Steve on Ralph Ellison

The comment below by Steve was so insightful, I felt it needed more attention. This is a response to my post on Ellison as a one-hit wonder.

Mr. Yaffe writes “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 “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 Will 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 continually had 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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