Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

The Black Dispatch: A Window on Ralph Ellison's First World

Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

The Black Dispatch: A Window on Ralph Ellison's First World

Article excerpt

FOR RALPH ELLISON, OKLAHOMA WAS THE STUFF OF DREAMS. "I DREAM constantly of Oklahoma City," he told Jervis Anderson in 1976: "My childhood is there. And ... you tend to dream, can't help dreaming, of your early experiences and of the people you first knew. Old faces and old things are always taming up. As a result, my early life stays fresh" (Anderson 55). (1) Some seventeen years later he reiterated the point in a telephone interview with the reporter John Perry, who profiled the state's most acclaimed author for the Daily Oklahoman: "In writing, there's a great emotional continuum, and my emotions found existence in Oklahoma.... I frequently dream of old friends and escapades and football games and dancing European folk dances out at the old Western League Park" (Interview with Perry 2; emphasis mine). On at least one terrible occasion, this dreaming took a macabre and frightful turn. In 1956, living in Rome in the stimulating exile afforded by an appointment to the American Academy, Ellison dreamed that he was a boy back home, "walking along Classen Boulevard in Oklahoma City," an affluent, imposing white neighborhood with "well-trimmed walks that led through handsome lawns to ... distant houses"--a place, then and now, of many mansions. In Ellison's dream, the sun shines, the birds sing, and the dreamer (despite the incongruous, vaguely troubling, and increasingly ominous appearance of myriad "catalpa worms" crushed and smeared on the sidewalk) is "filled" with a sense of happy anticipation: "[It] came over me that I was going to see my father" (Collected Essays 32). (Ellison was only three when his father died.) The idyllic mood is not to last, and Ellison's naive--and touching--exercise in unconscious wish-fulfillment gradually gives way to a monstrous collective nightmare that at once embodies and projects the worst horrors of violence and racial hatred in America and culminates in an unspeakable glimpse into the ghoulish underworld of the nation's collective psyche, where demons, black as well as white, feast on the putrid and mangled flesh of Abraham Lincoln--the same "Father Abraham" whose memorial in Washington DC would later serve as the backdrop for a crucial scene in Ellison's posthumous novel Juneteenth (culled from the massive unfinished manuscript of what he initially conceived of as an "Okla. Book"). (2)

It is worth noting that by the time Ellison's Roman dream fully derails and plunges grimly into nightmare the scene has shifted from his hometown, the capital of the Sooner state, to distant and alien parts, most notably the nation's capital, for Oklahoma in and of itself would always remain a place of promise and possibility for Ellison. Oklahoma City was for him what Hannibal had been to Mark Twain. (3) This is hardly surprising given the common and readily observable tendency of personal memory and popular mythology to mesh. From the time it was first opened to outside settlement in the Land Rush of 1889, through the frequently melodramatic events leading up to statehood in 1907, and indeed well beyond, Oklahoma, as a kind of last frontier, had captured the world's imagination as a literal acting-out on a grand scale of the American Dream of free-wheeling expansiveness and limitless opportunity. On this side of the Atlantic, Edna Ferber's Cimarron (1929) merely codified and capitalized upon a mystique that would eventually reach its lyrical apotheosis in a phenomenally successful Broadway musical by Rodgers and Hammerstein. (4) But long before then, the "promise" of Oklahoma, a microcosm for the American West as a whole, had achieved a measure of international currency, so that when under the shadow of the Great War a certain shy, consumptive young Jew living and working in obscurity in Prague, Franz Kafka, moved to end his fragmentary novel Amerika on a positive, albeit unresolved, note, he had his ingenuous protagonist Karl Rossman respond to a recruiting placard charged with irresistible hope: "The great Theatre of Oklahoma calls you! …

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