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Ralph Ellison and Kenneth Burke

Ralph Ellison and Kenneth Burke: At the Roots of the Racial Divide

Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 264
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  • Book Info
    Ralph Ellison and Kenneth Burke
    Book Description:

    Ralph Ellison and Kenneth Burkefocuses on the little-known but important friendship between two canonical American writers. The story of this fifty-year friendship, however, is more than literary biography; Bryan Crable argues that the Burke-Ellison relationship can be interpreted as a microcosm of the American "racial divide." Through examination of published writings and unpublished correspondence, he reconstructs the dialogue between Burke and Ellison about race that shaped some of their most important works, including Burke'sA Rhetoric of Motivesand Ellison'sInvisible Man.In addition, the book connects this dialogue to changes in American discourse about race. Crable shows that these two men were deeply connected, intellectually and personally, but the social division between white and black Americans produced hesitation, embarrassment, mystery, and estrangement where Ellison and Burke might otherwise have found unity. By using Ellison's nonfiction and Burke's rhetorical theory to articulate a new vocabulary of race, the author concludes not with a simplistic "healing" of the divide but with a challenge to embrace the responsibility inherent to our social order.

    American Literatures Initiative

    eISBN: 978-0-8139-3217-0
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. I-VI)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. VII-VIII)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. IX-XIV)
  4. A Note about Archival Materials
    (pp. XV-XVIII)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-8)

    In the preface toCounter-Statement, Kenneth Burke reflected upon the relationship between a writer and her social context, distinguishing between two types of writing: pamphleteering and inquiry. Pamphleteering, he suggested, represents a reaction, corrective or supportive, to the writer’s environment: “In so far as an age is bent, a writer establishes equilibrium by leaning (leaning either as his age leans, or in the direction opposite to his age).”¹ Yet, he noted, the writer need not simply lean: “A writer will also desire to develop an equilibrium of his own, regardless of external resistances—and this we might call inquiry.” Since...

  6. 1 Birth of an Ancestor
    (pp. 9-45)

    In one famous episode in the history of American letters, during the summer of 1945 an aspiring writer with an unlikely name holed up in a barn in Vermont—to escape New York, improve his health, and gain inspiration. Though Ralph Waldo Ellison had planned to continue writing about a fictional Tuskegee airman-turned-POW, he found himself unable to ignore a nagging inner voice. This strange voice interrupted his novel-in-progress, diverting Ellison’s attention with the provocative assertion, “I am an invisible man.”¹ Six decades later, the line has become inseparable from Ellison’s achievement as a novelist, and his incisive commentary on...

  7. 2 Antagonistic Cooperation
    (pp. 46-78)

    The Third American Writers’ Congress proved a formative moment in Ralph Ellison’s intellectual life. In Kenneth Burke’s address to the congress, “The Rhetoric of Hitler’s ‘Battle,’” Ellison found a model for his own viewpoint—since Burke integrated the seemingly disparate insights of Marx and Freud in the service of social critique. As a result, after the congress concluded, Ellison wasted little time in tracking down copies of Burke’s published work. This detailed study of Burke’s ideas produced no small change in Ellison’s perspective; as he recalled in a 1977 interview, “I was just starting out as a writer, and as...

  8. 3 From Acceptance to Rejection: Invisible Man
    (pp. 79-111)

    When Ralph Ellison’sInvisible Manwas published in April 1952, he and Kenneth Burke had been friends for nearly ten years—a span of time that had provided Burke a unique window into the painstaking creation of the novel. Burke had first learned of its existence from Ellison’s letter of 23 November 1945, the letter that had deepened their dialogue on race and identity. Through correspondence and conversation spanning the next seven years, as the two continued their exchanges on matters of race, they also discussed Ellison’s novel. In 1951, Ellison even read aloud the “Battle Royal” section to a...

  9. 4 Was Kenneth Burke a Racist?
    (pp. 112-137)

    When the correspondence between Burke and Ellison ended—in 1987, six years before Burke’s death—the relationship inaugurated by “The Rhetoric of Hitler’s ‘Battle’” was midway through its fifth decade.¹ Despite the peaks and valleys of the years following the Third American Writers’ Congress, in the 1980s the friendship was very much alive. In some respects, as described in chapter 3, the relationship was on surer ground than when it first began. Ellison was sending fond letters to his “old friend and mentor,” writing that “it was a real pleasure seeing you at the Academy. In fact you’re the main...

  10. 5 From Turmoil to Peace: An Ultimate Vocabulary of Race
    (pp. 138-174)

    The previous chapter introduced Burke’s critique of binaristic thinking inA Rhetoric of Motives, and his tripartite distinction between positive, dialectical, and ultimate terms. Recognizing the incomplete nature of positive and dialectical terminologies, Burke’s text instead advocates a terminology that moves beyond them, one providing the “principle of principles” enabling the creative transcendence of entrenched opposition.¹ As we have seen, caught up in the language of “black vs. white,” Burke was unable to apply this same conceptual scheme to his own thinking about race. However, I believe that Ellison—thanks to his careful study of Burke’s corpus—envisioned what his...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 175-224)
  12. Bibliography
    (pp. 225-236)
  13. Index
    (pp. 237-242)