The Critical Response to Ralph Ellison

By Robert J. Butler | Go to book overview

The Wright Interpretation: Ralph
Ellison and the Anxiety of Influence

Joseph T. Skerrett Jr.

That which we do is what we are. That which we remember is, more often than not, that which we would like to have been; or that which we hope to be. Thus our memory and our identity are ever at odds; our history ever a tall tale told by inattentive idealists.

Quoted by Ralph Ellison in Shadow and Act, author unidentified

In The Anxiety of Influence, Harold Bloom argues that the feeling of major writers regarding their imaginative predecessors can be as powerful, as primary, as the psychodynamics of the family which Freud described. The literary relationship between the influencer and the influencee is a kind of father-son relationship, and the history of the relationship across the centuries is essentially "the story of how poets as poets have suffered other poets, just as any true biography is the story of how anyone suffered his family--or his own displacement of family into lovers and friends" ( Anxiety, 94).

The new writer, contemplating the work of some beloved predecessor, conceives an anguishing anxiety, a dread that he will not be able to achieve a significant, immortalizing, and freedom-granting sense of originality, because, in the course of nature, the predecessor has, like a father, not only authority, but also priority; he got there first. The influencee must resent and reject his authority and this priority if he is to avoid the debilitating feeling of being an addendum or qualification to the predecessor's work. The strategy by which the writer meets the challenge of his influences Bloom calls "poetic misprision": the new writer misreads his powerful predecessor "so as to clear imaginative space for himself" ( Anxiety, 5). Bloom puts this central point of his general theory most forcefully:

Poetic Influence--when it involves two strong, authentic poets--always proceeds by a misreading of the prior poet, an act of creative correction that is actually and necessarily a misinterpretation. The history of fruitful poetic influence, which is to say that the main tradition of Western poetry since the Renaissance, is a history of anxiety and self-saving caricature, of distortion, of perverse, willful revisionism without which modern poetry as such could not exist.(30)

The writer's creative misreading of his predecessor goes beyond intellectual revisionism. It takes on a much more personal cast. Rethinkers are not essentially disturbed by the priority of those they revise. Like children with their fathers, the influenced artist-son is

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