The Critical Response to Ralph Ellison

By Robert J. Butler | Go to book overview

Ralph Ellison's "Flying Home"

Joseph E Trimmer

Ralph Ellison is known chiefly for his single novel, Invisible Man, for which he won the National Book Award for Fiction in 1952, and for his collection of essays, Shadow and Act, published in 1964. It is not widely acknowledged, however, that Ellison is also a master of the short story. This ignorance or neglect of Ellison's short fiction is due mainly to two facts--his stories have appeared in relatively obscure journals, and to date they have remained uncollected. 1 Recently, anthology editors have discovered this wealth of material and slowly but surely Ellison's short stories are being reprinted. 2 But despite this increased exposure, the stories remain neglected by critics. Marcus Klein, in After Alienation: American Novels in Mid-Century ( New York: World, 1964), pp. 71-147, discusses some of the stories in his chapter on Ellison; but since his purpose was to trace the thematic concerns that eventually surfaced in Invisible Man, his treatment of individual stories was necessarily abbreviated. Yet his brief treatment of Ellison's stories is still the only one in print. What is needed is a detailed and systematic evaluation of all of Ellison's stories. I intend to begin that evaluation by examining a story that is readily available for inspection, "Flying Home." 3

As Klein has pointed out, "Flying Home" has its beginnings in a political issue: "A Negro air school had been established at Tuskegee during the war, apparently as a sap to civil libertarians. Its pilots never got out of training. The school became a sufficient issue for Judge Hostie to resign from the War Department in protest over it . . ." 4 Ellison commented on this issue in "Editorial Comment," Negro Quarterly, 1 (Winter-Spring 1943), 298. He also indicated to Rochelle Girson in their interview in "Sidelights on Invisibility," Saturday Review, March 14, 1953, p. 49, that "he had intended after the war to write a novel about a flyer. This story would seem to be its beginning." 5

The plot of the story is relatively simple: Todd, a young black pilot on a training mission, crashes his plane on an Alabama farm where he is saved from the white racist owner, Dabney Graves, by a black "peasant" named Jefferson. What is not so simple is the symbolic patterns that permeate the story. As with all vintage Ellison, these patterns proceed simultaneously on at least two levels, racial and mythic. On the racial level the story gives us a parable of the complex interrelationship between the individual black man and his racial community; on the mythic level, the story refashions the Daedalus myth. The two levels are connected symbolically by implied parallels to three other related sources--the myth of the Phoenix, the Christian doctrine of felix culpa, or fortunate fan, and the story of the prodigal son.

Todd's basic problem is what W.E.B. DuBois called the problem of "double- consciousness": "It is a particular sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape

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