The Critical Response to Ralph Ellison

By Robert J. Butler | Go to book overview

was one of the many sources of inspiration for Ellison's richly pluralistic vision. It must be stressed, however, that Dante's influence, so little discussed by the critics, was crucial in the development of Invisible Man, for it gave that novel a unity, depth, and resonance it otherwise might not have had.


NOTES
1.
John Hersey, ed., Ralph Ellison: A Collection of Critical Essays (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1974), p. 19. In numerous interviews and articles Ellison has observed that Western writers such as Homer, Dostoevski, and Malraux were crucial to the shaping of his fiction. He also has stressed on several occasions that his fiction makes extensive use of black folk tales and music. Moreover, he has often cited as strong influences American novelists such as Melville, Twain, and Hemingway.

Recently Susan Blake has taken exception to Ellison's use of so many traditions, arguing that he employed Western myths as a way of cancelling out the special meanings of the black folk experience. See her essay, "Ritual and Rationalization: Black Folklore in the Works of Ralph Ellison," PMLA, 94 (Fall 1978), 121-36. As this paper will demonstrate, I sharply disagree with this reductive view of Ellison's work.

2.
When mentioned at all, the connections between Dante and Ellison are dismissed very briefly. Esther Merle Jackson makes a passing comparison between the heroes of Invisible Man and the Inferno. See her article "The American Negro and the Image of the Absurd," Phylon, 13 (Winter 1962), 359-71. Michael Cooke's excellent study of the underground in black fiction does not mention Dante's impact on Ellison, even though he does analyze the affinities between the Inferno and other black writers in his essay "The Descent into the Underworld and Modern Black Fiction," The Iowa Review, 5 ( 1974), 72-90.
3.
Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man ( New York: Random House, 1952), p. 7. All subsequent references to the text are to this edition. Page numbers appear in parentheses after the quote.
4.
Robert James Butler, "Patterns of Movement in Ellison's Invisible Man," American Studies, Spring, 1980, pp. 5-21.
5.
Georges Poulet, The Metamorphoses of the Circle ( Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1966), p. 109.
6.
Ralph Ellison, Shadow and Act ( New York: New American Library, 1966), p. 177.
7.
John Ciardi, The Inferno ( New York: New American Library, 1954), p. 5. All subsequent references are to this edition. Page numbers appear in parentheses.
8.
John Ciardi, The Paradiso ( New York: New American Library, 1961), p. 330.
9.
Shadow and Act, p. 137.
10.
Roger Rosenblatt, for example, argues that the novel is a parody of quest fiction and finally ends up as a journey to "nothing" ( Black Fiction [ Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1974], p. 185). Likewise, Floyd Horowitz insists that the hero's movements lead him "nowhere" and that "his self-imposed basement is therefore an escape from responsibility" ( Ellison's Modern Invisible Man, Mid-Continent American Studies Journal, 4 [ 1963], 221).
11.
Quoted in Robert O'Meally "Ralph Ellison's Invisible Novel," The New Republic, Jan. 1981, p. 29.
12.
Robert O'Meally, The Craft of Ralph Ellison ( Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1980), p. 118.
13.
James Alan McPherson, "Indivisible Man," The Atlantic 226, No. 6 ( Dec. 1970), 58.
14.
Shadow and Act, p. 180.
15.
Ibid., p. 174.

From CLA Journal XXVIII ( September 1984), 57-77.

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