In his introduction to Shadow and Act (1964), Ralph Ellison describes the essays to come as ‘‘an attempt to transform some of the themes, the problems, the enigmas, the contradictions of character and culture native to my predicament, into what Andre Malraux has described as ‘conscious thought.’’’
This collection consists of essays written over two decades, spanning Ellison’s growth as a literary and social critic, his rise to recognition as a serious fiction writer, and his establishment as a thinker and teacher. The essays are divided thematically into three sections; as the author summarizes, they are ‘‘concerned with literature and folklore, with Negro musical expression—especially jazz and the blues— and with the complex relationship between the Negro subculture and North America as a whole.’’
The bulk of the collection consists of the first section, ‘‘The Seer and the Seen,’’ in which Ellison uses interviews and essays to address his personal experience of being what he calls ‘‘Negro American,’’ of African descent, but specifically American. He draws on classic American authors, particularly Twain, Hemingway, Faulkner, and Richard Wright, and both lauds and criticizes them in an effort to represent his experience. ‘‘Sound and the Mainstream’’ explores the way music is fundamental to his life and chronicles the careers and influence of several artists.
Shadow and the Act draws on different aspects of the way African American and Caucasian AmeriS can culture intersect. In keeping with his lifelong commitment to representing the individual with integrity, Ellison draws on personal anecdotes as well as his sophisticated analyses of literary and musical culture in an effort to chronicle his experience of being an African American.