The Critical Response to Ralph Ellison

By Robert J. Butler | Go to book overview

the South and had a Cherokee grandmother, it sealed our friendship. In his own selfhood he was the living personification of the interrelation of racial and cultural elements in America that was his dominating theme. And he saw me in that light as well.

Was he an aristocrat? Indeed, he did carry himself as if he were A Visible Somebody. He was an aristocrat, but only in the way that every American man and woman is an heir to incalculable cultural wealth. Ellison's whole career, insofar as I understand it, was devoted to making clear that elements of the high style--like elements of popular culture--are available to everyone for everyday life. He had started out as a poor boy in Oklahoma, looking at magazines like Vogue and Harper's, recognizing in them a style higher and better and more distinguished than what he saw around him. It was like the difference between his daily clothes and his Sunday go-to-meeting clothes. The boy decided that he wanted to wear glad rags every day of the week, and so he became one of the most elegantly dressed men I have ever known.

Further, as a youth he found in Conrad, Hemingway, and Eliot a literary imagination superior to that of the best sellers and poetasters, and he wanted what these artists had to give. Mozart and Rossini were his inheritance's available to him (or to any black boy) as to Marian Anderson. High culture, the fusion of black and white influences and much else besides, was his for the taking. He was as comfortable--clad in a tuxedo, listening to chamber music in the staid, large reading room of the Century Club, to which Henry James had also belonged--as he was in an all-black jazz nightclub toe- tapping to local riffs. Indeed, in every aspect of life Ellison worked to bring the high style, the patrician, the best, into our common everyday possession; and to lift vital, worthwhile folk creations into general consciousness as values in themselves and as a common American legacy offering inspiration to rising genius. This was, for Ralph Ellison, what a democratic culture was all about.


NOTES
1.
The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison, edited with an introduction, by John F. Callahan . Preface by Saul Bellow. The Modern Library, 856 pages, $20.

From The New Criterion, December 1995, 5-10.

-216-

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