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The Drama of Ralph Ellison

Flying Home and Other Stories

by Ralph Ellison, edited with an introduction by John F. Callahan
Random House, 173 pp., $23.00

The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison

edited with an introduction by John F. Callahan, preface by Saul Bellow
Modern Library, 856 pp., $20.00


Invisible Man holds such an honored place in African-American literature that Ralph Ellison didn’t have to write anything else to break bread with the remembered dead. But he did try to go on, because if a writer has done one great thing then the pressures to do another are intense. A few of Ellison’s short stories from the 1940s and 1950s were widely anthologized over the years. After a while it became generally known that he was at work on another novel. Though he remained aware ever afterward of the authority Invisible Man gave to him, no second novel followed his brilliant debut in 1952.

Ellison published essays, magisterial in tone, often on how a “specifically ‘Negro’ idiom” has influenced and been influenced by the larger American culture, or on the enduring predicament he saw as being at the heart of the American novel, the contradiction between the country’s founding ideals and its actual, though sometimes hidden, caste and racial history. He admired nineteenth-century writers such as Melville and Twain because they believed in works of fiction as repositories of the nation’s social and moral history. Before the undoing of Reconstruction, American novelists took account of the presence of blacks, and this inclusiveness suggested a brave, creative country, in Ellison’s view. From its legacy he derived a lofty sense of his own purpose as an artist and of the novel as a “public gesture.”

Ellison was prominent on the lecture circuit even in the Black Aesthetic days of the Sixties when his defiantly pro-American and prickly-proud intellectual act met with some hostility. Black Power nearly buried his reputation as he faced impolite audiences of black students from Harvard to Iowa, and refused to join in the mood of outrage, declining to call himself black instead of Negro. Meanwhile, chapters of his second novel appeared here and there throughout the 1960s and the 1970s. Eventually the voices of the militants whom he charged with having condescended to blacks faded and became as historical as his memory of Richard Wright falling out with black Communists in Harlem.

Whatever was said about Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man was considered untouchable. For a long time—pre- Song of Solomon days—he was the sole African-American novelist to have won anything as big as the National Book Award. Ellison held distinguished university appointments, received honorary degrees, delivered commencement addresses, granted lengthy interviews, and relished the fellowship of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His work benefited mightily from the rediscovery of folklore in Black Studies and he lived long enough to witness the elevation of Invisible Man to a sort of Ur-text of blackness. “That blackness is most black, brothers, most black,” people like to quote.

By the time Ellison died in 1994 he was regarded as a cultural treasure, a vindicated father figure for a generation of formerly militant and post-militant black writers who wanted folklore, blues, jazz, and black literature to be brainy yet virile subjects. The man of letters in Ellison had flourished, but maybe the writer in him up there on Riverside Drive, with his voluminous black-bound manuscript pages of a “work in progress,” had found it paralyzing to think of the risks in publishing a second novel that might not measure up—or might be said not to measure up—to his one celebrated accomplishment.

To have published only one novel was part of the drama of his distinction. His standing apart because of this novel also became an allegory for one of his most cherished themes: the individuality of the Negro and therefore the complexity of the Negro as an American artist. He wanted to be read on his own terms. In some of the essays originally collected in Shadow and Act (1964) and Going to the Territory (1986), Ellison used his biography to explore the pluralistic irreversibly mixed cultural tradition in which he saw himself working, and which he didn’t think most other Americans, black or white, appreciated enough for its intricacies and ironies.

Perhaps in looking back on his formative years to make his case that there was more to the lives of black people than Jim Crow, Ellison slyly confused the evidence of his own singularity with the argument for “personal realization” and affirmation of self that he claimed were available to all blacks. But Joyce, he noted, was busily establishing the conventions by which he wanted to be read even while he was writing his books. For Ellison this meant challenging misconceptions about the lives of black people and asserting what made his “sense of Negro life” different from that of other black writers.

To begin with there was Oklahoma, where Ellison was born in 1914. During his childhood Oklahoma had some of the worst riots in US history, and this was at a time when a race riot meant whites on the rampage through black neighborhoods. Still, he observed, Oklahoma “had no tradition of slavery, and while it was segregated, relationships between the races were more fluid and thus more human than in the old slave states.” Ellison remembered a white boy called Hoolie, whom he’d met when his mother was working as custodian for some apartments in a white middle-class neighborhood. Hoolie suffered from a rheumatic heart, was being educated at home, and, like Ellison, was lonely for company. Race, Ellison said, didn’t come into their shared enthusiasm as radio buffs and seekers after tuning coils in the garbage. Because the nine-year-old Hoolie approached electronics with “such daring,” knowing him led Ellison, so he claimed, to expect more of himself and the world.

The porousness of the Jim Crow fabric in Oklahoma City not only allowed for exchanges of everyday humanity, but also for an almost subversive cultural flow up and down the social scale. “Any feelings of distrust I was to develop toward white people later on were modified by those with whom I had warm relations. Oklahoma offered many opportunities for such friendships,” he said in an interview in 1961. In his late teens Ellison worked as an elevator operator in the Hub Building on Main Street to earn money for his college tuition. The building’s owners, the Lewinson brothers, were pleased to find him either reading or beating out rhythms on the elevator cage. Ellison had a crush on one of the Lewinson daughters and years later in Italy he told her cousin, the writer Thekla Clark, that when he thought of a father figure he recalled Milton Lewinson’s white mane.

Oklahoma had only been a state seven years when Ellison was born. The black people no less than the white people there, he said, were still imbued with the pioneer spirit. Their aggressive demeanor alone challenged the intentions of segregation. They were also mindful of the Native American elements in their ancestry and environment. This atmosphere of resistance and superiority was part of Ellison’s remembrance of a black community not at all cut off from information, knowledge.

Ellison’s father, a construction foreman, coal and then ice salesman who died when Ellison was three, wanted his oldest son to be a poet, as Ralph Waldo Ellison learned much later. It was not unusual for blacks of his father’s generation to name their children after American heroes, including literary ones. Though Ellison’s mother did not have much formal education, she nevertheless encouraged her two sons by bringing home from her jobs as a domestic discarded books, magazines, opera recordings. Just as he could grow up listening to the radio, like any white kid, he said, so, too, could anybody go to the movies, even if people had by law to sit in different sections.

Ellison remembered as a joy the public library for blacks that had been hastily organized in two large rooms of what had once been a pool hall. He first read Shaw and Maupassant in the home of a friend whose parents were teachers. As adolescents he and his friends told one another that they were going to be “Renaissance men.” “We discussed mastering ourselves and everything in sight as though no such thing as racial discrimination existed.” The first black graduate of Brown, Inman Page, was, in the last years of his career as an educator, principal of Ellison’s high school.

Apart from the editor of the local black newspaper, Oklahoma City “starkly lacked” black writers. Ellison had been a delivery boy for several black newspapers that had nationwide distribution, but “on the level of conscious culture the Negro community was biased in the direction of music.” Dr. Page’s daughter was a leader of the music-in-the-schools movement that swept the nation in the 1920s. She also owned the town’s one black theater and was responsible for its sophisticated repertory. “We were being introduced to one of the most precious of American freedoms, which is our freedom to broaden our personal culture by absorbing the cultures of others.”

Black schoolchildren danced Irish reels and Scottish flings on their segregated playground; black Spanish-American War veterans taught them drills until dusk. Ellison credited his school’s rigorous music program with teaching him the lifelong lesson of “artistic discipline.” The school’s teachers were conventional in their musical tastes, but jazz was inescapable as part of the social life of young black people. Ellison liked to point out that the Kansas City style had its origins among the jazzmen of Oklahoma City.

Ellison’s use of his past to illustrate the workings of “cultural integration” reached beyond the wish to dress up a respectable but humble background. Ellison objected to ideas about black people that depended on a limited picture of what went on in the places blacks came from. He opposed the notion of black life as a “metaphysical condition” of “irremediable agony” because that made it seem as though the lives of blacks either took place in a vacuum or had only one theme. Ellison wanted to confound sociological categories. Consequently, the Tuskegee Institute, Booker T. Washington’s citadel of accommodationism, was his prime example of how misleading the general impression of “American Negro culture” was.

At Tuskegee, where Ellison enrolled in 1933 to study music, his teacher, Hazel Harrison, let him handle manuscripts that Prokofiev had given her. There he was at the institution most associated with the bowing and scraping of vocational education, Ellison seemed to say, and yet he was being initiated into the mysteries of classical music. In The Oregon Trail, Francis Parkman expressed surprise at the French novels he found in a prairie cottage. Ellison answered that they didn’t get there by magic and that as people moved about they became transmitters of culture, practitioners of cultural synthesis.

Ellison once rounded on Irving Howe for saying that he may have read great writers at Tuskegee, but at the same time he would not have been able to attend “the white man’s school or movie house.” To Ellison, this underplayed his freedom of choice and will.

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