The Critical Response to Ralph Ellison

By Robert J. Butler | Go to book overview

Afro-American folk expressiveness in art as a sign of identity, a sign that marked the creator as unequivocally Afro-American and, hence, other. I have sought to demonstrate, however, that Ellison's folk expressiveness is, in fact, "identity within difference." While critics experience alienation, artists can detach themselves from, survive, and even laugh at their initial experiences of otherness. Like Velazquez in his Las Meninas or the Van Eyck of Giovanni Arnolfini and His Bride, the creator of Trueblood is "conscious of being self- conscious of himself" as artist. 11 Instead of solacing himself with critical distinctions, he employs reflexivity mirroring narratives to multiply distinctions and move playfully across categorical boundaries. Like his sharecropper, he knows indisputably that his most meaningful identity is his Afro-American self image in acts of expressive creativity.

Ralph Ellison's bracketings as a public critic, therefore, do not forestall his private artistic recognition that he "ain't nobody but himself." And it is out of this realization that a magnificent folk creation such as Trueblood emerges. Both the creator and his agrarian folk storyteller have the wisdom to know that they are resourceful "whistlers" for the tribe. They know that their primary matrix as artists is coextensive not with a capitalistic society but with material circumstances like those implied by the blues singer Howard Wolf:

Well I'm a po' boy, long way from home.
Well, I'm a po' boy, long was from home.
No spendin' money in my pocket, no spare meat on my bone. ( Nicholas, 85).

One might say that in the brilliant reflexivity of the Trueblood encounter, we hear the blues whistle among the high-comic thickets. We glimpse Ellison's creative genius beneath his Western critical mask. And while we stand awaiting the next high-cultural pronouncement from the critic, we are startled by a captivating sound of flattened thirds and sevenths--the private artist's blues-filled flight.


NOTES
1.
Ralph Ellison Shadow and Act, 82-83. This work comprises the bulk of Ellison's critical canon. All subsequent references to this work are cited in text as S&A.
2.
Ellison, Invisible Man, 55. All subsequent references to this work are cited in text as IM.
3.
One of the general questions provoking Freud's inquiry into totemism is "What is the ultimate source of the horror of incest which must be recognized as the root of exogamy?" Sigmund Freud, Totem and Taboo, 122, 141-46.
4.
Paul Radin, The Trickster, Tale 16. Originally published in 1955 in London by Routledge & Kegan Paul, it has been reprinted several times, the most recent by Schocken Books, Inc. in 1972.
5.
For a stimulating discussion of the trickster in his various literary and nonliterary guises, consult Barbara Babcock-Abraham provocative essay, "'A Tolerated Margin of Mess': The Trickster and His Tales Reconsidered," Journal of the Folklore Institute 11 ( 1974): 147-86. She writes, "In contrast to the scapegoat or tragic victim, trickster belongs to the comic modality or marginality where violation is generally the precondition for laughter and communitas, and there tends to be an incorporation of the outsider, a leveling of hierarchy, a reversal of statues" (153).
6.
I had enlightening conversations with Kimberly Benston on the Trueblood episode's parodic representation of the Fall, a subject that he explores as some length in a critical work in progress. I am grateful for his generous help.
7.
See Carolyn Rodgers, How I Got Ovah: New and Selected Poems, 11.
8.
The significance of the sharecropper's incestuous progeny may be analogous to that of the broken link of leg chain given to the Invisible Man during his early days in the Brotherhood. Presenting the link, Brother Tarp says, "I don't think of it in terms of but two words, yes and no, but it signifies a heap more" ( IM, 379).

-92-

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