Larson, Charles R., The World and I
A collection that includes newly discovered, previously unpublished stories chronicles Ralph Ellison's early literary development.
The first time I read Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man was in 1962, ten years after its original publication, when I was a Peace Corps volunteer, a 24-year-old white guy teaching English in a boys' secondary school in eastern Nigeria. My background in no way had prepared me to understand anything about what I will broadly call negritude. I had an M.A. in American literature but had never read a single work by an African-American writer. I had written a thesis on William Faulkner's Snopes characters, directed by a distinguished black professor who had never once mentioned an African-American writer during the several years I worked with him.
I mention these facts by way of emphasizing the narrowness of the curriculum in American schools when I was an undergraduate and beginning graduate student. Fortunately, during my Peace Corps training I was exposed to African writers (Chinua Achebe and Cyprian Ekwensi), but I got to Africa never having read a single work written by a black American. What happened to me was the reverse of what happens to many students today. An awareness of African writing led to my own discovery of the huge hole in my education in American literature.
I knew Ellison was in a class by himself the moment I began reading Invisible Man. It was Ellison who, after I returned to the United States, convinced me that I had to do something about the earlier gaps in my education. It was Ellison who helped me make my decision to start a Ph.D. at Howard University, one of the few places in the country where I could study Negro--as the term was used then--American writers. Although I subsequently veered back to African literature, it was Invisible Man that I kept reading and rereading in subsequent years and then teaching again and again in one course after another. I suspect that I've read the book and taught it twenty or thirty times and hope to live long enough to read it that many times again. There is no other postwar American novel of the twentieth century that can be reread that many times and still reveal layer after layer of meanings.
Like most readers of Invisible Man, I've longed and I've waited for the appearance of Ellison's second novel. We're accustomed to that with American writers, since most successful writers in our country are driven by their publishers (and by themselves) to keep producing. Ideally, that means a new novel every year--or at least every two or three. But with Ellison, as with his novel, things were never like that. Some of us feared he was writing it with invisible ink. And his essays, for all their brilliance, are not something most people can sink their teeth into, the way you can with a great novel. So we waited, year after year, decade after decade, sometimes even with rumors that the second novel was finished and would shortly appear.
But it didn't, for one very good reason, which was so obvious that practically everyone missed it. If you've already written the great postwar American novel (and perhaps the greatest novel of the century), what's the thrill of writing the second-greatest one?
Sense of cultural syncretism
Ellison didn't win over all of his readers. No writer does. Late in the '60s and in the early '70s, when black power was suddenly visible and the curriculum in schools across the country was finally beginning to reflect the country's cultural diversity, Ellison lost some of his African-American readers. In a cover article in the Atlantic titled "Invisible Man," James Alan McPherson described an incident at Oberlin in 1969, related to him by a black student.
"[Ellison's] speech was about how American black culture had blended into American white culture. But at the meeting with the black caucus after the speech, the black students said: `You don't have anything to tell us.'" "What did he say?" "He just accepted it very calmly. One girl said to him: `Your book doesn't mean anything because in it you're shooting down Ras the Destroyer, a rebel leader of black people.'" "What did he answer?" "He said: `Remember now, this book was written a long time ago. This is just one man's view of what he saw, how he interpreted what he saw. I don't make any apologies for it.' Well, she went on to tell him: `That just proves that you're an Uncle Tom.'"
Those were difficult days for many academics, including Ellison, who had already taught at a number of universities. Though McPherson said that Ellison liked to refer to himself as a college dropout (he never completed his B.A. at Tuskegee), the following year, in 1970, he became Albert Schweitzer Professor in Humanities at New York University, earning one of the highest academic salaries of any humanities professor in the United States.
The temporary criticism of Ralph Ellison by black students nearly thirty years ago was not because of his portrayal of Ras, a black nationalist, but because of his sense of cultural reciprocity, cultural syncretism. The young activists in those days were anti-assimilation, pro-separatism, and clearly disturbed by what Ellison's novel says. The last line of Invisible Man ("Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?") blasts apart the novel's racial context and universalizes the problem of identity, making it one of the loss of self for all people, outside of race and culture.
Put in Ellison's own words (responding to a question by McPherson):
I think that too many of our assertions continue to be in response to whites. I think that we're polarized by the very fact that we keep talking about black awareness when we really should be talking about black American awareness, an awareness of where we fit into the total American scheme, where our influence is. I tell white kids that instead of talking about black men in a white world or black men in white society, they should ask themselves how they are because black men have been influencing the values of the society and the art forms of the society. How many of their parents fell in love listening to Nat King Cole? ... We did not develop as a people in isolation. We developed within a context of white people. Yes, we have a special awareness because our experience has, in certain ways, been uniquely different from that of white people; but it was not absolutely different. A poor man is a poor man whether he's black or white.
Ellison's literary estate
Ellison worked on that second novel for most of the rest of his life. According to his literary executor, John Callahan, the project "accentuated his natural penchant to revise, revise, revise, and only slowly come to satisfaction about his work." Bits and pieces of it were published along the way, leading to a great amount of speculation about the novel's subject. David Remnick, in the New Yorker in 1994, described the work in progress as "a novel set mainly in the South and in Washington, D.C. At the center of the story ... are the community and the language of the black church and the relationship between a black preacher and a friend who eventually becomes a senator and a notorious racist." Callahan has been more specific, pinpointing the settings as Washington and Oklahoma, where Ellison was born in 1914, and the main character, the Reverend Alonzo Zubar Hickman, who becomes a jazzman.
Unfortunately, the worst that can happen to a writer happened to Ellison. In 1966, a fire in his summerhouse destroyed much of the manuscript. There was only the one copy; this was pre-PCs, pre-easy access to copy machines. When Ellison died on April 16, 1994, he had been working on the second novel for close to forty years.
Within days of his death, Joe Fox, Ellison's editor at Random House, announced that the writer had left a lengthy manuscript of somewhere between a thousand and two thousand pages. Fox stated, "As late as March 7, he told me I would have it very soon. I got the impression that it was virtually finished."
A little more than a year after Ellison's death, readers' expectations were tantalized again. An article in the Washington Post stated that Ellison's novel "is finally on its way to publication," although, quoting Callahan, "There's a lot to be done.... The manuscript is in so many different forms--numerous computer disks from two computers, as well as typescripts and notes and jottings."
Callahan's progress with Ellison's literary estate is already impressive. In 1995, he edited The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison, which incorporated all of the material from the author's two volumes of essays published during his life, as well as several newly discovered ones. Now Callahan has edited Flying Home and Other Stories, which brings together six newly discovered and previously unpublished short stories written during the 1930s and'40s, plus seven stories published in the 1940s and '50s. Callahan refers to them as Ellison's "best published and unpublished freestanding fiction," that is, stories that are not part of the second novel.
Flying Home and Other Stories, Callahan writes in his introduction,
chronicles Ellison's discovery of his American theme. In technique and style, subject matter and milieu, the thirteen stories show the young writer's promise and possibility in the late thirties and his gradual ascent to maturity in the mid-forties when, unbeknownst to him, he was about to conceive Invisible Man. The sequence I have chosen follows the life Ellison knew and imagined from boyhood and youth in the twenties and thirties to manhood in the late thirties and early forties.
Callahan also chronicles Ellison's rise as a writer. At Tuskegee, Ellison read exhaustively--especially modern writers. In 1937, after he had gone to New York City, met Richard Wright, and decided not to complete his degree, and after he had suffered through his mother's death, Ellison began writing his first short stories and a novel called Slick. The early stories, especially, "led Ralph Ellison into the territory of the novel--toward Invisible Man, with its freighted, frightening, fraternal `lower frequencies' of democracy, and beyond, to the terra incognita of his novel in progress."
Unpublished and uncollected stories
The opening story in this collection, "A Party Down at the Square," is as powerful as anything he would subsequently write. Of the stories unpublished during his lifetime, it is one of the oldest. Callahan discovered it with others in Ellison's apartment, at the bottom of a box, under a stack of magazines and clippings. It is also the most chilling of the early works--largely because of the juxtaposition of several horrific incidents, including a lynching.
"I don't know what started it," the narrator (who is white) begins. "A bunch of men came by my uncle Ed's place and said there was going to be a party down at the Square." Quickly moving on, he adds a number of pertinent details: the courthouse, the statue of a general with a face that "made him seem to be smiling down at the nigger," a crowd that includes thirty-five or so women. Then, Ellison introduces a distracting incident, just about the moment that black man is to be ignited with gasoline. An airplane crashes nearby, hits the power lines above the street, and electrocutes one of the women standing in the mob.
Ironically, it is the smell of the white woman's burning flesh that the narrator inhales first, before the black man is killed, a macabre incident prefiguring the subsequent planned immolation of a human being. Seeing the woman totally stripped of her dignity, "turned ... almost as black as the nigger," the narrator is momentarily distracted from the anticipated event. But then the lynching continues, despite the plane crash, and for a moment the black victim seems invincible, defying his awful death. Covered by flames, he asks his lynchers, "Will somebody please cut my throat like a Christian?" One of the men, who plans to run for sheriff the next year, responds, "Sorry, but ain't no Christians around tonight. Ain't no Jew-boys neither. We're just one hundred percent Americans." The story quickly concludes, "It was my first party and my last. God, but that nigger was tough. That Bacote nigger was some nigger!"
Several of the other early stories show us a world that is missing from Invisible Man: the relationship between parents and children. In "Boy on a Train," a mother and her two sons are traveling to Minnesota, where the woman anticipates beginning a new job "where things wouldn't be so hard like they were down South." The bittersweet relationship between the older boy and his mother is cracked apart by an ugly incident when a hawker makes a sexual pass at the boy's mother.
Another poignant story, "The Black Ball," prefigures Ellison's move beyond color in Invisible Man. A father responds to his four-year-old son (who has asked whether it's better to be black or white) by saying, "But American is better than both, son." Yet late in the story, after the child's confusion about the ball he has been playing with and what it means to be blackballed, the father thinks about his son's initiation into issues of color: "He was learning the rules of the game already, but he didn't know it."
"Flying Home," originally published in 1944, remains one of Ellison's most effective tales. The story of a black aviator during the war, it provides us with another early exploration of the theme that Ellison would shortly pursue in Invisible Man: identity. Many years later, Ellison wrote about this story:
I came to realize that my pilot was also experiencing difficulty in seeing himself. And this had to do with his ambivalence before his own group's divisions of class and diversities of culture: an ambivalence which was brought into focus after he crash-landed on a Southern plantation and found himself being aided by a Negro tenant farmer whose outlook and folkways were a painful reminder of his own tenuous military status and their common origin in slavery.
Flying Home and Other Stories combines the experience of reading Ellison's unpublished early stories with the delight in rereading the other uncollected ones together for the first time. Much of the satisfaction of the volume is due to Callahan's judicious editing. He has not manufactured titles for those stories that had none but, instead, used phrases from the texts themselves, thus retaining the writer's original integrity. One can only praise him for leaving out the takeouts from Ellison's work in progress. That material should be saved for the novel itself. Every writer should be so fortunate with his literary executor.
There is only one thing missing from Callahan's introduction to Flying Home and Other Stories, and that is his wonderful account of his original encounter with Ralph Ellison. It's a marvelous story in and of itself, but modesty prevails in the footsteps of a master.
Charles R. Larson, professor of literature at American University, is the author of The Emergence of African Fiction and The Novel in the Third World. He coedited Worlds of Fiction with Roberta Rubenstein and is presently editing a collection of contemporary African short stories.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Invisible Ink?. Contributors: Larson, Charles R. - Author. Magazine title: The World and I. Volume: 12. Issue: 3 Publication date: March 1997. Page number: 246. © 1999 News World Communications, Inc. COPYRIGHT 1997 Gale Group.
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