Ralph Ellison--from leftist reviews to modernist interiority

An excerpt from Thomas Hill Schaub's American Fiction in the Cold War (Wisconsin, 1991)

In book reviews for New Masses from 1939 to 1941, [Ellison's] Marxist perspective remains a central element. In "Ruling Class Southerner," for example, he faults the author for failing to make his central character "the personalization of the sociological facts" and argues that "no matter how powerful an individual may become, he is dependent upon others with similar interests; it is this group's consciousness of itself as a class . . . that is responsible" ([p] 27). In "Anti-War Novel" Ellison suggests that Spring Offensive, a novel by Herbert Lewis, is unlikely to receive attention from "the capitalist press," and admires the book for showing "a degree of class consciousness" and "nuances of American class struggle" (29- 30). Similarly, Ellison praises Len Zinberg's novel Walk Hard, Talk Loud for showing a boy's coming to see his relation to a "diseased social order" and notes that the success of Zinberg, a white writer, derives from his "Marxist understanding of the economic basis of Negro personality" ("Negro Prize Fighter," 27).

Looking back through these first essays, one notices not only that Ellison easily accommodated Marxist ideology with other themes that he has since retained, but also that within the context of that time, his determination to situate the black American within the terms of universality was far from reactionary. Ellison was preoccupied with the need to displace "stereotyped roles which ignore Negro problems and Negro reality" with roles and portraits that acknowledged a greater "range of emotion." "It was a long Broadway tradition," he notes in his review of Theodore Ward's Big White Fog, "that the Negro should never be shown as capable of the universal emotion of love" (22). In "Stormy Weather," his review of Langston Hughes's autobiography The Big Sea, Ellison faults the author for avoiding "analysis and comment . . . that unity which is formed by the mind's brooding over experience and transforming it into conscious thought." Had Hughes supplied such commentary, "we would be shown the processes by which a sensitive Negro attains a heightened consciousness of a world in which most of the odds are against his doing so" (20-21). In formulations such as this one, which seem to anticipate so explicitly the project of Invisible Man, the Marxist terminology of "historic process" gives way effortlessly to the growth of mind as the territory within which social change must occur. "It will be the spread of this consciousness," Ellison concluded, "added to the passion and sensitivity of the Negro people, that will help create a new way of life in the United States" (21).

In itself, this modernist move toward the interiority of psychological realism might have proven uncontroversial, but such readers as Kaiser, Addison Gayle, and Houston Baker, Jr., have seen in Ellison's version of the "heightened consciousness" a Eurocentric view of the artist which subordinates African American culture to "conscious" art and separates that art from politics. In his essay "To Move without Moving: An Analysis of Creativity and Commerce in Ralph Ellison's Trueblood Episode," Houston Baker, Jr., attempts to recover Invisible Man from these charges by arguing that "the distinction between folklore and literary art evident in Ellison's critical practice collapses in his creative practice" (829).

Though Ellison has always maintained that art and politics are different realms, it is worth recalling that Ellison developed as a writer during a time when the separation of art and politics not only seemed possible, but, in view of recent events, necessary. There have been many accounts of the experience of black Americans with the Communist Party, but most of them agree on the essentials which Ellison summarized years later: "The Communists recognized no plurality of interests and were really responding to the necessities of Soviet foreign policy, and when the war came, Negroes got caught and were made expedient in the shifting of policy." In this development, Ellison's experience was not unlike that of Rahv, Trilling, and Chase; like them he understood political literature to be a form of propaganda, while "art"being faithful to the ironic complexities of experiencewas inherently anti-ideological.

Today this position seems at once naive and reactionary, but once relocated within the discursive context from which it emerged, the separating of art and politics becomes a more complex event, and regains some of its original plausibility. More than that: within the African American community that distinction participates in a strategy of withdrawal from centers of power, both democratic and communist, that was provoked by a crisis in black American leadership during World War II. The story that Ellison has told on several occasions about the origin of Invisible Man always involves the failure of this leadership, so that students of the novel have long recognized that the book details the difficulties of a young black man who seeks to become a leader. But accounts such as those by M. K. Singleton and John S. Wright, as useful and eloquent as they are, pursue the mythic discourse of the novel and follow the lead given them by Ellison's references to Lord Raglan and Kenneth Burke. In doing so, they foreground the contemplative character of the novel and lose sight of the controversy over "Negro leadership" which supplies access to Ellison's contemporary history and to the more active and political dimension of the novel. Returning to this discourse helps us work against the novel's universalism and its explicit tendencies to veer toward caricature and allegory, away from contemporary reference.


Document URL: http://www.writing.upenn.edu/~afilreis/50s/ellison-early-reviews.html
Last modified: Thursday, 31-May-2007 09:42:33 EDT