The Critical Response to Ralph Ellison

By Robert J. Butler | Go to book overview

From Native Son to Invisible Man: A Review of the Literature of the Negro for 1952

Alain Locke

. . . In the thirty years' span of my active reviewing experience, there have been in my judgment three points of peak development in Negro fiction by Negro writers. In 1923 from a relatively low plateau of previous problem fiction, Jean Toomer Cane rose to unprecedented artistic heights. Not only in style but in conception it raised a new summit, as it soared above the plane of propaganda and apologetics to a self-sufficient presentation of Negro life in its own idiom and gave it proud and self-revealing evaluation. More than that, the emotional essences of the Southland were hauntingly evoked in an impressionistic poetic sort of realism; it captured as well some of the more distinctive tone and color of Negro living. Its only shortcomings were that it was a series of character sketches rather than a full length canvas: a succession of vignettes rather than an entire landscape--and that its author chose not to continue. In 1940, Richard Wright's skillful sociological realism turned a hard but brilliant searchlight on Negro urban life in Chicago and outlined the somber tragedy of Bigger Thomas in a well-studied setting of Northside wealth and Southside poverty. Artistically not the equal of the more masterful series of short stories, Uncle Tom's Children, that preceded it, Native Son's narrative was masterful and its character delineation as skillful as any work of Dreiser's or Farrell's. The book was marred only by Wright's overreliance on the communist ideology with which he encumbered his powerful indictment of society for Bigger, the double pariah of the slum and the color-line. Wright was essentially sound in his alignment of the social forces involved, but erred artistically in the doctrinally propagandist tone which crept into his novel chapter by chapter until the angry, ineffective end. The greater pity it was--and is-- that later he disavowed this ideological commitment that cheated him of an all-time classic of American fiction. Despite this, Native Son has remained all these intervening years the Negro novelist's strongest bid for fiction of the first magnitude.

But 1952 is the significant year of Ellison Invisible Man, a great novel, although also not without its artistic flaws, sad to say. Ralph Ellison is a protege of Wright, who predicted for him a bright literary future. Written in a style of great force and originality, although its talent is literally smothered with verbosity and hyperbole, Invisible Man is both in style and conception a new height of literary achievement. The life story of its hero, obviously semi-autobiographic, ranges from the typical South of a few years back to the metropolitan North of New York and vicinity. Conceptually it runs also almost the whole gamut of class in American society and is interracial at all stages, even in the deep South from the benefactor patron of the college visiting for Founders Day to the sinister "crackers" of the rural backwoods. It is in fact one of the best integrated accounts of

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