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Ellison’s Essays

Shadow and Act

by Ralph Ellison
Random House, 317 pp., $5.95

Shadow and Act contains Ralph Ellison’s real autobiography—in the form of essays and interviews—as distinguished from the symbolic version given in his splendid novel of 1952, Invisible Man Some of the twenty-odd items in it were written as early as 1942, and not all of them have been published before. One or two were rejected by liberal periodicals, apparently because Ellison insisted on saying that Negro American life was not everywhere as hellish or as inert or as devastated by hatred and self-hatred as it was sometimes alleged; it is not unlikely that liberal criticism will be equally impatient with this new book. Most of the pieces, were, however, written after Invisible Man and in part are a consequence of it. They may even help to explain the long gap of time between Ellison’s first novel and its much awaited successor. There have been other theories about this delay: for example, an obituary notice by Le Roi Jones who, in a recent summary of the supposedly lethal effect of America upon its Negro writers, referred to Ellison as “silenced and fidgeting away in some college.” But he has not been silent, much less silenced—by White America or anything else. The experiences of writing Invisible Man and of vaulting on his first try “over the parochial limits of most Negro fiction” (as Richard G. Stern says in an interview), and, as a result, of being written about as a literary and sociological phenomenon, combined with sheer compositional difficulties, seem to have driven Ellison to search out the truths of his own past. Inquiring into his experience, his literary and musical education, Ellison has come up with a number of clues to the fantastic fate of trying to be at the same time a writer, a Negro, an American, and a human being.

It is hard at the best of times to be even two of those things; the attempt to be all four must be called gallant. For even those among us who consent to Negroes being accepted as human beings, don’t really want them to be writers. We want them to be warriors, and wounded warriors at that; with their creative talents enlisted in the (great and real) struggle for racial justice. This is our curious contemporary device for keeping the Negro in his place, which, when it is not on the actual battlefield, is thought to be in some immitigable psychological hell. When a Negro like Ellison says, “Why, this is not altogether hell, after all,” and then goes on to talk about the role and responsibility of the writer, his remarks are resented as mere aestheticism, or worse, as a kind of betrayal. A good many pages of Shadow and Act describe Ellison’s patient effort to explain the organic relation between his personal sense of life, his racial and national identity, and his chosen artistic vocation: to explain, not how he sought to escape or deny his Negroness by fleeing into the color-less domain of art, but how it has been essentially as a writer that he managed to discover what it means for him to be a Negro American and a human being. It is obviously a tough point to get across.

Ellison works towards that point from several directions and in various modes. In interviews with Richard Stern and the editors of the Paris Review, he reflects on the origins of Invisible Man, on the devious craft of fiction, and on the usual failure of dialogue between Negro writer and white reader. In an exchange with Stanley Edgar Hyman he argues for the “specificity” of literary works, including his own, and questions the value of “archetype-hunting,” especially since, with Negro writing, it tends to re-impose the stereotypes Negroes are most anxious to shake off. On the question of a “Negro culture,” Ellison rejects the notion of African antecedents. “I know of no valid demonstration,” he says, “that culture is transmitted through the genes…The American Negro people is North American in origin…its spiritual outlook is basically Protestant, its system of kinship is Western, its time and historical sense are American.” In essays on twentieth-century fiction and on Stephen Crane, and in a speech in 1953 accepting the National Book Award, Ellison evinces just that outlook and sense of kinship; though, as I’ll suggest, in beguilingly specialized terms.

It is above all in an autobiographical lecture called “Hidden Name and Complex Fate,” and in a long reply to an essay by Irving Howe, that Ellison confronts these intertwining issues with full intellectual and imaginative authority. Elsewhere the book’s central argument is at times spotty and groping, and once in a while gummy; but these two pieces have an assurance and a truth that are bound to unsettle and dismay all those whose minds have grown rigid with the fixed concept of the American Negro as trapped agony incarnate.

The Oklahoma of Ellison’s childhood had joined the Union long after the Emancipation, and hence had no tradition of slavery except for the ancestral memories brought into it by the descendants of slaves. Even those memories were effectively diverse; for while “slavery was a most vicious system and those who endured and survived it a tough people,” Ellison observes, a person born into slavery might look forward to becoming “a coachman, a teamster, a cook, the best damned steward on the Mississippi, the best jockey in Kentucky, a butler, a farmer, a stud, or, hopefully, a free man!” In Oklahoma, there was segregation, to be sure; though perhaps less thirty years ago than now; but there was always a certain amount of elbow-room. The experience of precarious freedom within carefully defined limits made Ellison aware of a similar phenomenon in the music of the southwestern jazzmen of the day. Their music expressed for him “the freedom lying within the restrictions of their musical traditions as within the limitations of their social background.” The sense of that twofold possibility—artistic and social—remained with Ellison when he moved on later to the deep South and then to New York City. He is aware that Oklahoma was not Harlem: that is just his point. His point, too, is that Harlem—particularly Harlem as currently imagined—is not Oklahoma; and that there is a variety that adds spice and vigor and even a sort of battered enjoyment to American Negro life, and that those qualities should be added to the anguish and the appalling humiliations in any account of it.

There were separate but equal moviehouses back in Oklahoma, standing shoulder to shoulder and entered from the same doorway. But, Ellison remarks dryly, “I went to the movies to see pictures, not to be with whites.” He also went to the library. Ellison seems to have known what every aspiring writer has to know: that his apprenticeship can take place only in literature. In “Black Boys and Native Sons,” Irving Howe, while admiring Invisible Man, accused Ellison of forgetting the urgencies of the Negro cause in the interests of mere “literature,” and of failing in particular to continue along the savage polemical path mapped out by Richard Wright. In reply, Ellison argues that, quite apart from the frozen inaccuracy of Howe’s and Wright’s appraisal of the Negro situation, Negro writers do not and cannot descend from Negroes, but from writers. “James Baldwin,” he goes on, “is the product not of a Negro store-front church but of the library, and the same is true of me.” It is depressing to realize that this is a daring statement. (But it is the kind of insight that distinguishes a genuine writer.)

As a novelist, Ellison was drawn to the novels of Dostoevsky and Conrad, and much more to those of Malraux (though not, oddly enough, to Silone, with whom he has much in common, attempting, like Silone, to convert political violence into poetry, from the periphery of the culture into which he is moving). But as a Negro American writer, he was drawn to the classical period of American literature—and exactly because he found there “the conception of the Negro as the symbol of Man.” I am not quite convinced that slavery and the Negro were as central to the imaginations of Whitman, Emerson, Thoreau, Melville, and Mark Twain as Ellison makes out. But his reading of these writers, like Eliot’s Protestant American reading of Donne and Dante, is the critical paraphrase by which every authentic writer creates a new literary tradition for himself, to suit his artistic needs and abilities. Melville and Mark Twain and other writers showed Ellison how to give shape to his subject: that is, to his experience, as a Negro in modern America. Drawing on earlier treatments of the Negro as the symbol of Man, Ellison found ways not only to articulate, but to universalize his own complex identity—and to celebrate its pain-wracked, eternally wondering and comical nature. Writers after Mark Twain have been mainly useful to him because of their technical skills; for, except in the novels of Faulkner, Ellison finds that “the human Negro” has to a large extent disappeared from American fiction, has been replaced by Jim Crow (whose late arrival in fiction Ellison describes in a manner similar to C. Vann Woodward’s account of the belated rise of Jim Crow in historic fact).

Ellison had originally expected to make a career in music, as a composer of symphonies and as a jazz trumpeter. He abandoned the notion, but almost a third of Shadow and Act consists of luxuriantly written and affectionate recollections of jazzmen and singers of blues and spirituals. There is also a review of Le Roi Jones’s book, Blues People, in which Ellison contends characteristically that, by treating his subject sociologically, Jones failed to see that music was what slaves had instead of freedom and that, later, the blues were what Negroes had instead of religion. In both epochs, he suggests, music was the vehicle by which an otherwise powerless black people could profoundly influence, could indeed enthrall or counter-enslave, the white people. This section of Ellison’s book contains the least intimidating, because the most unpretentious and humane, descriptions of Negro musical expression that I have read. And when Ellison defines the blues as the “chronicle of personal catastrophe expressed lyrically,” and as “an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one’s aching consciousness…and to transcend it, not by the consolations of philosophy but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism”—he makes the same connection between art and experience, that he makes in the essays on literature and his autobiographical memoir. One can also make out a fairly exact summary of the themes of Invisible Man.

This may be the worst possible moment for an attempt at dialogue between or about Negroes and whites in America. But Ellison’s demonstration of his identity had a singular effect upon me. The more he invoked the phrase “Negro American,” the more I found myself mumbling to myself the phrase “White American”—not in pride nor shame, but with a shock of recognition. Ellison’s identity, because of the power and wisdom and stubborn sanity of its pronouncement, serves to limit mine, to establish its boundaries and focus its intermixing elements. No experience is more to be cherished; for Ellison is not only a self-identifier but the source of self-definition in others. At just that point, a falsely conceived integration (the melting of indistinguishable persons) ceases, and the dialogue can begin.

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