The Critical Response to Ralph Ellison

By Robert J. Butler | Go to book overview

The Testament of Ralph Ellison

John M. Reilly

Suppose we take Ralph Ellison at his word when he tells us that the basic significance of the essays and occasional pieces collected in Shadow and Act is autobiographical. 1 Then, despite the omission from this version of a life writing of dates and particularized events that would mark it as an objective chronicle of the passage from youth to maturity and obscurity to fame, the reader's expectation that the autobiography will depict a destiny is met by Ellison's repeated mention of the essential experience that forms the condition for his life's project.

The dominant feature emerging from his reflective viewpoint is the good fortune he had being brought up in Oklahoma, whose settlement by black and white Americans hardly more than a generation before his birth exempted its society, for a time, from the equilibrium of rigid caste relationships prevalent in the Old South and the fixed systems of power characteristic of the capitalist industrial sectors of the United States. It was a newer America where he was born, and, though soon enough it fastened upon itself the rites of racial segregation and the forms of a class society, during the early years of its statehood and Ellison's life, Oklahoma recapitulated in the minds of its citizens, if not entirely in the circumstances of their material lives, the situation of the American frontier. Exhilarated by the sense of possibility in a loosely structured community, the young Ellison and his confréres could imaginatively transcend the categories of race, thinking of themselves as the "Renaissance men" of an American comedy rather than as victims in a racist melodrama.

Through the selections of memory and the emphasis of rhetoric, Ellison invests the musicians who created the vernacular idiom of the region's native music--Southwestern jazz--with the authority of practical philosophers on his latter-day frontier. In the outlaw status earned by their exclusion and willed separation from the company of respectable judges, ministers, and politicians who were the agents of repressive "civilization," the jazzmen embodied in the art for which they lived the attributes of popular archetype. Their versatility and improvisational style evinced the idealized individualism of American legend and evoked the witty triumphs of Afro-American folk heroes, while in the processions of their art they performed a kind of democratic enactment, singing the self in musical phrases that combined in an utterance en masse. True jazz, Ellison writes

Is an art of individual assertion within and against the group. Each true jazz moment...springs from a contest in which each artist challenges all the rest; each solo flight, or improvisation, represents (like the successive canvases of a painter) a definition of his identity; as individual, as member of the collectivity and as a link in the chain of tradition. ( S&A, 234)

-161-

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