The Critical Response to Ralph Ellison

By Robert J. Butler | Go to book overview

Study and Experience: An Interview with Ralph Ellison

Robert B. Stepto and Michael S. Harper

Stepto: Both you and Wright strove to read, and strove to write, but I think the situations were quite different. What we see sometimes is that people have the theory, an ancient one, of sons wanting to slay the fathers. . . . Ellison: Well, Wright and I were of different backgrounds, different ages, and from different regions. What united us was our mutual interest in ideas and the craft of fiction, not some fanciful notion of father and son. I've heard the metaphor used in justification of actions taken after the disruption of friendships between younger and older writers, and inevitably it is the younger who uses it in his own defense. I don't buy it because it misnames a complicated relationship. S: What do you mean? E: For one thing, I mean that writers as artists are sons of many fathers, or at least the sons of many writers' styles. This was true even of Dostoyevsky and Henry James, and no matter what the personal relationship between two writers happens to be, unless the younger writer is a mere imitator his style will diverge from, and often negate in certain aspects, the style of his older friend. That's where the important conflict takes place and it's more or less inevitable and it only obscures matters when we drag in the father-son metaphor. Rather than a case of the son slaying the father, such rows are more like those instances wherein an unwedded mother gives her unwanted baby over for adoption. And then, after the child has been brought through the precarious period of infancy, toilet-training and whooping cough, she discovers that she has safely weathered the terrors of shame and uncertainty of her maternity and proceeds to demand the return of the child. In doing so she makes noble noises about the sacredness of motherhood and the imperiousness of the maternal instinct, and has nasty things to say about the manners, morals, and low human quality of those into whose hands she has thrust her squirming infant. Neither metaphor is really adequate, but sometimes a young writer seeks to place his infant talent in the care of an older writer whom he hopes will nurture, instruct and protect it and himself against the uncertainties that are a necessary phase of his development. But then, after he has gained confidence and achieved a sense of his own identity as a writer, he seeks to reclaim his psychological independence. Thus it seems to me that instead of seeking for a father principle, the writer, as writer, is seeking ways to give birth to books. And what if during his formative period a male writer is given support by a writer who is female? When he asserts values that are in conflict with hers shall we say that the son must slay the mother and thus brand him a "Mother"? Or if both writers are women do we say that the younger mother of books is slaying another mother.? Seriously, a writer learns (and quite early, if he's lucky) to depend upon the authority of

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