Themes

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Frontier
In his introduction to Shadow and Act, Ellison asserts that as a Negro American born in Oklahoma in post-Civil War America, he is a ‘‘frontiersman.’’ By Ellison’s definition, the American frontier is the territory of the individual, the realm in which, like Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, he is allowed to seek out his destiny, make rash, ‘‘quixotic gestures’’ and approach the world as full of possibility, unhampered by categorical limitations such as race. Ellison attributes this self-image to his childhood in a community rich in diverse cultural influences in a state unburdened by pre-Civil War affiliations of North or South. Throughout Shadow and Act, Ellison uses the image of the frontier as synonymous with or tied to ideas of invention, action, newness, culS At several points, for example, he identi- fies the frontier with passion for the outdoors as depicted in Hemingway’s work. At other points, he identifies the frontier with the world of Huckleberry Finn and his quality of self-invention and adventure. In other contexts, he asserts that jazz is a form of the frontier, in the sense that it is an expression and outgrowth of African-American culture, an everchanging response of the individual to environment, especially in the arena of the jam session, an act of challenge and self-invention. As he explains in the closing of ‘‘The Art of Fiction: An Interview,’’ Ellison’s understanding of the act of self-representation through writing is an act of shaping culture as he represents his own corner of it. In his words, ‘‘The American novel is in this sense a conquest of the frontier; as it describes our experience, it creates it.’’

Identity
Ellison makes the point that the task of his fiction is to discover exactly who he is, how he defines himself, taking into consideration the filter of American society and his own experience as integrally a part of it. The essays in Shadow and Act embody the author’s efforts to confront and clarify these issues for himself, and in this capacity, they are preoccupied with the issue of identity on many levels. Throughout his career, Ellison has been criticized for what some take to be his lack of militancy, and for his relationship to the classics of American and European literature, many of which are written by white people. In response, the author has always contended that he is an individual in relationship to his environment, and that his work is committed to resisting stereotype, both black and white. The first section of the collection, ‘‘The Seer and the Seen,’’ is particularly devoted to Ellison’s ideas about identity as he examines different ways African Americans are perceived by the mainstream. In some of the essays, he discusses the ways that mainstream American society projects a distorted image of African Americans, while in others, such as his portraits of jazz artists, he fleshes out musicians who have previously been viewed as caricatures through their celebrity. While in ‘‘Twentieth Century Fiction and the Black Mask of Humanity’’ he indicts white authors, such as Faulkner, for presenting only limited African-American characters in their fiction, in ‘‘The World and the Jug’’ he takes Wright to task for creating similarly simple characters out of ideological drive. Ellison plays upon the themes of masking, naming, and role-play; he examines the ways in which Americans keep themselves and others bound by such devices but also suggests the endless possibility implicit there. As he asserts in ‘‘The Art of Fiction: An Interview,’’ the search for identity is ‘‘the American theme.’’

Music
Since Ellison was trained as a composer and raised in a community focused on...

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musical expression, music is central to his identity and his writing. In ‘‘Richard Wright’s Blues,’’ for example, he defines blues as a means of holding and examining the details of one’s pain, and as an expression of African-American life, a means of confronting the mainstream with that pain. He characterizes Wright’s memoirBlack Boy as just such a blues expression. Similarly, elsewhere, such as in ‘‘The Golden Age, Time Past,’’ he examines the way jazz expression is an assertion of self, in the sense that it is a relatively new outgrowth of other musical traditions, and, as such, fundamentally American. Several of his essays commemorate the lives of musicians; in ‘‘As the Spirit Moves Mahalia,’’ for example, he examines the way gospel and blues intersect in one artist’s form, while in his review of a biography of Charlie Parker, he fleshes out the American popular image of the musician. In other essays, such as ‘‘The Sound and the Mainstream,’’ Ellison’s language mirrors the flow of the music he describes; in its own form and in relation to the art of writing, he sees music as critical to the act of African-American expression.

Black and White
As a person of mixed ancestry, black and white, Ellison considers himself a personification of the blend of influences that make up America. His work by definition is about challenging the mythical associations of the polarities of black and white, light and darkness, that are projected upon African Americans in particular. In ‘‘Twentieth-Century Fiction and the Black Mask of Humanity,’’ Ellison asserts that historically ‘‘the Negro and the color black were associated with evil and ugliness.’’ In several places in Shadow and Act he discusses ways in which blackness serves as a metaphor for the buried psychology of all things dark; he asserts that white Americans attribute to African Americans qualities they wish to be disassociated from, such as anger, passion, and sexuality. He examines the ways American culture expresses these stereotypes through literature and film, and how, in his own fiction, he challenges such imagery through depicting a whole, self-contradictory individual. In his commitment to representing himself as a mix of the chaotic influences found in American culture, Ellison draws upon the most obvious metaphors of color to resist simplistic categorization.

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