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Collected Essays Of Ralph Ellison

Compiled, edited, and newly revised by Ralph Ellison’s literary executor, John F. Callahan, this Modern Library Paperback Classic includes posthumously discovered reviews, criticism, and interviews, as well as the essay collections Shadow and Act (1964), hailed by Robert Penn Warren as “a body of cogent and subtle commentary on the questions that focus on race,” and GoingCompiled, edited, and newly revised by Ralph Ellison’s literary executor, John F. Callahan, this Modern Library Paperback Classic includes posthumously discovered reviews, criticism, and interviews, as well as the essay collections Shadow and Act (1964), hailed by Robert Penn Warren as “a body of cogent and subtle commentary on the questions that focus on race,” and Going to the Territory (1986), an exploration of literature and folklore, jazz and culture, and the nature and quality of lives that black Americans lead. “Ralph Ellison,” wrote Stanley Crouch, “reached across race, religion, class and sex to make us all Americans.”...more

Paperback, 904 pages

Published September 9th 2003 by Modern Library (first published 1995)

May 12, 1996
Indivisible Man

Edited by John F. Callahan.

statue of the Virgin Mary; a naked nymph in a fountain; a clutch of pink flamingos. What Americans display out front says a great deal about what we idealize and why. Nobody on the lawn had more to say than the jockey -- the grinning little black guy who once held lanterns along the crab-grass frontier from Florida through New England. The jockey is distilled from what Southern whites found most pleasing in minstrel-era blacks -- their music, their humor, the cheerful way they seemed to serve. The statue is also a product of the more or less constant attempt to reduce an entire race to a single representative, who serves as what the novelist Ralph Ellison called the Head Nigger in Charge -- known in polite abbreviation as the H.N.I.C. The term predates Ellison by at least a century. But his unique archeology of the type gives him a singular license to define it. In the antebellum South, the H.N.I.C. was the lone black person whom whites had invested with voice and authority: the king of darkies. The expression is still heard in the Fortune 500, where the lone, showcase black is cast as corporate lawn ornament.

Ellison's genius lay in recognizing that the minstrel-era stereotype was complex and many sided. In the 1960's, black nationalists argued for purging the jockey (along with Mammy and Little Black Sambo), but Ellison inveighed against it. Beneath the submissive grin lay the storehouse of Negro history and humanity, he said. Submerge the stereotype and you submerged the humanity with it. In any case, the minstrel image would be permanent, he said, recurring again and again with only cosmetic variation.

Ellison's novel "Invisible Man" was a literary fugue on this theme. The political version of the H.N.I.C. is Dr. Bledsoe, the college president who makes a grand living telling white folks what Negroes think, and is happy to see lynched any Negro who insists on his own point of view. The corporate version is crazy Lucius Brockway, the lone colored chemist at a paint factory who goes to murderous lengths to keep it that way. A Kafkaesque spoof on the jockey comes along in "Cadillac Flambe," an installment of a novel that Ellison never completed. The action centers on a jazz musician who is driving his prized Cadillac when over the radio comes a bigot saying that Cadillacs have become mere "coon cages" since Negroes began to own them. Wearing his warmest grin, the musician drives onto the bigot's lawn, soaks the Caddy with gas -- and burns it. The scene is both hilarious and deeply unnerving.

Ellison died in 1994 at the age of 80. With his friend and rival, the critic and novelist Albert Murray, he fought a lifelong battle against black separatism, arguing that blacks were not just deeply American but the most American people of all. Ellison presented himself as a literary rationalist, ever ready with insights about folks from Heraclitus to Hemingway. The erudition was real. The cool rationality was not. As the novelist James Baldwin put it, Ellison was almost too angry to live. Public anger was the mode of choice in the 1960's, a style of performance that writers like Baldwin embraced with gusto. Ellison's anger was smoldering and inward turning. When the Ellison-Murray correspondence is finally published, it will probably throw a klieg light on that anger. As it stands, "The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison" provides only fleeting glimpses of it.

The collection mixes essays, speeches, interviews and reviews -- a few of them new, most culled from two previous books of essays, "Shadow and Act" (1964) and "Going to the Territory" (1986). Even from master writers, and even when they are fresh, collections of occasional pieces are rarely satisfying. "Going to the Territory" was the third time around for some of its material. Reviews were polite but disappointed. The critics spoke of the book in whispers, like neighbors pitying an invalid child. Where was the novel that had been rumored since "Invisible Man"? Why did he give so many interviews and, even though he found writing hellishly difficult, contribute so many minor pieces to obscure journals? The second novel is still rumored. The newly discovered stories that appeared last month in The New Yorker will not add much to his reputation. The main lesson they teach is: When you die, every napkin you scribbled on will be unearthed and pressed between covers. For the time being, "Invisible Man" and Ellison's essays and interviews are all we have to make sense of who he was at heart.

The signature pieces are all here. "The Little Man at Chehaw Station" is a parable warning artists to do their best, no matter what the audience. "Going to the Territory" is a bluesy ode to that all-American impulse to go west. "An Extravagance of Laughter," the most personal among the pieces, tells of Ellison's arrival in New York City as a young college student in 1936. Older readers have seen it all before. But younger ones will be astonished at how little the debate about race and writing has changed. The most remarkable artifact along those lines is an essay entitled "The World and the Jug," Ellison's response to an attack in the early 1960's by the New York intellectual Irving Howe. Howe had called Ellison a phony for not following the line set down by Richard Wright in the novel "Native Son." The star of that novel is Bigger Thomas, poor, hopeless and monstrously angry. Bigger kills a woman, hacks her to bits and burns her. He then rapes and bludgeons his lover, leaving her in an abandoned building to die. Bigger is Frankenstein's monster, patched together from sociological cliches and breathed into life by readers and critics who decided that only monsters were truly and authentically black. Howe subscribed to this view (many critics still do) and scourged "Invisible Man" for not being a novel about the "ideological and emotional penalties suffered by Negroes in this country."

Ellison destroys this argument. He points out the double standard of evaluating white writers on literary inventiveness while expecting black writers to reduce African-American culture to the sum of its brutalizations. He exposes the antebellum character of what Howe is trying to do: use Wright to destroy Ellison, thus arriving at a single black jockey for the American literary lawn. Hemingway, Faulkner and Chekhov have distinct individual identities. Why ask all Negroes to think the same and write the same book? To the absurd charge that "Invisible Man" lacks Negro "suffering" Ellison replies: "I tried to the best of my ability to transform these elements into art. My goal was not to escape or hold back, but to work through; to transcend, as the blues transcend the painful conditions with which they deal." "The World and the Jug" is one of the great demolitions in writing. Everyone who writes even a syllable about race needs to absorb its lessons.

Ellison lost the battle for a complex and humane view of African-Americans in fiction. "Invisible Man" offered one of the most textured and literary views ever written about any people. But the generation that came of age since that tour de force grew up under the unquestioned assumption that middle-class normalcy was aberrant for blacks and that only thuggishness and ghetto pathology were "authentically" African-American. The 1960's and beyond were dominated by the Frankensteinian view, orchestrated by Wright from beyond the grave. The monstrous Bigger Thomas proved to have broad cultural appeal. Only over the last decade has it begun to fade.

Ellison preached a 40-year sermon about the sacred craft of writing. Part of the homily berated African-American writers for ignoring their American roots in favor of a narrow separatism that produced stunted art. The charge was often accurate. But Ellison droned on and on, becoming a caricature of himself. (He seemed not to notice that most novels are mediocre no matter what the writer's ethnicity.) At least in print, he came to seem stilted and pretentious -- Ralph Ellison against the Philistines. Interviewers sensed the obvious and took lines of questioning that deepened the impression. How come those other Negroes are not as good as you? Will they ever be? What is wrong with them anyway? He was being cast as Head Jockey on the Lawn despite himself. It burned Ellison up to think it.

HE despised "concreteness" in writing and was fond of complicated rhythms and ideas. The style worked well in fiction. But his speeches and essays suffered for it. (A college student at one of his speeches said he sounded like "Jesus Christ drunk on Thunderbird wine.") Ellison slighted the day-to-day experience that was clearly chewing him up; even his autobiographical essays are lacking in it. Most of his remembrances are safely tucked into the past, and even these are dismembered, scattered among reflections about writing and democracy. Ellison experts describe this as improvisation in the style of jazz. Another way to see it is that Ellison is hiding -- deliberately obscuring himself from view. The self he hides comes through only intermittently in this collection. But Baldwin seems to have seen it often, hence his assertion that Ellison was almost too enraged to live. In his memoir "Palimpsest," Gore Vidal seconds the impression, recalling Ellison as a thin-skinned man with whom casual conversation was impossible and for whom race was the only subject.

The sources of Ellison's discomfort are clear. The novel in which he had invested 10, then 20, then 40 years failed to finish itself and became a standing joke. His political difficulties with black nationalism were another source of tension and anxiety. ("When the world changed from 'Negro' to 'black,' " he said, "an element of mysticism slipped in that I've never felt comfortable with.") Black radicals scorned him as a white folks' nigger. The most striking memory of the period comes from "New York Days," by Willie Morris, who attended a conference with Ellison in 1967 at Grinnell College. A young Black Panther drives all the way from Chicago to snarl about "Invisible Man." Ellison and the Panther argue so violently that a student steps between them. The Panther calls Ellison an "Uncle Tom," and Ellison collapses on the student's shoulder and sobs: "I'm not a Tom, I'm not a Tom." Ellison later said he was used to it; it happened all the time. Aggression was not his style, but Ralph Ellison would have benefited by letting go now and then, and breaking the occasional nose.

The writer is free to choose his subject. But there is a price to pay if he avoids what is grinding at his gut. The most startling feature of these essays is what they leave unsaid. It is up to Ellison's biographers to fill us in.

Brent Staples writes about politics and culture for the editorial page of The New York Times and is the author of a memoir, "Parallel Time: Growing Up in Black and White."

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