The Critical Response to Ralph Ellison

By Robert J. Butler | Go to book overview

The Achievement of Ralph Ellison

James W. Tuttleton

For by a trick of fate (our racial problems not withstanding) the human imagination is integrative--and the same is true of the centrifugal force that inspirits the democratic process. And while fiction is but a form of symbolic action, a mere game of "as if," therein lies its true function and its potential for effecting change. For at its most serious, just as is true of politics at its best, it is a thrust toward a human ideal. And it approaches that ideal by a subtle process of negating the world of things as given in favor of a complex of man-made positives.

-- Ralph Ellison, "Introduction to Invisible Man"

Although Ralph Ellison ( 1914-1994) died last year and is now personally lost to us, he has perhaps never been more visible to those with an eye for distinguishing American fiction and criticism. And certainly his work has never been more necessary to American literary culture than it is today. The salient sign of his visibility is of course his one--and on--novel, Invisible Man ( 1952), a work that won him the National Book Award. It is in my view the best novel ever written by an African-American, and it may well be the best novel written since World War II. Certainly, millions of copies of it have been sold and read; and it has become an inevitable assignment in school and college courses in the American novel, thanks to its splendid narrative account of the apprenticeship of a young black boy struggling to be seen, struggling to define himself against the forces of poverty, educational incompetence, white racism, political manipulation by Communists and black nationalists, and even personal exploitation by sex-crazed white women.

I do not mean to suggest that these subjects lifted Invisible Man to international importance. But Ellison's mastery in the handling of scene and dialogue, his vivid characterization and plotting, and his dazzling repertory of styles and symbolic device--all of these elements of his tragicomic poetry made for stunning intellectual richness and an aesthetic delight greatly superior to anything produced by the "Harlem Renaissance" novelists ( Claude McKay, Jean Toomer, Zora Neale Hurston, et al.) or even by the prolix Richard Wright or William Attaway during the 1930s and 1940s.

Although he wrote only one novel, I think it fair to say that Ellison also towered over his near contemporaries James Baldwin, LeRoi Jones, (Imamu Amiri Baraka), William Melvin Kelley, and John A. Williams. Indeed, compared to Ellison's great achievement, the more recent contemporary adulation of Jamaica Kincaid, Alice Walker, and Toni Morrison seems grotesque. If these comparisons segregate Ellison from white fiction and seem to diminish him as merely "a credit to his race," let me go further and say

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