The Critical Response to Ralph Ellison

By Robert J. Butler | Go to book overview

When Ellison contends that "the interests of art and democracy converge" and when he connects "the development of conscious, articulate citizens" to "the creation of conscious, articulate characters," he makes inextricable the evolving twin experiments of democracy and the novel. In his view "resonant compositional centers" of fiction express the complexity of both the novel and American democratic society ( IM, pp. xviii, xix). For him the novelist's individual imagination responds to the flux of American life. According to Ellison's 1982 introduction, Invisible Man already existed as a very real, as yet unimagined version of the "conscious, articulate citizen." Ellison did not so much invent him as fill in his character from the grain of his voice. And this is exactly Ellison's point about American society: there are countless articulate but invisible men and women in the nation's complex underground who profess "a certain necessary faith in human possibility before the next unknown" ( GT, p. 319). Similar voices, yet to be identified and given palpable form in American fiction, excite Ellison's faith in the possibility of expressing that special American fluidity of class, culture, and personality. These variations on a volatile, seething, largely unheard and ignored eloquence spur Invisible Man's call for collaboration with Ellison and with us, his kin at his narrative's end.

Finally, because of his symbolic performance in the epilogue, Invisible Man merges social and personal impulses in "a single complex act" of narrative. When he writes you, he refers to Ellison as well as to potential and actual readers--after all, Ellison was his initial audience. In some sense each sets the other free. What began as an act of "antagonistic cooperation" ( SA, 0. 143) ends as a sympathetic, continuing dialectical act. Like the reader, Ellison is enjoined to talk back to Invisible Man. And he does. Moreover, his author's act of response builds on an earlier idea about the protean nature of fiction. Back in 1946, Ellison argued for the novel's potential as a social action and form catalytic to the continuing experiment of American democracy. "Once introduced into society," he wrote, "the work of art begins to pulsate with those meanings, emotions, ideas brought to it by its audience and over which the artist has but limited control" ( SA, p. 38, my italics). Now, more than three decades later, Ellison strengthens his novelist's bill of rights with an amendment: the writer, before and after his act of composition, is audience to his work and has the same rights and responsibilities as the rest of us--equally and individually, in the name of eloquence and action, in the name of citizenship.


NOTES
1.
Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man ( 1952; rpt., with author's introduction, New York: Random House, 1982), p. 439. This volume will be cited hereafter as IM.
2.
Ralph Ellison, Shadow and Act ( New York: Random House, 1964), p. 143. This volume will be cited hereafter as SA.
3.
Ralph Ellison. Going to the Territory ( New York: Random House, 1986), p. 59.
4.
Invisible Man refers to Notes from the Underground at the beginning of his prologue and revises and revoices Dostoevski's narrator's perspective to express his African- American voice and condition. Unlike Dostoevski, Ellison does not intervene and write an ironic footnote as apologia for his character/narrator. Invisible Man consciously plays off Dostoevski and his underground man to imply that he will go to both traditions of the vernacular, literary and folk, to become a writer in what Ellison repeatedly calls this "crazy country."
5.
For Ellison's further comment on his view of Negro leadership at the time of writing Invisible Man, see Going to the Territory, pp. 44, 45, 59, 60, 62, 63, 125-33, 144, 317, 318.

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