The Critical Response to Ralph Ellison

By Robert J. Butler | Go to book overview

past forty-seven years, is far from exhausted--it still offers fresh and expansive "territory" which critics have either left unexplored or poorly mapped. Certainly much more needs to be said about Ellison's envisioning of female experience and how feminine values are an important part of his vision. Postmodern critical approaches such as New Historicism and reader response criticism also provide promising, but as yet underutilized, perspectives on Ellison's many-layered and historically situated novel. And, of course, biographical studies are greatly needed. We must know much more about his Oklahoma background, his years at Tuskegee, his involvements with leftist politics, the interval in Dayton, and his life after he had achieved world-wide acclaim.

By providing a detailed account of the critical response to Ellison, this book is an attempt to provide one more tool to assist in this further study of his life and work. The pieces collected in this volume provide a clear track record of where Ellison scholarship has been and, more importantly, they also lead the way to further study. The first section, consisting of early reviews of Invisible Man, establishes a framework which raises many of the important questions which have driven Ellison scholarship. Since these questions have never been adequately answered, they must be freshly probed by current scholars in an open, vigorous way. The second section focuses on previously published and newly commissioned studies of Invisible Man. Again, these essays stress the extraordinary richness of Ellison's masterwork and are intended as openings for further investigation rather than "definitive" studies which can settle matters absolutely. The next two sections concern themselves with Ellison's essays and short stories, two woefully understudied dimensions of his career. And the final section of the book, entitled "Posthumous Assessments" provides a series of new essays which attempt to sum up Ellison's achievement and suggest further areas of study. The net effect of this book, therefore, is both to survey the critical response to Ellison over a period of nearly fifty years and also to stress that the real work of understanding and assessing Ellison's genius is just beginning. As Ellison himself has observed, "the territory ahead is an ideal place--ever to be sought, ever to be missed, but always there." 61 The literary frontier he opened up during his remarkable career is still a wide open space awaiting exploration, not a dusty museum awaiting cataloguing.


NOTES
1.
Keith Byerman. Fingering the Jagged Grain: Tradition and Form in Recent Black Literature ( Athens and London: The University of Georgia Press), 1985.
2.
Irving Howe, "Black Boys and Native Sons" in Twentieth Century Interpretations of Native Son, ed. Houston Baker ( Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1972), 65.
3.
R. W.B. Lewis. The American Adam: Innocence, Tragedy, and Tradition in the Nineteenth Century ( Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1955), 197.
4.
Robert Bone. The Novel in America ( New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1958), 212.
5.
Leslie Fiedler. Love and Death in the American Novel ( New York: D ell Publishing, 1969), 501. Invisible Man is also favorably mentioned in two influential surveys of American literature which were published in the early 1960s. Willard Thorpe American Writing in the Twentieth Century ( Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960) includes Ellison as among a new generation of black writers who have emancipated themselves from the formulas of conventional protest fiction and are making fresh contributions to post-war American literature. Leon Howard Literature and the American Tradition ( Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1960) singles out Invisible Man as the pre-eminent American novel about Harlem.
6.
Charles I. Glicksberg. "The Symbolism of Vision." Southwest Review, XXXIX (Summer 1954), 261.

-xxxvii-

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