Critical Overview

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Shadow and Act was published in 1964, in the wake of the civil rights movement and at the time of the rise of the black power movement. Released only a year after the historic March on Washington, it was met by critics with developed opinions about social reform. Both friends and foes anticipated Ellison’s new work because of the response to his novel, Invisible Man.

In ‘‘Portrait of a Man on His Own,’’ a 1964 New York Times review, George P. Elliot writes that Shadow and Act ‘‘says more about being an American Negro, and says it better, than any other book I know of.’’ He asserts that the last section is ‘‘less distinguished’’ than the first section, ‘‘The Seer and the Seen.’’ He goes on to say, however, that it is when Ellison ‘‘addresses his attention to his particular experience that what the writer says is of the greatest importance.’’ He continues, saying that the essays ‘‘build upon a wisdom—not an intellectual apprehension, but a profound, because experienced, knowledge—of political power and the importance of ideas in shaping society and individuals.’’

Elliot’s enthusiasm, however, does not reflect the whole reception to Shadow and Act. In Improvising America: Ralph Ellison and the Paradox of Form, C. W. E. Bigsby writes that:

Those who, in the 1960s and 1970s, proposed their own prescription for cultural and political responsibility . . . 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.

This idea is echoed in Brent Staples’s 1996 review in which he reports, ‘‘Black radicals scorned [Ellison] as a white folks’ nigger.’’

The mixed response to Shadow and Act is in keeping with response to Ellison’s entire body of work. John Wright summarizes this in ‘‘Slipping the Yoke,’’ an essay in Speaking for You: The Vision of Ralph Ellison, when he writes:

Ralph Ellison’s fiction, essays, interviews, and speeches have been characteristically canny and complex. And both white and black readers of Invisible Man and Shadow and Act have routinely, even ritually, approached the politics, the art, and the ‘racial’ values these books codify in terms narrower than those Ellison himself proposes. In consequence, the body of ‘conscious thought’ he has erected since the 1930s has been left in shadow, artificially isolated from its intellectual roots in Afro-American tradition, and almost invariably denied a critical context as pluralistic in its techniques and cultural references as Ellison’s extraordinary eclecticism demands.

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Essays and Criticism