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Steven C. Tracy, ed. A Historical Guide to Ralph Ellison.

Steven C. Tracy, ed. A Historical Guide to Ralph Ellison. New York: Oxford UP, 2004. 276 pp. $45.00 cloth/$17.95 paper.

Let's face it. Ralph Ellison's literary reputation rests largely on Invisible Man. One would think therefore that after more than 50 years, scholars, critics, biographers, and book reviewers who have picked over the novel as well as through Ellison's lesser writings would find little more to say. Not so, writes Robert J. Butler in the Historical Guide, "... the literary frontier he [Ellison] opened up ... is still a wide open space awaiting our careful attention." One trouble, of course, is that Ellison himself has been rather more than forthcoming about his life and work.

Nonetheless, as we shall see, though often echoing one another, some critics reveal areas of Ellisonia that Ellison himself might not have wished revealed. Before proceeding along these lines, however, a word or two about Ellison's output other than Invisible Man.

As is well known, Ellison's only other novel, Juneteenth, was published posthumously, put together by Ellison's literary executor, John Callahan, from published bits and pieces and large chunks of manuscripts that Ellison had left behind. Despite Callahan's assurances, we cannot be sure whether Ellison would have liked this book. Is the material in the order he would have wished it? Are there segments he would have left out? Would he have wanted to write new material or alter or modify what he had already produced? In any case the Guide informs us that readers and critics have not always been in accord as to its legitimacy. As regards Ellison's essays, they were written over a span of years on a variety of subjects reflecting Ellison's changing outlook. In general contributors to the Guide believe that most stand up very well; however, a few may not seem as bold as they once did. Lawrence P. Jackson, for example, cites Ellison's famous response ("The World in a Jug") to Irving Howe's mild criticism as ringing a "bit hollow." Still, Ellison's nonfiction fares better than his short stories. Only two, or three, or four deserve these days to be anthologized. The rest may best be likened to apprentice writing. Thus Invisible Man is what most critics want to hone in on, and the problem remains what or where to find something new or undetected about either the book or its author.

To illustrate, Steven C. Tracy's Introduction begins with a comparison of Ellison's and Harriet Tubman's achievements, which, to say the least, is something of a stretch. The essay then settles down, so to speak, to do what all introductions are expected to do; to say in a general sort of way what the rest of the book will say in more detail. But Tracy almost loses Ellison again as he goes on a while about Toni Morrison's indebtedness to Ellison. He does, however, return to business by informing us that the central theme of the Guide is to place Ellison in the context of his "turbulent times." Tracy's essay is followed by Maryemma Graham's and Jeffrey Dwayne Mack's 35-page brief "Biography." Their piece, they acknowledge, draws largely on Robert G. O'Meally's and Lawrence Jackson's longer biographies, and although they break no new ground, they relate Ellison's life in concise straightforward coherent terms, emphasizing predictably his literary influences--jazz, blues, folklore, and the rest. To place him in the best American literary tradition, the authors also declare that he shares with Henry James, among other celebrated writers, an understanding of the "significance of slavery in the American experience and portrayed African Americans as representative of the most meaningful aspects of democracy." James? Would that it were true!

The second part of the Guide is called "Ellison in his Time." In the first of these essays, "Creative and Cultural Lag," William Maxwell makes a compelling case that in spite of Ellison's overt latter-day opposition to radical political ideologies, his 10-year commitment to Communism in the 1930s and early 40s permeates much of the ethos of Invisible Man. Indeed, Ellison himself insisted that the past lives on, synthesizes itself unconsciously with the present. In much the same vein, each of the essays in the Guide tries to suggest Ellison's constant efforts to discover some kind of cohesiveness between seeming opposites--not simply past and present but individualism and collectivism, high and low cultures, European and American outlooks, and urban and rural survival skills.

Steven T. Tracy returns in the next essay, "The Power to Weld the Fragments." Here he stresses the influence of African and American music not only as being related to Ellison's literary techniques but as being symbolic of Ellison's views of an American identity. Since we have long heard from Ellison himself on these matters, this is no startling revelation. Still one has to admire Tracy's superb understanding of the ways Ellison could have assimilated the music he had been listening to all his life. In the best jazz, the soloist must work within a music ensemble and yet assert his individuality apart from others. This method parallels the push and pull elements in Invisible Man. In addition, Tracy mentions other influences--among them black city and country speech patterns, riddles and legends--all of which Ellison integrates in the Invisible Man's narration. But Ellison himself believed fragments of the African American culture also entered the mainstream of American society. He said he heard jazz rhythms in Eliot's "Wasteland," and Tracy speculates Ellison's own aesthetic may well have derived in part from Eliot's "Tradition and the Individual Talent." Tracy ends his essay with a partial discography of recordings relevant to Ellison's writings.

James Smethurst's "Something Warmly, Infuriatingly Feminine" contrasts the neomodernism of Invisible Man against stereotypical mass cultural images of women, black and white. As regards African American women, Smethurst tells us there is some controversy as to whether they are portrayed as nurturing black mammies or wise Mother Africa guides to survival. In neither case do they appear as sexual. White women, on the other hand, are femmes fatales, dangerous and demanding, paradoxically fantasizing black men as both deferential and sexual paragons. Smethurst concludes, however, by saying that although Invisible Man offers "virtually no positive portrayals of women," they "are absolutely central to the ideological and artistic project of the book." The reader may not be certain what Smethurst presumes the artistic project to be, but one could argue that the Invisible Man is too busy uncovering his own identity to bother much with three-dimensional realities of women--or, for that matter, men.

As is now well known, Ellison claimed a white European and American literary ancestry and gave short shrift to African American writers (with the equivocal exception of Richard Wright). Alan Nadel in "The Integrated Literary Tradition" deals with how Ellison's works relate to the challenging presences and invisibility of white American canonical letters. In Invisible Man Ellison's subtle allusions to these writings reinterpret their moral and cultural implications. As for Juneteenth, Nadel believes the arrays of points of view are not unlike the modernist methods of authors like Eliot, Joyce, or Pound. Meanwhile, the ambiguities of the protagonist's identity suggest Joe Christmas's dilemmas in Faulkner's Light in August.

Lawrence P. Jackson's "Ralph Ellison's Politics of Integration" takes a somewhat jaundiced view of Ellison's achievements. Jackson asserts that Ellison "enforced" particular readings of Invisible Man to accord with changing critical fashion. Authorial stress on the Invisible Man's efforts to uncover his individuality--as opposed to further illuminating America's unhappy social and caste system--diminishes the work. It is interesting, Jackson notes, that at its publication many African American critics did not take as warmly to the novel as did their white counterparts. Jackson ends his piece by asserting that the irony of Ellison's career "was that he concluded it as a critic at a time when he seemed most to doubt the value of shaping the artist's reality."

The last parts of the Historical Guide contain an uncredited "Illustrated Chronology" and a "Bibliographical Essay" by Robert J. Butler. The latter is a solid piece of work although Butler here and there inevitably repeats the bibliographical materials appended to some of the other essays in the Guide. The "Chronology," on the other hand, documents highlights in Ellison's life in the context of major historical events. Included in these pages are miscellaneous photos of musicians and celebrities, as well as reproductions of record album covers, book jackets, and the like, some of which seem to have only the most tenuous connection to what the rest of the book is about. Yet, on the whole, the Guide does what it sets out to do. The essays are for the most part stimulating and should prove useful to both beginning and advanced Ellison acolytes. It is a sign surely that the Ellison industry thrives and proliferates. And who knows, perhaps some day there may be an Historical Guide to Ellison Historical Guides.

Edward Margolies

City University of New York, Emeritus
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Author:Margolies, Edward
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2006
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