Pattern and Chaos: Ralph Ellison and the Federal Writers' Project

By Butts, J. J. | American Studies, July 1, 2015 | Go to article overview

Pattern and Chaos: Ralph Ellison and the Federal Writers' Project


Butts, J. J., American Studies


Beginning with its "mazelike" underground journey to reach the Lafargue Psychiatric Clinic, Ralph Ellison's 1948 essay "Harlem Is Nowhere" spins out a series of "surreal fantasies" in sketching "a character that arises from the impact between urban slum conditions and folk sensibilities."1 Many Harlemites refer to their neighborhood as "nowhere," the essay explains, because of the feeling that "they have no stable, recognized place in society. . . . One 'is' literally, but one is nowhere; one wanders dazed in a ghetto maze, a 'displaced person' of American democracy."2 Lamenting this displacement, at once social and psychological, the essay prefigures the notion of invisibility in the novel Ellison was writing at the same time.

What Kind of Citizen Could Come from Nowhere?

This question has offered one of the key fault lines in critical approaches to Invisible Man. Should readers take seriously the narrator's claim in the epilogue that "there's a possibility that even an invisible man has a socially responsible role to play," or is this claim a kind of "buggy jiving"?3 The details of Ellison's employment with the Federal Writers Project (FWP)-a unique, socially transformative moment in which he participated on a project designed to encourage participatory citizenship-offer useful perspective. While it kept a generation writing and engaged in the business of cataloguing and describing "American stuff" during the Depression, the FWP particularly offered several African American writers-including Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston, Claude McKay, Roi Ottley, Ellen Tarry, Rebecca West, and Richard Wright, among others-a literary home during the 1930s in the wake of the Harlem Renaissance. Though many writers resented their work reporting what must have at times seemed like utterly mundane minutia, Ellison utilized both historical and folk material generated by his FWP investigations to write Invisible Man. He openly recognized his debt in a 1977 interview with Ann Banks:

For me, being on the Writers' Project was a way to broaden my knowledge of Afro-American culture. I'd always liked the stories and things, and I couldn't hear enough of them, so this was throwing me into my own history. Once you touched the history of blacks in New York then you were deep into American history.4

Ellison's reminiscent evaluation captures an important dynamic of Invisible Man reflected in its final claim about "lower frequencies":5 the difference between awareness of American history and "touching" the materials that form its "deep" elements.

In Invisible Man, Ellison utilized material from his FWP tenure to critique the foundations of utopian progressive thought, placing in its stead a critical liberalism, one that was anti-utopian and much more cautious in outlook than much postwar liberalism and, most importantly, emphasized local knowledges and claims on justice against broader plans for reform and modernization. The ideal citizen of the New Deal welfare state as imagined in its documents was historically knowledgeable, socially progressive, and oriented toward modernization. Ellison's work bracketed each of those ideals, highlighting the ways that positivist overconfidence tended to downplay important stories and disguise prejudice, and thus elided crucial elements of ongoing dispossession. While a new interpretation of Invisible Man is not the aim of this essay, a focus on the New Deal and its cultural activity illuminates a broader field of discourses within liberalism with which Ellison was engaged. In particular, Invisible Man's deployment of vernacular culture and history attacks the underpinnings of planning and development advanced by the FWP and other New Deal agencies, discourses central to the New Deal national imaginary before the Second World War and to an international one afterwards.6

Though widely recognized as a formative experience, the New Deal remains relatively under-analyzed in studies of Ellison. …

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