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The Drama of Ralph Ellison

Wright had told Ellison in Paris that after his rupture with the Communists he had no place else to go. To Ellison Wright’s main problem was that Marxism closed off to him the world of black folk because it had made him so negative about it. He claimed that Wright didn’t understand the “catharsis of tears,” the release of shouting in church, and that because Wright didn’t know anything about jazz, he was not in full possession of African-American culture.

Ellison said his goal in Invisible Man had been “to transcend, as the blues transcend the painful conditions with which they deal.” Perhaps that was why he sometimes seemed to be talking about his book as though it were a trickster tale, whose blameless narrator’s voice, for all his forthrightness, was a clever means of making his “truths” palatable, of sneaking them up on readers without setting off racial radar. When he maintained that the motives behind his own writing were “by no means racial” and that he had resolved not to succumb to “the deadly and hypnotic temptation to interpret the world and all its devices in terms of race,” he was looking at black life as a kind of inexhaustible, abiding reserve that would make the fictions that could capture its essence immune to changes in social mood. “Novels are time-haunted. Novels achieve timelessness through time.”

Folklore, as Ellison discussed it, was above politics; it existed in nature, like a river that never stopped flowing, but was different from the idealized ruralism white writers had invested with conservative social values, from the plantation tradition of the 1830s to Agrarianism. Yet it’s not always clear what Ellison meant by folklore: a recognizable style in the arts in some cases, in others an art form in itself. Most often he seemed to classify it as the “rich oral literature” that had been a part of the cultural climate of his upbringing. Folklore provided “the first drawings of a group’s experiences” but these drawings were usually “crude.” The feeling found in churches, schoolyards, barbershops, and cotton-picking camps was a resource that was waiting until, in his explanation, Dostoevsky and Joyce taught him that he, too, could make it the stuff of literature. To Wright, however, folklore was the backwater hell he had fled.

Regardless of their different attitudes to folk culture, Wright and Ellison were both products of their reading, as Ellison tirelessly pointed out. And they read the same things, as he noted less often. Writings by blacks from the nineteenth century were unavailable to them in their youth in a way that is inconceivable now. Perhaps very little of it would have satisfied their standards. It is very moving that they shared a passion for the weird English of the Constance Garnett translations, that circulated widely in the US beginning in the 1920s. For both, nineteenth-century Russian literature, with its drifting urban characters, tied-down serfs, and worries about Westernization, was an alternative literary past. Their own common themes had antecedents in a literature that did not require the filtering out or the explaining away of how blacks were depicted.

Still, Ellison reacted very strongly to the way blacks were portrayed in American literature. Over the years he returned to the same great writers in essay after essay, refining his judgments, redefining his relation to them.6 He was especially drawn to ponder the examples of Twain and Hemingway. Ellison cherished Huckleberry Finn because Twain had allowed the runaway slave to stand with all his ambiguity as a universal symbol of Man. But what Twain achieved in the character of Jim and his friendship with Huck signaled, for Ellison, a missed opportunity. He lamented the disappearance, beginning in the twentieth century, of “the human Negro” from American fiction. Writers of the Lost Generation were only interested in their personal freedom, which made their cries of alienation a “swindle.” Hemingway was more concerned with “technical perfection” than with “moral insight.” Ellison also criticized Hemingway for wanting to excise the anti-slavery theme from Huckleberry Finn, thus reducing it to a boy’s story.

Ellison took personally the overall absence of blacks in Hemingway’s American reality.7 It is easy to imagine the effect Hemingway had on Ellison when he first read his stories in Esquire in an Alabama barbershop or when he hiked through the Ohio winter to get the New York newspapers with the dispatches Hemingway sent from Republican Spain. Ellison said Hemingway’s struggle with form made him “a cultural hero,” but he also probably identified with the trout fishing or with Nick Adams remembering the face the undertaker had put on his father. Also, Hemingway had become famous while still in his twenties.

In time Ellison forgave Twain’s heir by looking beyond Hemingway’s bias, he said, in order to appreciate the truths revealed by his art. He proclaimed that Hemingway had been “the true father-as-artist” of aspiring writers of the 1930s. Ellison no longer accused Hemingway of moral diffidence. Ellison also said that he learned to lead a bird from reading Hemingway and as a result was able to feed himself and his brother by hunting in the Ohio woods.

No doubt Twain and Hemingway appealed to Ellison as writers of masculine adventures. The work of these redskins also represented to him the literary arrival of the American vernacular, just the sort of contribution he hoped to make to American literature, if in paleface terms. Ellison’s sense of what literature was, like Wright’s, came mostly from white European and white American writers, who seemed to set the standards because their work survived fashion. Both had grown up in the days when black literature was regarded as necessarily inferior, still in its “infancy,” which was why they were determined to rescue those white writers whom they admired. Wright once worried about his fondness for Gertrude Stein’s Three Lives after reading an article that condemned her as decadent. He gathered a group of black stockyard workers together in a Chicago Black Belt basement and read “Melanctha” to them. They laughed, stomped, and howled, he said. “They understood every word.”

Poor frivolous, forgotten Harlem Renaissance. Hughes was very much around when Wright and Ellison were starting out, but they were ambivalent about his work. One would think both would have been more sympathetic to a literary movement among blacks that had as a driving force the wish to assimilate some of the developments of Modernism. But just as blacks tend to look at the political and social advances of the generation before them as being partial, incremental, so, too, the literature of a previous generation seems to require completion. As such, books by blacks from an earlier era were treated as raw material—somewhat like folklore, in Ellison’s case. He had criticized William Attaway’s novel about the migrating folk, Blood on the Forge (1941), for being too despairing, as if to say the ingredients were there but Attaway had got it wrong and the subject needed the corrective of Ellison’s more forgiving optimism.

A biography of Ellison may one day tell us whether or not he read James Weldon Johnson or Claude McKay, with their bookish main characters inhibited by their education and trying to get back to their roots. Ellison’s invisible man does pretty much the same, deciding to breathe the stench and sweetness of Louis Armstrong’s Old Bad Air.

It would have been Jim Crow thinking, Ellison said, for him to model himself only on other black writers. He was adamant about the distinction between his literary “ancestors”—Melville, Twain, Crane, Hemingway, Faulkner—and his literary “relatives”—Hughes, Wright, Baldwin. There still is a tendency among black writers to compete with one another, as if only one of them could be left standing by the chair marked Black Writer, in the way that many women writers really compete with other women writers, not with men. What at first glance looks like snobbery on Ellison’s part was perhaps an attempt to withdraw from that kind of competition, to try instead to occupy one of the chairs marked, simply, Writer. (Interestingly enough, both Wright and Ellison wrote scenes in which blacks are manipulated into boxing for the amusement of a white audience.) Nevertheless, everything Ellison did not want to be mistaken for made him fetishistic in his attitude toward tradition. Some Jim Crow thinking seeped into Ellison’s resentment of Wright’s shadow, as though having to define himself against a black writer were not as literary as Henry James marking his departure from another New Englander, Hawthorne.

Invisible Man came out roughly in the middle of Ellison’s life, dividing his biography, and, just as a prism bends light, giving to his contemplations after 1952 a meaning altogether different from the quests of his apprenticeship. The longer he worked at his second novel, the more his identity as a writer was invested in his first novel’s reputation.8 His later essays defend his slowness and the mastery implicit in his taking his time. Ellison wrote superbly about Mark Twain or Stephen Crane, but he was also prone to windy meditations on the novel as an abstract form. Someone unafraid of titles such as “The Novel as a Function of American Democracy” is gripping a top branch in the Tree of Seriousness.

Perhaps Ellison’s fortress tone had something to do with his being largely self-educated. The cultural climate in which it was customary to wonder about a black’s educational or intellectual preparation may be why one can sometimes sense in Ellison’s saturation in the New Criticism, in his devotion to speculations about form, symbol, and myth, a determination to show that a black writer could be terrifically thoughtful about what he was up to, that he could respond to Kenneth Burke or hold his own against Trilling. It was also a way for him, as a black, to participate in American culture. Moreover, literature was the god that had not failed. Consequently, Ellison stood by the black writer’s right not to be a spokesman, a leader. The only mention of Du Bois in his essays is a suggestion that one ought to ask why Du Bois failed to become as powerful a politician as Booker T. Washington and that if Du Bois was not as good a sociologist as Max Weber one ought to say so. Maybe he meant that Du Bois had tried to be too many things. Ellison said he believed that black people recognized a division of labor in the struggle, that his being the best novelist he could be was his contribution to that struggle, and that this effort required that he resist distractions and reductive thinking. He made a distinction between art and politics, as in his criticism of Robert Lowell for declining an invitation to the White House in 1965 as a protest against US involvement in Vietnam. Ellison had accepted the invitation, saying the evening had been about art, not politics.

Ellison’s Americanism was like his pride in his literary pedigree: it seemed proof of his independence of mind as a black. His strict attention in public to literary matters was also a way of resisting other people’s ideas about how to be “a good Negro,” even though, traditionally, it was the angry black who was urged to be good. He said that he found it less painful to move to the back of a bus than to “tolerate concepts which distorted the actual reality of my situation or my reactions to it.”

Modernism was the great universalizer, which was what Ellison was responding to when he read The Waste Land all alone down there in Tuskegee. It crossed national and linguistic boundaries. Why not the color line? As liberating as Modernism was, the cost for the doctrine of newness was the culture of forced originality that haunts us still. With Ellison the burden translated into regarding his work as a culmination, an indisputable summing up. Often a writer can’t repeat the inspiration of his or her first book, but it is unusual when that work is of the order of Invisible Man. What came after Ulysses? The saying that a first novel is never finished, merely abandoned, does not apply to Ellison. Something like the opposite happened. He finished Invisible Man and that monument to literary longings held him hostage for the rest of his dignified life.

  1. 6

    Ellison said that he was not interested in the kind of general survey of black characters in the attitudes of white writers that Sterling Brown offered in his study, The Negro in American Fiction (1937), because when white Americans praised novels for capturing “the American reality,” they were seldom talking about second-rate books.

  2. 7

    It would be interesting, for instance, to know how Ellison responded to Nick Adams’s repeated description of the ruined boxer’s black companion in “The Battler” as speaking in “a low, smooth, polite nigger voice,” whether he would have said Hemingway’s attitudes were irrelevant to how his characters reflected the idiom of their historical moment.

  3. 8

    For a summary of the plot of his second novel and Ellison’s remarks on his progress, see Robert G. O’Meally, “Ralph Ellison,” in Valerie Smith et al., editors, African American Writers (Scribner’s, 1991).

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