The Critical Response to Ralph Ellison

By Robert J. Butler | Go to book overview

A Negro in America

Irving Howe

This novel is a searing and exalted record of a Negro's journey through contemporary America in search of success, companionship, and, finally, himself, like all our fictions devoted to the idea of experience, it moves from province to city, from naive faith to disenchantment; and despite its structural incoherence and occasional pretentiousness of manner, it is one of the few remarkable first novels we have had in some years.

The beginning is a nightmare. A Negro boy, timid and compliant, comes to a white smoker Southern town: he is to be awarded a scholarship. Together with several other Negroes he is rushed to the front of the ballroom, where a sumptuous blonde tantalizes and frightens them by dancing in the nude. Blindfolded, the Negro boys stage a "battle royal," a free-for-all in which they pummel each other to the drunken shouts of the whites. "Practical jokes," humiliations, terrors--and then the boy delivers a prepared speech of gratitude to his white benefactors.

Nothing, fortunately, in the rest of the novel is quite so harrowing. The unnamed hero goes to his Southern college and is expelled for having innocently taken a white donor through a Negro gin-mill; he then leaves for New York, where he works in a factory, becomes a soapboxer for the Harlem Communists, a big wheel in the Negro world, and the darling of the Stalinist bohemia; and finally, in some not quite specified way, he "finds himself" after witnessing a frenzied riot in Harlem.

Though immensely gifted, Ellison is not a finished craftsman. The tempo of his book is too feverish, and at times almost hysterical. Too often he tries to overwhelm the reader, and usually he does; but when he should be doing something other than overwhelm, when he should be persuading or suggesting or simply telling, he forces and tears.

Because the book is written in the first person singular, Ellison cannot establish an ironic distance between his hero and himself, or between the matured "I" telling the story and the "I" who is its victim. And because the experience is so apocalyptic and magnified, it absorbs and then dissolves the hero; every minor character comes through brilliantly, but the seeing "I" is seldom seen.

The middle section of the novel concerns the Harlem Stalinists, and it is the only one that strikes me as not quite true. Writing with evident bitterness, Ellison makes his Stalinists so stupid and vicious that one cannot understand how they could have attracted him. I am ready to believe that the Communist Party manipulates its members with conscious cynicism, but I am certain that this cynicism is both more guarded and complex than Ellison assumes; surely no Stalinist leader would tell a prominent Negro member,

-21-

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