Rooted in Real Life
West, Hollie I., The World and I
Examining Ellison's stories against the backdrop of his life yields a deeper understanding of his art.
Who knows where fiction and reality converge? Few novelists or short story writers say they do. Like many of his contemporaries, Ralph Ellison strongly denied that his fiction came directly out of his personal experiences. He was quick to say in a Partisan Review interview in 1955 that his highly praised novel, Invisible Man, was not autobiographical. However, he conceded that, like the protagonist, he had gone from job to job after leaving college. He also could have said that, like the main character, he had a brief flirtation with Marxist politics. On the other hand, Ellison observed that real characters presented limitations for his writing, and that turning one's own life into fiction meant restrictions of fact and chronology.
Despite his disavowal of dipping into the cup of personal experience, it might be interesting to examine some events and themes in Flying Home and Other Stories against the backdrop of his life. To begin with, trains fascinated Ellison from boyhood to manhood, and they figure prominently in three stories in the collection. Indeed, he said he drew upon his knowledge of riding freights to write "Hymie's Bull." And he rode a freight to college in 1933, just as the college-bound young man did in "I Did Not Learn Their Names."
When I interviewed Ellison in 1973 at his home on Riverside Drive in New York City, he looked out his window and said, "One reason that I live here is that there's a railroad track right down there. I've got a river, a highway, and a railroad track. I like to hear those cars bumping along." For him, the railroad contributed to the fluidity of literature and folklore, just as the Mississippi River had earlier in American history. Both provided a way for people to travel back and forth, earrying customs and habits to other parts of the country.
Ellison learned to ride freights from a friend of his parents, "a little white-looking, blue-eyed, light-haired Negro fellow" named Charlie, who passed for white outside Oklahoma. "I used to hop freights in Oklahoma City for a few blocks or a mile or so when I was going hunting," he said. "But that trip South was the longest I took on a freight." Charlie taught him "who to avoid, how to get on trains, and how to protect myself.... You had to be able to identify the proper train. You had to know how to avoid railroad bulls [detectives]."
The railroad theme reappears in "Boy on a Train," a story about a mother and two sons traveling from Oklahoma City to McAlester. Though Ellison, his mother, and brother actually took such a trip, the story goes far beyond the railroad theme to ideas that were central to Ellison's literary outlook: why blacks went to Oklahoma and the interaction of blacks and whites in a new state. The mother's tearful exhortation to her older son never to forget that she and her late husband had migrated to Oklahoma seeking to make a better life for their children echoes a recurring theme in Ellison's work.
"I think that the people [migrants] were aggressive," Ellison told me. "They had a sense of what it meant to come to the frontier because they had come looking for better conditions for themselves and for their children.... The people who went out there were trying to determine their fate. And they did this quite actively. There were such all-black towns as Boley, as an example of a place where they were trying to determine that fate."
The Oklahoma in which Ellison was born in 1914 had been a state for only seven years. Previously, it had been mostly Indian Territory, set aside for Indian peoples. Into the newly born state flowed blacks who wanted to escape the slave past of the South and many whites who wanted to transplant old racial patterns in fresh ground. The different attitudes, manners, and expectations of blacks and whites sometimes erupted into conflict. …