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The critical response to Ralph Ellison.

Robert J. Butler, ed. The Critical Response to Ralph Ellison. Westport: Greenwood P, 2000. 296 pp. $79.50.

This is the ninth collection of critical writings devoted primarily if not exclusively to Ellison's Invisible Man (1952), which the volume's editor rightly calls "a seminal work," "a literary masterwork," and "a landmark cultural document." Unlike most of the previous collections, the volume's hard cover, sewn pages, and hefty price suggest that it is destined solely for the library shelf.

For their money, librarians will get a long introduction that offers a chronological discussion of the critical response to Invisible Man over the last halfcentury, followed by reprintings of the following: the Stepto and Harper interview with Ellison (1977); eight early reviews of Invisible Man (including the well-known ones by Saul Bellow and Irving Howe); seven critical essays on the novel; three essays each on Ellison's short fiction and his non-fiction; and four "posthumous assessments" (Bison died in 1994). There is also a chronology and a selected bibliography.

It is useful to have the early reviews clustered and a good idea to include responses to Ellison's short fiction and his essays, which have not perhaps received the attention they deserve. And, taken on their own terms, the essays on Invisible Man are solid or better. They include Floyd R. Horowitz on Ellison's modem version of Brer Bear and Brer Rabbit; George E. Kent on Ellison discussing the Afro-American folk and cultural tradition; Leon Forrest's "Luminosity from the Lower Frequencies"; and Houston A. Baker, Jr's scintillating analysis of the Trueblood episode.

I have nonetheless some animadversions concerning the inclusion of some "responses" in Professor Butler's collection and the omission of others. One is that the only essay on Invisible Man devoted to a "literary continuity" is a Procrustean comparison of Dante's Inferno and Ellison's novel. Why not Joseph Frank's discussion of Dostoevsky's influence on Ellison instead, which in his introduction the editor rightly designates an "important article"? The answer would seem to be that the author of the preferred article is Professor Butler himself; indeed, no fewer than three pieces by the editor are included in the volume. (In this article, as throughout the volume, the name of Rinehart, after Godot perhaps the best-known non-appearing character in contemporary literature, is wrongly given as Rhinehart.)

It is also the case that Butler's volume gives insufficient attention to the negatively critical and revisionist part of the spectrum of responses to Invisible Man as a cultural document. One hears in the introduction of "a fascinating mixture of conflicting attitudes" to the novel in the work of black writers between the late 1960s and the late 1970s; but this is not properly gone into. And no mention is made of revisionist academic readings like Susan Blake's excellent article of 1979 on black folklore in Bison's work, which argues--in opposition to the idealizing readings played up by Butler--that the result of Invisible Man's identity quest is "not self-definition at all but reaffirmation of the identity provided by the white culture."

A final complaint concerns the posthumous assessments. In the main, these are either gratuitously encomiastic or post-pranidal. It is true that the latter quality is also a characteristic of the discourse of the later Ralph Ellison as found in essays and interviews. But that is no reason for their inclusion in a volume that presents itself as a serious research tool.
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Author:McSweeney, Kerry
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 2001
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