Characters

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Last Updated on May 14, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1154

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Louis Armstrong
Although no essay in Shadow and Act focuses on Louis Armstrong (1900–1971) alone, Ellison makes reference to him many times throughout the collection, both as a blues master and as a distinctive type of musical performer. In several instances, but most explicitly in ‘‘On Bird, Bird-Watching, and Jazz,’’ Ellison makes the point that although Armstrong’s theatrical, joking, and self-deprecating style is clown-like, it is ‘‘basically a make-believe role of clown.’’ Although other jazzmen, such as Charlie Parker and Miles Davis, sought to disassociate themselves with the role of such performance in the name of respecting their racial identity, Ellison asserts that Armstrong’s strength of lyric and trumpet redeem his performance and make him ‘‘an outstanding creative musician.’’

Bird
See Charlie Parker

Charlie Christian
In ‘‘The Charlie Christian Story,’’ Ellison calls his friend Christian ‘‘probably the greatest of jazz guitarists.’’ Originally from Ellison’s native Oklahoma City, he led a ‘‘spectacular career’’ with the Benny Goodman Sextet and shares with Ellison his training in classical music as a child in the school band. Ellison goes so far as to charge Christian with giving the guitar its jazz voice, and, in so doing, changing the face of the art forever.

Samuel Clemens
See Mark Twain

Stephen Crane
In ‘‘Stephen Crane and the Mainstream of American Fiction,’’ Ellison offers his introduction to the 1960 publication of The Red Badge of Courage. The novel is an acknowledged classic, and Ellison hails Crane as the youngest of the nineteenth- century ‘‘masters of fiction.’’ The youngest of fourteen children and the son of a Methodist minister, Crane (1871–1900) diverged from his family’s religious fundamentalism by immersing himself in all things worldly. Although he was infamous for his adventures and exploits, his writing is sensitive to the individual’s process of selfdefinition in society.

Ralph Waldo Emerson
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882) was the esteemed abolitionist author, speaker, and poet, after whom Ralph Ellison was named.

William Faulkner
In ‘‘Brave Words for a Startling Occasion,’’ Ellison states that as a young writer, he ‘‘felt that except for the work of William Faulkner something vital had gone out of American prose after Mark Twain.’’ Ellison names Faulkner (1897–1962) as another ‘‘literary ancestor.’’ In ‘‘Twentieth-Century Fiction and the Black Mask of Humanity,’’ he takes Faulkner to task for relying too heavily on stereotype in creating black characters for symbolic use, but he suggests ‘‘we must turn to him for continuity of moral purpose which made for the greatest of our classics.’’ Later in the collection, he reviews the film version of Faulkner’s Intruder in the Dust and deems it revolutionary in that ‘‘the role of Negroes in American life has been given what, for the movies, is a startling new definition.’’

Ernest Hemingway
Ernest Hemingway (1899–1961) is another acclaimed twentieth-century writer whom Ellison claims as a ‘‘literary ancestor.’’ Although in one of his earlier pieces in ‘‘Twentieth-Century Fiction and the Black Mask of Humanity,’’ Ellison charges Hemingway with abandoning moral ideals in fiction in favor of technique, he still considers him a greater artist than his mentor, Richard Wright. He states in ‘‘The World and the Jug’’ that Hemingway is more important to him than Wright because his writing

. . . was imbued with a spirit beyond the tragic with which I could feel at home, for it was very close to the feeling of the blues, which are, perhaps, as close as Americans can come to expressing the feeling of tragedy.

Irving Howe
Irving Howe is a Jewish-American author of an essay entitled ‘‘Black Boys and Native Sons’’ for the magazine New Leader. ‘‘The World and the Jug’’ entails Ellison’s two responses to Howe’s assertion that because of his ideological commitment, Richard Wright is a superior artist to Ellison and James Baldwin.

Stanley Edgar Hyman
Stanley Edgar Hyman is a friend of Ellison’s and, in his words, ‘‘an old intellectual sparring partner.’’ In ‘‘Change the Joke and Slip the Yoke,’’ Ellison responds to a lecture Hyman prepared for a series at Brandeis University concerning the African- American relationship to folk tradition. Generally, Ellison contends that Hyman oversimpli- fies the American tradition, particularly when it comes to the practice of blackface, or the ‘‘darky’’ entertainer.

Mahalia Jackson
Mahalia Jackson (1911–1972) was a singer from New Orleans whose performance Ellison reviews in ‘‘When the Spirit Moves Mahalia.’’ Ellison asserts that Jackson synthesizes the best of classic jazz and blues artists such as Bessie Smith, but in the venue in which she was raised, the church. According to Ellison, she merges technique and influence so effectively that he considers her ‘‘not primarily a concert singer but a high priestess in the religious ceremony of her church.’’

Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker (1920–1955) is a famous jazz saxophonist and the subject of ‘‘On Bird, Bird- Watching, and Jazz.’’ In the essay, Ellison reviews a book on Parker that chronicles the artist’s life and exploits. Ellison speculates on the origin of the artist’s nickname, Bird, and how it might relate to his famously erratic, often aberrant behavior, and the function of identity in the public eye. He asserts that Parker resisted the role of entertainer, in contrast to artists such as Louis Armstrong, but ironically eliminated his private life by leading such an infamous public one.

Jimmy Rushing
Jimmy Rushing (1901–1972, though some biography sources list 1903 as a birthdate) is an Oklahoma blues singer whom Ellison eulogizes in ‘‘Remembering Jimmy.’’ He is remembered for his clear, bell-like voice that he paired with dance, and a lyricism that Ellison identifies as ‘‘of the Southwest; a romanticism native to the frontier.’’

Mark Twain
Mark Twain is the pen name of Samuel Clemens (1835–1910), the celebrated American author of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The latter, the story of a southern boy on the run with an escaped slave, is considered his masterpiece. Ellison considers Twain his foremost ‘‘literary ancestor,’’ a writer whose work captures the colloquial language and climate of frontier America, while holding to a moral ideal of democracy. In ‘‘Twentieth-Century Fiction and the Black Mask of Humanity,’’ he applauds Twain’s willingness to represent the black character Jim as a whole, flawed human being rather than an idealized version of a man, and throughout the collection cites him as the father of twentieth-century American fiction.

Richard Wright
Richard Wright (1908–1960) is the African- American author of several controversial, groundbreaking works, namely his memoir Black Boy and the novel Native Son. Wright is recognized as Ellison’s mentor, but their relationship was a charged one. On one hand, Ellison lauds Wright’s work as an exemplary representation of keeping the blues tradition alive by detailing the pain in one’s life. In ‘‘Richard Wright’s Blues,’’ he also praises Wright’s work as an effective means of confronting white America with the brutal reality of the African- American experience. However, later, Ellison asserts several times in Shadow and Act that Wright sacrifices good writing in the interest of ideology.

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