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Ralph Ellison and the Raft of Hope

Ralph Ellison and the Raft of Hope: A Political Companion to Invisible Man

Edited by LUCAS E. MOREL
Copyright Date: 2004
Edition: 1
Pages: 264
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  • Book Info
    Ralph Ellison and the Raft of Hope
    Book Description:

    An important new collection of original essays that examine how Ellison's landmark novel, Invisible Man (1952), addresses the social, cultural, political, economic, and racial contradictions of America. Commenting on the significance of Mark Twain's writings, Ralph Ellison wrote that "a novel could be fashioned as a raft of hope, perception and entertainment that might help keep us afloat as we tried to negotiate the snags and whirlpools that mark our nation's vacillating course toward and away from the democratic ideal." Ellison believed it was the contradiction between America's "noble ideals and the actualities of our conduct" that inspired the most profound literature -- "the American novel at its best." Drawing from the fields of literature, politics, law, and history, the contributors make visible the political and ethical terms of Invisible Man, while also illuminating Ellison's understanding of democracy and art. Ellison hoped that his novel, by providing a tragicomic look at American ideals and mores, would make better citizens of his readers. The contributors also explain Ellison's distinctive views on the political tasks and responsibilities of the novelist, an especially relevant topic as contemporary writers continue to confront the American incongruity between democratic faith and practice. Ralph Ellison and the Raft of Hope uniquely demonstrates why Invisible Man stands as a premier literary meditation on American democracy.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-4773-4
    Subjects: Language & Literature, Political Science

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Contributors
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. Prologue Recovering the Political Artistry of Invisible Man
    (pp. 1-21)

    Abraham Lincoln once said that government action in a free society follows public opinion. Therefore, whoever could change public opinion could, to that degree, change the political landscape.¹ Ralph Ellison declared his intention to shape public opinion when he received the National Book Award in 1953 forInvisible Man.In his acceptance speech, he commented that his own attempt to write a major novel derived from a feeling that “except for the work of William Faulkner something vital had gone out of American prose after Mark Twain.” He added that American writers once assumed “a much greater responsibility for the...

  6. Chapter 1 Affirming the Principle
    (pp. 22-36)

    A half century after the publication ofInvisible Manthere is very little controversy over its standing as one of the great literary works of the twentieth century, but the debate over the political implications of the novel and about Ralph Ellison’s politics in general has continued, even though some issues have become moot. The question as to whetherNative SonorInvisible Manprovides the right model for African-American writers is happily irrelevant, given the number and variety of black novelists who have attained prominence in the last 50 years, and few are interested in reviving the often vehement...

  7. Chapter 2 Ralph Ellison on the Tragi-Comedy of Citizenship
    (pp. 37-57)

    Ellison’s novel has been caught up in political questions ever since it appeared. Irving Howe criticized Ellison fiercely for not having written a protest novel; his interests seemed, in the 1950s and early 1960s, far too aesthetic.¹ But, recently and especially since Ellison’s death in 1994, a spate of critics have turned toward analysis of the democratic theory that provides the backbone for Ellison’s novels and extensive criticism.² And when I discussed the book with a retiree reading group, I discovered that Ellison had at last fallen from his empyrean heights and landed in the muck. These more recent readers...

  8. Chapter 3 Ralph Ellison’s American Democratic Individualism
    (pp. 58-90)

    Ralph Ellison chose to write as a means of expressing and affirming his individuality, his excellence, and his free humanity in America. This exercise of his personal responsibility, despite American segregation, was his basic message to the Negro American: As he put it in a note to hisJuneteenthmanuscript, “This society is not likely to become free of racism, thus it is necessary for Negroes to free themselves by becoming their idea of what a free people should be.”¹ There was no need to get all of his instruction in liberty from a racist society. It was incumbent upon...

  9. Chapter 4 Invisible Man and Juneteenth: Ralph Ellison’s Literary Pursuit of Racial Justice
    (pp. 91-104)

    More than most major writers, in numerous essays and speeches, Ralph Ellison steadily commented on the importance of literature for life, and the principles of American democracy for racial justice. BecauseInvisible ManandJuneteenthare at bottom “novels of ideas,” a brief introduction to Ellison’s reflections on literature and democracy will prepare us for a study of racial justice in the novels.

    While often deploying the pyrotechnics of surrealism, including extended dream sequences and wild comic conceits, Ralph Ellison argued the goal of his writing is literary realism:

    [W]hat one listens for in a novel: the degree to which...

  10. Chapter 5 Invisible Man as “a form of social power”: The Evolution of Ralph Ellison’s Politics
    (pp. 105-118)

    One might reasonably approach discussing Ellison’sInvisible Manas a political novel with some trepidation. This is not because one cannot find political content in it. Rather, it is because Ellison was himself so clear about just what sort of political moves he sought toavoidin his writing. As Jerry Gafio Watts notes, Ellison once claimed that “when writers write about politics, usually they are wrong. The novel at its best demands a sort of complexity of vision which politics doesn’t like. Politics has as its goal the exercise of power—political power—and it isn’t particularly interested in...

  11. Chapter 6 Invisible Man as Literary Analog to Brown v. Board of Education
    (pp. 119-141)

    The year 2002 marked the fiftieth anniversary of the publication ofInvisible Manas well as the one-hundred-fiftieth anniversary of another novel that remade Americans’ understanding of race and law. For in 1852, one hundred years before Ralph Ellison’s novel,Uncle Tom’s Cabinappeared. Harriet Beecher Stowe responded—and helped shape the response of Americans—to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and ultimately the institution of slavery itself.Uncle Tom’s Cabintaught Americans to view blacks as humans and with humanity. Once we saw the Christ-like Uncle Tom, we could no longer abide slavery. WithInvisible Manwe again...

  12. Chapter 7 Ralph Ellison and the Problem of Cultural Authority: The Lessons of Little Rock
    (pp. 142-157)

    In her controversial essay “Reflections on Little Rock,” originally written forCommentarymagazine but published in the 1959 volume ofDissent,Hannah Arendt questioned the wisdom of the NAACP for deciding to place children on the front lines during the 1957 school integration crisis in Little Rock, Arkansas. Insisting on her“sympathy for the cause of the Negroes as for all oppressed or underprivileged peoples,”Arendt nonetheless faulted the desegregation effort for having contributed to recent social trends “abolishing the authority of adults” by denying “their responsibility for the world into which they have borne their children” and their “duty...

  13. Chapter 8 Ralph Ellison and the Invisibility of the Black Intellectual: Historical Reflections on Invisible Man
    (pp. 158-170)

    Thirty years after the publication ofInvisible Man,Ralph Ellison ruminated on the historical context of his now classic novel. Despite the rise of conservatism in American politics and culture, the political atmosphere was not filled with the hysteria that had previously accompanied the anti-communism of the late 1940s and early 1950s.Invisible Manrepresented a triumph not just on literary grounds but also on political and historical grounds as well.

    Ralph Ellison’s achievement was to present, in fiction, a history of black people that was at once collective and individualist. The novel pointed out universal human values and the...

  14. Chapter 9 The Litany of Things: Sacrament and History in Invisible Man
    (pp. 171-192)

    Near the end of “The Little Man at Chehaw Station,” his magnificent essay on the mysterious cultural possibilities of America, Ralph Ellison comments that “if I had been more mature or perceptive back when I first heard of the little man behind the stove, an object that lay atop Miss Harrison’s piano would have been most enlightening.” Ellison then describes this potentially enlightening object, and its surprising significance, in evocative detail:

    It was a signed Prokofiev manuscript that had been presented to her by the composer. Except for the signature, it looked like countless other manuscripts. Yet I suspect that...

  15. Chapter 10 Documenting Turbulence: The Dialectics of Chaos in Invisible Man
    (pp. 193-217)

    By the time we reach the end ofInvisible Man,Ralph Ellison’s hero/narrator comes to embody a political consciousness whose energies are directed toward dialectical, as opposed to simply rhetorical, ends.¹ In light of this, it might be worthwhile to recall Stanley Fish’s distinction between rhetorical and dialectical forms ofliterary presentation, especially his point that a presentation

    is rhetorical if it satisfies the needs of its readers. The word “satisfies” is meant literally here; for it is characteristic of a rhetorical form to mirror and present for approval the opinions its readers hold. . . .A dialectical presentation, on the...

  16. Epilogue The Lingering Question of Personality and Nation in Invisible Man: “And could politics ever be an expression of love?”
    (pp. 218-229)

    A literary executor has many responsibilities, most of them conventional and customary, if occasionally irritating and interminable. A few are unexpected and come at you out of the blue. But none caught me more flatfooted than learning recently that I was charged with keeping track of the health of Ralph Ellison’s prodigal son, Invisible Man. I should have remembered that some forty-five years ago when Invisible Man was a lad of just five summers, Ellison wrote to Albert Murray that he had “picked up a book of criticism published in England under the title,Catastrophe and the Imagination,which gives...

  17. Works Cited
    (pp. 230-243)
  18. Index
    (pp. 244-249)