an excerpt from:

John Corry's "Profile of an American Novelist, A White View of Ralph Ellison"

published in Black World (December 1970--a special Ralph Ellison issue)

  • Links to Ellison material
    [Corry first summarizes the narrative of Invisible Man. This excerpt begins as Corry is finishing this summary. He has described the narrator's strange journey through Liberty Paints and now arrives at the end of the novel, and summarizes it thus:]

    Thus he is ready for a new life. The latter part of the book touches, among other things, his involvement in the Brotherhood, i.e., the Communist party, his eventual disenchantment, a magnificently weird black nationalist, a riot in Harlem, and the hero's retreat into a coal cellar. Here, he says, he can enjoy his invisibility. Then he falls asleep, dreams that he meets all his antagonists and that he tells them he is through running. "Not quite," one says, and they advance on him with a knife. Then they castrate him, and he is free of all illusion.

    [Now he moves on to Ellison himself:]

    Fourteen years after the publication of the Moby Dick of the racial crisis, its author sits in the study of an apartment on the eighth floor of a building that is neither in nor out of Harlem, but on the fringe, along Riverside Drive, in an area distinguished more for its vitality than for its charm. He lives there quietly and well, thinking long thoughts that he sometimes puts into essays or reviews, and working on a novel that he has been writing and rewriting for 10 years.

    "I am a novelist not an activist," he says, "but I think that no one who reads what I write or who listens to my lectures can doubt that I am enlisted in the freedom movement. As an individual, I am primarily responsible for the health of American literature and culture. When I write, I am trying to make sense out of chaos. To think that a writer must think about his Negroness is to fall into a trap."

    In a long and splendid exchange with the critic Irving Howe in the pages of the New Leader, Ellison accused Howe of trying to "designate the role which Negro writers are to play more rigidly than any Southern politician--and for the best of reasons. We must express 'black' anger and 'clenched militancy;' most of all we should not become too interested in the problems of the art of literature, even though it is through these that we seek our individual identities. And between writing well and being ideologically militant, we must choose militancy. Well, it all sounds quite familiar and I fear the social order which it forecasts more than I do that of Mississippi."

    Furthermore, he is disturbed, Ellison says, by the increasing emphasis on Negroness, on blackness, in the civil-rights movement. "It grows out of despair," he says. "It attempts to define Negroes by their pigmentation, not their culture. What makes you a Negro is having grown up under certain cultural conditions, of having undergone an experience that shapes your culture. There is a body of folklore, a certain sense of American history. There is our psychology and the peculiar circumstances under which we have lived. There is our cuisine, though we don't admit it, and our forms of expression. I speak certain idioms; this is also part of the concord that makes me a Negro."

    Ellison, however, does not speak in idioms freely, which can also be part of the concord, just as there are certain jokes that are told only by Negroes to Negroes (sometimes they are very funny). Ellison measures his words very carefully and he does not gesture much beyond a little dab in the air with a long slender cigar. When he is annoyed, he hunches his shoulders and his radio-announcer voice rises from about baritone to tenor. He can be idiomatic then, and when he is, he amuses himself. "The Moynihan report complained that Negroes don't strut anymore." Annoyed, voice rising. "Why Negro faggots are the struttingest people I know." Laughing at himself.


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    Last modified: Thursday, 31-May-2007 09:42:38 EDT