The Critical Response to Ralph Ellison

By Robert J. Butler | Go to book overview

Black and Blue: A Negro Céline

William Barrett

Because of his achievements in popular music, jazz and spirituals, we must count the Negro as perhaps the greatest artistic potential in America today. In literature, the obstacles to his self-expression have been greater, in good part because of the stereotypes of character the white man has forced upon him, so that thus far we have had only premonitory flashes, brilliant but brief, as in the touching and amusing pathos of a Langston Hughes, or in the thunderous--but also somewhat abstract--social protest of a Richard Wright. Now, however, a new novel has just appeared, Ralph Ellison Invisible Man, which marks a sensational entry by the Negro into high literature.

There is social protest in Ellison's book, to be sure--how could one write honestly about the Negro and avoid this?--but it differs from Richard Wright in grappling with the whole inner problem of the Negro as a human person; rather than as a mere social abstraction symbolizing an exploited class, and with a hero immensely more complex and intellectual than Wright's Bigger Thomas. Apart from Ellison's artistic and technical powers, which are considerable, it is just this unflinching spiritual search on his part to find out what it really means to be a Negro that makes his book, to my mind, the first considerable step forward in Negro literature.

Ellison calls his hero an "Invisible Man" because he cannot be seen by other people in our society--neither by the whites nor by his fellow blacks, neither by reactionaries nor by Communists. And they do not see him for what he is because they refuse to see him. Which is to say; they refuse to grant him his own identity, or even the possibility of one. Ellison's novel, told in the first person, is a record of the search by this "I" for his denied identity.

Here the author has got hold of a theme as big as America itself, certainly a theme larger than the "Negro problem" alone, however special a slant the Negro may have upon it. It is a fact, perhaps the basic fact, of our national psychology that the American, in general, is not yet quite sure of his own identity. And the Negro, as the insulted and injured of our society, has only experienced this drama of the national soul in a more abysmal way than the rest of us. People in older civilizations--say, the Englishman or the Frenchman--have behind them centuries of a settled and defined culture, which serves as a mirror in which they can see their own features and find their own identity. The American, on the contrary, exists in a new, evolving and fluid society that does not offer him any external image of his own individual possibilities and meaning. He and his new civilization are adventurers on the surface of the planet; and like all adventures, in history or in legend, his adventure is a quest, and in the last analysis every quest is a quest for oneself.

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