Shadowing Ralph Ellison

Shadowing Ralph Ellison

John S. Wright
Copyright Date: 2006
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt2tv6z8
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    Shadowing Ralph Ellison
    Book Description:

    In 1952, Ralph Ellison (1914-1994) published his novelInvisible Man, which transformed the dynamics of American literature. The novel won the National Book Award, extended the themes of his early short stories, and dramatized in fictional form the cultural theories expressed in his later essay collectionsShadow & ActandGoing to the Territory.

    InShadowing Ralph Ellison, John Wright traces Ellison's intellectual and aesthetic development and the evolution of his cultural philosophy throughout his long career. The book explores Ellison's published fiction, his criticism and correspondence, and his passionate exchanges with-and impact on-other literary intellectuals during the Cold War 1950s and during the culture wars of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s.

    Wright examines Ellison's body of work through the lens of Ellison's cosmopolitan philosophy of art and culture, which the writer began to construct during the late 1930s. Ellison, Wright argues, eschewed orthodoxy in both political and cultural discourse, maintaining that to achieve the highest cultural awareness and the greatest personal integrity, the individual must cultivate forms of thinking and acting that are fluid, improvisational, and vitalistic-like the blues and jazz. Accordingly, Ellison elaborated throughout his body of work the innumerable ways that rigid cultural labels, categories, and concepts-from racial stereotypes and fashionable academic theories to conventional political doctrines-fail to capture the full potential of human consciousness. Instead, Ellison advocated forms of consciousness and culture akin to what the blues and jazz reveal, and he portrayed those musical traditions as the best embodiment of the evolving American spirit.

    John Wright is associate professor of African American and African studies and English at the University of Minnesota and is faculty scholar for the Archie Givens, Sr., Collection of African American Literature and Life. He coedited, with Michael S. Harper,A Ralph Ellison Festival(a special volume of the Carleton Miscellany).

    eISBN: 978-1-60473-075-3
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  4. Chronology of Ralph Ellison’s Life, Contacts, and of Relevant Events
    (pp. xv-1)
  5. Prologue ORIENTING METAPHORS FOR A METAPHYSICAL MANHUNT
    (pp. 3-11)

    In September 1979 poet and scholar Michael S. Harper orchestrated a festival at Brown University to honor Ralph Ellison who, at age sixty-five, had recently retired from his post as New York University’s Albert Schweitzer Professor of the Humanities. After more than a decade and a half of intensive service in the public sector on an array of national commissions, committees, and boards—the National Council of the Arts, the Carnegie Commission on Educational Television, the National Institute of Arts and Letters, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and the Committee of 100 for the National Association...

  6. Chapter One DEDICATED DREAMER, CONSECRATED ACTS: SHADOWING ELLISON
    (pp. 13-77)

    Nicknaming is a deadly art in black communities, Ralph Ellison taught the world some years ago in a time of trial, a gamely practiced art in a tightly pressed but voluble social world supremely aware of the power of words to mask, to reveal, to assault, or to embrace whatever human beings do and are that warrants being codified. Street-corner raconteurs have made it also an analogical and hyperbolic art, devoted to sizing up the ludicrous and the laudable, to extracting essences. Such masters at “capping” simultaneously wreak havoc and do homage with simple sobriquets. So it suits vernacular tradition...

  7. Chapter Two THE CONSCIOUS HERO AND THE RITES OF MAN: ELLISON’S WAR
    (pp. 79-129)

    In the fall of 1947, five years before the appearance ofInvisible Man, Ralph Ellison published in England’sHorizonmagazine a fictional fragment that prefigured the panoramic novel to come. Nightmarishly surreal, grotesquely comic, hyperbolically absurd, the scenes of this “Battle Royal,” for all their Marx Brothers outrageousness, nevertheless had roots in a living social history of routinized color-caste codes and “race ritual” traceable at least as far back as the fugitive slave narratives of the 1840s. Ellison’s tale, however, directed attention no more explicitly to its place in a submerged vernacular history than it overtly promised the novel a...

  8. Chapter Three ELLISON’S SPIRITUAL TECHNOLOGIES
    (pp. 131-159)

    In “That Same Pleasure, That Same Pain,” the interview that opensShadow and Act, Ralph Ellison reflects on his boyhood back in the newly segregated, fading frontier of post—World War I Oklahoma. He conjectures at the outset that his own genesis as an artist rested contrapuntally on two “accidents” of cultural literacy coincident with the rise of the modern mass media and its unforeseen power to subvert the social constraints of caste and color. I will attend to the second of these accidents first. That second happenstance, by no means void of human agency, consisted in the practice by...

  9. Chapter Four THE MAN OF LETTERS AND THE UNENDING CONVERSATION
    (pp. 161-232)

    In 1955, two years after winning the National Book Award forInvisible Man, Ralph Ellison won the Prix de Rome Fellowship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. With additional Rockefeller Foundation support, he was able to live in Rome with his wife until 1957. There he worked on a new novel that pushed its main characters closer to the centers of political power in American life than he had thought was “realistically” feasible in the World War II decade when he was developing the concept ofInvisible Man(GTT45). During the war, he later recalled, African Americans...

  10. Epilogue THE LAST GESTALT: ELLISON’S UNFINISHED BUSINESS
    (pp. 233-238)

    Cyrus Colter’s speculations about the unfinished novel Ralph Ellison’s admirers had so long awaited struck what was by then a far too familiar chord. In excerpts of an interview with reporter Brent Staples, published alongside John Wideman’s assessment ofGoing to the Territory, Ellison deflected questions about his novelistic disappearing act back to 1967, to the squallish, ice-glazed November day when he and Fanny Ellison stood helplessly in the high winds outside their 200—year-old summer home in the Berkshires and watched it voraciously burn (Staples). They had just managed to get their Labrador retriever out, he recalled, but could...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 239-244)
  12. Bibliography
    (pp. 245-258)
  13. Index
    (pp. 259-269)