For by a trick of fate (our racial problems notwithstanding) the human imagination is integrative—and the same is true of the centrifugal force that inspirits the democratic process. And while fiction is but a form of symbolic action, a mere game of “as if,” therein lies its true function and its potential for effecting change. For at its most serious, just as is true of politics at its best, it is a thrust toward a human ideal. And it approaches that ideal by a subtle process of negating the world of things as given in favor of a complex of man-made positives.
—Ralph Ellison, Introduction to Invisible Man
Although Ralph Ellison (1914–1994) died last year and is now personally lost to us, he has perhaps never been more visible to those with an eye for distinguished American fiction and criticism. And certainly his work has never been more necessary to American literary culture than it is today. The salient sign of his visibility is of course his one—and only—novel, Invisible Man (1952), a work that won him the National Book Award. It is in my view the best novel ever written by an African-American, and it may well be the best novel written since World War II. Certainly millions of copies of it have been sold and read; and it has become an inevitable assignment in school and college courses in the American novel, thanks to its splendid narrative account of the apprenticeship of a young black boy struggling to be seen, struggling to define himself against the forces of poverty, educational incompetence, white racism, political manipulation by Communists and black nationalists, and even personal exploitation by sex-crazed white women.
I do not mean to suggest that these subjects lifted Invisible Man to international importance. But Ellison’s mastery in the handling of scene and dialogue, his vivid characterization and plotting, and his dazzling repertory of styles and symbolic devices—all of these elements of his tragicomic poetry made for stunning intellectual richness and an aesthetic delight greatly superior to anything produced by the “Harlem Renaissance” novelists (Claude McKay, Jean Toomer, Zora Neale Hurston, et al.) or even by the prolix Richard Wright or William Attaway during the 1930s and 1940s.
Although he wrote only one novel, I think it fair to say that Ellison also towered over his near contemporaries James Baldwin, LeRoi Jones (Imamu Amiri Baraka), William Melvin Kelley, and John A. Williams. Indeed, compared to Ellison’s great achievement, the more recent contemporary adulation of Jamaica Kincaid, Alice Walker, and Toni Morrison seems grotesque. If these comparisons segregate Ellison from white fiction and seem to diminish him as merely “a credit to his race,” let me go further and say that, in my view, Invisible Man towered over anything produced by Mailer, Bellow, Malamud, Roth, Updike, Cheever, Barth, Vonnegut, Pynchon, Hawkes, and Barthelme.
I shall have more to say about Invisible Man in due course. But another sign of Ellison’s intellectual presence—and pertinence for literary culture now at the end of our century—is the new Modern Library edition of his nonfiction prose. The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison includes all of Ellison’s published and unpublished expository writing. Readers familiar with his already available volumes Shadow and Act (1964) and Going to the Territory (1986) will find these books completely reprinted here. In addition, more than a score of other, previously uncollected writings have been brought together to complete this huge volume. In all there are some sixty-one essays expressive of Ellison’s thinking about a wide range of cultural subjects. Aside from autobiographical reminiscences and interviews with journalists and editors, there are a great many celebrations of American music.
In his youth Ellison had a deep desire to play the trumpet and majored in music at Tuskegee Institute; but though he never made it as a musician, his love of spirituals, the blues, jazz, and classical music shines on nearly every page. We also have here recollections of (or reflections on) memorable performers like Mahalia Jackson, Charlie Parker, Jimmy Rushing, Simon Estes, and Jessye Norman. There are likewise observations on the visual arts (especially the work of Romare Bearden); appreciations of other writers (Mark Twain, Richard Wright, Stephen Crane, Alain Locke, Bernard Malamud); several lectures and addresses at colleges and universities; the original working notes for—and a thirtieth-year introduction to—Invisible Man; a great many reflections on race in America; and extensive commentary on the indivisibility of American culture as a fusion (to be celebrated) of distinctive ethnic, racial, and cultural elements.
There is so much richness here that it is impossible to summarize the book. A simple way to view it would be to say that it is the work of a midcentury American artist and intellectual reflecting seriously on elements of both high and low culture in the public life. Nowadays the term “intellectual” stands in derision, as it is associated with power- and publicity-hungry freaks in the academy. But Ellison came to his majority as a writer just after World War II, when the term had some dignity as a vocation and it was still possible to aspire to be one. His conception of the life of the mind and art was shaped by T. S. Eliot, Henry James, André Malraux, Kenneth Burke, W. E. B. Du Bois, Richard Wright, and the writers then associated with Partisan Review. He did not always agree with them about politics, race, and culture, but he conducted his arguments with great seriousness, personal dignity, and an actual knowledge of racial and cultural experience in the America to the west of the Hudson River.
Perhaps some sense of this remarkable writer’s mind can be suggested by attention to several themes that run through this definitive collection. First, a great many essays deal with how American culture has been and is being formed and shaped as a dynamic process that fuses into one entity a wide range of human activities. Ellison was always preoccupied in some part of his mind with the way elements of any race’s cultural expression filter into the mainstream of (and thus help to form) American culture. Ellison thought black American culture immensely rich, as indeed it is. But in the 1930s black culture had been grossly oversimplified by white American leftists and others who reduced blacks to the stereotype of the wretched of the earth. Segregated and excluded from the inner circle of American life, blacks were supposedly so desperate for a better life that they could and should be manipulated to bring about the socialist revolution. In this struggle, black artists were supposedly useful agents. Ellison saw how the Communists had seduced and abandoned black writers like Richard Wright, and he had no intention of being co-opted by the Left. Later, in the Sixties civil-rights movement, in order to further the cause of desegregation, political liberals (both black and white) once again reduced blacks to this stereotype of the racial victim who has been excluded from American culture.
Ellison was drawn to the radical Left in the Thirties and Forties (he even wrote for The New Masses) and was supportive of integration and black civil rights in the Fifties and Sixties. But he would not let this reductionist stereotype of black culture go uncriticized. Black life was too positive and various in its engaging forms. As he remarked in “That Same Pain, That Same Pleasure: An Interview”: “I have no desire to write propaganda. Instead I felt it important [in Invisible Man] to explore the full range of American Negro humanity and to affirm those qualities which are of value beyond any question of segregation, economics or previous condition of servitude. The obligation was always there and there is much to affirm.”
As these essays make plain, whatever the legal condition of slavery and desegregation may have meant, in the domain of culture and society blacks had always been fully involved in the national life. Many blacks had long been reduced to menial work as cooks, domestics, share-croppers, yard-boys, and manual laborers. But over the years there emerged a great many important black ministers, teachers, lawyers, musicians, editors, businessmen, union leaders, and college presidents—all of them defining and expressing a rich and diverse and creative black culture. In their preoccupation with black victims, few liberal whites seemed to notice these blacks or to speak about their contributions to American life. Indeed, this complex black culture was so diverse that not even any single black could speak for it.
Not only was North American black culture immensely diverse, it was also so rich and influential that, in Ellison’s view, many of its forms had already entered the mainstream culture of America and had been assimilated into the consciousness of whites long before many whites were even aware of it. Much of Ellison’s essay-writing was devoted to showing this contribution blacks had made to the national experience in its broadest terms, that is, in both high culture and the popular culture. But his point was never merely a pride in individual black achievement. What interested Ellison most was how a national culture gets formed in the first place. In these essays he shows that the forms of folk culture (white as well as black) are invariably already integrated in America. Spirituals, the blues, and jazz were originally distinctive forms of more or less anonymous black folk consciousness. But such was their moral and aesthetic power, despite the fact that no one person had “originated” them, that they permanently changed mainstream popular music. But it hardly ends there.
Folk culture, which is this already intermixed and continually integrating amalgam of creative elements, was itself for Ellison the fertile seedground of superior artistic genius. Spirituals, the blues, and jazz, for instance, did not merely influence mainstream popular music but also re-emerged in transfigured form in the musical expression of brilliant individual composers like George Gershwin, Aaron Copland, and Igor Stravinsky, to name just a few.
Ellison, for many years the Schweitzer Professor of the Humanities at New York University, was a colleague and friend of mine. And when he learned that I knew John Lewis, the founder and director of the Modern Jazz Quartet, he was keen to meet him. Lewis had also been trained in the conservatory tradition of classical music. Bach, Mozart, and Stravinsky were as familiar to Lewis as Duke Ellington, Satchmo, and “Bird” Parker. And Lewis’s jazz compositions—and not merely those in the “Third Stream” phase—were brilliant realizations of Ralph Ellison’s tenaciously held belief that the lines of creative influence flow from black culture into white and back again, and from low culture into high and back again, all this producing a single, unified, dynamic national culture. In fact, for Ellison, American culture was a rich seamless tapestry of varicolored elements in which there were so many black contributions that, after a while, it was sometimes impossible to identify them as such.
A second theme running through these essays is the role of the writer in America. Ellison certainly saw himself as a figure in the continuum of black writing. But, more broadly, he knew himself to participate in a wider current of mainstream American fiction. Beyond that, he saw himself as a citizen of the republic of letters that included the Frenchman Malraux, the Pole Joseph Conrad, the Russian Dostoevsky. Since “white literature” was continually influenced by black writing, and vice versa, he did not believe in the segregation of black literature in college courses like “The Negro Novel,” etc. During his Schweitzer Professorship, I chaired the English department, worked out with him an annual program of lectures, and used to talk to him at great length about the American masters who were our common pedagogical concern. As a teacher, his was truly a “rainbow curriculum” of various writers exploring the multicultural aspects of American life in a democratic polity. But his choice of books and writers was always based upon considerations of art rather than race.
During the Sixties, when the black-power movement got going in earnest, Ellison’s lectures and essays on the unity of an American culture to which blacks had made an inseparable contribution brought him under shrill and sometimes raucous censure from radical separatist blacks who thought him too subservient to racist honky culture, which they wanted to demolish. Some black radicals could never forgive him for his portrait of Ras the Exhorter, the black nationalist rioter in Invisible Man, who romantically solicited and indeed incurred his own destruction. The abuse Ellison suffered in those years of the New Left, as a so-called “Uncle Tom,” was wholly undeserved, as Invisible Man and his nonfiction works are one long brilliant protest against the continuing forms of American racism. But the courage and dignity with which he bore insult from even his own people—evident in the interview “Indivisible Man”—were signs of great personal magnanimity.
As a black novelist and intellectual, Ellison saw his role as the affirmation and celebration of American life as a whole. This also put him at odds with white radicals, who wanted him to sign off and merely denounce America for her history of slavery and continuing racism. Socialists like Irving Howe and some of the others in the Partisan Review crowd wanted Ellison to reproduce Richard Wright’s savage denunciations of white racism in Native Son (1940), 12 Million Black Voices (1941), and Black Boy (1945). In “Black Boys and Native Sons” (1963), Howe excoriated “accommodationists” like Ellison:
In response to Baldwin and Ellison, Wright would have said (I virtually quote the words he used in talking to me during the summer of 1958) that only through struggle could men with black skins, and for that matter, all the oppressed of the world, achieve their humanity. It was a lesson, said Wright, with a touch of bitterness yet not without kindness, that the younger writers would have to learn in their own way and their own time. All that has happened since bears him out.
But did it? I don’t think so, nor did Ellison, who had been befriended by Wright. In Invisible Man Ellison, like Wright, in Native Son, dealt frankly, comically, and horrifyingly with the forms of white racism. But at the same time he knew that Wright’s posture of despair, alienation, and feverish militancy was not the only stance for the black writer. Hence he refused to reduce his unnamed protagonist to the subhuman condition of Wright’s Bigger Thomas, and he deplored Wright’s dismissal of what Wright had called “all that art for art’s sake crap.” For Ellison, fiction was not racial propaganda. As he remarked in “The World and the Jug,” “what an easy con-game for ambitious, publicity-hungry Negroes this stance of ‘militancy’ has become.” And he liked to quote—of all people—President Lyndon B. Johnson’s remark that art is not a social weapon. For Ellison, the demand— whether made by white or black critics— that the Negro writer subordinate his art to anti-racist propaganda denies the writer his own vision:
For I found the greatest difficulty for a Negro writer was the problem of revealing what he truly felt, rather than serving up what Negroes were supposed to feel, and were encouraged to feel. And linked to this was the difficulty, based upon our long habit of deception and evasion, of depicting what really happened within our areas of American life, and putting down with honesty and without bowing to ideological expediencies the attitudes and values which gave Negro American life its sense of wholeness, and which render it bearable and human and, when measured by our own terms, desirable.
He said that for this reason black writers often failed “to achieve a vision of life and a resourcefulness of craft commensurate with the complexity of their actual situation. Too often they fear to leave the uneasy sanctuary of race to take their chances in the world of art.” It was in the world of art and according to aesthetic standards that Ralph Ellison wanted Invisible Man judged. And his artistic standards were so high and exacting that he was never able to complete a second novel (especially after a fire in his summer house destroyed his working manuscript).
A third theme that runs through this volume is the praise of the American language as a vernacular medium adequate to the highest art. Few American writers, white or black, have been as sensitive as he to the evolution of the American language out of the whirling maelstrom of immigrant experience. He immensely admired Twain’s ear for Southern speech, studied the Mississippi dialect in Faulkner’s prose, and listened for and learned from James’s vernacular locutions. Ellison was naturally sensitive to the speech of blacks as a distinctive idiom of our “American version of English.” In a speech to Haverford students in 1969, he noted how “the American language owes something of its directness, flexibility, music, imagery, mythology, and folklore to the Negro presence.” In “Going to the Territory,” he called the slaves and their successors ingenious in developing the linguistic skills necessary to communicate in a mixed society, and he particularly praised blacks for their “melting and blending of vernacular and standard speech and a grasp of the occasions in which each, or both, were called for.” In fact, Ellison called the vernacular style “the American style”:
But by “vernacular” I mean far more than popular or indigenous language. I see the vernacular as a dynamic process in which the most refined styles from the past are continually merged with the play-it-by-eye-and-by-ear improvisations which we invent in our efforts to control our environment and entertain ourselves. This is not only in language and literature, but in architecture and cuisine, in music, costume, dance, tools, and technology. In it the styles and techniques of the past are adjusted to the needs of the present, and in its integrative action the high styles of the past are democratized. From this perspective the vernacular is, no less than the styles associated with aristocracy, a gesture toward perfection.
Richard Kostelanetz once called Ellison a “brown-skinned aristocrat.” This sounds like “reverse color prejudice” to me, as well as class prejudice; and it implies that he was too “white” to be a black. Many blacks do have white ancestry, through no responsibility of their own. Ellison even had Cherokee ancestry; and when he learned that I too was from the South and had a Cherokee grandmother, it sealed our friendship. In his own selfhood he was the living personification of the interrelation of racial and cultural elements in America that was his dominating theme. And he saw me in that light as well.
Was he an aristocrat? Indeed, he did carry himself as if he were A Visible Somebody. He was an aristocrat, but only in the way that every American man and woman is an heir to incalculable cultural wealth. Ellison’s whole career, insofar as I understand it, was devoted to making clear that elements of the high style—like elements of popular culture—are available to everyone for everyday life. He had started out as a poor boy in Oklahoma, looking at magazines like Vogue and Harper’s, recognizing in them a style higher and better and more distinguished than what he saw around him. It was like the difference between his daily clothes and his Sunday go-to-meeting clothes. The boy decided that he wanted to wear glad rags every day of the week, and so he became one of the most elegantly dressed men I have ever known.
Further, as a youth he found in Conrad, Hemingway, and Eliot a literary imagination superior to that of the best sellers and poetasters, and he wanted what these artists had to give. Mozart and Rossini were his inheritance—as available to him (or to any black boy) as to Marian Anderson. High culture, the fusion of black and white influences and much else besides, was his for the taking. He was as comfortable, clad in a tuxedo, listening to chamber music in the staid, large reading room of the Century Club, to which Henry James had also belonged, as he was in an all-black jazz nightclub toe-tapping to local riffs. Indeed, in every aspect of life Ellison worked to bring the high style, the patrician, the best, into our common everyday possession; and to lift vital, worthwhile folk creations into general consciousness as values in themselves and as a common American legacy offering inspiration to rising genius. This was, for Ralph Ellison, what a democratic culture was all about.
- The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison, edited, with an introduction, by John F. Callahan. Preface by Saul Bellow. The Modern Library, 856 pages, $20. Go back to the text.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 14 Number 4, on page 5
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