The Critical Response to Ralph Ellison

By Robert J. Butler | Go to book overview

Introduction

Since the publication of Invisible Man in 1952, Ralph Ellison has been perceived by a wide variety of critics, scholars, and novelists as a major writer who has made important contributions to American, African American and modernist traditions. Early reviewers, such as Saul Bellow and Alain Locke, immediately sensed that Invisible Man was a seminal work which would provide many fruitful new directions for an entire generation of post-World War II writers. Even a superficial examination of books like Ken Kesey One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Joseph Heller Catch-22, and Sylvia Plath The Bell Jar indicates the remarkably immediate effect which Ellison's novel had on his contemporaries. In succeeding years Ellison's fiction has continued to influence strongly a broad spectrum of important novelists and short story writers, including Ernest J. Gaines, Ishmael Reed, James Alan McPherson, Clarence Major, Toni Morrison, Charles Johnson, Sherley Anne Williams, and Randall Kenan. In Keith Byerman's words, Invisible Man has become a "paradigmatic work" 1 which has inspired, fascinated, and sometimes angered several generations of writers and critics. Its importance as a landmark cultural document and a literary masterwork is firmly established.

The critical response to Ellison's work can be roughly divided into four main periods: 1) the early reviews, 2) scholarly articles and chapters in books written from the mid-fifties to the mid-sixties, 3) commentary produced from the late sixties to the late seventies, and 4) critical and scholarly work from the early eighties to the present. As is always the case, these "periods" should be seen as helpful but somewhat arbitrary markers which can help us to detect trends in Ellison scholarship. They are not by any means objective and empirically reliable boundaries which can allow us to categorize the critical response into neat and absolutely clear patterns. Certain continuities remain in all phases of Ellison scholarship and overlappings of critical interests and judgments are more the rule than the exception. (As Ellison himself has vividly reminded us, the end can often be found in the beginning and reality moves more like a boomerang than an arrow.) Nevertheless, the critical response to Ellison has developed in roughly discernible phases producing patterns which, however shifting and blurry, still have meaning.

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Ellison's career as a writer began quite modestly in 1937 with the publication of his review of Waters Edward Turpin These Low Grounds in the leftist journal New Challenge. For the next fifteen years he published ten short stories and thirty-seven essays on literature, music, culture, and politics, none of which drew much attention from

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