The Critical Response to Ralph Ellison

By Robert J. Butler | Go to book overview
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it had more of Mary Rambo. 18 We would add to Mary, more of Bledsoe, more of the campus dreamers, more of the Harlem rioters, and more even of B.P. Rinehart and Ras, the Destroyer. And we would suppose that it is possible to sound the depths of the universe by a fine excess in the examination of Blackness. A William Faulkner, for example, in making us feel the American and Western aspects of his universe, simply asserts himself as the deepest of Southerners, and communicates through symbols most deeply associated with the South. Perhaps the Faulknerian way is one for the future, since neither the spirit of the 1950's nor the temperament and sensibility which Ellison has frequently and emphatically expounded suggest that earlier, in dealing with Blackness, a Black focus would have been successful or that it would have found an audience.

In the end, it is the great fruits at hand which Ellison harvested, that must be seized upon. For the young writer, his use of folk tradition provides a veritable textbook which can be adapted, according to one's own sensibility and outlook. For more than any other writer, Ellison grappled with its power, its cryptic messages, its complexity. Particularly noteworthy is his realization that folk tradition cannot seen, in a self-conscious artist, to be an end in itself. That is, the writer cannot simply enclose himself within the womb of folkness or content himself with simple celebration of folkness. True folk forms have already celebrated folk life better than the self-conscious artist can hope to do. But the basic attitudes and forms of response to existence evolved by the folk are abandoned by us only at our peril. These attitudes and forms of response are then of greatest service as flexible instruments for confronting a darkness that is always changing in its complexity. Ellison exemplified a profound knowledge of all such ramifications.

Ralph Ellison, Shadow, and Act ( New York: Random House, 1964), p. 253.
Both authors' essays first appeared in Partisan Review (Spring, 1958). Ellison essay is reprinted in Shadow and Act. Hyman in The Promised End ( Cleveland: World Publishing Co., 1963).
Shadow and Act. p. 58.
Ibid., p. 58.
New Masses, 37 ( September 24, 1940), 20-21.
New Masses, 40 ( August 5, 1941), 22-26.
James A. Emanuel and Theodore L. Gross, Dark Symphony ( New York: Free Press, 1968), pp. 254- 270.
Shadow and Act, pp. 77-94.
Ibid, p. 78 f.
Ibid, pp. 167-186. The entire interview merits careful study.
Shadow and Act, lam and there, pp. 107-143.
See Selma Fraiberg, "Two Modern Incest Heroes," Partisan Review, XXVIII ( 1961), pp. 646-661. In this section, I am very much indebted to her essay.
Herbert Hill, Soon One Morning ( New York: Random House, 1963).
Shadow and Act, p. 174.
Invisibk Man, p. 23.
Shadow and Act. p. 90.
Larry Nal, "Cultural Nationalism and Black Theare," Black Theatre, No. 1, p. 10.
See unused section of hospital scene, Herbert Hill, Soon One Morning ( New York: Random: House, 1963).

From CLA Journal 13: 3 ( March 1969), 265-276.


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