Ralph Ellison: One-Hit Wonder

In an attempt to get caught up with some of my daily readings, I found myself speed reading through a number of back issues of the Economist and the Chronicle of Higher Education. While doing so, I came across the July 27th issue of the Chronicle Review that published a story about Ralph Ellison as a one-hit wonder. What amused me the most was the fact that I was just talking to Diane Creekmore, the English Department chairperson earlier about Ellison as a one-hit wonder….I used this exact wording in my conversation with her.

David Yaffe, in this article, stated that Ellison addressed issues of the civil rights before it was called so; of course, this is not entirley true. Yaffe points out that Ellison was not like other black contemporaries such as Richard Wright or Langston Hughs. Ellison would state that “I am primarily responsible for the health of American literature and culture. When I write, I am trying to make sense out of chaos.” Yaffe stated that while cities such as Detroit were going up in flames during the race riots, Ellison was slow to react to the politics of the time. Moreover, “at the time of his death in 1994 at the age of 81, Ellison had become many things to many people: a tormented genius and a one-hit wonder.”

Ellison, to me, is everything; his one-hit wonder addressed the complexities of being black in a white world. This is complex when one reflects on matters of community and identity. And even if many might claim Ellison as a one-hit wonder — that is okay with me; Ellison’s classic novel, Invisible Man, highlights the challenges many blacks face in white America:

I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids — and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination — indeed, everything and anything except me.

Ellison is addressed this distorted perception — the failure to see the humanity and individuality of black people — has its roots in the historic veil of slavery and Jim Crowism that separates the black world from the white world. Du Bois made this veil famous in Souls of Black Folks:

The worlds within and without the Veil of Color are changing, and changing rapidly, but not at the same rate, not in the same way; and this must produce a peculiar wrenching of the soul, a peculiar sense of doubt and bewilderment. Such a double life, with double thoughts, double duties, and double social classes, must give rise to double words and double ideals , and tempt the mind to pretence or to revolt, to hypocrisy or to radicalism.

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13 thoughts on “Ralph Ellison: One-Hit Wonder

  1. I do not understand the one-hit wonder point you are getting at?
    Is that being used to support his writing or show how different it was for its time?

    Jimmy Hendrix is considered a one-hit wonder(only had one song to reach top20), so I don’t consider being a one-hit wonder to negatively effect, nor benefit a person’s works.

  2. I guess I should go back and make my point more clear. Although Ellison wrote a number of wonderful essays, he much like Hendrix only produced one hit with his book. He was working on another before he died. Note: I do not think he should be judged in a less than positive light just because he published only one major work. That is silly. That one work was about a life time of experiences. Ok, it was published in 1952 –30 something years before his death.

  3. Maybe it’s because you approach it as black literature. Sometimes reading a book to find out what it really is is the way to go.

  4. I always felt, while it certainly fell into the category of Black Lit, it also fell equally well into the broader category of Literature. For those of us living here and now in America, it is a book that hits home. But, it has enough of an Archetypal quality to be relevant to people in other countries, or in another time. I doubt that 300 years from now, in France or Morocco or China, people would find the book of less worth.

    That seems to me to be the judge of truly great work. Does it have appeal beyond it’s own time and place? I think Invisible Man certainly does.

  5. Saij,

    Great point! Here is what I have been thinking of late: Does the cannon change? What is classic for me (Williams, Faulkner, Ellison) is no longer a classic for younger people. Books written in the 90’s might be seen as the new classic. I see another book blog post here.

  6. I think the “Appealing beyond it’s own time and place” is a good point, but has it really reached the younger generation?

    Sure we are reading it, because it is probably required to do so for school, but many people my age will probably see the book more as a chore that only old people read and less of as a classic.

    I’m not really all that certain as to what point I am trying to make, I guess just to enforce Carson’s response on what is now a classic.

  7. David Yaffe, in a piece which seems to be an overdue review of “Ralph Ellison: A Biography” by Arnold Rampersad, also states that Ellison “had declined an invitation to march with King but would find time to accept medals from Nixon and Reagan,” however, the biography only says that Ellison chose not to attend the 1963 March on Washington, not that he turned down an invitation to march with Dr. King. In addition, although Ralph Ellison was one of a group of 12 artists –which included Leontyne Price, Georgia O’Keefe, and Elliot Carter — to receive the first National Medal of the Arts from Ronald Reagan, I’ve never read anything to suggest that he received a medal from Richard Nixon, although he did speak at the Nixon White House ceremony honoring his friend Duke Ellington, a lifelong Republican after Woodrow Wilson introduced segregation to the federal workforce following the 1912 election. In any case, Ralph Ellison definitely opposed the policies of both those presidents, despite Mr. Yaffe’s apparent insinuations. On the contrary, the Ellisons contributed to Jesse Jackson’s 1984 and 1988 presidential campaigns. Of course, he had endorsed LBJ in 1968, but so did John Steinbeck, Sarah Vaughan, and presumably some other artists and celebrities.

  8. Regarding the “one-hit wonder” idea, I think it’s much more impressive to produce one work and do it very well than to spend years churning out one piece of mediocrity after another.

    Harper Lee comes to mind. “To Kill A Mockingbird” was, in my opinion, another great one-hit, and another one which touches extensively on racism and civil rights.

    Sometimes, people just say what they have to say, and then quit talking.

  9. Oops! Sorry for wandering in and posting uninvited. I hope you won’t mind if I comment once more on a few other inaccuracies in the article.

    Mr. Yaffe writes that “after years of toil — in and out of the Communist Party and the influence of his onetime mentor, Richard Wright — he produced an American novel that made good on his initial discovery….” In fact, Ralph Ellison, unlike Richard Wright, never joined the Communist Party, although he did serve as a regular critic for the Communist party’s literary journal New Masses, from 1939 until 1942. Since he was never a party member, he was never “in and out of the Communist party.”

    Mr. Yaffe also states that “when Harlem erupted in racial turbulence, the invisible man hid in a basement with his ‘gin, jazz, and dreams.'” That’s not true. On the contrary, when the Invisible Man hears about the rioting, he takes a cab up to Harlem, walks through the streets and confronts Ras. While escaping Ras’s men he falls through an open manhole into a coal cellar and two policemen mockingly put the cover back in place, trapping him underground. So he was not “hiding” from the racial turbulence. And the “gin, jazz, and dreams” described in the prologue comes later chronologically, long after the riot.

    Mr. Yaffe mixes metaphors in saying that Ralph Ellison “continued his descent into a rabbit hole of writer’s block”! It’s true that Mr. Ellison once told Saul Bellow that he was suffering from a monumental case of writer’s block, however, many scholars — including biographer Wil Haygood in a recent Washington Post article titled “Invisible Manuscript” — have pointed out that in addition to his two essay collections, Ralph Ellison completed 2,000 pages of a second novel and so it may be inaccurate to call what he had writer’s block. As for the rabbit hole, Charlie Parker once wrote an ode to the heroine in a Lewis Carroll novel who was continually having to shrink or expand her consciousness to meet the expectations of others. He called it “Blues for Alice,” and ironically, it might have some unintended significance for Ralph Ellison here.

    In Mr. Yaffe’s defense, he clearly states that his main objection to Ralph Ellison’s appearance at the Notre Dame University literary festival on April 6th, 1968 was that “in the ensuing Q & A, there was no mention of the assassination,” although it’s hard to infer from the biography what was and wasn’t said at that event.

    There’s another book that I read recently which contains an interesting alternative perspective on the perceived obligation for certain artists in the 1960s to become involved in politics in a leadership role. It’s “Chronicles Volume One” by Bob Dylan and I had to chuckle when I read it because his experience was similar to Ralph Ellison’s. The trouble begins on about the fifth page of chapter three, “New Morning,” and continues for about twenty pages. It starts:

    “In 1968 the Beatles were in India. America was wrapped up in a blanket of rage. Students at universities were wrecking parked cars, smashing windows. The war in Vietnam was sending the country into a deep depression. The cities were in flames, the bludgeons were coming down…”

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