When I was invited not long ago to contribute to a volume of essays honoring the achievements of Ralph Ellison, I very much wanted to add my voice to the tributes being assembled for an old friend and a writer of major stature. But I hesitated at first because, in the years since Invisible Man had been published, I had lost touch with the new wave of Afro-American literature in which Ellison now takes so prominent a place. But then, remembering his love for, and familiarity with, the writings of Dostoevsky, it occurred to me that I could perhaps combine my knowledge of the Russian author with the desire publicly to express all my admiration of Ellison’s achievement. With this idea in mind, I began to re-read his book, and was delighted to discover (or rediscover what had probably been forgotten) that my choice of subject was not as arbitrary as I had feared it might be. For in focusing on the relation between the two writers, I was only following a lead given by Ellison himself.

In his essay “The World and the Jug,” Ralph Ellison makes an important distinction between what he calls his “relatives” and his “ancestors.” Irving Howe had criticized him for not being enough of a “protest writer” to satisfy Howe’s conception of what a Negro writer should be, Howe’s ideal at the time being the highly politicized Richard Wright. In explaining why Wright had not influenced him in any significant fashion, despite his great respect for Wright’s achievement, Ellison discriminates between various types of influence. “Relatives” are those with whom, by accident of birth, one is naturally associated. Negro authors like Wright and Langston Hughes, not to mention many others, are Ellison’s “relatives.” But, he remarks, “while one can do nothing about choosing one’s relatives, one can, as an artist, choose one’s ancestors.” And among such “ancestors,” among those who had truly stimulated his own artistic impulses and ambitions, he lists T. S. Eliot, Malraux, Hemingway, Faulkner—and Dostoevsky.

The most obvious connection between Ellison and Dostoevsky, which has often been pointed out, is that between Invisible Man and Notes from Underground.

The most obvious connection between Ellison and Dostoevsky, which has often been pointed out, is that between Invisible Man and Notes from Underground. Indeed, the resemblances between the two works are self-evident, although they should not be pushed too far. Both are written in the first-person confessional form; in both the narrator is filled with rage and indignation because of the humiliations he is forced to endure; in both he explodes with fury against those responsible for subjecting him to such indignities; and both characters finally retreat to their “underground.” The underground man retreats symbolically, back to the squalid hole-in-the-corner where he lives; the invisible man retreats literally, first to the coal cellar into which he falls accidentally during the Harlem race riot, and then to the abandoned basement of the prologue, where he hibernates and meditates. (It should be remarked that, in the “underground railway,” the metaphor of the underground has an indigenous American meaning far richer than anything that can be found in nineteenth-century Russia, and Ralph Ellison did not have to read Dostoevsky to become aware of its symbolic resonances; but his reading of Dostoevsky no doubt gave him a heightened sense of its literary possibilities.)

What stands out for me, however, is not so much the “underground” imagery of the two books, or the many similarities between the underground man’s rejection of the world in which he lives and the invisible man’s rejection of his. Much more fundamental is Ellison’s profound grasp of the ideological inspiration of Dostoevsky’s work, and his perception of its relevance to his own creative purposes—his perception, that is, of how he could use Dostoevsky’s relation to the Russian culture of his time to express his own position as an American Negro writer in relation to the dominating white culture. Despite the vast differences in their two situations, Ralph Ellison was able to penetrate to the underlying structural similarities beneath the obvious surface differences.

What, after all, motivates the revolt of Dostoevsky’s underground man against his world? It is the impossibility he feels of being able to live humanly within categories that, although he has learned to accept them about himself, have been imposed on him by others. As Dostoevsky saw them, these categories had been imported into Russia from European culture. (Dostoevsky was far from being the only prominent Russian to take such a view; the revolutionary Alexander Herzen, for one, shared exactly the same idea.) As a result, they are categories that the underground man finds to be profoundly in contradiction with his moral being. The revolt of the underground man is a refusal to accept a definition of himself, a definition of his own nature, in terms imposed by the alien world of European culture. At the same time, like all other educated Russians, he has assimilated and accepted the ideas and values of this alien world (accepted them, that is, with the rational and self-conscious part of his personality) because of their superior authority and prestige.

This is the very situation in which the invisible man finds himself all through Ellison’s book. The invisible man stands in relation to white American culture and its ideas and values as Dostoevsky’s underground man stands in relation to West European culture. For the invisible man discovers that all of its definitions of himself, all the structures within which it wishes to place him as a Negro, violate some aspect of his own integrity. No more than the underground man is he willing to accept such a situation passively; and he rejects each of these structures in turn the moment he realizes their true import.

The form of Invisible Man, as an ideological novel, is essentially the same as that of Notes from Underground, though Ellison’s work is conceived on a much larger scale. Each major sequence dramatizes the confrontation between the invisible man and some type of social or cultural trap—a road opens up before him only to end in a blind alley, a possibility of freedom tempts him but then only imprisons him once again. Similarly, each of the two episodes in Dostoevsky’s work unmasks the morally detrimental consequences of the two dominating ideologies that, because of the force of European ideas on the Russian psyche, had ensnared the Russian intelligentsia. (The materialism and ethical utilitarianism of the 1860s is parodied in Part I of Notes from Underground; the “humanitarian” and “philanthropic” utopian socialism of the 1840s is the butt of Part II.)

The invisible man too is a member of the American Negro intelligentsia, or has at least been chosen to be educated as one; and his adventures reveal the bankruptcy of all the doctrines that this intelligentsia has accepted up to the present from the hands of the whites. Such doctrines include the assimilationism of the carefully tailored and prettified Negro college that the invisible man attends; the Africanism of Ras the Exhorter, which is finally only a mirror image of white racism despite the dignity and purity of the passion at its source; and the radical politics embodied in the Brotherhood. When the Brotherhood provokes a race riot, it is employing the very tactics of the-worse-the-better that Dostoevsky understood very well, and had dramatized in The Devils, a novel that, among many other things, is a handbook of extremist politics.

Notes from Underground and Invisible Man thus undertake essentially the same task, and both perform it superbly. But one should not press the comparison too hard. Ellison took from Dostoevsky what he needed, but used it in his own way. Actually, Invisible Man is more an extrapolation than an imitation of Notes from Underground. Ellison portrays the process through which the invisible man becomes disillusioned with his previous conceptions, while this process is more or less taken for granted by Dostoevsky. We do not really follow the underground man stage by stage in his development; we never see him in that state of innocent acceptance typical of the invisible man. Invisible Man ends where Notes from Underground begins; the two works overlap only in the framing sections of Invisible Man, the prologue and epilogue. Here Ellison’s narrator directly expresses the conflict in himself between his refusal entirely to abandon the ideals he has accepted up to this point (in the hope of fashioning some modus vivendi with the white world), and his rejection of all the forms in which this modus has presented itself to him. Dostoevsky’s character is caught in exactly the same sort of conflict: his acceptance of European ideas is at war with his moral instincts. “Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?” the invisible man suggests to his (white) reader, who is incapable of seeing him for what he truly is but nonetheless shares with him the same tragic dilemma. The underground man addresses himself to his scornful and mocking readers in exactly the same way at the conclusion of Notes from Underground. “We are even so tired of being men, men of real, our own flesh and blood, that we have reached the point of being ashamed of it,” he says; “we consider it a disgrace, and aspire to dissolve into some sort of abstract man who has never existed.” He does not exclude himself from this accusation, and speaks, at the same time, for all those who will sneer at his words.

Dostoevsky’s novella is primarily a lengthy interior monologue of inner conflict, expressed in both ideological and psychological terms.

Dostoevsky’s novella is primarily a lengthy interior monologue of inner conflict, expressed in both ideological and psychological terms. Invisible Man is a negative Bildungsroman, in which the narrator-hero learns that everything he has been taught to believe by his various mentors is actually false and treacherous. His experiences can thus be considered to be those of a black Candide. There is, to be sure, very little of Candide in the underground man, but even when Ellison swerves from Dostoevsky, he instinctively moves in a direction Dostoevsky wished to take himself. For one of Dostoevsky’s cherished literary projects—one that he never got around to realizing—was to write what he called in his notes “a Russian Candide?

A work of Dostoevsky’s that bears a much less explicit connection with Ellison’s Invisible Man is House of the Dead, Dostoevsky’s sketches of life in the Siberian prison camp where he served a term of four years. There is certainly no obvious literary similarity between the two books; but Ellison himself points toward a connection by remarking, in Shadow and Act, on “Dostoevsky’s profound study of the humanity of Russian criminals.” For my part, I am convinced that the effect of House of the Dead on Ellison’s sensibility was more profound than has ever been suspected. It affected him strongly and personally, and provided him with a powerful precedent for entering into a positive relation with the Negro folk culture he had imbibed from the cradle.

One of the outstanding characteristics of Invisible Man is its use of Negro folk culture, not as a source of quaint exoticism and “folksy” local color, but as a symbol of a realm of values set off against the various ideologies with which the narrator becomes engaged. What these values are is expressed in Ellison’s famous definition of “the blues”: “an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one’s aching consciousness, to finger its jagged grain, and to transcend it, not by the consolation of philosophy but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism.” It is this quality of American Negro folk sensibility that Ellison embodies in such a character as Peter Wheatstraw, who arouses the admiration of the still naive invisible man even though the latter has been taught, in accordance with the standards of educated white society, to look down on Wheatstraw’s punning speech-style and versifying idioms as primitive and demeaning. “God damn, I thought, they’re a hell of a people!” writes the invisible man after this encounter. “And I didn’t know whether it was pride or disgust that suddenly flashed over me.”

This uncertainty represents the clash within the narrator of his instinctive response to the indigenous forms of cultural expression of his people, with all the toughness and resilience of spirit that they embody, and the response instilled by his education: “I’d known the stuff from childhood, but had forgotten it; had learned it back of school.” Part of what he discovers in the course of the book is the value of what he had been taught to discard.

This is where House of the Dead enters the picture. For while it would be nonsensical to imagine that Ralph Ellison needed Dostoevsky to make him aware of the richness and depth of Negro folk culture, Dostoevsky could (and did) serve as an invaluable and prestigious literary “ancestor” who had had to fight the same battle on behalf of the Russian peasant culture of his own time.

American readers will find it difficult to imagine that Russians could once have looked down on their own peasant culture as whites (and Negroes wishing to conform to white cultural standards) looked down upon the Negro folk culture developed in the slave society of the American South. But such was the rage for Europeanization in Russia, such the rejection of all vestiges of the Russian past as “barbarous” and “regressive,” that exactly the same prejudice prevailed. Anything not conforming to the standards of Europeanization was scorned and ridiculed. This situation reached such a degree of self-negation that the Russian upper class hardly any longer spoke its own language. (It will be recalled that, at the beginning of War and Peace, a discussion of the threat of Napoleon at an aristocratic gathering is conducted not in Russian, but in French.) One of the most important works that broke the grip of this prejudice was House of the Dead, in which Dostoevsky not only depicts for the first time the “humanity” of “criminals” (the men he wrote about were criminals technically, but a good many had landed in Siberia only because they had reacted violently to the prevailing injustice and ill-treatment of their class), but also uncovers the hidden treasures of Russian peasant culture.

Dostoevsky managed to keep a notebook while in prison camp in which he wrote down peasant expressions, proverbs, songs, and anecdotes.

Dostoevsky managed to keep a notebook while in prison camp in which he wrote down peasant expressions, proverbs, songs, and anecdotes. These revealed to him an independent, strong-willed, tough-minded outlook on life that he came to admire and even to think superior, in some of its moral aspects, to the advanced, “progressive” views he had once accepted. House of the Dead is really a story of his re-education along such lines, which finally allowed him to recognize the riches of the way of life of his own people. Could not this be said as well to be one of the major thematic aims of Invisible Man? One can only speculate on the effect that reading such a work had on the young Ralph Ellison, wrestling with the problem of reconciling what he had learned in school (his first ambition, after all, had been to become a classical composer) with what he had picked up “back of school.” We do know that he later became a writer who, while measuring himself by the highest standards of the great modern masters, refused to see any contradiction between his exalted literary ambitions and his admiration for the far from classical world of American Negro folk music and folk life.

Dostoevsky’s book would thus unquestionably have helped Ellison to find his own way. And if we read House of the Dead from this angle, it is not too difficult to spot passages that might have had particular importance for him. Would he not have been struck, for example, by Dostoevsky’s suggestion that, so far as the Russian educated class is concerned, the Russian peasant is really invisible) “You may have to do with peasants all your life,” he tells his educated readers, “you may associate with them every day for forty years, officially for instance, in the regulation and administrative forms, or even simply in a friendly way, as a benefactor or, in a certain sense, a father—you will never know them really. It will all be an optical illusion, and nothing more. I know that all who read will think I am exaggerating. But I am convinced of its truth. I have reached this conviction, not from books, not from abstract theory, but from reality, and I have had plenty of time to verify it.”

One can go through the whole book in this way and pick out episode after episode that could have impressed the young Ellison as being directly relevant to his own creative problems. There is the incident where Dostoevsky, who had formerly believed that the backward muzhik was a bungling and incompetent worker, suddenly discovers, because he is now a member of the work convoy himself, that the supposed “incompetence” is really a form of sabotage. When the peasant-convicts get the conditions they want, “there was no trace of laziness, no trace of incompetence . . . . The work went like wildfire. Everyone seemed wonderfully intelligent all of a sudden.” And there was the revelation of the peasant-convict orchestra “playing the simple peasant instruments,” some of them homemade. “The blending and harmony of sounds, above all, the spirit, the character of the conception and rendering of the tune in its very essence were simply amazing. For the first time I realized all the reckless dash and gaiety of the gay dashing Russian dance songs.” The spirit of the people emerged and could be felt in their own music, which for the first time Dostoevsky—who had previously been an inveterate concertgoer—was able to estimate at its true worth. Such a passage would surely have strengthened Ralph Ellison’s determination to win for the folk music of his own people (jazz, the blues, spirituals) the recognition it deserved as a valid artistic expression of their own complex sense of life.

Many other instances of the same kind could be adduced as Dostoevsky undergoes that transvaluation of values—the same transvaluation undergone by the invisible man—in favor of the peasant-convicts and against the “enlightened” and “civilized” standards of educated Russian society. The representatives of that society constantly speak of “justice,” but assume that they have the right to a leading place in the world. How different from the peasant-convicts at the prison theatricals, who give Dostoevsky a front-row seat because they feel it “just” to do so. Dostoevsky is a connoisseur of the theater, who could appreciate all the nuances of the performance; therefore he “deserves” a better place. “The highest and most striking characteristic of our people,” Dostoevsky writes of this incident, “is just their sense of justice and their eagerness for it. There is no trace in the common people of the desire to be cock of the walk on all occasions and at all costs, whether they deserve to be or not . . . . There is not much our wise men could teach them. On the contrary, I think it is the wise men who ought to learn from the people.”

What is most important, however, is Dostoevsky’s clear-eyed and unblinking ability to look the facts about the Russian peasant in the face; not to sentimentalize or gild or touch up their benightedness, backwardness, and sometimes terrible cruelty. And his ability to understand, at the same time, that these repulsive aspects of their lives were the result of the age-old oppression in which they had been forced to survive. He was capable of discerning whatever spark of humanity continued to exist under such conditions, and he believed that such a spark must exist somewhere no matter how much appearances might suggest its extinction. This same capacity is condensed in the observation of Ralph Ellison’s that “the extent of beatings and psychological maiming meted out by Southern Negro parents rivals those described by nineteenth-century Russian writers as characteristic of peasant life under the Czars. The horrible thing is that the cruelty is also an expression of concern, of love.” Such a remark could only have come from Ellison’s intimate identification with the spirit in which Dostoevsky had portrayed Russian peasant life, and Ellison’s awareness of the extent to which it had helped him enter into a genuinely creative relation with his own world.

House of the Dead stands out from Dostoevsky’s other books by its descriptive and plotless character.

House of the Dead stands out from Dostoevsky’s other books by its descriptive and plotless character. It is a series of sketches focusing on a milieu and a collectivity, which resembles a piece of reportage more than a novel. One would hardly think it written by the same author who gives us such febrile and tightly wound dramatizations of the philosophical and ideological dilemmas of the Russian intelligentsia. Its effect on Ralph Ellison is much more in the realm of attitudes and idea-feelings than in that of artistic technique. Yet there is one point at which Invisible Man and House of the Dead come together artistically in a remarkable fashion, and where a direct, artistic influence may be inferred. Or if not, the parallel is all the more worth mentioning because it reveals how close the two are in their grasp of human existence.

One of the high points of Ellison’s narrative is Jim Trueblood’s story about the violation of his daughter, with whom, while half-asleep and dreaming, he unwittingly commits incest. Its parallel in House of the Dead is a narrative entitled “Akulka’s Husband.” Both are written in the form of what is called a skate in Russian criticism, that is, a first-person oral tale strongly colored by the speech-style of the teller. In Ellison’s story, the speaker is a Southern Negro tenant farmer; in Dostoevsky’s, it is a Russian peasant. Both recount what is, in fact, a criminal transgression of the laws of God and man—in the first case incest, in the second, the deliberate murder of an innocent wife by a craven, resentful, sadistic husband who has already beaten his victim half to death.

What unites these stories—and Dostoevsky’s is by far the more frightful—is the unsparing way they depict the unforgivable and unredeemable, and yet manage to do so in a manner that affirms the humanity of the people involved rather than negating it. Jim Trueblood’s deed is not an act of lust or animal passion but an accident caused by being forced through poverty to sleep with his wife and grown-up daughter in the same bed. He tells what occurred as a deeply moral man, bewildered and disturbed by his own transgression, even ready to let his outraged wife chop off his head with an ax (though she is finally unable to bring herself to the act). He goes through a period of mortification (“I don’t eat nothin’ and I don’t drink nothin’ and caint  sleep at night”). One night, looking up at the stars, he starts to sing, and “ends up singin’ the blues.” He then returns to his family to begin life anew and shoulder the burden of what he has done—and yet not really done.

In Dostoevsky’s tale, it is not the narrator whose ineradicable human quality emerges in this way, although we are made to realize that he kills because of intolerable personal humiliation—which at least saves him from being taken only as a bloodthirsty sadist. It is rather the murdered wife and the man she loves, Filka Morozov, who suddenly reveal a depth of sentiment that one would not have suspected. Until this happens, the wife has been only a piteous victim, Filka only a headstrong and reckless scoundrel who had slandered the girl unmercifully in order to take revenge on her domineering father, with whom he had quarreled. It is Filka who is responsible for all the torments she has had to endure, including a forced marriage to her weak-willed husband. But then, just before he is taken away for military service (which meant that he would probably never return), Filka proclaims her innocence to the entire village, bowing down at her feet; and she forgives him, declaring her love in the same ritual manner and heightened poetic speech. The tale is suddenly lit up by a flash of the purest feeling and the tenderest human emotion, only to sink back into darkness again with the murder. But we do not forget, after this flash, that the participants are people, not inhuman monsters; and we derive this same knowledge from the narrative of Jim Trueblood. Ellison drives home to us as Americans the same point Dostoevsky had driven home to his Russian readers a hundred years earlier.

There is still another important relation between Ralph Ellison and Dostoevsky worth discussing: the convergence of the two writers when they defend the integrity of art and the independence of the artist from ideological dictates and constraints imposed by the guardians (unofficial in both cases, but not to remain so in Dostoevsky’s homeland) of the collective conscience.

Most of the incidental journalism in which Dostoevsky defended his position has not been translated at all, or has been put into English rather recently. But Ralph Ellison did not have to read Dostoevsky’s journalism to find himself confronted with the same problems. The attitude about art against which Dostoevsky had fought in the early 1860s has become, through the triumph and worldwide influence of Russian Communism, the dogma automatically imposed on artists anywhere who become involved with radical politics. Ralph Ellison, like so many others (and like Dostoevsky himself in the 1840s), went through such a phase. Finding himself subject to the authority and censure of the cultural commissars, he reacted against them exactly as Dostoevsky had done.

Very early in Dostoevsky’s career, he ran into efforts to influence and control the nature of his literary production. The host of the radical circle whose meetings he attended, Mikhail Petrshevsky, criticized him for not writing overt social propaganda that would further the cause of progress. The best critic of the time, V.G. Belinsky, who had hailed Dostoevsky’s first novel, Poor Folk, as a masterpiece, also thought that Dostoevsky’s later work in the 1840s was deficient in social content. But Dostoevsky resisted the criticism of both men. He even told Belinsky that the influential critic “was giving literature a partial significance unworthy of it, degrading it to the description, if one may so express it, solely of journalistic facts, or scandalous occurrences.”[1]

What is important about Dostoevsky’s opposition to such views is that he did not defend the autonomy of art in the terms that have come to be known as “art for art’s sake.” He did not argue that, since art was its own supreme value, a writer could legitimately neglect the social arena in pursuit of its perfection. Dostoevsky accepted the premise of the radical critics that art had an important moral and social function to fulfill. But it was exactly for this reason that the artist was obliged never to sacrifice the standards of art in the interest of social utility. For even in the terms of social utility, Dostoevsky insisted, “a production without artistic value can never and in no way attain its goal; indeed, it does more harm than good to the cause. Consequently, in neglecting artistic value the Utilitarians take the lead in harming their own cause.”

There is then, in Dostoevsky’s view, no conflict between the belief that art has a supremely important moral and social mission and a determination not to turn art into a medium of propaganda. This is exactly the position that an embattled Ralph Ellison has defended so eloquently and staunchly in his criticism. No contemporary American writer has made out a stronger case for the moral function of art than Ralph Ellison in such essays as “Twentieth-Century Fiction and the Black Mask of Humanity” and “Stephen Crane and American Fiction.” These critical pieces locate the greatness of such writers as Twain and Melville in their incessant moral preoccupation with the basic injustices of American life (preeminently slavery and, more generally, the race problem). Ellison admires their attempts to cope with such injustices, not politically but morally. Among his own contemporaries, only Faulkner, in Ellison’s view, has taken up this task, accepting and transcending the Southern stereotypes of his Negro characters and exploring the deep wounds inflicted on the Southern white psyche by the tangled history of its relations with the Negro.

While himself engaged in wrestling artistically with these very themes, Ralph Ellison has energetically rejected all efforts to confuse the function of art with that of social agitation. In an important exchange with Irving Howe, Ellison draws a clear line between the obligations of art and those of social action. “In his effort to resuscitate Wright,” Ellison points out, “Irving Howe would designate the role which Negro writers are to play more rigidly than any Southern politician—and for the best of reasons. We must express ‘black’ anger and ‘clenched militancy’; most of all we should not become too interested in the problems of the art of literature, even though it is through these that we seek our individual identities. And between writing well and being ideologically militant, we must choose militancy.” To which Ellison retorts: “I think that the writer’s obligation in a struggle as broad and abiding as the one we are engaged in, which involves not merely Negroes but all Americans, is best carried out through his role as a writer. And if he chooses to stop writing and take to the platform, then it should be out of personal choice and not under pressure from would-be managers of society.”

I had read this exchange when it first appeared—in Dissent and The New Leader in 1963—and had written about it, upholding Ellison’s position, in a review of Shadow and Act commissioned and accepted by Partisan Review. The piece, for some reason, was never published. I suspect that its disappearance may have had something to do with an idea expressed in the epigraph from Malraux that Ellison had appended to his reply to Howe: “What runs counter to the revolutionary convention is, in revolutionary histories, suppressed more imperiously than embarrassing episodes in private memoirs . . . .” In any case, it is impossible for me to read Ellison’s words now without thinking of Dostoevsky’s remarks on the advice given by the radical critic Dobrolyubov to the Russian poet I. S. Nikitin.

The descendant of a lowly merchant family, Nikitin was an admirer of Pushkin and an imitator of his lyrical style. Dobrolyubov found this taste deplorable, especially in view of Nikitin’s class background; and the gist of his comments is summarized by Dostoevsky in the following fashion: “‘Write about your needs’ Nikitin is told, ‘describe the needs and necessities of your condition, down with Pushkin, don’t go into raptures over him, but go into raptures over this and over that and describe this and nothing else’—‘But Pushkin has been my banner, my beacon, my master’ cries Mr. Nikitin (or me for Mr. Nikitin). ‘I am a commoner, he has stretched out his hands to me from where there is light, where spiritual enlightenment exists, where one is not stifled by outrageous prejudices, at least not like those in my milieu; he has been my spiritual food’—‘You’ve gone wrong, and that’s too bad! Write about the needs of your class,’” etc. This is the same sort of advice that Irving Howe was giving to Ralph Ellison: forget about T. S. Eliot, Malraux, Hemingway, Faulkner, Dostoevsky; write about the struggle of the Negro for civil rights, and look at Negro life only in relation to that all-important struggle.

What is involved here is much more than a quarrel over the role and function of art; it is really a disagreement about the range and dimension of human experience. No one knew this better than Dostoevsky, who refused to accept the reduction of possibility, the shrinking of the horizon of human concern, that lay at the root of the Russian radical doctrine of art. “The imagination builds castles in the air” Chernyshevsky had written with heavy sarcasm “when the dreamer lacks not only a good house, but even a tolerable hut.” Hence, a preoccupation with whatever transcends immediate physical and material need, or at best the concrete social issues of the moment, must be rejected as illusory and reprehensible. Dostoevsky replied to this position with a satirical skit in which he portrays a new contributor to a radical journal receiving instructions on how to toe the party line from the editors: “If a person,” he is told, “says to you: I want to think, I torment myself with age-old problems that have remained unsolved; or, I want to live, I aspire to find a faith, I search for a moral ideal, I love art, or anything of this kind, always reply immediately, clearly, and without a moment’s hesitation, that all this is stupidity, metaphysics, that all this is a luxury, childish dreams, senselessness . . . .”

Ralph Ellison again joins Dostoevsky at this point, but of course in the terms of his own special situation as a Negro-American writer. The white cultural world—especially those “friends” of the Negroes strongly influenced by Marxism-Leninism—has a tendency to insist that Negro experience in particular remain fixed within the confines laid down for human nature as a whole by Russian radical thought. But the Ralph Ellison who had written so touchingly about the ideal of “Renaissance man,” cherished by himself and a few friends while they were growing up in Oklahoma, refused very early to accept any such limitations; and he has protested again and again when attempts have been made to impose it, or, even worse, when it has been accepted voluntarily. Indeed, Ellison’s criticism of his close friend and erstwhile literary comrade-in-arms, Richard Wright, is precisely that after a certain point in his career Wright had tailored his creative imagination to such a pattern. Wright, Ellison remarked in an interview, “was committed to ideology—even though I, too, wanted many of the same things for our people.” Fundamentally, he goes on, he and Wright had differed in their concept of the individual. “I, for instance, found it disturbing that Bigger Thomas (in Wright’s Native Son) had none of the finer qualities of Richard Wright, none of the imagination, none of the sense of poetry, none of the gaiety. And I preferred Richard Wright to Bigger Thomas.”

Ellison makes the same sort of argument in an article on Wright’s Black Boy, where he directs his polemical fire against those critics who had wondered in print how a mind and sensibility such as Wright’s could have developed amidst the appalling conditions of life, and the searing personal history, that he describes. These critics felt it to be a weakness in the book that no explanation was offered for this anomaly. Ellison retorts “that the prevailing mood of American criticism has so thoroughly excluded the Negro that it fails to recognize some of the most basic tenets of Western democratic thought when encountering them in a black skin. They forget that human life possesses an innate dignity and mankind an innate sense of nobility; that all men possess the tendency to dream and the compulsion to make their dreams reality; that the need to be ever dissatisfied and the urge ever to seek satisfaction is implicit in the human organism, and that all men are the victims and beneficiaries of the goading, tormenting, commanding and informing activity of that imperious process known as the Mind—the Mind, as Valery describes it, ‘armed with its inexhaustible questions.’”

The final connection between Ralph Ellison and Dostoevsky that I wish to make concerns a certain similarity in the public status of their work and its relation to its audience. Dostoevsky has for so long been accepted as one of the dominating figures of world literature that it comes as something of a shock to realize how much hostility he encountered during his lifetime. His major novels were published in Russia at a time when liberal and radical opinion dominated among the intelligentsia; and each of his great works was ferociously attacked. (The inferior A Raw Youth, published in a left-wing journal, escaped such censure, while Notes from Underground, was simply ignored.) For conservatives, who wished only to let sleeping dogs lie and to defend the existing regime at all costs, Dostoevsky’s books were hardly consoling either; they were too probing and raised far too many fundamental questions. His novels really satisfied nobody’s politics; but they imposed themselves by the sheer power and force of their art and the profundity of their vision.

Today, the spiritual descendants of the Russian radicals of the 1860s form the ruling class of Dostoevsky’s homeland. The very ideas against which he fought lie at the heart of the social and cultural ideology they have imposed. The guardians of official Soviet culture are perfectly aware that the later Dostoevsky undermines all their most cherished dogmas. They would dearly like to get him out of the way, and even tried to do so during the heyday of Stalin. But Dostoevsky adds too much glory to Russian literature to be lightly discarded. The Soviets are now in the process of publishing a splendid collected edition of his works in thirty volumes, whose completion will constitute a remarkable achievement of Soviet scholarship. But most of the copies are sent abroad immediately, and those remaining in the Soviet Union are extremely difficult for the average citizen to procure. Until recently the later novels were rarely re-published, although the earlier (socialist-influenced) work came out in editions of several hundred thousand. On my last visit to a Russian bookstore, however, I became aware that the later novels are now also being re-published in cheap editions and in hundreds of thousands of copies. Dostoevsky is still a thorn in the flesh of the Soviet establishment, but he cannot simply be plucked out and thrown aside; his work refuses to be ignored or suppressed.

Invisible Man was hailed as a masterpiece immediately on its publication, and Ralph Ellison’s reputation has maintained its high stature through the intervening years.

The position of Ralph Ellison in the United States is, happily, very different, and yet certain parallels exist all the same. Invisible Man was hailed as a masterpiece immediately on its publication, and Ralph Ellison’s reputation has maintained its high stature through the intervening years. Yet, as the controversy with Irving Howe indicates, Ellison has come under fire for some of the same reasons that Dostoevsky was also assailed. During the turbulent 1960s, these attacks, launched by left-wing spokesmen for the new upsurge of black nationalism, mounted in frequency and ferocity. Ralph Ellison became the hated enemy against whom the new black nationalist literati felt it necessary to discharge their long pent-up resentment and rage. While he maintained a quiet dignity in the face of the storm, even managing to jest about it in conversation, he was deeply wounded by the unfair and intemperate charges leveled against him in print and in person when he appeared on the lecture platform.

The storm seems to have abated recently, though, and the wind to have shifted, if I am to judge by a thoughtful and informative article of John Wright in an issue of the Carleton Miscellany largely devoted to Ellison’s work. Exactly as in the case of Dostoevsky, the power and profundity of his art have imposed themselves despite the onslaught of his ideological foes. It would even appear that some of those who had assailed Ellison most ferociously—not all, to be sure—have now begun to realize that the foundation of the new black American culture they are seeking has been laid down in his pages. In an excellent formulation, John Wright speaks of Ellison as “approaching Afro-American life through a psychology of survival and transcendence rather than through a psychology of oppression.” Even Ellison’s former opponents, he points out, now recognize him as providing “the new black literary radicals with a positive vision of black lifestyles as profoundly human and spiritually sustaining.”

It is good to know that at least some of “Uncle Tom’s children” (to borrow a phrase from Richard Wright), much more refractory and rebellious than Richard Wright could possibly have believed, have begun to see what they can learn about themselves from Ellison’s clear-eyed and vibrantly appreciative vision of Negro-American life and culture. As happened with Dostoevsky, this vision proved too impressive to be discarded or neglected; it simply had to be assimilated, and the process of re-evaluation seems to be proceeding apace. As a result, a possibility once broached by Ellison is now well on its way to becoming a reality. “Perhaps,” he remarked in his controversy with Howe, “if I write well enough the children of today’s Negroes will be proud that I did, and so, perhaps, will Irving Howe’s.” The classic status now unanimously accorded to Invisible Man would indicate that this generous hope has come true.

  1. Later, in the 1860s, the idea that literature should serve only as an auxiliary in the battle for a better social world was codified into an aesthetic theory by N.G. Chernyshevsky. Chernyshevsky’s theory became the basis of what is now considered the Marxist conception of art. Actually, it is the Russian radical conception; nothing in Mars himself required such a subordination or regimentation of art in the exclusive service of social struggle. Go back to the text.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 2 Number 1, on page 11
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