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...
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