Writing Underground: Ralph Ellison and the Novel

By Alison, Cheryl | Twentieth Century Literature, September 2017 | Go to article overview

Writing Underground: Ralph Ellison and the Novel


Alison, Cheryl, Twentieth Century Literature


What does it mean to be down a hole? This is one question Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man makes us ask when we finish the novel's epilogue, for there the unnamed narrator indicates his plan to emerge from the underground state in which he has spent his storytelling time, but the book does not represent this emergence. Relatedly, we might wonder, what attracts one to being underground? Or, what kind of creature-creator hibernates--might even in some way dig hibernating? "Bear with me," Ellison's narrator writes as he closes the prologue (1952, 14). (1) But we understand that as well as enjoining patience from his audience he might also be encouraging the reader to be a bear with him, to hole up--as we necessarily do if we read the pages of this bulky novel. Inquiring into the significance of occupying a hole in Ellison, this essay also explores the author's historically complex relationship to the novel form's potential for capaciousness. Novelistic looseness is by no means synonymous with formal incompletion, but in Ellison's case the two states have noticeable affinities, affinities made clearer by the case of the second novel (-to-be) that never followed Invisible Man as a finished novel but whose drafting occupied Ellison for nearly half his life.

Following her husband's death in 1994, Fanny Ellison asked his literary executor, John F. Callahan, what he made of the extensive draft material Ellison had accumulated toward the second novel: "Beginning, middle, and end. Does it have a beginning, middle, and end?" (quoted in Callahan and De Santis 2000, 605). The second, incomplete novel, as both Adam Bradley (2010) and Barbara Foley (2010) have documented, partially developed out of Invisible Man, though over the decades its focus shifted, a testament to its author's ongoing creative presence in an increasingly extended form. I return to this draft and Fanny Ellison's question later in this essay, but I introduce them now because they have helped to inspire my discussion of both Invisible Man and Ellison's less-than-straightforward relationship to beginnings, middles, and endings. In developing my sense of Ellison's "underground" approach to writing the novel, I also consider how this approach might have led to both one complete, celebrated novel and a second novelistic work whose form Ellison never quite could, or perhaps never entirely wanted to, complete. (To be clear, I discuss novels within a particularly Ellisonian framework; while a larger version of this argument might venture into more theoretical territory regarding different ways to understand the novel as a genre, I focus on what seems to have been Ellison's handling of the form.)

It is by now almost a truism that Ellison criticism frequently disappoints Ellison appreciators. (2) For now, let me say that two pieces of Ellison interpretation stand as companions to my argument. In Ralph Ellison in Progress: From "Invisible Man" to "Three Days Before the Shooting ...," Adam Bradley pays close attention to Invisible Mans composition history. Appealingly, Bradley reads Invisible Man "from the perspective of [Ellison's] final, unfinished novel" to see "them both as works in progress" (2010, 3-4), and his study offers a refreshing alternative to readings that take Invisible Man as the pinnacle of Ellison's career. But Ralph Ellison in Progress is less interested in offering an interpretation of Invisible Man's narrative circumstances than in thinking through Ellison's authorial progress from the first to the infamous, incomplete second novel. By contrast, H. William Rice offers what could be a tantalizing set of situational analogues in Ralph Ellison and the Politics of the Novel (2003), but his censoriousness replaces close reading and the curiosity affection for literature generates. Rice is a quieter companion in this essay, as his conclusions tend to reduce both book and author. (3) I explore the analogues Rice both explicitly and implicitly sets up--Invisible Man's narrator in his hole; Ellison's style of protracted composition; the second novel's unfinished state--but without his prosecutorial impulse to assess Ellison's "failure" as a political animal and as a writer. …

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