Two initial statements. First, Ralph Ellison is a great novelist that more persons of all stripes ought to read. Saying this reflects my own taste, i.e., my own inexpert judgment of literary quality and reading pleasure, but also my desire to bring others to experience something of the feeling I find I’m increasingly getting from the man’s books. It is overall a feeling of familiar warmth, of wanting to return again, years after the last reading, to the characters, scenarios, and images found in Invisible Man, Juneteenth, and some of the other writings. It’s the not the sort of feeling I get with most authors. And, it’s something of a surprise to feel it for Ellison’s work, which contains more than a number of prickly shocks, the first time around especially, and flights of prose that require more than a little work and concentration on the part of the reader.
Second, Ralph Ellison turns out to be a very significant figure for American Political Thought. This is not for the reason we might expect, namely, his being one of the first widely-acclaimed Afro-American literary artists, and one whose work dramatized the pervasive injustice of America’s racism. It is more fundamentally due to his further development, particularly in his essays, of a certain American tradition of democratic faith, characteristic of Emerson, Whitman, and several of the big names in 20th-century progressivism/liberalism, but in a more tragedy-attuned and blues-schooled mode. This ought to be important to political thinkers across the board, whether they are champions of that tradition or critics of it.
This aspect of Ellison’s thought is intimately related to what has been more widely commented upon, his account of America’s cultural mixing, such as that represented by the metaphor of the melting pot, made against sharply-drawn multi-culturalist categorizations of American culture, identity, and ethnicity. That teaching pitted him against many of the advocates of Black Pride; it is the reason his socio-political thought is treasured by contemporary opponents of ethnicity-based politics, such as the indispensable Shelby Steele. It is thus the initial reason it ought to be of interest to all conservatives and moderates. But as I will explain in another post, Ellison’s account of America’s cultural mixing and complexity amounts to far more than simply a rejection of dismal “race-card” politics and identity-formation. It is an account that invites the questions of 1) whether or not Americans might understand themselves as a distinct (yet variegated) people in the face of the globalist instinct (see my big essay below) to regard our cultural-ethnic mixing as a template for a world society, and 2) whether or not democratic societies across the world might continue to make room in their ever-more democratic culture for the fine arts and other possibilities of “naturally aristocratic” cultivation. For all these reasons, I say Ellison is going to remain important to political thought.
If you’re unfamiliar with Ellison, here’s a link to the PBS American Masters documentary about him. I can’t remember if I’ve seen it, but watching that would give you the basic shape of his biographical story, and the link also features a useful written introduction by Anne Seidlitz. The major aspects of his story are his being raised in the somewhat-more-free-for-blacks state of Oklahoma, his undergraduate education at Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute in the early 30s, his moving to New York City to explore certain artistic proclivities (initially ones as focused upon classical composition and sculpture as upon literature), his publishing Invisible Man to immediate and lasting acclaim in 1952, his essay writing, resulting in two important volumes of essays, Shadow and Act in 1964, and Going to the Territory in 1986, and his work all through these years upon a never completed three-volume novel, Three Days before the Shooting, of which the most-developed portion was published posthumously in 1999 as Juneteenth.
Invisible Man in some ways parallels Ellison’s developmental journey from Alabama’s Tuskegee to New York City. A promising young black man who has completely bought into a kind of Booker-T-style collegiate idealism winds up in NYC through a series of mishaps, and becomes, after more mishaps yet, a leader in “The Brotherhood” organization (i.e., the Communist Party) that is winning over Harlemites in the 1930s. The main words I would have for it are driving, wild, and imagistic. A film version surely would have been made had Ellison not explicitly forbidden this, but certainly no film could capture the relentless power of the book’s interior dialogue.
There is much that is deeply disturbing and portions that feel psychedelic in a bad-trip way, so that I have a measure of sympathy for the North Carolina parents who a couple years ago tried to get it removed from their high-school reading list due to it being too intense (particularly regarding sexual situations, and racial injustice) for that age, but I must add that in many instances what is disturbing also is subtly shown to be funny in a blues-reminiscent way; moreover, there are many sweet scenes peppered throughout, and I detect a humorously sympathetic tone pervading the entire work. Sure, it’s all about existential homelessness encroaching upon modern man, but it has quite a few instances of homey-ness in there also. That’s part of what keeps drawing me back.
It’s those latter aspects that educators usually neglect when trying to introduce the book. They always dwell on the relation between racial oppression and Ellison’s presentation of his narrator’s metaphorical invisibility. And if they require students to read any part besides the modernistic Prologue, it’s the first scene, the Battle Royale, a uniquely sinister portrayal of small-town segregationist oppression and degradation of Negroes. (Note: Ellison always preferred the term “Negro” to “black” or “African-American,” and I try to honor that a bit herein.) It’s a truly great scene—my only complaint is that there are so many other brilliant ones we could be teasing interest with instead, many of which do not so easily suit the too-hammered-in lesson conveyed by our contemporary schools and films that pre-1970s America, especially in the segregationist South, was grossly unjust to blacks. (That’s a vital lesson for all Americans, no doubt; but any lesson overdone, and especially when its repetition seems designed to favor one side in contemporary debates, becomes a botched one.)
Let me quickly also mention the merits of Juneteenth, which particularly center upon Ellison’s portrayal of the Negro church and of the Azusa-Street-like dream not infrequently cherished within it in which American Christians, black and white, would someday arrive at an inter-racial Christian fraternal love. Now Ellison’s letters to Albert Murray, collected in Trading Twelves, reveal in places a highly critical attitude towards Negro preachers, but in Juneteenth Ellison truly gave himself over to the character and voice of the rather admirable Hickman, a jazzman-become-preacher (echoes there of gospel music giant Thomas Dorsey). Hickman’s sermon at the heart of the novel, which mythically describes the cultural decimation of the African slaves and their collective rebirth through Afro-American musical creation, is one of the few instances I can think of in which American literature really lives up to Walt Whitman’s call for epic-like poetry of America, although it does so by way of a perhaps un-Whitman-esque openness to the Bible. Much remains to be discussed about that—for one, the most theological moments of Hickman’s preaching sound more Process Theology than they do orthodox–, but I’ll just say here that it’s not a sermon to be missed.
I’m sure critics have somewhere discussed which writers best capture the infectious patterns of Afro-American speech, and I don’t know whether Ellison is ranked at the top, but I’d guess that he’s ranked pretty highly, simply based on the blues-and-gospel-evocative prose throughout Juneteenth. One of the funny things about him, given such a gut-bucket and swingin’ a voice he could employ in his novels and letters, is how formal and nearly-standardized a voice he used in public speech, and I guess in everyday life also. Surprise at that voice might be the first impression you take from this 1966 interview, or from these 50s audio-clips recently re-discovered in the Harvard Library, but don’t let that distract you from the various riches therein, including (go to 20:30) a section of the sermon just described.
Ellison’s self-cultivated aristocratic manner has subjected him to a lot of unfair criticism. His reputation at present, given some of the unflattering sides of his character revealed (and tendentiously highlighted) by the 2007 biography by Arnold Rampersad, is perhaps on the wane, and maybe someday may even need a calumny-answering defense of the sort Daniel Mahoney recently published for Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Without question, there are certain elites that, like the secularist and liberal elites that enabled the campaign of misrepresentation and dismissal against Solzhenitsyn, would welcome a diminishment of Ellison’s reputation. While in socio-economic terms Ellison’s political sympathies were liberal and leftist, much of what he wrote remains a standing rebuke to the racial-grievance identity politics that the Democrats seem determined to nurse until Kingdom Come, and to the black identity stances that work with it. Now many, including our Invisible Man-loving president, never fully see this. But it still makes Ellison an ongoing threat to present-day black leaders, as Shelby Steele pointedly suggested in a 1999 TNR piece:
He has let the world see behind the black mask, and so has drawn the ire of the modern-day Bledsoes of his group. …their focus on culture is really a focus on power; …their enterprise is really about territories within institutions… When Ellison celebrates the resourcefulness of the ingenuity of black culture, he “blows the game” of his group leaders by revealing that which undermines the mask.
You don’t know who “Bledsoe” was? That’s like a Greek not knowing who Circe was! Sheesh, you probably don’t know who Ras the Exhorter and Rinehart are either! Take up and read Invisible Man, and get with your American mythology.
Anyhow, you can see why many would have reasons for wanting the appreciation of Ellison to become diminished and limited, limited to acknowledging the power of his art and its witness to racial injustices. They would love for the line on him to become “A genius, a giant of American literature right for his moment, but ultimately, a fairly nasty piece of work as a man, with an attraction to retrograde ideas.” Such a line is unlikely to “succeed” quite in the way a similar one did with Solzhenitsyn, since it keeps having to hold Ellison’s initial accomplishment up as a paragon of black cultural self-assertion and accomplishment, thereby drawing new generations of readers, such as Barack Obama and myself, into the spell of his artistry, and thus, if nothing else, into a sense of his overall decency and wisdom.
But again, what will also remain a standing offense is Ellison’s emphasis, which became part of his own personal manner, upon the self-creative and thus self-elevating possibilities present in modern democratic society. He constantly focuses on the ways democracy really makes, and must continue to make, opportunities for cultural uplift widely available. His emphasis upon this is serious enough that it can rub the wrong way, for it gives us no excuse for making only weak efforts at cultivation. He knows all about the Afro-American “down home” and suggests that all of us ought to be on the look-out for wisdom in unexpected places and persons, and especially from those on the low end of the social ladder, but he won’t pretend to be more “everyday people” than he really is. Nor does his work allow any of us to pretend to be. Ellison challenges one and all, and he doesn’t do it as a way of positioning himself above everyone, but as a way of urging everyone up. More about this soon.
I’m not saying here that debates about Ellison’s overall literary merit, or the connection of that to charges that he was too arrogant generally, and became too distanced from younger Negro writers and artists specifically, are illegitimate ones, or can be settled simply by observing who stands to gain from hits upon his reputation. I’d just say that those who get into Ellison ought to be aware of the ongoing tensions among our literary and cultural guardians about the man, lest they too easily accept as true certain accusations (often disguised as pitying “half-appreciations”) they might hear leveled against him.
Well, enough of that. The main thing is that the two novels are fantastic reads, and ones that stick with you. I hope I’ve given everyone, from the American of whatever background to the foreigner, from the lover of stories to that of ideas, and yes, from the conservative to the liberal, reasons for attending to Ralph Ellison.