The Critical Response to Ralph Ellison

By Robert J. Butler | Go to book overview

The Deep Pit

Lloyd L. Brown

"Whence all this passion toward conformity?" asks Ralph Ellison at the end of his novel, Invisible Man. He should know, because his whole book conforms exactly to the formula for literary success in today's market. Despite the murkiness of his avant-garde symbolism, the pattern is clear and may be charted as precisely as a publisher's quarterly sales report.

Chapter 1: A 12-page scene of sadism (a command performance of 10 Negro youths savagely beating each other for the Bourbons' reward of scattered coins), sex (a dance by a naked whore with a "small American flag tattooed upon her belly"), and shock (literally applied to the performers by an electrically charged rug.)

Chapter 2: Featuring a 14-page scene in which a poor Negro farmer tells a white millionaire in great detail how he committed incest with his daughter; and the millionaire, who burns to do the same to his own daughter, rewards the narrator with a hundred-dollar bill.

And so on, to the central design of American Century literature--anti-Communism.

Author Ellison will reap more than scattered change or a crumpled bill for his performance. Invisible Man is already visible on the best-seller lists. The quivering excitement of the commercial reviewers matches that of the panting millionaire.

Strangely, there is much truth in their shouts of acclaim: "It is a sensational and feverishly emotional book. It will shock and sicken some readers . . . the hero is a symbol of doubt, perplexity, betrayal and defeat . . . tough, brutal and [again] sensational," says Orville Prescott in the New York Times about "the most impressive work of fiction by an American Negro which I have ever read."

"Here," writes Daniel James in the war-mongering New Leader, "the author establishes, in new terms, the commonness of every human's fate: nothingness."

"Authentic air of unreality," exults the reviewer in the Sunday Times, about the part dealing with the "Brotherhood" ( Ellison's euphemism for the Communist Party).

The Sunday New York Herald Tribune man knows what he likes too:

"For a grand finale there's the hot, dry, August night of the big riot when the hungry looted, when Ras the destroyer--of white appeaser--alone was out for blood; when Sybil, the chestnut-haired nymphonamiac, was raped by Santa Claus, and when the Invisible Man, still clutching his briefcase, fell through an open grill into a coal cellar--and stayed there to write a book..."

-31-

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