The Critical Response to Ralph Ellison

By Robert J. Butler | Go to book overview

Ellison's "Black Eye": Transforming
Pain into Vision

Robert J. Butler

Scholars and teachers have eagerly awaited the publication of Ellison's collected short fiction for many years. For a variety of reasons which are still difficult to understand fully, Ralph Ellison's short stories have never been collected during his lifetime, making many of them all but impossible to use in the classroom and extremely difficult to use for scholarly purposes since many of his stories were published in obscure journals which have been defunct for quite some time. The Buster/Riley stories, despite their intrinsically high quality and the considerable light they shed on Ellison's development, are virtually unknown to all but a small group of Ellison specialists. "Flying Home" and "King of the Bingo," two extraordinary stories which rank with the very best American short fiction written since the end of WWII, have appeared in a variety of anthologies but most are now out of print and some have become too expensive or too specialized for many courses. Ellison's unpublished stories, like his much-awaited second novel, have been rumored for years to be very high in quality, but could only tantalize several generations of critics, scholars, and teachers, who have hoped for their eventual publication.

Flying Home and Other Stories, superbly edited by John F. Callahan, therefore is an important event in American and African American literary life since it collects for the first time what Callahan considers to be "Ellison's best published and unpublished freestanding fiction" (xxi). Designed as "a reader's edition" and not intended to be a "variorum or scholarly edition" (xxiv), it consists of thirteen short stories, six of which were unpublished in Ellison's lifetime. (Two were recently published in 1996 issues of The New Yorker.) They are of enormous value since they now make possible a careful study of Ellison's considerable achievements as a short story writer and also enable us to see in a much clearer way Ellison's development as an artist in the crucial period when he emerged as a writer in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Moreover, this book finally makes it possible to bring Ellison's short fiction productively into the classroom where it can be studied for its own merits and for the ways in which it illuminates his great novel, Invisible Man.

Certainly the most eye-opening part of this book in its cluster of six new stories, what Callahan aptly describes as "stories that had never been published, never-mentioned, stories no one knew about" (xxi). Most of them are initiation stories of one kind or another in which young protagonists are abruptly awakened into a painful awareness of the harsh realities of adult experience. "A Party Down at the Square," for example, is narrated by a nameless white boy who describes a lynching which he is forced to watch while making a summer visit to his uncle in Alabama. "Boy on a Train" focuses on a young black protagonist who is suddenly thrust into the early stages of adulthood after the death of his father as he, his mother, and brother are forced to take a train to a strange new place

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