but in terms of but two words, yes and no, but it signifies a whole heap more." Ellison's use of the chain link invokes "The Heroic Slave," if only because it recalls Madison Washington's escape from the slave coffle. And though Brother Tarp's chain link is similar to the one the hero remembers on Dr. Bledsoe's desk at the college, the difference between the two is that Bledsoe's link is "smooth," while the other bears the "mark of haste and violence." The former speaks to the power of illusion, the latter to the kind of commitment required to break out of bondage.
My point here is not only that Ellison's novel results from the use of Melville and Douglass as literary resources, both of whom anticipate Ellison's claim that America is only "a partially achieved nation." But also that both writers believed that an American democracy unwilling to institute radical acts of interpretation and revision was doomed to fail. Their literary kinship is manifest in their respective subversions of the racial gaze, which denote the inadequacy of anti- slavery rhetoric: so dependent on the visual sphere, so unwilling to redress voicelessness or acts of erasure. Each insists, in ways Ellison takes seriously, that democracy was and is a protean enterprise, in which the greatest challenge is to ascertain more than what the eye can see.
I wish to thank Henry Wonham, Carolyn Karcher, and Dana Nelson for their useful comments on an earlier draft of this essay. I would also like to thank my colleague Nancy Bentley for her suggestions.