The Critical Response to Ralph Ellison

By Robert J. Butler | Go to book overview

Ellison's Racial Variations on American Themes

Kun Jong Lee

Ralph Ellison Invisible Man has been a happy hunting ground for scholars looking for literary allusions. Indeed, the search for echoes of and references to antecedent writers and works in the novel has been one of the most flourishing areas in Ellison criticism. Of the seven books on Ellison, Valerie Bonita Gray Invisible Man's Literary Heritage: Benito Cereno and Moby Dick, Robert List Dadelus in Harlem: The Joyce-Ellison Connection, and Alan Nadel Invisible Criticism: Ralph Ellison and the American Canon concentrate exclusively on Ellison and his literary ancestors. Moreover, Mark Busby Ralph Ellison recognizes the significance of the area and devotes Chapter 4, entitled, "The Actor's Shadows: Ellison's Literary Antecedents," to a survey of the topic. On the other hand, African American scholars such as Robert B. Stepto, Robert G. O'Meally, Houston A. Baker, Jr., Valerie Smith, and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., put Ellison firmly at the heart of African American cultural/literary tradition in their books. 1 The fertility of the topic can be demonstrated also in the collections of essays and special issues of journals on Ellison: While Joseph F. Trimmer A Casebook on Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, Kimberly W. Benston's Speaking for You, and Susan Resneck Parr and Pancho Savery Approaches to Teaching Ellison's Invisible Man devote a considerable portion of their selections to the novelist's literary heritage, other collections contain at least one article situating Ellison in the African American, American, or European literary tradition. 2 More intimidating than the number of these books and journal articles is the incredible range of Ellison's allusions. Scholars have noted or demonstrated Ellison's allusions to almost every major writer in the European, American, or African American literary traditions: As Rudolf F. Dietze writes rather hyperbolically, "The more thoroughly familiar one becomes with the work of Ralph Waldo Ellison the fewer are the chances of finding a major literary work published before 1950 that does not have some bearing on Invisible Man (25).

Yet, despite Ellison scholars' all-out search for his literary ancestors, there is still one "invisible" influence on Ellison that has not been studied satisfactorily in Ellison criticism: his indebtedness to early nineteenth-century American literary nationalism. Ellison locates the African American in the typical position of an early nineteenth-century American artist vis-à-vis exclusive European traditions: "The white American has charged the Negro American with being without past or tradition. . . , just as he himself has been so charged by European and American critics with a nostalgia for the stability once typical of European cultures" ( Shadow54). Naturally enough, the African American in Ellison is preoccupied with major themes in the early nineteenth-century nationalist campaign. In other words, Ellison reads race into early nineteenth-century literary nationalism and "African Americanizes" its conspicuous ideologies in his critical writings. No less

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