among its "configurations of symbolic relationships."

While Ellison claims that his Invisible Man is a "character" in the "dual meaning of the term," he posits his protagonist in much the same way that Dostoevsky posits his—that is, as a "figure." In a footnote to Part One of Notes, Dostoevsky describes the Underground Man as a representative of a "generation that is still living out its days among us." He is the type of man that city life had begun to breed: a man of acute consciousness whose sickness comes from his increasing awareness that the system which constitutes the social has no basis—it has no ground. His audience is nothing more than an "absent presence," an "empty device" which makes it possible for him to carry on this long dialogue with himself in which he lays out his notion of pain and suffering as one of the metaphysical grounds for human existence.

Ellison's protagonist is described by what is probably the sanest character in the novel, the "crazy" vet. He describes the Invisible Man as a product of the age of technology, the kind of man that philanthropists like Mr. Norton, who believe it is their business to see to the "first-hand organizing of human life," had begun to breed. As the "crazy" vet helps Mr. Norton to recover from his Golden Day Tavern ordeal, he tells Mr. Norton that the Invisible Man is the most perfect achievement of his dreams:

"You see," he said turning to Mr. Norton, "he has eyes and ears and a good distended African nose, but he fails to understand the simple facts of life. Understand. Understand? It's worse than that. He registers with his senses but short-circuits his brain. Nothing has meaning. He takes it in but he doesn't digest it. Already he is—well, bless my soul! Behold! a walking zombie! Already he's learned to repress not only his emotions but his humanity. He's invisible, a walking personification of the Negative, the most perfect achievement of your dreams, sir! The mechanical man!"

As a mechanical man the Invisible Man is unable to see beyond the corners of his consciousness, and when he does, as in the Prologue, he retreats. Everything else, including an understanding of "the simple facts of life," is blocked off by the "they" or the "Other" to which he looks for an image of himself. And when he finally comes to see the "nightmare" of the absurdity of all life, it is to the "they" or the "Other" that the Invisible Man articulates his need to write:

So why do I write, torturing myself to put it down? Because in spite of myself I've learned some things. Without the possibility of action, all knowledge comes to one labeled "file and forget," and I can neither file nor forget. Nor will certain ideas forget me; they keep filing away at my lethargy, my complacency. Why should I be the one to dream this nightmare? Why should I be dedicated and set aside—yes, if not to at least tell a few people about it? There seems to be no escape. Here I've set out to throw my anger into the world's face, but now that I've tried to put it all down the old fascination with playing a role returns, and I'm drawn up again. So that even before I finish I've failed (maybe my anger is too heavy; perhaps being a talker, I've used too many words). But I've failed. The very act of trying to put it all down has confused me and negated some of the anger and some of the bitterness. So it is that now I denounce and defend, or feel prepared to defend. I condemn and affirm, say no and say yes, say yes and say no. I denounce because though implicated and partially responsible, I have been hurt to the point of abysmal pain, hurt to the point of invisibility. And I defend because in spite of all I find that I love. In order to get some if it down I have to love.

We have quoted this rather long paragraph almost entirely, because it shows some important intersections and divergences between the Underground Man and the Invisible Man. The most obvious intersection is the protagonists' need to write. But they write for different reasons. The Underground Man claims that he writes in order to relieve himself of one of the hundreds of memories that oppress him, and because he is bored. As a man suffering from "excessive consciousness," and inertia, he needs something to do. The Invisible Man writes precisely because he does not want to forget, and because he wants his anger and frustration to be heard. He therefore aspires to be a "readerly" writer. And in contrast to the Underground Man, who contemptuously invokes his audience only to negate it, the Invisible Man always takes his readers' sensitivity into account. He is respectful, and careful not to take advantage of them. He is apologetic for even the slightest contradiction. And at the end of the Prologue, he says, "Bear with me." He asks them to be tolerant because he needs allies; the Invisible Man does not want to dream the nightmare alone.

As the Lisa episode dramatizes, the Underground Man refuses to establish an alliance with anyone. He refuses because he considers himself more intelligent than everyone else, but more importantly, because to seek allies implies a willingness to give oneself over to the quotidian, the social, the moral, the ethical; in short, it implies a willingness to give oneself over to the nightmare which the Underground Man is attempting, through a sort of metaphysical rebellion, to escape. His escape is not without its consequences, however. The anger and bitterness that abate as the Invisible Man tries to "put it all down" only becomes more intense as the Underground Man turns it inwards. Since he denounces everything that stands for the social, he is never tempted by the fascination of playing a role for the sake of the "they" as is the Invisible Man. He does not allow himself to be drawn into the everydayness of the "they"; therefore, nothing detracts from what he, too, experiences as an abysmal pain.

The pain from which the Underground Man suffers is the "sole root" of his consciousness. It constitutes the state or condition which Dostoevsky nominates the "underground." And it is only in this condition that the Underground Man feels he can experience what ordinary existence, with its "systems and abstract conclusions," denies the human subject: that most "advantageous of advantages," absolute freedom.

The freedom about which the Underground Man speaks has nothing to do with material well-being or virtue: that falls under the rubric liberation and is always contingent upon the "they." What he articulates is a notion of freedom which is another metaphysical ground for existence as he understands it. It is a kind of existential "thinking" that negates all systems of reason and logic—it is the absolute right to choose:

One's own free, untrammeled desires, one's own whim, no matter how extravagant, one's own fancy, be it wrought up at times to the point of madness—all of this is precisely that most advantageous of advantages which is omitted, which fits into no classification, and which is constantly knocking all systems and theories to hell. And where did our sages get the idea that man must have normal, virtuous desires? What made them imagine that man must necessarily wish what is sensible and advantageous? What man needs is only his own independent wishing, whatever that independence may cost and wherever it may lead.

In order to maintain this absolute right to his own "whim," the Underground Man must stand alone, and he must struggle against that which has already been defined. He must reject anything that makes a claim to the good, the logical, and the beautiful as being nothing more than weapons, illusions with which to combat the painfulness of "authentic" existence. And since this authenticity is what he seeks, he must always be acutely, excessively conscious. This is why in "On the Occasion of Wet Snow," he allows himself to be insulted and humiliated, then insults and humiliates Lisa, and thereby perpetuates the cycle of pain through which he grows more morbidly and sensitively self-aware.

The Underground Man is morbidly and sensitively aware of what it means to say "I am." Through his dialogue with himself, he attempts to make a distinction between the "I am" of everydayness, the "I am" that gets dispersed into the "they" and exists in terms of the "they," and the authentic self, the "I am" that can uncover what everydayness shields from the "they"—that is, the finitude of existence. He is morbidly and sensitively aware that life is nothing more than a "sequence of experiences" between birth and death and that despite the multiplicity of possibilities which lie between those boundaries, he is nothing more than a being-towards death. As such, he insists on his right to exist authentically, in his corner, away from society, and to leave "living life" to those he feels are simply too cowardly to look true subjectivity in the face and say, "I am."


"I yam what I am," exclaims the Invisible Man as he walks along the Harlem streets enjoying a yam—piping hot and sweet and seeping with butter. Although he engages in the play on words out of a sense of exhilaration over having broken a rule of etiquette by eating in the streets, the "whatness" of the slightly distorted tautology is the metaphysical problem he spends his life trying to resolve. However, he seeks the "whatness" of his self in the very thing that distances the self from itself: in language. Only when language is temporarily wiped away, when what the "crazy" vet refers to metaphorically as his "short-circuited brain" becomes a reality after the paint factory accident, does the Invisible Man succeed in experiencing his true subjectivity.

When he recovers from the paint factory explosion, the Invisible Man finds himself in the hospital, attached to a machine, "pounded between crushing electrical pressures, bumped between live electrodes, like an accordion between a player's hand." When the pounding and pumping stop, all he feels is an intense pain and a kind of primordial vacu-ousness. For a fleeting moment, with his memory temporarily wiped away, he says, "My mind was blank, as though I had just begun to live." But with a second onslaught of electrical shocks, conducted to the rhythms of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, the Invisible Man drifts back into consciousness, into an awareness of himself as a being existing somewhere between a fluid and painful blackness and the vast whiteness of the white world. He does indeed become, at least temporarily, a walking zombie for whom nothing has meaning. Language comes to him first as the "rhythmical differences between progressions of sound that questioned and those that made a statement," then as a "jumble of alphabets" as the voices hovering over him in a cacophony of silence try to make him understand.

As his focus becomes clearer the Invisible Man is able to recognize the jumble of alphabets that one of the doctors has written on a card as a question: "What is your name?" But its meaning does not register. Only when the question is rephrased does the Invisible Man feel a "distant light" of understanding penetrating the pain and blackness of his mind:


As he reconstructs the incident, the Invisible Man remembers that suddenly,

Something inside me turned with a sluggish excitement. This phrasing of the question seemed to set off a series of weak and distant lights where the other had thrown a spark that failed. Who am I? I asked myself. But it was like trying to identify one particular cell that coursed through the torpid veins of my body. Maybe I was just this blackness and bewilderment and pain….

The Invisible Man is brought back into contact with what the Underground Man would call his true self; but it does not last. All of the subsequent cards that the doctors and technicians produce force him to contemplate the question "Who are you?" within a racial and historical context. His responses, which are a kind of internal monologue, are double-edged, two-toned, as one part of him tries to grapple with the "I am," while the other engages in a game in which he either inverts the meaning of the question or invents a text for which he provides an interpretation. For example, when one "short, scholarly looking man" writes on a small chalkboard, "Who Was Your Mother?" the Invisible Man writes, "I looked at him, feeling a quick dislike and thinking, half in amusement, I don't play the dozens. And how's your old lady today?" By invoking the black verbal game of the dozens, he imposes one level of language, the vernacular, upon another, the standard, and thereby subverts the specialist's attempt to communicate with him.

The satisfaction which he derives from outwitting his interrogator is somewhat short-circuited, however, by the next question, at which the Invisible Man stares in "wide-eyed amazement":


I was filled with turmoil. Why should he think of that? He pointed to the question, word by word. I laughed, deep, deep inside me, giddy with the delight of self-discovery and the desire to hide it. Somehow I was Buckeye the Rabbit … or had been, when as children, we danced and sang barefoot in the dusty streets:

Buckeye the RabbitShake it, shake itBuckeye the RabbitBreak it, break it

Yet, I could not bring myself to admit it, it was too ridiculous—and somehow too dangerous. It was annoying that he had hit upon an old identity and I shook my head, seeing him purse his lips and eye me sharply.


He was your mother's back-door man, I thought. Anyone knew they were one and the same: "Buckeye" when you were very young and hid yourself behind wide innocent eyes; "Brer," when you were older. But why was he playing around with these childish names? Did they think I was a child? Why didn't they leave me alone? I would remember soon enough when they let me out of the machine …

The first question fills him with turmoil because it invokes an "I" that once was, a wholesome "I," the one that existed long before his dying grandfather spoke of the necessity of wearing a mask, of breaking the "I" in half. It is the "I" prior to its encounter with the white world, an "I" completely in accord with its own reality, with a world that is still of its own making.

Brer Rabbit is the "I" that knows how to confront the white world. He is shrewd, cunning, and like the Invisible Man's grandfather, he knows how to live with his "head in the lion's mouth." He knows how to "overcome" 'em with yeses, undermine 'em with grins, agree 'em to death and destruction" without losing himself in the process, something the Invisible Man never learns. Because he takes his grandfather's dying words too literally, he fails to understand that what the old man described as his treachery was nothing more than a game which he did not believe in but knew how to play to his advantage. It was a game of words: Say what they want to hear, but never believe in what you say.

Although the Invisible Man insists after his Harlem eviction speech that he does not believe what he said and that he gave the speech because he was simply angry and because he likes to make speeches, he very quickly comes to believe in the game. So by the time he is indoctrinated into the ideology of the Brotherhood, he believes that by relying on language, he can free himself of the racial and historical boundaries that confine him and thus acquire a new status: that of a human being. Instead, what he acquires are new identities which make even more remote any possibilities of self-definition. The electric shock machine makes of him a "new man," whose words and expressed attitudes are not his but someone else's. They belong to some "alien personality" created by high technology and Gestalt psychology. The Brotherhood, which is another kind of machine, provides him with yet another identity, that of a "leader" and "eloquent" speaker of words. The problem is that he becomes so captivated by the magic of his own words that he begins to believe that there is some truth to what he says. For example, during his first Brotherhood speech, the Invisible Man shares with his audience what he describes as a sudden and odd experience, the experience of suddenly becoming "more human" and of feeling suddenly that he had finally come "home" after a long and desperate and "uncommonly blind" journey. The audience responds enthusiastically, and despite the disapproval of some of the brothers who argue that he was emotional rather than theoretical, the Invisible Man becomes an overnight success. But he also becomes a victim of his own discourse. After the rally, as he lies awake in his room, he realizes that he meant everything he said, even though he did not know he was going to say "those things." He writes that many of the words and phrases he used in his speech seemed to form themselves independently of him; they seemed to possess him and fall into place of their own accord. But one phrase was particularly disturbing: he did not know what he meant when he said that he had become "more human." How did this unfamiliar phrase come into his consciousness? He does not know whether he picked it up from a preceding speaker or from his college literature professor, or whether it was just one of the many remembered words, images, and linked verbal echoes one hears when not listening.

The question which the Invisible Man raises is one of the key issues in Barthes' theory of intertextuality: the plurality of the "I" that "reads" the text. According to Barthes, "This 'I' which approaches the text is already itself a plurality of other texts, of codes which are infinite or more precisely, lost (whose origin is lost)." Likewise, the "I" that "writes" the text is already itself a plurality of other texts. For the invisible man, that plurality reaches back through at least two traditions: the Euro-American and the black oratorical traditions. Consequently, his Brotherhood speech is a "re-writing" of all the speeches or verbal "texts" in these two traditions. It rewrites the Reverend Homer A. Barbee's speech/text which is already itself a rewriting of other texts—the narratives of Booker T. Washington and Frederick Douglass, among others—which are themselves rewritings of other narratives, and so forth. It is also a rewriting, in a Marxist discourse, of the Old Testament myth of the Jews as a chosen people. The phrase "I have become more human" is therefore both familiar and strange to the Invisible Man, because it has always already been written.

This concept of the irretrievable origin of the always already is what differentiates Barthes's theory of intertextuality from theories of influence or the association of ideas. Influence implies a literary indebtedness to a traceable source, be it a particular author or a particular literary tradition, etc. In other words, the origin is not lost. We can see, for instance, Eliot's, Burke's, and—despite Clifford Mason's argument to the contrary—Dostoevsky's influence on Ellison. Indeed, Ellison points to Dostoevsky himself. It would be difficult to argue, however, that Ellison, both consciously and unconsciously, bypassed Richard Wright, for although he insists that he was much less influenced by Wright than his critics assume, his novel does share certain affinities with "The Man Who Lived Underground," which preceded its publication by several years. For example, both freddaniels and the Invisible Man come upon their subterranean sanctuaries while being chased by white men; and both manage to triumph over the white world by stealing some of its power. Where the two works diverge is in terms of the metaphysical problems they raise. Whether through a direct influence or an association of ideas, Wright's treatment of those problems more closely parallels Dostoevsky's than does Ellison's. The Invisible Man's notion of freedom is materialistic, for example. He sees it as his inalienable right to pursue any number of the infinite possibilities which he believes his world has become. In other words, he sees it as his right to try and make it to the top.

In contrast, Wright's protagonist, through his devaluation of the things that are most valuable to "the men who lived in the dead world of sunshine and rain" above, discovers the kind of absolute freedom described by Dostoevsky's Underground Man. Furthermore, as he watches the boy and the watchman being wrongly accused and punished for having stolen the radio, gun, money, rings, watches and diamonds with which he decorates and illuminates the wall and floor of his cave, he is suddenly freed from any sense of guilt. He is freed, first of all, because he feels that although they are not guilty of that particular crime, they are nevertheless guilty. They had always been guilty, because for him, guilt is the very essence of existence. It is an innate, physical feeling that one had committed some dreadful offense that can neither be remembered nor understood, but which creates in one's life a state of eternal anxiety.

Secondly, like the Underground Man, freddaniels no longer shares the conscience of the "they." He no longer thinks in terms of right and wrong, because, echoing the maxim of Dostoevsky's Ivan Karamozov that "All is permitted," he realizes that "if the world as men had made it was right, then anything else was right, any act a man took to satisfy himself, murder, theft, torture." A desire to share his insights is what impels freddaniels to return to the "dark sunshine above." He wants to share his discovery with someone, because, by doing so, he would also affirm the reality of his existence as an absolutely free man.

In contrast, the Invisible Man returns to the world above because his innate sense of guilt will not let him remain underground. It forces him to attempt to absolve himself of the blame for his sickness, his invisibility, by recognizing that in spite of it all, he nevertheless has a "socially responsible role to play." Dostoevsky's Underground Man is, on the other hand, determined to carry his acute consciousness to the bitter end. He rejects any notions of personal culpability and social responsibility and remains underground because, he tells us, "I am convinced that we underground men must be kept well reined in."

In any event, with Wright's freddaniels in the avant guard of what Craig Werner [in "Brer Rabbit Meets the Underground Man: Simplification of Consciousness in Baraka's Dutchman and Slave Ship," Obsidian 5.1-2, n.d.] refers to as a "distinguished file of black underground men, all of whom march in a column led by Fyodor Dostoevsky's original," the Invisible Man occupies a prominent position because he is the first black American "hero" to come fully clothed in the "uniform" of the modern age. He brings the black American "Hero," and perhaps black American literature, to what can be called a "fixed point" of modernism; that is, a seeking, in language, of the self, for this "speaking subject" in fact give himself over to language so that, ultimately, what speaks is not a subject at all, but language itself. Indeed, the novel's internal structure revolves around language, around the sphinx-like discourse of the Invisible Man's dying grandfather, whose "truth" he thinks resides in language: in Barbee's speech, in Bledsoe's letters, and, finally, in the Marxist discourse of the Brotherhood. The characters that the Invisible Man encounters as he moves through this complex linguistic field are types of discourse, whose voices or "codes" interweave to form the intertextuality of the text. For example, much of the "crazy" vet's discourse falls under the Barthian code of psychology: he talks about the Invisible Man in terms of his psychological makeup. When his voice fades, the same code is picked up by young Emerson and intersects with yet another code, the voice or code of truth: Emerson tells the Invisible Man the "Truth" of what Bledsoe has sealed in the seven letters. In the discourse of the blues-singing and fast-rapping Peter Wheat-straw, the Harlem landlady Mary, the yam peddeler, and many of the other Harlem dwellers, there is a convergence of cultural codes. Black American history, tradition, and folk culture "speak" out of these discourses and interweave their voices into those of the white "substructure" to create the "vast stereophony of cultural languages" from which the Invisible Man challenges us to consider the question—"Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?"

David Nicholson (review date 4 February 1996)

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SOURCE: A review of The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison, in Washington Post Book World, Vol. XXVI, No. 5, February 4, 1996, p. 7.

[In the following review, Nicholson examines The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison and two works by Albert Murray, providing a laudatory assessment of all three works and characterizing the two authors as "giants" in terms of their talent and achievements as writers.]

The critic Stanley Crouch, himself no mean chronicler of the American scene, has dubbed Albert Murray and Ralph Ellison "the twin towers" of our national literature. The appellation is apt, invoking as it does both basketball (a game to which black athletes have brought both style and breath-taking improvisation all the more remarkable because performed with grace under pressure), and the black monoliths that dominate the skyline of lower Manhattan. The essays collected in these three volumes [The Blue Devils of Nada: A Contemporary American Approach to Aesthetic Statement and The Hero and the Blues by Albert Murray, and The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison, edited by John F. Callahan] allow us to witness Albert Murray and Ralph Ellison in the full glory of their wit and style, and to marvel at their flights of intellectual synthesis, accomplished with all the nonchalant daring of a Charlie Parker solo. Time and again, we are reminded of their centrality as American writers—for their fiction and their essays—and American thinkers.

Only one of these books, Murray's The Blue Devils of Nada, is new in the strictest sense of the word, although it goes without saying that all are welcome. Murray's The Hero and the Blues, first published in 1973 by the University of Missouri Press, has long been unavailable. The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison, ably edited by John F. Callahan, includes the entire contents of Shadow and Act (1964) and Going to the Territory (1986), as well as 20 other pieces. All told, The Collected Essays includes about half of the 75 occasional pieces and addresses Ellison wrote between 1937 and his death in 1984.

Reading these three volumes in concert, one is struck by how much Ellison and Murray must have influenced each other. While it would take a keener intelligence than mine to determine whose influence was the more profound, certain matters are, nonetheless, well established. Ellison, born in 1914, was just two years older than Murray. Both attended Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, where they were at least nodding acquaintances, but it was not until 1942, when Murray came to New York (Ellison had arrived six years earlier, and both would make their homes in Harlem), that they began the lifelong friendship that ended with Ellison's death in 1994.

As a result of that friendship, perhaps, certain themes recur again and again in their work. Both, for example, are insistent that black American life is best examined via art, not sociology (Ellison sharply rebuked "the specialists and 'friends of the Negro' who view our Negro American life as essentially nonhuman"). Both view the black experience as inseparable—perhaps even, in its fundamentals, indistinguishable—from the American experience, and the blues as black (and white) America's tragic poetry. Further, each sees improvisation as a hallmark, not merely of jazz, but of the American character, evident even in what seem on the surface the most prosaic activities. Thus, in an essay on Louis Armstrong, Murray remarks that "the ever-resilient and elegantly improvised ballroom choreography … was an idiomatic representation of an American outlook on possibility and thus also was an indigenous American reenactment of affirmation in the face of the ever-impending instability inherent in the nature of things."

That last is one of Murray's favorite themes, one that he developed at length in The Hero and the Blues, and that can be summarized by this passage from The Blue Devils of Nada: "The improvisation that is the ancestral imperative of blues procedure is completely consistent with and appropriate to those of the frontiersman, the fugitive slave, and the picaresque hero, the survival of each of whom depended largely on an ability to operate on dynamics equivalent to those of the vamp, the riff, and most certainly the break, which jazz musicians regard as the Moment of Truth, or that disjuncture that should bring out your personal best" [emphasis added].

Time and again, then, he and Ellison return to celebrating American improvisation and innovation, shrewdness and ingenuity, our love of adventure and exploration, our adaptability and our sense of humor, ringing new changes on these themes in much the same way as the jazz musicians who are among their favorite subjects.

Ellison, born in Oklahoma just seven years after it became a state, more than once referred to himself as a frontiersman, adding, "And isn't one of the implicit functions of the American frontier to encourage the individual to a kind of dreamy wakefulness, a state in which he makes—in all ignorance of the accepted limitations of the possible—rash efforts, quixotic gestures, hopeful testings of the complexity of the known and the given?"

At bottom, I think, Murray and Ellison were both intellectual frontiersmen, seekers of the promise of America. They went into the treacherous wilderness of our history, armed only with their imaginations and their intellects, using those tools in much the same way the frontiersmen each admired tamed the wilderness with axe and Kentucky long rifle.

It is not simply that both men are thoughtful writers, precise and insightful. ("He did not think that unguarded or loose expression represented one's true, honest, and material self," Murray notes of Count Basie, whose autobiography he co-authored. It is an observation he could easily have made of himself or of Ellison, and that painstaking quality is a large part of what makes each of them worth reading.) Nor is it that, as these essays make clear, they were men of catholic tastes, possessed of an inexhaustible intellectual curiosity, believers that the examined life, the life of the mind, was well worth living.

Were that all to Albert Murray and to Ralph Ellison, it would certainly have been enough. Where they proved themselves originals, however, breaking new ground and claiming new territory, was in uncovering and analyzing the mythopoetic aspects of black life. They did it taking the ordinary, most common stuff of life and obeying what Murray called "the vernacular imperatives to process (which is to say stylize) the raw native materials, experiences, and the idiomatic particulars of everyday life into aesthetic (which is to say elegant) statements of universal relevance and appeal."

Unlike some who would follow in the Black Arts movement of the 1960s and after, they did so in thoroughly unsentimental fashion, unreservedly acknowledging the similarities between cultures as well as their debt to other writers. Ellison, for example, cited Eliot, Joyce and Lord Raglan, author of The Hero, as influences or, as he would have put it, "ancestors." Murray acknowledged Thomas Mann and Andre Malraux, and both he and Ellison owed—and readily admit to—a substantial debt to Hemingway.

In the end, however, they did what only great artists do—they took from others and made it their own. And why not? It was, and continues to be, after all, the American way.

Writing about his first months in New York, a city that he found more than a little confusing, not least because it lacked the familiar, if oppressive, guideposts of the segregated South he had known, Ellison notes that he came to the realization that "if I were to grasp American freedom, I was compelled to continue my explorations." He meant explorations of Manhattan outside of Harlem, but the idea can easily serve as a statement of his (and Murray's) artistic and aesthetic intentions.

They are truly, as Stanley Crouch implies, giants. We shall not see their like again.

Gary Giddins (review date 19 January 1997)

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SOURCE: A review of Flying Home and Other Stories, in The New York Times Book Review, January 19, 1997, p. 13.

[In the following review, Giddins offers a laudatory assessment of Flying Home and Other Stories.]

The one-novel career, while hardly unique to the United States (Europe offers Canetti, Rilke and Lampedusa, among others), has produced a peculiar frisson of suspense in this country in the postwar era. I'm thinking not of writers who died young, like James Agee, or who consummated extended literary callings with one big fictional work, like Katherine Anne Porter, but of those who made an indelible assault on the consciousness of several generations with a prodigiously incisive novel and left us loitering, season after season, in the vain hope of a second strike.

Three cases stand out. Henry Roth published Call It Sleep in the 1930's, but his novel belongs as much to the 60's, when it was read and celebrated. Breaking what may be the longest silence in publishing history, he persevered to write a memory novel so long we are three volumes away from the finish (the six volumes are being published individually under the collective title Mercy of a Rude Stream) and lingering in a zone of cautious disappointment. J. D. Salinger would undoubtedly top best-seller lists with The Pitcher in the Chaff, but I suspect we have given up waiting or stopped caring. Ralph Ellison's death in 1994, however, was a blow—prayers unanswered once and for all.

A deconstruction of race and identity fixed on the most reverberant metaphor since Melville's whale, Invisible Man succeeded so well in addressing what Ellison called "human universals" that we recall with a sad jolt the admiring condescension with which it was greeted in 1952. At a time when not a few white intellectuals presumed that Negro novels were—or ought to be—proletarian protest fiction (and that Negro novelists were—or ought to be—limited in their reach by a kind of intellectual ebonics), countless readers were encouraged to approach Invisible Man as a sociological inquiry into the Negro condition: Me Tarzan, you invisible. Not the least indication of Ellison's transfigurative powers is the chagrin engendered by that memory.

Invisible Man is a reverse Bildungsroman, in which a coming of age is refracted through the prism of ripened—indeed, nearly fatal—experience. The hibernating protagonist speaks to us "on the lower frequencies," from a coal bin illuminated by 1,369 light bulbs and the grace of Louis Armstrong, all powered by stolen electricity. If Ellison's second novel, worked on for decades, never materialized, the excerpts he infrequently let fly, as well as his essays and interviews (a forum he made artful), affirmed a comic aptitude for lighting up dark places with an ungrudging lyricism that simply could not be subverted.

John F. Callahan, who assembled a volume of Ellison's nonfiction for the Modern Library in 1995, has been entrusted with collating the books Ellison shyly or modestly or stubbornly held back. The unfinished novel is said to be an immense manuscript, so perhaps an American answer to The Man Without Qualities is still in the offing, though which of us isn't prepared to settle for less—say, an Ellisonian clue to life after hibernation? Ellison's early reviews, written for The New Masses, have never been collected; likewise, stories reworked or cut from his published and unpublished novels. We are promised a more prolific posthumous career for Ellison than most of us had expected.

Flying Home and Other Stories is a slim but shining installment, collecting 13 short stories written between 1937 and 1954, six previously unpublished. Mr. Callahan, who commands significant editorial clout (he effects "silent" emendations, omits a story he admits Ellison would have included, gives titles to two stories Ellison left untitled), has shrewdly organized the material to reflect a sequential growth that with two notable exceptions fuses the central characters as one: the stories spin outward, not only from early youth to early manhood, but from the South to the North and back, from horror to horror averted. They have a befitting unity, on the order of "In Our Time" or "Dubliners," that Ellison himself could not have intended.

The least of these stories are distinctive, the best are gripping and two are genuinely terrifying. Still, it is scarcely possible to read them without noting sundry apprenticeship connections to Invisible Man and to Ellison's most accomplished nonfiction, especially the disarmingly cheerful memoir "An Extravagance of Laughter." Nor is it difficult to see why Ellison dawdled over publishing them: it would have been like Beethoven making his name with his Ninth Symphony and, after 40 years' labor, proffering his First. Some books, however treasurable, are better dispensed by estates. Ellison was a master of recounting old tales from the haven of a hard-won maturity—these tales are fresh, even raw. Many are candidly autobiographical, and even the most skillful and symbol-laden betray his search for his own voice.

Surprisingly, Ellison, an unequivocal master of the first-person narrative, appears to have been intimidated by that mode in the 1940's. Five of the six unpublished stories are in the first person (most of those persons are unnamed); six of the seven he did publish are in the third person and, excepting the three that appeared in 1944 and that conclude the book, are conspicuously flatter. All are told exclusively from the perspective of a boy or man, almost always linked through geographical and situational connections to Ellison. The exceptions are remarkable tours de force.

"A Party Down at the Square" vividly depicts a lynching and burning from the perspective of a visiting white boy whose body rejects the horrific episode ("the gutless wonder from Cincinnati," his uncle calls him), but whose mind works hard to accept it, finally coming to rest in a kind of hapless admiration: "God, but that nigger was tough. That Bacote nigger was some nigger!" Ellison puts in the boy's mouth a few didactic asides in a futile attempt to explain or understand the inexplicable, but this is an important work in its own right because it commands a forbidden ringside view of barbarians at play. The story is also fascinating because it augurs Ellison's masterpiece. The frenzied confusion that ensures when a pilot, disconcerted by the fire, crashes his plane in the square is a foretaste of the masterly episodes of disarrangement in Invisible Man, from the battle royale to the Harlem riot. No less predictively, the blank-slate narration suggests the Invisible Man's early and equally unformed recollections. Obtuseness is a human condition, not a racial one.

The nattering violence in "King of the Bingo Game" occurs almost entirely in the head of the protagonist, a Southern black man in Harlem, whom the Oklahoma-born Ellison takes pains to distinguish from his fellow Southwesterners at the center of the other stories. This one, marked by a brief memory interlude as seamlessly woven as that in a Mizoguchi film, sneaks up on the reader like a cop with a blackjack. Overwrought and hysterical in its narrow focus on a man obsessed with the machinations of a bingo wheel, it closes with the revelation of faté affirmed, even as it borrows Hemingway's device of disguising one fixation with another.

Hemingway's influence is rife in early Ellison, and so, in the fastidious overlay of symbols, is T. S. Eliot's. Echoes of writers Ellison admired occasionally intrude with noticeable clarity: Hemingway ("the swift rush of water in the irrigation canals and the fish panting in the mud where the canals were dry and rotting in the sun where the mud had dried"), Eudora Welty ("the horns were blasting brighter now … like somebody flipping bright handfuls of new small change against the sky") and William Faulkner ("his whole life was determined by the bingo wheel: not only that which would happen now that he was at last before it, but all that had gone before, since his birth and his mother's birth and the birth of his father"). At times Ellison will test a technique like a pilot taking out a new plane—trying out a Faulkner-type flashback (and Hemingway-type dialogue) in "A Hard Time Keeping Up" or a "Snows of Kilimanjaro" flashback in "Flying Home." At other times you can track the transition from influence to assimilation, for example in a comparison of the Faulknerian repetition of "vomit" in "King of the Bingo Game" and the Ellisonian repetition of "humiliation" in "Flying Home."

Ellison's voice ultimately prevails, from the personal metaphor ("they seem to feel just the place to kick you to make your backbone feel like it's going to fold up like the old cellophane drinking cups we used when we were kids") to the ebullient non sequitur ("When we jam, sir, we're Jamocrats!") to the more specific indicators of what was to come: minute descriptions rendered with cool detachment, gently pointed satire, expressionistic waking scenes, a naked woman dancing, the surreality of a boy attempting to snatch a plane from the sky, a humanizing grandfather, the kind of emotional violence that substitutes a chimera for reality and, perhaps most distinctive of all, the combination of terror and revelation that resolves itself in uncontrollable laughter.

The memoir-essay "An Extravagance of Laughter" winds up with the long-delayed punch line of Ellison erupting in ill-suited and unruly laughter during a performance of "Tobacco Road," an outburst he associates with "my emotional and intellectual development." The first incident recounted by the Invisible Man shows how violence was deflected when his own outrage turned to laughter. In Ellison, laughter is rarely unforced or natural, and nowhere is its violent yet emancipating power more hard-earned than in the story "Flying Home" ("Blasts of hot, hysterical laughter tore from his chest, causing his eyes to pop"). A Tuskegee airman is brought to earth by a buzzard in hellish Alabama and is caught between the possibility of casual redneck murder in the person of a plantation owner, who assumes murder is his birthright, and the shame of abiding black acquiescence, in the person of a grandfather who is sharper than the airman initially wants to admit. It is a frightening story, edgily confined to the wounded pilot's vision, and Ellison's conclusion is surprising, unsentimental and moving.

Less successful are the Buster and Riley stories, a sequence of four pastoral dialogues that take place over a period of about two years; they are filled with word games and play acting, but are undermined in their banter by touches of vaudeville and authorial intrusions, hinting none too subtly at what we ought to make of what we are invited to overhear. Yet they capture the value of imagination in quelling the insecurities of childhood. One of them, "That I Had the Wings," tells of an incident Ellison related from his own past, about the time he tied parachutes to chickens. In an interview with John Hersey in 1974, he was quick to point out that none of the chickens died; in the story, one bites the dust. In "A Coupla Scalped Indians," a sexual initiation story published four years after Invisible Man, Riley is transformed into the unnamed first-person narrator, in the manner of the novel.

Two slight but sharply told anecdotes about riding the rails address the narrators' suspicion regarding kindnesses proffered by whites, a theme given full-dress treatment in "In a Strange Country," the account of a serviceman in Wales, brutalized by racists in his own division but brought to communal harmony by the patriotic singing of his Welsh hosts. Music is too much the essence of life in Ellison ("a gut language") to serve a merely symbolic end, but rarely is he as ingenuous as here, bringing the dislocated American back from a reverie of forgetfulness ("I can remember no song of ours that's of love of the soil or of country") to a restored sense of identity when the Welsh band honors him by striking up "The Star-Spangled Banner." It is invariably Ellison's stubborn Americanism that his critics find so galling—they miss even the piercing anger that gives it meaning.

A note of caution: In a long introduction, which would have served the book better as an afterword, Mr. Callahan writes, "Ellison's readers must earn the right to be interpreters." You may not have that opportunity if you read Mr. Callahan's detailed summaries and exegetical comments before encountering the stories. Save the intro for last.

David Holmstrom (review date 10 February 1997)

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SOURCE: "Dark Memories in the Early Voice of Novelist Ralph Ellison," in Christian Science Monitor, February 10, 1997, p. 14.

[In the following review, Holmstrom provides a favorable assessment of Flying Home and Other Stories.]

For Buster and Riley, two fictional African-American boys created by Ralph Ellison, ebonies is the only language they speak. In [Flying Home and Other Stories], this collection of short stories, including three about Buster and Riley, Ellison at least establishes that the speech patterns and clipped grammar of ebonies flourished in the 1930s and '40s between two boys.

Today black children in Oakland, Calif., speak ebonies and create a stir when school officials recognize it as valid.

Ellison, the author of the famed novel Invisible Man, published in 1952, also establishes in these stories—written before Invisible Man—that the racial segregation and bias that limited the lives of "colored" people decades ago linger today.

So, even though Ellison writes with power and clarity about being black in a white world some 55 years ago, the issues haven't changed much, as seen through the burning of some black churches recently or a record racial-discrimination law-suit against Texaco that was settled out of court.

Today the inner cities of America, for the most part, remain ethnically and economically segregated.

Thus, there is an immediacy in the echo of these stories, despite the rural setting of some of them in the days before TV, megastar black athletes, and McDonald's. And the passage of time has transformed a few of the characters into stereotypes, a situation saved only by Ellison's power to put them all in a social context from story to story. And an introduction to Ellison's life and beliefs by editor John Callahan is helpful too.

The first story, "A Party Down at the Square," is the most harrowing and perhaps the sharpest-drawn of all the stories, a vast and ugly reality given a fine point in only 11 pages.

The narrator is an anonymous white boy witnessing the burning of a black man in an Alabama town square. No reason is given for the horror. The boy is first enthralled, then entertained, and finally sickened as the mob rules the night.

A small airplane, caught in winds, mistakes the fire for a landing signal. The plane clips a wire which in turn electrocutes a white woman. The boy, carried along by the crowd, is only momentarily diverted by the plane and the woman before returning to the horror of the tortured black man.

Ellison makes the boy a witness without a conscience, as surely as thousands of white boys were when witnessing the lynchings of blacks that were common in the South for years. The boy has no moral reference point provided by family or community. Because the boy vomited in a physical reaction, his uncle calls him "the gutless wonder from Cincinnati."

Other stories become quick, clear fragments pulled from Ellison's experiences. He was known to have ridden the rails as a young man, and several short pieces focus on eluding the "bulls," the railroad police who beat the rail-riding blacks with clubs and chased them off.

In the three stories about Buster and Riley—told with almost a Huck Finn quality—the boys are mischievous, always daring each other, uttering rumors as truths, and always scolded by adults who warn them about the hazards of being uppity blacks in the white world.

After Riley sings a song about being president, Aunt Kate tells him he has to learn to live in the white world while he is young so he won't be "buttin' yo head 'ginst a col' white wall all yo born days."

The collection of stories as a whole is greater than its parts.

Ellison's easy style, idioms, and simple declarative sentences, are perfectly suited for measuring the world as he saw it. Despite the hassle and danger of being black in a white world, Ellison was drawn to the inherent possibilities of his country.

In the story "The Black Ball," a boy asks his father, "Brown's much nicer than white, isn't it, Daddy?"

And the father replies, "Some people think so. But American is better than both, son."

Darryl Pinckney (essay date 15 May 1997)

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SOURCE: "The Drama of Ralph Ellison," in The New York Review of Books, May 15, 1997, pp. 52-9.

[In the following essay, Pinckney surveys Ellison's life and career.]


Invisible Man holds such an honored place in African-American literature that Ralph Ellison didn't have to write anything else to break bread with the remembered dead. But he did try to go on, because if a writer has done one great thing then the pressures to do another are intense. A few of Ellison's short stories from the 1940s and 1950s were widely anthologized over the years. After a while it became generally known that he was at work on another novel. Though he remained aware ever afterward of the authority Invisible Man gave to him, no second novel followed his brilliant debut in 1952.

Ellison published essays, magisterial in tone, often on how a "specifically 'Negro' idiom" has influenced and been influenced by the larger American culture, or on the enduring predicament he saw as being at the heart of the American novel, the contradiction between the country's founding ideals and its actual, though sometimes hidden, caste and racial history. He admired nineteenth-century writers such as Melville and Twain because they believed in works of fiction as repositories of the nation's social and moral history. Before the undoing of Reconstruction, American novelists took account of the presence of blacks, and this inclusiveness suggested a brave, creative country, in Ellison's view. From its legacy he derived a lofty sense of his own purpose as an artist and of the novel as a "public gesture."

Ellison was prominent on the lecture circuit even in the Black Aesthetic days of the Sixties when his defiantly pro-American and prickly-proud intellectual act met with some hostility. Black Power nearly buried his reputation as he faced impolite audiences of black students from Harvard to Iowa, and refused to join in the mood of outrage, declining to call himself black instead of Negro. Meanwhile, chapters of his second novel appeared here and there throughout the 1960s and the 1970s. Eventually the voices of the militants whom he charged with having condescended to blacks faded and became as historical as his memory of Richard Wright falling out with black Communists in Harlem.

Whatever was said about Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man was considered untouchable. For a long time—pre-Song of Solomon days—he was the sole African-American novelist to have won anything as big as the National Book Award. Ellison held distinguished university appointments, received honorary degrees, delivered commencement addresses, granted lengthy interviews, and relished the fellowship of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His work benefited mightily from the rediscovery of folklore in Black Studies and he lived long enough to witness the elevation of Invisible Man to a sort of Ur-text of blackness. "That blackness is most black, brothers, most black," people like to quote.

By the time Ellison died in 1994 he was regarded as a cultural treasure, a vindicated father figure for a generation of formerly militant and post-militant black writers who wanted folklore, blues, jazz, and black literature to be brainy yet virile subjects. The man of letters in Ellison had flourished, but maybe the writer in him up there on Riverside Drive, with his voluminous black-bound manuscript pages of a "work in progress," had found it paralyzing to think of the risks in publishing a second novel that might not measure up—or might be said not to measure up—to his one celebrated accomplishment.

To have published only one novel was part of the drama of his distinction. His standing apart because of this novel also became an allegory for one of his most cherished themes: the individuality of the Negro and therefore the complexity of the Negro as an American artist. He wanted to be read on his own terms. In some of the essays originally collected in Shadow and Act (1964) and Going to the Territory (1986), Ellison used his biography to explore the pluralistic irreversibly mixed cultural tradition in which he saw himself working, and which he didn't think most other Americans, black or white, appreciated enough for its intricacies and ironies.

Perhaps in looking back on his formative years to make his case that there was more to the lives of black people than Jim Crow, Ellison slyly confused the evidence of his own singularity with the argument for "personal realization" and affirmation of self that he claimed were available to all blacks. But Joyce, he noted, was busily establishing the conventions by which he wanted to be read even while he was writing his books. For Ellison this meant challenging misconceptions about the lives of black people and asserting what made his "sense of Negro life" different from that of other black writers.

To begin with there was Oklahoma, where Ellison was born in 1914. During his childhood Oklahoma had some of the worst riots in US history, and this was at a time when a race riot meant whites on the rampage through black neighborhoods. Still, he observed, Oklahoma "had no tradition of slavery, and while it was segregated, relationships between the races were more fluid and thus more human than in the old slave states." Ellison remembered a white boy called Hoolie, whom he'd met when his mother was working as custodian for some apartments in a white middle-class neighborhood, Hoolie suffered from a rheumatic heart, was being educated at home, and, like Ellison, was lonely for company. Race, Ellison said, didn't come into their shared enthusiasm as radio buffs and seekers after tuning coils in the garbage. Because the nine-year-old Hoolie approached electronics with "such daring," knowing him led Ellison, so he claimed, to expect more of himself and the world.

The porousness of the Jim Crow fabric in Oklahoma City not only allowed for exchanges of everyday humanity, but also for an almost subversive cultural flow up and down the social scale. "Any feelings of distrust I was to develop toward white people later on were modified by those with whom I had warm relations. Oklahoma offered many opportunities for such friendships," he said in an interview in 1961. In his late teens Ellison worked as an elevator operator in the Hub Building on Main Street to earn money for his college tuition. The building's owners, the Lewinson brothers, were pleased to find him either reading or beating out rhythms on the elevator cage. Ellison had a crush on one of the Lewinson daughters and years later in Italy he told her cousin, the writer Thekla Clark, that when he thought of a father figure the recalled Milton Lewinson's white mane.

Oklahoma had only been a state seven years when Ellison was born. The black people no less than the white people there, he said, were still imbued with the pioneer spirit. Their aggressive demeanor alone challenged the intentions of segregation. They were also mindful of the Native American elements in their ancestry and environment. This atmosphere of resistance and superiority was part of Ellison's remembrance of a black community not at all cut off from information, knowledge.

Ellison's father, a construction foreman, coal and then ice salesman who died when Ellison was three, wanted his oldest son to be a poet, as Ralph Waldo Ellison learned much later. It was not unusual for blacks of his father's generation to name their children after American heroes, including literary ones. Though Ellison's mother did not have much formal education, she nevertheless encouraged her two sons by bringing home from her jobs as a domestic discarded books, magazines, opera recordings. Just as he could grow up listening to the radio, like any white kid, he said, so, too, could anybody go to the movies, even if people had by law to sit in different sections.

Ellison remembered as a joy the public library for blacks that had been hastily organized in two large rooms of what had once been a pool hall. He first read Shaw and Maupassant in the home of a friend whose parents were teachers. As adolescents he and his friends told one another that they were going to be "Renaissance men." "We discussed mastering ourselves and everything in sight as though no such thing as racial discrimination existed." The first black graduate of Brown, Inman Page, was, in the last years of his career as an educator, principal of Ellison's high school.

Apart from the editor of the local black newspaper, Oklahoma City "starkly lacked" black writers. Ellison had been a delivery boy for several black newspapers that had nationwide distribution, but "on the level of conscious culture the Negro community was biased in the direction of music." Dr. Page's daughter was a leader of the music-in-the-schools movement that swept the nation in the 1920s. She also owned the town's one black theater and was responsible for its sophisticated repertory. "We were being introduced to one of the most precious of American freedoms, which is our freedom to broaden our personal culture by absorbing the cultures of others."

Black schoolchildren danced Irish reels and Scottish flings on their segregated playground; black Spanish-American War veterans taught them drills until dusk. Ellison credited his school's rigorous music program with teaching him the lifelong lesson of "artistic discipline." The school's teachers were conventional in their musical tastes, but jazz was inescapable as part of the social life of young black people. Ellison liked to point out that the Kansas City style had its origins among the jazzmen of Oklahoma City.

Ellison's use of his past to illustrate the workings of "cultural integration" reached beyond the wish to dress up a respectable but humble background. Ellison objected to ideas about black people that depended on a limited picture of what went on in the places blacks came from. He opposed the notion of black life as a "metaphysical condition" of "irremediable agony" because that made it seem as though the lives of blacks either took place in a vacuum or had only one theme. Ellison wanted to confound sociological categories. Consequently, the Tuskegee Institute, Booker T. Washington's citadel of accommodationism, was his prime example of how misleading the general impression of "American Negro culture" was.

At Tuskegee, where Ellison enrolled in 1933 to study music, his teacher, Hazel Harrison, let him handle manuscripts that Prokofiev had given her. There he was at the institution most associated with the bowing and scraping of vocational education, Ellison seemed to say, and yet he was being initiated into the mysteries of classical music. In The Oregon Trail, Francis Parkman expressed surprise at the French novels he found in a prairie cottage. Ellison answered that they didn't get there by magic and that as people moved about they became transmitters of culture, practitioners of cultural synthesis.

Ellison once rounded on Irving Howe for saying that he may have read great writers at Tuskegee, but at the same time he would not have been able to attend "the white man's school or movie house." To Ellison, this underplayed his freedom of choice and will.

I rode freight trains to Macon County, Alabama, during the Scottsboro trial because I desired to study with the Negro conductor-composer William D. Dawson, who was, and probably still is, the greatest classical musician in that part of the country. I had no need to attend a white university when the master I wished to study with was available at Tuskegee. Besides, why should I have wished to attend the white state-controlled university where the works of the great writers might not have been so easily available?

Ellison also informed Howe that even though he had never attended a white school, he had taught at Northern white universities, just as Howe had done. Apparently he didn't ask whether Dawson, himself a Tuskegee graduate, could have taught at white-controlled state schools, or even whether he would have wanted to. Ellison gave the impression that he, a scholarship student, could have followed Dawson anywhere.

He insisted that Tuskegee was a major musical center in the South in the 1930s. "It was to Tuskegee that the Metropolitan Opera groups came; it was to Tuskegee that the great string quartets and the Philharmonic came. It was not to the University of Alabama; it was not to white schools in this area, but to Tuskegee." But while he convinced himself that Tuskegee was one of the leaders in his field of study, he neglected to say that another black for whom Tuskegee represented the only chance to get a college education might have dreamed of going someplace else. What mattered to Ellison was that he may have been poor, orphaned, and segregated, but as a Negro he refused to see himself as deprived, a cultural outsider.

Ellison's stand about the contributions blacks had made to music as an American art, including the level of musicianship which the greatest exponents of jazz had attained, was the basis from which he judged the achievements of blacks in other forms of artistic expression. It was also why he expected blacks as artists to find freedom within their restricted circumstances. He was critical of those who wanted to dignify jazz's rough beginnings. Blacks knew too much about the hypocrisy of respectability, and as a youth he himself had seen more nobility in socially marginal musicians than he did in the professionals and businessmen he was urged to emulate. Ellison wanted to keep jazz's outlaw sources, but at the same time he said that the musicians he most admired were those who could jam in the roadhouses as well as read scores in the orchestra pits downtown.

He talked a great deal about things like craft, skill, and technique. No amount of emotion or raw power substituted for proper training. Black artists had to earn the mastery, a favorite Ellison word, that would let them extend any tradition they encountered. Hence his admiration for those jazzmen who were the equivalent of bilingual. Ellison spoke of black musicians as being like folk heroes, and their mastery was an example of how black artists could reclaim the debased images of folk culture, which meant something opposite to blacks from what it did to whites. Ellison agreed with the poet and critic Sterling Brown in his sense of the complexity of the folk roots of black culture, though Ellison was wary of the term "black culture" because to him it had racist overtones.

Part of what led Brown to write dialect poetry when it was considered a relic of Uncle Remus days was his contention that the psychology of the black had been erased by the minstrel images white people had imposed on him. Ellison goes further and characterizes America as "a land of masking jokers." The darkie entertainer of the minstrel tradition was, Ellison said, an exorcist, but the black-faced figure could not eradicate the country's spirit of unease, which was what led to the notion that the trickster, the smart man playing dumb in order to protect himself, is "primarily Negro." "Very often, however, the Negro's masking is motivated not so much by fear as by a profound rejection of the image created to usurp his identity." Ellison is as concerned as Brown with how folklore gets into literature, but if Brown concentrated on the psychological reality lost because of stereotyping, then Ellison wanted to add that black artists were conscious of folklore as a subversive tradition and were discriminating about standards. Folk culture was a source of stability as well as of inspiration.

He didn't falter when talking about music, but in his discussions of his literary education a frustrated Ellison emerges, which raises the question of how willful his interpretation of social reality was. At Tuskegee he and Albert Murray had talked of going to Harvard to study with "Dr. Kittredge." Ellison later conceded that he wasn't sure he could have hopped a freight to Harvard or what would have happened to him had he gotten there.

Ellison remembered the name of the grade school teacher—another cultural transmitter—who taught Negro history and from whom he'd learned about the writers of the New Negro Movement of the 1920s. They inspired pride, gave him a closer identification with poetry, excited him with the glamour of Harlem, and "it was good to know that there were Negro writers." But he also never forgot

the humiliation of being taught in class in sociology at a Negro college that Negroes represented the "ladies of the races." This contention the Negro instructor passed blandly along to us without even bothering to wash his hands, much less his teeth. Well, I had no intention of being bound by any such humiliating definition of my relationship to literature.

At Tuskegee in 1935 Ellison read The Waste Land on his own, and this encounter with Modernism was a turning point. "I was much more under the spell of literature than I realized at the time. Wuthering Heights had caused me an agony of unexpressible emotion, and the same was true of Jude the Obscure, but The Waste Land seized my mind." Its rhythms, he judged, were somehow closer to jazz than were those of Negro poets. The Waste Land and its footnotes began, he said, his conscious study of literature. He moved on to Pound, Ford Madox Ford. Sherwood Anderson, Gertrude Stein, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald. "Perhaps it was my good luck that they were not taught at Tuskegee."


In his later essays, Ellison gives his departure from college a romantic gloss: Manhattan was his Paris and Harlem his Left Bank. In the summer of 1936 he went to New York, already aware of radical movements in politics and the arts. Ellison said that he had begun to write almost in secret, but he still thought of himself as a student "symphonist," or maybe a sculptor, while he worked odd jobs, such as being a waiter at the Harlem YMCA, hoping to earn the tuition for his senior year at Tuskegee. He never went back to college. The day after he arrived in Harlem Ellison met Langston Hughes on the street. He recognized Hughes from his photographs. Hughes took him to the Broadway play of Tobacco Road, and also arranged his introduction to Richard Wright.

In 1937 Wright invited the yearning Ellison to write a book review and then a short story for New Challenge, a magazine he was editing. It folded before Ellison's story could be published. Wright was then also working in the Harlem bureau of The Daily Worker. There Ellison read some of the stories that would go into Uncle Tom's Children, the collection that made Wright's name. "He guided me to Henry James's prefaces, to Conrad, to Joseph Warren Beach and to the letters of Dostoevsky." Then again Ellison also once said in an interview that he'd already read everything by the time he met Wright and had had to suppress his annoyance at Wright's assumption that he had not.

In 1937, when his mother became ill, he went to Ohio, where she was then living. There, with the help of one of Dayton's black lawyers, he began to devoté himself seriously to writing. His mother died, and after three months of "ice and snow and homelessness," he abandoned an attempt at a novel. Back in New York he found work, with Wright's help, collecting Negro folklore for the Federal Writers' Project. He be became managing editor of The Negro Quarterly in 1942. It ceased publication after a year, and Ellison joined the merchant marine, which did not get in the way of his literary application. By War's end he had published a number of stories in such magazines as Direction, Common Ground, Tomorrow, and The New Masses.

The work in Flying Home and Other Stories, respectfully edited by John F. Callahan, who has also served Ellison well as editor of the Modern Library edition of his Collected Essays, dates from this period. One of the thirteen stories was written in the 1950s, but is characters belong to a series from the 1940s. The story that opens the volume, "A Party Down at the Square," is a first-person account given by a white boy from Cincinnati visiting his uncle in Alabama. He witnesses a lynching and simply relates what happens, how the crowd taunts the victim until a storm blows an airplane off course, how the crowd flees when falling wires electrocute some of the whites.

Ellison had read Wright's apocalyptic poem about a lynching. "Between the World and Me." Maybe Wright's passionate lyricism about tar and flame provoked Ellison to look at lynching through an innocent and therefore more effectively condemning observer. But "A Party Down at the Square" probably owes more to Faulkner's courthouse loafers and soused demobilized World War I pilots. Though one might expect to find in this collection of stories signs of Wright's influence or of Ellison's struggle to overcome it, there aren't any. Wright's intense and anguished early stories of rural blacks thrown into violent confrontation with whites are completely different from Ellison's low-key investigations of how racial situations affect an individual's perceptions. In later life Ellison would say that Wright's importance to him was intellectual, not literary. At most the work of both shows that Wright and Ellison belonged to the same social era.

Callahan has arranged Ellison's stories so that they follow the stages of a man's life. They are all about men and maybe that comes from Hemingway.

Ellison was young when he wrote them and life would have presented itself then as a series of solitary discoveries. But writing about young black characters also involved the theme that some day arbitrary limitations would be placed on them as social beings. Three stories, "Mister Toussan," "Afternoon," and "That I Had the Wings," for instance, depict two young black boys, Buster and Riley, at boisterous play, telling themselves tall stories about Toussaint L'Ouverture, cheering each other's baseball skills, trying to fashion parachutes for baby chicks. They don't know how dangerous it is for them to grow up with dreams of heroism. Because of their own experience the grandmothers and mothers are fearful for boys who are too bold and loud and too blatant about their wanting to be something, even if it's just a game.

By the time Ellison was publishing his first stories it was well established that left-wing publications offered black writers the chance to reach an audience. What now gets called folklorist was probably back then seen as having a New Masses aesthetic, the reversals that give victory to the common man, or thwart the usual expectations about how a social situation will be resolved. For instance the white man who comes up to the black janitor on the street turns out to be a union organizer, not a bigot. To white radical readers and editors these twists would have been taken as the higher truths of proletarian literature. To black writers and readers the surprises may have been enjoyed as occasions of social correction or downright payback.

Several of Ellison's stories have that New Masses feeling, among them "Hymie's Bull" and "I Did Not Learn Their Names," stories in which he was able to draw on his experience of hopping freights. Their descriptive ease and tone of cool menace make them the best in the collection. They deal with a temporary or tentative fraternity among the down and out. Blacks and whites are made equal by the circumstance of being displaced. Riding on top of a boxcar, Hymie, "sick from some bad grub he'd bummed," is grabbed by a railroad cop who then beats him and attempts to throw him from the streaking train. In the ensuing struggle Hymie kills him with a knife. The narrator expresses satisfaction that Hymie manages to get away, even though black bums are the ones hauled off trains and made to pay the costs whenever a railroad cop goes missing. The narrator of "I Did Not Learn Their Names," a student, waits for the elderly white couple he meets on a boxcar to act like white people. Instead they share their food and bits of their sad story. He keeps his distance, but finds himself thinking of them when not long afterward he is picked up in an Alabama railroad yard and put in jail.

The airplane still figured in American fiction as a common symbol of the romantic hope of the young for adventure, especially a poor boy's. Everywhere characters used to look up from slum doorways or cornfields and vow that they too would climb high. The title story has a downed, injured black airman embarrassed by the concern of the black farmer who has come to his aid. The airman is certain that the old man's attentions will compromise him further in the eyes of his white superiors, with whom he is already in trouble for wrecking his machine and for being a pilot who is black. He thought he'd escaped what the old farmer represented. But by the story's end their mutual understanding affords the only dignity he has.

"Flying Home" and an equally ambitious story, "King of the Bingo Game," also first published in 1944, hint toward the voice Ellison was to find for Invisible Man. In both stories, narrative emphasis shifts from external detail to the point of view in the protagonist's head, an anxious concentration on the main character's being surrounded by uncomprehending, potentially hostile spectators. But both are apprentice work. The short story from wouldn't accommodate Ellison's need to describe experience as he had "seen and felt it," because he couldn't assume his readers would understand what he meant by the diversity of experience among blacks. His own consciousness had been formed by a multiplicity of sensations, from a love of observing the weather to listening to different styles among Negro preachers.

Neither the naturalism nor the straight realism of the short story suited his temperament. He wanted to extend realism somehow to find a way to include the chaos of life as it had passed before him. Soon after Ellison had completed these exercises he made his leap. Ellison began Invisible Man in 1945. Two years later a segment appeared in Horizon in a special issue on America. It would be another five years before the work was finished.


Ellison had almost as much to say about Invisible Man as his critics did. In his preface for the thirtieth-anniversary edition he recalled that his novel's prologue came to him as a voice that interrupted the war novel he was writing about a black American pilot imprisoned in a German camp. Ellison respected message from that empire, the unconscious, and he described himself as being suddenly in the service of "a taunting, disembodied voice." His "spokesman for invisibility" would not be one of those protagonists in African-American fiction who were "without intellectual depth." He said he was trying to avoid writing what would amount to just another novel of racial protest instead of the "dramatic study in comparative humanity" that "any worthwhile novel should be."

Ellison in his preface said that he had associated his invisible man "ever so distantly" with the narrator of Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground, but the connection is clear. Golyadkin remembers trying to pick a fight with a six-foot-tall blond officer, who moved him to another spot and walked on. "I could have forgiven blows, but how could I forgive just being moved like that and being so completely ignored?" Golyadkin could not treat the officer as an equal even on the street. He stepped aside, "nothing but a fly before all that fine society."

Ellison's unnamed narrator recalls the night he bumped into a tall blond man who then uttered an insult. The narrator seized him and demanded an apology. The black man kept kicking and butting him until the white man went down. He was ready to slit his throat, "when it occurred to me that the man had not seen me, actually; that he, as far as he knew, was in the midst of a walking nightmare!" He is talking about the habit of whites not to notice blacks, not to differentiate among them. While Dostoevsky's narrator, speaking "from under the floor," inspired Ellison's metaphor of invisibility, it was the marginal urban philosopher himself who may have given Ellison confidence in the fluency of his narrator's hallucinations.

Dostoevsky's clerk is socially superfluous but well read. He says that the only external sensations available to him are in reading. Apart from his reading, he has nothing to respect in his surroundings. He mocks the romantic pretensions in Russian thinking at the time by identifying with them, by knowing all the fashionable phrases. Ellison's narrator has a similar relationship to the talismanic phrases of Negro up-lift and education. In his search for Negro leadership he tries a variety of styles, and his dreams of success prove as false as Golyadkin's literary postures.

Invisibility, Ellison said, also sprang from the "great formlessness of Negro life" which produced personalities of "extreme complexity." This complexity explains why Ellison was enthralled by the narrative voice he had found. The narrator's sheer articulateness is his advantage over racial prejudice. It gives him the victory of the more profound understanding. The tragic face behind the comic mask that Ellison felt was so central to black folk culture was really intelligence, the black person's conscious refusal to accept any interpretations of reality other than his own.

Dostoevsky's example of a deracinated, educated character freed Ellison from the piety of the articulate black first-person narrators of earlier black fiction, who were resolutely middle-class. The anonymous narrator of James Weldon Johnson's novel The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912) is a precursor of Ellison's invisible black man. His is also a story retold in isolation. Johnson's narrator remembers a series of disillusioning experiences as a young, aristocratic mulatto. But he looks back on his life as a black from the psychological prison of having chosen to pass for white. Ellison's narrator doesn't pass, but he disappears underground, in order to start talking. Ellison wanted to comment on the theme of upward mobility by having his character go down and "rise" by expressing his inward self while down, the "transformation from ranter to writer."

Ellison's narrator has made the journey from the rural South to the urban North often related in autobiographies by blacks. He recalls the experience in black politics that he survived before he went underground, from Southern paternalism at a Tuskegee-like college to radical agitation in a volatile Harlem. Crammed with incident, dense with metaphor and symbol, the novel is full of speech makers: black educators, left-wing organizers, a West Indian black nationalist. The invisible man himself makes speeches in his helpless progress from naive class orator performing, for his hometown big shots to embittered eulogist of a fellow political organizer in Harlem. When he is not wondering where he is or how he got there, someone is talking at him or around him, usually a working-class black man or black woman. How they talk and what they talk about from the "underground of American experience" that is Ellison's main subject.

They tell stories within the story. They are the carriers of the friendly down-home customs, playful ways of speaking, and relaxed attitudes about daily life that the invisible man thinks he must repudiate in order to advance. The sharecroppers, war veterans, bartenders, landladies, street vendors, and random pedestrians he meets from a chorus of folk values. They are "too obscure for learned classification, too silent for the most sensitive recorders of sound; of natures too ambiguous for the most ambiguous words." These transitory people "write no novels, histories or other books" and have no one to applaud the glamour of their language. But the unwritten history contained in their sayings and songs contradicts the political theories and sociological prejudices from which the narrator has been trying to forge his identity.

He can only appreciate these folk truths once he has broken with the Brotherhood, an organization much like the Communist Party. Ellison not only made room for so many recognizable social types in his narrator's odyssey, he also had a talent for rendering traits that were usually laughed at into something strange and threatening, like the suspicious black men in the narrator's rooming house who hold menial jobs but nevertheless dress fastidiously and observe a strict social code. Ellison is merciless in his portrayal of the cynicism of the Brotherhood's members. His narrator makes cuckolds of the leaders. Their women pine for black brutes. To all of them he is either a tool or an entertainer. They no more want him to think than they expect Paul Robeson to be able to act on stage.

He submits to the Brotherhood's discipline. "If I couldn't help them to see the reality of our lives I would help them to ignore it until it exploded in their faces." But the Brotherhood dupes him and abandons Harlem to black nationalist forces. Harlem erupts following a cop's shooting of an idealistic black organizer who, disgusted by his misplaced faith, had resorted to selling Sambo dolls on the street. At first the invisible man exults in the destruction as an action by the people that did not come from ideology. But the smashing and burning convince him that the Brotherhood was willing to sacrifice Harlem, that its new alliances in city politics meant that it welcomed the repression of blacks. He falls down a manhole and escapes.

He tells himself to stop running from the people in authority who had always had control over him and to run instead from "their confusion, impatience, and refusal to recognize the beautiful absurdity of their American identity and mine." After his surreal descent from politician to looter to someone hibernating and speaking "on the lower frequencies," the narrator, "hurt to the point of invisibility," wonders if maybe blacks didn't have to "affirm the principle on which the country was built, and not the men, or at least not the men who did the violence," or even to take responsibility "for the men as well as the principle in order to find transcendence.

This message of enlightened endurance is unexpected because, apart from some gorgeous nostalgic passages about Southern settings early on, Invisible Man is grim in its scenery and paranoid in mood. The narrator reminisces as someone who has been taught to behave from the conviction that everyone he encounters is conspiring to do something to him. He is in command of the solitude of his hiding place, a hole in a basement that he has wired with 1,369 filament light bulbs. Perhaps the paranoia is fitting for a novel about blacks as a transplanted, unwelcomed people.

But Ellison's idea of the complexity and resilience of black folk also included the possibility that they were capable of a mournful patriotism in spite of everything that had gone wrong since Reconstruction. Ellison's narrator is more likely to speak of American society than of white society, because the plurality of the term, American, would indicate that he has a share in the national life, "the whole unhappy territory and all the things loved and unlovable in it." Though Ellison in his novel has contempt for white paternalism of any kind, the anti-communism of Invisible Man shows the change in the Party's image since the war. Ellison had praised Native Son as a philosophers book when it appeared in 1940. But as a novel of political ideas Invisible Man shows no sympathy for the radical alliances of the Depression that informed Wright's best-known work.

McCarthyism's power was increasing when Invisible Man was published in 1952. The same year Partisan Review declared that American artists were at last discovering enough on their own shores to sustain them. Langston Hughes was soon to face committee hearings; Richard Wright was in exile in Paris, ignored, he feared, by American critics. James Baldwin had attacked protest writing in Partisan Review in 1949, but he, like Chester Himes, was also living in Europe. Ellison, however, after a stint at the American Academy in Rome from 1955 to 1957, returned to America and stayed American—not bohemian, not queer, not married to a white woman, not a former Marxist, not a novelist of racial victimization.

In the immediate aftermath of World War II black writers like Wright, Himes, and Anne Petry had brought out works of protest, but not until the 1960s would there again be anything comparable to their aggressiveness in exposing the country's racial violence. Realism is always a vital force. It never goes out of date, providing one has a new subject. As the cold war took hold, the cultural moment, in fiction by blacks, seemed to belong to introspective coming-of-age novels, to Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953) or Paule Marshall's Brown Girl, Brownstones (1959). What sets the fabulism of Invisible Man apart from the realism of its time is the atmosphere it conveys of Ellison's having asked as much of the novel, stylistically, as he did of his subject matter.

Invisible Man gives a sense of Ellison's having patiently saved up a great stock of observation and ideas for the release of composition. Though some of the incidents in the novel were based on actual events, it is not a transcription of experience. It is clearly an invention, and its incidents are so fantastic that it can't remotely be read as a case study. Ellison had no interest in pretending that his book was like life, an expression perhaps of his Modernist disdain for journeyman realism. To judge from some "Working Notes" on the metaphor of invisibility, written around the time he began Invisible Man, he had higher aspirations for his novel.

His perfectionism counted for everything—in the meticulousness of the novel's conception, the confidence of its structural devices, and especially in the lavishness of its rhetorical displays. For a story about someone remembering his own spiritual fog, the narrator is precise in his language and perceptions, in his recall of so many idioms, as though they were reproduced by an ear trained for musical memory. Ellison's governing presence is never far from the frame of the narrator's personality, and the virtuosity of his narrative voice was central to Ellison's ambition. In Philip Rahv's historical view which split American literature into the two camps of paleface and redskin, Ellison would have wanted to be counted among the patricians of sensibility.

He was a paleface with a subject long dominated in his youth by redskins. A high literary finish was therefore the quality that would most distinguish Ellison's prose style from Wright's broad stream of speech. It's no scandal that Ellison might have wanted to produce a work free of or even superior to Wright's. When Ellison was at work on Invisible Man, Wright was the most famous black writer in the US, the first to enjoy the financial relief of a best-seller. In 1945 Ellison wrote a thoughtful review of Black Boy in which he tried to reconcile Wright's bleak picture of the South with his own idea of the black community as a place where the imaginative life is encouraged.

However, the same year, 1953, that Ellison spoke at the National Book Award ceremonies about Invisible Man's significance being in its "experimental attitude," its presentation of "the rich diversity" of American "unburdened by the narrow naturalism" that had led to so much "unrelieved despair" in current fiction, Wright published an "existentialist" novel, The Outsider, to very mixed reviews. In a Time magazine article dismissible of the fears of totalitarianism in the US expressed in the novel, and suspicious of Wright's residency in France, Ellison is quoted as saying, "After all, my people have been here for a long time. It is a big wonderful country, and you can't just turn away from it because some people decide it isn't your country." The New Masses feeling was obsolete.

Wright himself had been trying to find an alternative to the racial situations of his earlier fictions. The Outsider had its origins in a long story. "The Man Who Lived Underground," published in 1944 in an anthology, Cross Section. In this story about the nature of guilt, Wright combines naturalism with stream-of-consciousness techniques. It opens with a man, not immediately identified as black, eluding police by slipping down a manhole into a sewer. He'd been beaten into signing a confession for a murder he didn't commit. He becomes a phantom hunter-gatherer, eventually rigging his cave with electricity.

Holes in brick walls allow him to spy on the daily life of others. He gains access to a jewelry shop, which he robs. When out of curiosity he goes back to the jeweler's he observes the night watchman accused of the robbery kill himself after a brutal police interrogation. Driven by inchoate feelings he returns to the surface. He is unable to remember his name and his story isn't believed. He sounds like just another raving black man. The murder he was almost framed for has been solved, but the police decide not to risk that he had indeed witnessed their torture of the night watchman. He leads them to his manhole. "You've got to shoot his kind. They'd wreck things." Sewer waters carry the body off.


Wright died in 1960. In the years that followed Ellison had occasion to reflect on his relation to Wright, especially when critics linked him with Baldwin as a black writer whose aestheticism had betrayed the social mission of black literature as exemplified by Wright. In response Ellison on invoked "the American Negro tradition" that abhors trading on one's anguish and teaches strategies of survival instead. A tenacious hold on the ideal of ultimate freedom, he contended, was as characteristic of blacks as the "hatred, fear, and vindictiveness" that Wright chose to give emphasis to. One wonders why Ellison assumed that holding on to ideals of freedom was separate from or contradictory to the fear and anger of the lives Wright investigated.

Ellison asserted his belief that "true novels," even the most pessimistic, arose from the compulsion to celebrate human life, that they were therefore "ritualistic and ceremonial at their core." Wright on the other hand, in Ellison's summary, believed in the novel as a weapon or an instrument of public relations. Wright, he said, was more of a problem for a young black writer like Baldwin than he was for him anyway. Wright was not the "father" in his way because they were too close in age. "I simply stepped around him." By 1940, he said, Wright had begun to view him as a rival and he had ceased to show Wright his work. Had he wanted to study a protest novel in the first place, Malraux's Man's Fate was superior to Native Son in his opinion.

To me Wright as a writer was less interesting than the enigma he personified: that he could so dissociate himself from the complexity of his background while trying so hard to improve the condition of black men everywhere; that he could be so wonderful an example of human possibility but could not for ideological reasons depict a Negro as intelligent, as creative or dedicated as himself.

Bigger Thomas was intended as "a subhuman indictment of white oppression." Wright could imagine Bigger, Ellison said, but someone like Bigger could not imagine a black man like Richard Wright. Even if Ellison recoiled from the tabloid sources of Wright's plots, one wonders why Ellison overlooked how hard it is to make a simple person convincing on the page. Wright made Bigger uncertain in speech, but he did not leave him without powers of reflection.

Ellison illustrated through his articulate narrator the black presence in the country as a king of "pure" intelligence. It's as though he thought of the memories and feelings of blacks as being like signals not detected by others by which certain people recognize one another. But what Wright made intelligible through Bigger was the inner state of someone unseen, even by himself, because of his caste. Wright broke psychological and physical taboos in his portrayal of how race affected human relations. In some ways as a popular writer he was more innovative than Ellison, a "custodian of the American language," as he called himself.

Wright had told Ellison in Paris that after his rupture with the Communists he had no place else to go. To Ellison Wright's main problem was that Marxism closed off to him the world of black folk because it had made him so negative about it. He claimed that Wright didn't understand the "catharsis of tears," the release of shouting in church, and that because Wright didn't know anything about jazz, he was not in full possession of African-American culture.

Ellison said his goal in Invisible Man had been "to transcend, as the blues transcend the painful conditions with which they deal." Perhaps that was why he sometimes seemed to be talking about his book as though it were a trickster tale, whose blameless narrator's voice, for all his forth-rightness, was a clever means of making his "truths" palatable, of sneaking them up on readers without setting off racial radar. When he maintained that the motives behind his own writing were "by no means racial" and that he had resolved not to succumb to "the deadly and hypnotic temptation to interpret the world and all its devices in terms of race," he was looking at black life as a kind of inexhaustible, abiding reserve that would make the fictions that could capture its essence immune to changes in social mood. "Novels are time-haunted. Novels achieve timelessness through time."

Folklore, as Ellison discussed it, was above politics; it existed in nature, like a river that never stopped flowing, but was different from the idealized ruralism white writers had invested with conservative social values, from the plantation tradition of the 1830s to Agrarianism. Yet it's not always clear what Ellison meant by folklore: a recognizable style in the arts in some cases, in others an art form in itself. Most often he seemed to classify it as the "rich oral literature" that had been a part of the cultural climate of his upbringing. Folklore provided "the first drawings of a group's experiences" but these drawings were usually "crude." The feeling found in churches, school-yards, barbershops, and cotton-picking camps was a resource that was waiting until, in his explanation. Dostoevsky and Joyce taught him that he, too, could make it the stuff of literature. To Wright, however, folklore was the back-water hell he had fled.

Regardless of their different attitudes to folk culture, Wright and Ellison were both products of their reading, as Ellison tirelessly pointed out. And they read the same things, as he noted less often. Writings by blacks from the nineteenth century were unavailable to them in their youth in a way that is inconceivable now. Perhaps very little of it would have satisfied their standards. It is very moving that they shared a passion for the weird English of the Constance Garnett translations, that circulated widely in the US beginning in the 1920s. For both, nineteenth-century Russian literature, with its drifting urban characters, tied-down serfs, and worries about Westernization, was an alternative literary past. Their own common themes had antecedents in a literature that did not require the filtering out or the explaining away of how blacks were depicted.

Still, Ellison reacted very strongly to the way blacks were portrayed in American literature. Over the years he returned to the same great writers in essay after essay, refining his judgments, redefining his relation to them. He was especially drawn to ponder the examples of Twain and Hemingway. Ellison cherished Huckleberry Finn because Twain had allowed the runaway slave to stand with all his ambiguity as a universal symbol of Man. But what Twain achieved in the character of Jim and his friendship with Huck signaled, for Ellison, a missed opportunity. He lamented the disappearance, beginning in the twentieth century, of "the human Negro" from American fiction. Writers of the Lost Generation were only interested in their personal freedom, which made their cries of alienation a "swindle." Hemingway was more concerned with "technical perfection" than with "moral insight." Ellison also criticized Hemingway for wanting to excise the anti-slavery theme from Huckleberry Finn, thus reducing it to a boy's story.

Ellison took personally the overall absence of blacks in Hemingway's American reality. It is easy to imagine the effect Hemingway had on Ellison when he first read his stories in Esquire in an Alabama barbershop or when he hiked through the Ohio winter to get the New York newspapers with the dispatches Hemingway sent from Republican Spain. Ellison said Hemingway's struggle with form made him "a cultural hero," but he also probably identified with the trout fishing or with Nick Adams remembering the face the undertaker had put on his father. Also, Hemingway had become famous while still in his twenties.

In time Ellison forgave Twain's heir by looking beyond Hemingway's bias, he said, in order to appreciate the truths revealed by his art. He proclaimed that Hemingway had been "the true father-as-artist" of aspiring writers of the 1930s. Ellison no longer accused Hemingway of moral diffidence. Ellison also said that he learned to lead a bird from reading Hemingway and as a result was able to feed himself and his brother by hunting in the Ohio woods.

No doubt Twain and Hemingway appealed to Ellison as writers of masculine adventures. The work of these redskins also represented to him the literary arrival of the American vernacular, just the sort of contribution he hoped to make to American literature, if in paleface terms. Ellison's sense of what literature was, like Wright's, came mostly from white European and white American writers, who seemed to set the standards because their work survived fashion. Both had grown up in the days when black literature was regarded as necessarily inferior, still in its "infancy," which was why they were determined to rescue those white writers whom they admired. Wright once worried about his fondness for Gertrude Stein's Three Lives after reading an article that condemned her as decadent. He gathered a group of black stockyard workers together in a Chicago Black Belt basement and read "Melanctha" to them. They laughed, stomped, and howled, he said. "They understood every word."

Poor frivolous, forgotten Harlem Renaissance. Hughes was very much around when Wright and Ellison were starting out, but they were ambivalent about his work. One would think both would have been more sympathetic to a literary movement among blacks that had as a driving force the wish to assimilate some of the developments of Modernism. But just as blacks tend to look at the political and social advances of the generation before them as being partial, incremental, so, too, the literature of a previous generation seems to require completion. As such, books by blacks from an earlier era were treated as raw material—somewhat like folklore, in Ellison's case. He had criticized William Attaway's novel about the migrating folk, Blood on the Forge (1941), for being too despairing, as if to say the ingredients were there but Attaway had got it wrong and the subject needed the corrective of Ellison's more forgiving optimism.

A biography of Ellison may one day tell us whether or not he read James Weldon Johnson or Claude McKay, with their bookish main characters inhibited by their education and trying to get back to their roots. Ellison's invisible man does pretty much the same, deciding to breathe the stench and sweetness of Louis Armstrong's Old Bad Air.

It would have been Jim Crow thinking. Ellison said, for him to model himself only on other black writers. He was adamant about the distinction between his literary "ancestors"—Melville, Twain, Crane, Hemingway. Faulkner—and his literary "relatives"—Hughes, Wright, Haldwin. There still is a tendency among black writers to compete with one another, as if only one of them could be left standing by the chair marked Black Writer, in the way that many women writers really compete with other women writers, not with men. What at first glance looks like snobbery on Ellison's part was perhaps an attempt to withdraw from that kind of competition, to try instead to occupy one of the chairs marked, simply, Writer, (Interestingly enough, both Wright and Ellison wrote scenes in which blacks are manipulated into boxing for the amusement of a white audience.) Nevertheless, everything Ellison did not want to be mistaken for made him fetishistic in his attitude toward tradition. Some Jim Crow thinking seeped into Ellison's resentment of Wright's shadow, as though having to define himself against a black writer were not as literary as Henry James marking his departure from another New Englander, Hawthorne.

Invisible Man came out roughly in the middle of Ellison's life, dividing his biography, and, just as a prism bends light, giving to his contemplations after 1952 a meaning altogether different from the quests of his apprenticeship. The longer he worked at his second novel, the more his identity as a writer was invested in his first novel's reputation. His later essays defend his slowness and the mastery implicit in his taking his time. Ellison wrote superbly about Mark Twain or Stephen Crane, but he was also prone to windy meditations on the novel as an abstract form. Someone unafraid of titles such as "The Novel as a Function of American Democracy" is gripping a top branch in the Tree of Seriousness.

Perhaps Ellison's fortress tone had something to do with his being largely self-educated. The cultural climate in which it was customary to wonder about black's educational or intellectual preparation may be why one can sometimes sense in Ellison's saturation in the New Criticism, in his devotion to speculations about form, symbol, and myth, a determination to show that a black writer could be terrifically thoughtful about what he was up to that he could respond to Kenneth Burke or hold his own against Trilling. It was also a way for him, as a black, to participate in American culture. Moreover, literature was the god that had not failed. Consequently, Ellison stood by the black writer's right not to be a spokesman, a leader. The only mention of Du Bois in his essays is a suggestion that one ought to ask why Du Bois failed to become as powerful a politician as Booker T. Washington and that if Du Bois was not as good a sociologist as Max Weber one ought to say so. Maybe he meant that Du Bois had tried to be too many things. Ellison said he believed that black people recognized a division of labor in the struggle, that his being the best novelist he could be was his contribution to that struggle, and that this effort required that he resist distractions and reductive thinking. He made a distinction between art and politics, as in his criticism of Robert Lowell for declining an invitation to the White House in 1965 as a protest against US involvement in Vietnam. Ellison had accepted the invitation, saying the evening had been about art, not politics.

Ellison's Americanism was like his pride in his literary pedigree: it seemed proof of his independence of mind as a black. His strict attention in public to literary matters was also a way of resisting other people's ideas about how to be "a good Negro," even though, traditionally, it was the angry black who was urged to be good. He said that he found it less painful to move to the back of a bus than to "tolerate concepts which distorted the actual reality of my situation or my reactions to it."

Modernism was the great universalizer, which was what Ellison was responding to when he read The Waste Land all alone down there in Tuskegee. It crossed national and linguistic boundaries. Why not the color line? As liberating as Modernism was, the cost for the doctrine of newness was the culture of forced originality that haunts us still. With Ellison the burden translated into regarding his work as a culmination, an indisputable summing up. Often a writer can't repeat the inspiration of his or her first book, but it is unusual when that work is of the order of Invisible Man. What came after Ulysses? The saying that a first novel is never finished, merely abandoned, does not apply to Ellison. Something like the opposite happened. He finished Invisible Man and that monument to literary longings held him hostage for the rest of his dignified life.

Karl Miller (review date 25 July 1997)

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SOURCE: "Notes of a Native Son," in Times Literary Supplement, July 25, 1997, p. 22.

[In the following review, Miller provides a positive assessment of Flying Home and Other Stories.]

Ralph Ellison's celebrated novel Invisible Man, seven years in the making, appeared in 1952. It is an American Gothic delirium. Writing about it in such terms, a few years later, in his great book of the 1960s, Love and Death in the American Novel, Leslie Fiedler saw a method in the "madness" he took it to contain. The reason why this madness carried conviction was that "the Negro problem in the United States" was "a gothic horror of our daily lives".

The old-fashioned apartheid expression, "the Negro problem", should not prevent one from accepting that the novel's first-person narrator is an incarnation of the problem which America's Negroes have had to live with. Their very name has been a problem, and has been subject to change. What has been done to them can become the question of who they are. The narrator's identity is projected in the novel as uncertain, phantasmagoric. And his invisibility is as phantasmagoric as his identity. The vivid black people who figure in it are, in one way, far from uncertain; nor, in that way, is the narrator. But Ellison is pledged to these ideas. And if it isn't always clear, in the more discursive passages of the book, what he means by them, that can in part be construed as almost certainly part of its point.

As with other fictional accounts of the sufferings of American blacks, there is a problem here for any reader who cares about these sufferings. The historical realities that enter Invisible Man are likely to seem as grievous to such a reader as Beloved's scarred back is to the reader of Toni Morrison's novel, and there are times when the anxiety they provoke can almost appear to distract attention from what Ellison is writing. The American magazine Commentary recently praised a black American's "very American sense of right and wrong". Those compatriots who tortured and exploited their black underclass for generations may be presumed to have been deficient in that sense, and they are commemorated in the reading difficulty of a kind which some parts of Ellison's novel can present. One aspect of this difficulty, of this anxiety, is a longing for the novel to succeed. In a letter of his youth, to Richard Wright, Ellison exclaimed: "Workers of the World Must Write!!!!" Ellison wrote, and wrote well, about matters which had to be treated, which must sometimes have seemed almost impossible to treat, and which can make for hard reading of the kind referred to. All honour to him.

There is death in the novel, and love. The narrator says in due course that despite his hate and bitterness he is able to affirm, to say yes as well as no. He has been "hurt to the point of abysmal pain, hurt to the point of invisibility". But "in order to get some of it down I have to love". Ralph Waldo Ellison affirms America, at times. "American is better than both, son", better than brown or white, advises a small boy's father in one of the stories in Flying Home. The narrator's enemies and manipulators in the novel, of both colours, who include a quivering, self-pitying white liberal by the name of Emerson, are said in Existentialist style to have refused to recognize "the beautiful absurdity of their American identity and mine".

Flying Home is a selection of the early stories, some of them discovered by John F. Callahan in a drawer after Ellison's death in 1994. There are thirteen of them, written between 1937 and 1954. "Hymie's Bull", possibly his first, describes the murder of a murderous guard by a freight-hopping hobo—Ellison rode the boxcars himself on his journey south from Oklahoma to the Tuskegee Institute for black students. During the war, service in the Merchant Marine took him to Wales, and there's a story in which the narrator receives a welcome in the valleys and joins in the singing, having been beaten up by some white fellow Americans on the way. The stories are offered as the best of Ellison's published and unpublished "free-standing" short fictions; material associated with the work-in-progress towards a second novel which was to occupy him over the years until his death is excluded. While charged with interest for its admirers, they are stylistically distinguishable from Invisible Man. In the novel, there is a Melville presence. In the stories, Hemingway hovers, not least in the one that starts the book. Editorially titled "A Party Down at the Square", this is a story about a lynching.

It has in it both Hemingway and Huckleberry Finn. "I was sick, and tired, and weak, and cold." This is not the voice of the black man who is about to be burned to death, before an enthusiastic crowd of moralists, one cyclonic Southern night. It is that of the boy from Cincinnati who witnesses the incineration. The Twain irony whereby Huck helps Jim while thinking it wrong to do so is perceptible here in the narrative of someone who has yet to learn that lynching people is wrong: in one sense, an unreliable narrator, but a narrator who gets it all down with a shocking immediacy that can make it difficult to attend to the literature, so to speak, of this well-crafted story.

Flight is a dominant concern throughout. Two country boys chat about flying away from African cannibals intent on sticking spears in their behinds, and attempt to teach a chicken to fly. Elsewhere, in a story set during the Second World War, a black man learns to fly, and flies into turbulence. The pilot is a young man for whom the thought of flight has brought a lump to the throat. But there is more to this than the "lonely impulse of delight" pursued by Yeats's poetic Irish airman. Upward mobility is found to have more than one face. When he hits a buzzard in mid-air and crashes, he is looked after by an old Negro "peasant", who angers the injured pilot, but protects him from a malicious redneck. When the old man asks the pilot why he wants to fly, he thinks to himself; "Because it's the most meaningful act in the world…." Yeatsian enough, perhaps. But there's another reason which occurs to him: "because it makes me less like you". What he actually says is: "It's as good a way to fight and die as I know." But, continues the peasant, "how long you think before they gonna let you all fight?" By the end, the flyer has been brought down to earth, but is uplifted too, by feeling that he is like the old man and his boy, after all. The story belongs to a time when black pilots talked as other people did about "the enemy", as if in their case there was only the one.

"A Coupla Scalped Indians", perhaps the most memorable item, shows the narrator and a friend, two youths recently circumcised, descending through woods towards a carnival. A son du cor floats up towards them in the depths of the woods (Ellison played the cornet in his youth and went to Tuskegee to study composition). The narrator then encounters a wise woman of the neighbourhood, Aunt Mackie, a talker with spirits, who is unusual among literature's wise women in being game for a cuddle. A fierce dog barks in her yard. The woman is as young as she is old. The narrator's bandaged condition joins with Aunt Mackie's strange kiss, with her "smooth body and wrinkled face", to produce the magic appropriate to a rite of passage. Summoned by its horns, he moves off, an older man, in the direction of the fairground, wondering what can have happened to his friend.


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