The Critical Response to Ralph Ellison

By Robert J. Butler | Go to book overview
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To Move Without Moving: An Analysis of Creativity and Commerce in Ralph Ellison's Trueblood Episode

Houston A. Baker Jr.

Them boss quails is like a good man, what he got to do he do.

Ralph Ellison

Trueblood in Invisible Man

In his essay "Richard Wright's Blues," Ralph Ellison states one of his cherished distinctions: "The function, the psychology, of artistic selectivity is to eliminate from art form all those elements of experience which contain no compelling significance. Life is as the sea, art a ship in which man conquers life's crushing formlessness, reducing it to a course, a series of swells, tides and wind currents inscribed on a chart." 1 The distinction between nonsignificant life experiences and their inscribed, artistic significance (i.e., the meaning induced by form) leads Ellison to concur with André Malraux that artistic significance alone "enables man to conquer chaos and to master destiny" ( S&A, 94).

Artistic "technique," according to Ellison, is the agency through which artistic meaning and form are achieved. In "Hidden Name and Complex Fate" he writes:

It is a matter of outrageous irony, perhaps, but in literature the great social clashes of history no less than the painful experience of the individual are secondary to the meaning which they take on through the skill, the talent, the imagination, and personal vision of the writer who transforms them into art. Here they are reduced to more manageable proportions; here they are imbued with humane value; here, injustice and catastrophe become less important in themselves than what the writer makes of them. ( S&A, 148- 49)

Even the thing-in-itself of lived, historical experience is thus seen as devoid of "humane value" before its sea change under the artist's transforming technique.

Since Ellison focuses his interest on the literary, the inscribed, work of art, he regards even folklore as part of that realm of life "elements . . . which contain no compelling significance" in themselves. In "Change the Joke and Slip the Yoke," he asserts:

The Negro writer is also an heir to the human experience which is literature, and this might well be more important to him than his living folk tradition. For me, at least, in the discontinuous, swiftly changing and diverse American culture, the stability of the Negro folk tradition became precious as a result of an act of literary discovery. . . .For those who are

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