The Critical Response to Ralph Ellison

Robert J. Butler

Ellison's Racial Variations on American Themes

Kun Jong   Lee

Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man has been a happy hunting ground for scholars looking for literary allusions. Indeed, the search for echoes of and references to antecedent writers and works in the novel has been one of the most flourishing areas in Ellison criticism. Of the seven books on Ellison, Valerie Bonita Gray's Invisible Man's Literary Heritage: Benito Cereno and Moby Dick, Robert List's Dadelus in Harlem: The Joyce-Ellison Connection, and Alan Nadel's Invisible Criticism: Ralph Ellison and the American Canon concentrate exclusively on Ellison and his literary ancestors. Moreover, Mark Busby's Ralph Ellison recognizes the significance of the area and devotes Chapter 4, entitled, “The Actor's Shadows: Ellison's Literary Antecedents,” to a survey of the topic. On the other hand, African American scholars such as Robert B. Stepto, Robert G. O'Meally, Houston A. Baker, Jr., Valerie Smith, and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., put Ellison firmly at the heart of African American cultural/literary tradition in their books.  1 The fertility of the topic can be demonstrated also in the collections of essays and special issues of journals on Ellison: While Joseph F. Trimmer's A Casebook on Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, Kimberly W. Benston's Speaking for You, and Susan Resneck Parr's and Pancho Savery's Approaches to Teaching Ellison's Invisible Man devote a considerable portion of their selections to the novelist's literary heritage, other collections contain at least one article situating Ellison in the African American, American, or European literary tradition.  2 More intimidating than the number of these books and journal articles is the incredible range of Ellison's allusions. Scholars have noted or demonstrated Ellison's allusions to almost every major writer in the European, American, or African American literary traditions: As Rudolf F. Dietze writes rather hyperbolically, “The more thoroughly familiar one becomes with the work of Ralph Waldo Ellison the fewer are the chances of finding a major literary work published before 1950 that does not have some bearing on Invisible Man” (25).”

Yet, despite Ellison scholars' all-out search for his literary ancestors, there is still one “invisible” influence on Ellison that has not been studied satisfactorily in Ellison criticism: his indebtedness to early nineteenth-century American literary nationalism. Ellison locates the African American in the typical position of an early nineteenth-century American artist vis-à-vis exclusive European traditions: “The white American has charged the Negro American with being without past or tradition…, just as he himself has been so charged by European and American critics with a nostalgia for the stability once typical of European cultures” (Shadow 54). Naturally enough, the African American in Ellison is preoccupied with major themes in the early nineteenth-century nationalist campaign. In other words, Ellison reads race into early nineteenth-century literary nationalism and “African Americanizes” its conspicuous ideologies in his critical writings. No less significant, his strategy of African Americanizing American literary nationalism constitutes the basis of his revisionist aesthetic and informs his complex engagements with the major writers of the American literary tradition.

Although vestiges of the early nineteenth-century nationalist palimpsest are pervasive in Ellison's essays and interviews, only Barbara Fass and John S. Wright have noted Ellison's intertextuality with the nationalist movement. In 1971, Fass observed a “clear” analogy between nineteenth-century American culture's struggling to free itself from European imperialism and the twentieth-century African American's endeavoring to free himself from American paternalism. She also found it “particularly ironic” that “the latter struggle is going on in the land where the former to[o]k place” (321). Ten years later, Wright pointed out that Ellison and “American literary nationalists from Emerson onward” share “the ‘organic’ theory [of national culture], Herderian in origin,” and he went on to find Ellison's uniqueness in the nationalist tradition in his extension of inherited “cultural pluralism and…egalitarian ‘folk ideology,”’ with emphasis on “the radical heterogeneity” of the American population (165). Fass's and Wright's perceptive observations hint at Ellison's complex relationship to American literary nationalism, but their insights have not been developed. And since there has, to date, been no article-length study of Ellison's simultaneous dependence on and independence from American literary nationalism, the need exists to investigate thoroughly Ellison's appropriation of early nineteenth-century American literary nationalism and its centrality in his critical vision.

American literary nationalism commenced with the American Revolution, gained its momentum after the War of 1812, and culminated in the 1830s and 1840s. It was propagated by those cultural nationalists of the early republic who, in order to make America's independence from England complete culturally as well as politically, called for native romances, national dramas, or American epics to represent American realities and appeal to Americans' feelings.  3 Since the nationalists' basic orientation was the same, most of their arguments were “repetitive and cumulative” (Ruland xv) and might be subsumed, at the risk of being reductive, under four coterminous rubrics: denunciation of domestic lamentations over America's aesthetic barrenness, criticism of the colonist mentality, differentiation of British literature's belletristic greatness from its ideological implications, and the search for American materials and themes. Nationalists denounced those who lamented the lack of a native literary tradition, a remote antiquity, and literary associations on the American continent. They ascribed the meagerness of American literature not to America's aesthetic barrenness but to the colonist mentality seeking British models and materials in America, and they warned that, unless the colonist mentality were overcome, American writes would remain literary vassals of England. Although they could denounce the depressing influences of British literature, however, nativists could not deny the greatness of the British literary tradition and its masterpieces. This dilemma they resolved by differentiating British works' belletristic greatness from their extraliterary implications, and contending that the monarchic and aristocratic values reflected in British literature were inimical to America's democratic and republican principles. While rejecting such anti-American ideologies, most continued to maintain that an American writer should assimilate the aesthetic and intellectual greatness of British literature. Some proponents of literary nationalism held, on the other hand, that an American writer should study the literatures of ancient Greece, France, and Germany together with British literature in order to negate or neutralize the undemocratic ideologies of the British. After thus defining an American writer's proper relationship to the British literary tradition, nationalist campaigners ransacked America's past and present, and found rich materials for literary exploitation, such as wars against Native Americans, careers of the Revolutionary heroes, and customs and manners of its diverse peoples. With these various raw materials for epics, romances, and fiction of manners, nativists envisioned that American literature would embody distinctively American ideals such as individual liberty, natural rights, democracy, and republicanism.  4

Although this oversimplified summary does not do justice to the complexity and diversity of the nationalist arguments, it contains most of the prominent issues of the campaign that Ellison repeats and revises in his critical writings. In “Society, Morality, and the Novel,” Ellison traces the American “obsession with defining the American experience” back to America's “consciously experimental and revolutionary origins,” and explicates the thrust of the nationalists' campaign to differentiate American from European experience and to determine the uniqueness of American civilization. Among the still pertinent issues of cultural nationalism, he argues, the issue of “dealing with the explicitness of the omnipresent American ideal” has been more important and problematic than that of “guarding against superstitious overevaluation of Europe” (Going 249). He similarly highlights the significance of American ideals while mentioning early nineteenth-century literary nationalism in his address at West Point, “On Initiation Rites and Power”: “By the 1830s, or the late 1820s, several things were being demanded. One, that we have a literature which would be specifically American, which would tell us who we are and how we varied, and how we had grown, and where we are going—and most importantly, how the ideals…were being made manifest within the society” (46–47). Although Ellison thus valorizes American ideals in his explication of American cultural/literary nationalism, the nineteenth-century nationalists and Ellison express a crucial difference in the meaning of American ideals. Whereas the Anglo-Saxon nationalists had in mind such ideals as individual liberty, natural rights, democracy, and republicanism, the African American writer reads race into America's motto “e pluribus unum” and accentuates America's racial diversity, usually phrased “unity-in-diversity” or “oneness-in-manyness.” By thus reading the American motto into nationalist arguments, Ellison in fact pits white American discourses against each other, and ultimately redefines American ideals with his unique African American viewpoint. Ellison's problematization and redefinition of American ideals derive mainly from his African American identity, which necessitates “a special perspective” and a “complex double vision” on America's national ideals and conduct (Shadow 131–32).

In “What America Would Be Like Without Blacks,” Ellison argues that from the beginning of the republic white Americans have used African Americans “as a marker, a symbol of limits, a metaphor for the ‘outsider’” in order to define their identity (Going 110–11). Ellison might have defined the role of Native Americans in white Americans' self-identification in his' Time essay, since he sees African Americans as the “surrogates” for Native Americans in a 1976 interview with Robert B. Stepto and Michael S. Harper (434). By identifying the centrality of race in white Americans' self-identification, Ellison ultimately criticizes the racial limitations of American cultural nationalism and discloses its un-Americanness. In fact, early nineteenth-century American cultural nationalism was propagated with an explicit agenda to use Native Americans as disposable literary materials and to deny the existence of African Americans.  5 Hence Jane Tompkins is correct when she notes that white Americans tried to define their identity most strenuously during the period that saw two crucial events in the history of America's race relations: “the founding of the American Colonization Society in 1816 and Monroe's policy of Indian removal formulated in 1824” (110).

But white Americans' tendency to disregard Native Americans and African Americans in their definition of the American started earlier than American cultural nationalism did. Probably the most famous formulation of the American identity at the expense of the Native American and the African American can be found in J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur's Letters from an American Farmer. In “Letter III: What Is an American?” Crevecoeur defines the American by a kind of double dissociation from the European. The American is different from the European in his political privileges: “We have no princes for whom we toil, starve, and bleed….Here man is free as he ought to be, nor is this pleasing equality so transitory as many others are” (67). The American is different from the European in his ethnic diversity as well: The American is “a mixture of English, Scotch, Irish, French, Dutch, Germans, and Swedes” (68). Crevecoeurs's fundamentally Eurocentric definition of the American as a transplanted European banishes from the American community the authentically autochthonous Native American and the pre-Mayflower African American. His definition of the American might be paradigmatic of white Americans' manner of self-identification with what Ellison calls “symbolic acts of disaffiliation” from non-white Americans (Going 19).

In a 1958 interview, Ellison would define the African American in terms that curiously remind one of Crevecoeur's definition of the American: African Americans are “a people whose origin began with the introduction of African slaves to the American colonies in 1619, and which today represent the fusing with the original African strains of many racial blood lines—among them English, Irish, Scotch, French, Spanish and American Indian” (Shadow 262). As is usual with Ellison, the passage is double-voiced: While defining the African American, Ellison questions and revises Crevecoeur's definition of the American. Ellison's focus on the slave origin and racial heterogeneity of the African American not only discloses the inhuman slavery behind the facade of the eighteenth-century writer's American freedom and equality but also expands the exclusive membership of the French immigrant's American to include the African American and the Native American. Ellison's critique, revision, and expansion of Crevecoeur's American is a prototype of his signifying on the major themes of early nineteenth-century American cultural nationalism.

Like the early nineteenth-century nationalists, Ellison first addresses himself to the tradition of domestic lamentations over America's aesthetic barrenness. The tradition, started as early as 1728 in Richard Lewis's “Dedication to Musipula” (Ruland 29), found its most eloquent expression in Nathaniel Hawthorne's famous enumeration of America's missing materials in his preface to The Marble Faun: “No author, without a trial, can conceive of the difficulty of writing a romance about a country where there is no shadow, no antiquity, no mystery, no picturesque and gloomy wrong, nor anything but a commonplace prosperity, in broad and simple daylight, as is happily the case with my dear native land” (5). As Donald M. Kariganer and Malcolm A. Griffith note, Hawthorne's passage, while expressing the skepticism of a writer in a land without cultural and literary traditions, “barely conceals a pride that in this most recalcitrant locale [Americans] have indeed created a literature” (2). Understandably enough however, Ellison, after quoting the passage in full in “Society, Morality, and the Novel,” deliberately disregards its ambiguities and rather single-mindedly takes issue with almost every item on Hawthorne's list:

This is Mr. Hawthorne, and while admiring what he made of his position, one must observe that in this world one finds that which one has the eyes to see. Certainly there was gloomy wrong enough both in the crime against the Indians and in the Peculiar Institution which was shortly to throw the country into conflict; there was enough mystery in Abraham Lincoln's emergence, then in process, still to excite us with wonder, and in that prosperity and “broad and simple daylight” enough evil was brewing to confound us even today.

(Going 263)
The passage is Ellison's most direct critique of a canonical American writer. Although Invisible Man echoes Hawthorne's themes of appearance-and-reality, identity, invisibility, isolation, moral death-and-rebirth, and revolt against authority, the passage criticizes the nineteenth-century writer for his blindness to America's racial realities and explains why Hawthorne rarely figures in Ellison's pantheon of American moral/democratic writers. Ellison situates Hawthorne's list in the context of antebellum race relations and argues that Hawthorne's barren America was in fact a field rich in literary materials with far-reaching resonance. In doing so, Ellison locates race at the core of his predecessor's aesthetic vision and ultimately criticizes the canonical writer's racial limitations, which failed to notice the literary and moral significance of the crimes against Native Americans and African Americans committed “in broad and simple daylight.”

Henry James seems to have had in mind what Kartiganer and Griffith call Crevecoeur's “exuberant negativism” (1) when he extended “the items of high civilization” missing from Hawthorne's America to the extent of making them “almost ludicrous” in his Hawthorne (34). Ellison quotes James's famous catalogue right after his critique of Hawthorne, but, contrary to his reading of Hawthorne's passage, he draws the reader's attention to the context of the catalogue and reads there not American despair but an American joke. In other words, he takes his cue from James's ironic reading of Hawthorne and stresses the point that James addressed his remarks to Europeans with his tongue in his cheek (Going 263–66).

Unlike his reading of Hawthorne and James, Ellison's interpretation of Richard Wright in the tradition is complex. Wright discards James's ironic tone in translating James's version of the aesthetic barrenness of Hawthorne's America into the cultural bleakness of the African American community in Black Boy:

(After I had outlived the shocks of childhood, after the habit of reflection had been born in me, I used to mull over the strange absence of real kindness in Negroes, how unstable our tenderness, how lacking in genuine passion we were, how void of great hope, how timid our joy, how bare our traditions, how hollow our memories, how lacking we were in those intangible sentiments that bind man to man, and how shallow was even our despair. After I had learned other ways of life I used to brood upon the unconscious irony of those who felt that Negroes led so passional an existence! I saw that what has been taken for our emotional strength was our negative confusions, our flights, our fears, our frenzy under pressure.

(Whenever I thought of the essential bleakness of black life in America, I knew that Negroes had never been allowed to catch the full spirit of Western civilization, that they lived somehow in it but not of it. And when I brooded upon the cultural barrenness of black life, I wondered if clean, positive tenderness, love, honor, loyalty and the capacity to remember were native with man. I asked myself if these human qualities were not fostered, won, struggled and suffered for, preserved in ritual from one generation to another.)

This is arguably the most negative description of African American life that has come out of the African American community. But Ellison's initial response to Wright's lamentation over the “essential bleakness” and “cultural barrenness” of African American life was far more optimistic. In “Richard Wright's Blues,” Ellison first notes Wright's compulsion toward “a profound spiritual vomiting,” which is to reject not only the white South but also “that part of the South which lay within” (Shadow 92). He goes on to characterize Wright as a rebel who “formulated that rejection negatively, because it was the negative face of the Negro community upon which he looked most often as a child” (92–93). Ellison's portrayal of Wright as rebelling against the South is his creative reading of Wright's first paragraph. After thus paraphrasing the first paragraph, Ellison quotes only that part of the second paragraph that could support his sympathetic interpretation. He rejects “one critic['s]” negative interpretation of the second paragraph and reads it as “the strongest affirmation” of the African American's capacity for culture. Far from bemoaning the essential bleakness of African American life, Ellison argues, the paragraph in fact denounces the social and historical forces that have “conditioned” African American sensibility and calls upon the African American to struggle for and win Western culture as a Spanish bullfighter confronts and subdues a bull. After representing the African American as a Hemingwayesque hero with discipline and experience, Ellison concludes confidently that Wright had no question about the African American's possession of “all those impulses, tendencies, life, and cultural forms” of Western society (93).

But Ellison's sympathetic reading of Wright's passage in this 1945 essay changed into a diametrically opposed one 20 years later. In “The World and the Jug,” Ellison first distinguishes Wright's memories of Mississippi from Ellison's memories of his native Oklahoma. For a good illustration of the difference, Ellison quotes his predecessor's two-paragraph passage in full and observes that Wright's “manner of keeping faith with the Negroes who remained in the depths is quite interesting” (118). The phrase “quite interesting” is his typical understatement, since, in a series of rhetorical questions, he contends that his sense of African American life is “quite different” from Wright's, and he condemns Wright's manner of keeping faith as raising a fundamental question about African American humanity. He denounces Wright as being, in Irving Howe's phrase, “literary to a fault,” which means that Wright relied on an inappropriate literary model to describe the African American community (119). More concretely, he traces the genealogy of Wright's passage back to James's items of high civilization absent from Hawthorne's America, and interprets Wright's racial variation on James's ironic catalogue as “his list of those items of high humanity which he found missing among Negroes” (120). In passing his negative verdict on Wright's passage, Ellison understandably reads the first paragraph only and disregards the second paragraph completely. His rebuttal of Wright based on a literal reading of the first paragraph might seem unfair, for Wright in his passage lamented not the absence of African American humanity but “the essential bleakness” and “the cultural barrenness” of African American life. But Ellison does not see any real difference between the two, since to deny possibilities of human fullness and richness to African Americans, even in Mississippi, is, at least, to Ellison, to negate the significance of their “human life” maintained despite harsh realities—and ultimately to deny their humanity. In short, Ellison's point is that African American life in Mississippi was much more varied than that which Wright depicted. Ellison drives his point home most powerfully when he states that “Wright, for all of his indictments, was no less its product than that other talented Mississippian, Leontyne Price” (112).

For Ellison, the example of Wright and Price is the best argument to refute Wright's bleak characterization of African American cultural life. Ellison regards Wright as an interesting “enigma” in that he could not “for ideological reasons depict a Negro as intelligent, as creative, or as dedicated as himself” (120, my emphasis). According to Ellison, the main problem with Wright is that he relied on Marxist ideology rather than on the validity of his own experience in his portrayal of African American life. Ellison's criticism of Wright's reliance on foreign ideologies closely echoes the early nineteenth-century critique of domestic lamenters' dependence on Anglophile orientations: As the nationalists found at the heart of domestic lamentations a colonial mentality, so does Ellison find at the core of Wright's lamentation what W.E.B. Du Bois called the “double-consciousness, [the] sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on is amused contempt and pity” (8). Ellison's criticism of Native Son turns also on his critique of Wright's double consciousness:

In Native Son Wright began with the ideological proposition that what whites think of the Negro's reality is more important than what Negroes themselves know it to be. Hence, Bigger Thomas was presented as a near-subhuman indictment of white oppression. He was designed to shock whites out of their apathy and end the circumstances out of which Wright insisted Bigger emerged. Here environment is all—and interestingly enough, environment conceived solely in terms of the physical, the non-conscious.

Ellison's denunciation of Wright's reliance on environmentalism is not to deny the harshness of African American life but to argue that the African American is more than the passive product of her or his physical environment. Ellison states that African Americans have dealt with their dehumanizing environment consciously enough to create themselves, “in a limited way,” because their lives were after all “no mere abstraction in someone's head” (112–13). For Ellison, Wright's environmentalism, Marxism, and belief in the notion of literature as weapon are in the final analysis the very “abstractions” in non-African American scholars' heads (114, 120). Since Wright bought foreign ideology at the expense of the validity of African American experience, maintains Ellison, Wright distorted the complexity of African American life and emphasized African Americans' “hatred, fear and vindictiveness,” while disregarding equally significant characteristics, such as “their resistance to provocation, their coolness under pressure, their sense of timing and their tenacious hold on the ideal of their ultimate freedom” (114).

For Ellison, African American cultural manifestations are true to the African American spirit, since they affirm African American experience and reject white American values. A case in point is African American choreography. Ellison traces the origin of African American choreography back to the dancing of those slaves who imitated at the yard of a plantation manor house their masters' grave European steps and then “added to them their own special flair, burlesquing the white folks and then going on to force the steps into a choreography uniquely their own” (Going 223). He continues to elaborate on the slaves' appropriation of a European cultural form and its mocking element:

The whites, looking out at the activity in the yard thought that they were being flattered by imitation and were amused the incongruity of tattered blacks dancing courtly steps, while missing completely the fact that before their eyes a European cultural form was becoming Americanized, undergoing a metamorphosis through the mocking activity of a people partially sprung from Africa. So, blissfully unaware, the whites laughed while the blacks danced out their mocking reply.

(223–24)  6

The dancing slaves are the supreme personifications of what Ellison calls “the vernacular process”; that is, the eclectic “amalgamation” of traditional cultures with “native folk and popular” viewpoints, a dynamic process of appropriation which Ellison regards as the gist of American culture (Reed et al. 143). He also calls the process “Americanization” and finds its examples in a wide range of American cultural manifestations, such as architecture, costume, cuisine, dance, language, literature, music, tools, and technology. He sees the vernacular process as “a gesture toward perfection” in that “the styles and techniques of the past are adjusted to the needs of the present,” and, more specifically, the aristocratic styles and techniques of the past are “democratized,” as is tellingly demonstrated by the slaves' appropriation of European courtly steps (Going139–40). Hence the vernacular process is almost synonymous with “the democratic process” in Ellison (141).

Ellison dates the origin of American cultural nationalism from early colonial times when, he argues, the vernacular process, the gist of the American way to establish and discover “national identity,” started with interaction among Europeans, Africans, and American geography (140, 142). Most significantly, he situates the African slaves at the origin of the nationalist movement: The slaves' combination of their masters' European music and religion with their African heritage set the definitive pattern of Americanizing foreign cultures with native perspectives (143). He makes this point clearly in his interview with Stepto and Harper: African Americans have contributed to “the evolution of a specifically American culture” from the very beginning of the nation and have often provided white American artists with “a clue for their own improvisations. “He maintains that the slaves were placed in the prestigious position of originating specifically American cultural idioms, ironically by circumstance of their enslavement: They could be “culturally daring and innovative” simply because they were, unlike their Eurocentric masters, free from “the strictures of ‘good taste' and ‘thou shall-nots' of tradition” (Stepto and Harper 431).

Thus Ellison's explication of the vernacular process praises the slaves' cultural freedom and criticizes their masters' cultural enslavement. Ellison highlights the fact that the vernacular process operated in defiance of “the social, aesthetic, and political assumptions of [American] political leaders and tastemakers.” He denounces their duplicity by disclosing their Anglo and Europhilic propensities when he points out that they “boasted” new spirit and outlook but “still looked to England and the Continent for their standards of taste.” Consequently, he asserts, the slaves were more American and dedicated, since they, in their own unobserved fashion, gave expression to the uniquely American experience with whatever cultural elements they could find from their surroundings (Going 141–142). As the slaves burlesqued their masters' colonial mentality that prized European models and styles at the expense of American ones, Ellison argues, Duke Ellington would mock white Americans' “double standards, hypocrisies, and pretensions” with his remark that Fate did not intend him “to be to famous too young” when a Pulitzer Prize committee, too concerned with European musical standards, declined to give him a special award for music (223). Significantly enough, Ellison criticizes white Americans' colonial mentality that has failed to recognize or appreciate quintessentially American composers and musical forms by evoking the very spirit of American literary nationalism:

In a country which began demanding the projection of its own unique experience in literature as early as the 1820s, it was ironic that American composers were expected to master the traditions, conventions, and sub[t]leties of European music and to force their own American musical sense of life into the forms created by Europe's greatest composers. Thus the history of American classical music has been marked by a struggle to force American experience into European forms.

Here Ellison criticizes the American classical musical tradition for having failed to live up to the spirit of American cultural nationalism. More precisely, by portraying Ellington as the representative American composer, he denounces the tradition's racial exclusivity that denies Ellington due recognition simply because of his race and African American musical form. Fittingly enough, then, Ellison reads in the musician's works and manners a mockery of the “inadequacies” of American myths, legends, conduct, and standards (225).

Ellison's emphasis on African Americans' mockery and rejection of white Americans' colonial mentality and racial limitations reminds one of earlier American cultural nationalists' strategies to negate or neutralize exclusionist and imperialistic dimensions of British literature. One strategy, suggested by Orestes A. Brownson in “Specimens of Foreign Literature,” was to maintain a distinctly American perspective by playing British literature off against other European literatures (437–39). Ellison echoes Brownson's tactic in the Introduction to Shadow and Act, where he reveals that he wanted to “find [his] own voice” through the main tradition of American literature with the aid of “what [he] could learn from the literatures of Europe” (xix). Indeed, he situates himself in the tradition of American democratic and moral writers, a tradition which he constructs partly with the help of the insights and visions of such European writers as Fyodor Dostoevsky, James Joyce, and André Malraux, to name a few. But his usual manner of engagement with the American literary tradition is to accept transcendent elements of the tradition while rejecting its allegedly immoral, racist, and undemocratic undertones—the very strategy of many nineteenth-century nationalists, who differentiated the aesthetic greatness of British literature from its aristocratic ideologies.

In a 1973 interview with Hollie West, Ellison recalls the American strategy:

Americans had to create themselves. We had to be conscious of language in a way that English people did not have to be. It was their mother tongue. It was our mother tongue but we were in rebellion against it—against the values on which it was based, which were those of kin[g]ship. We didn't reject the great traditions of British literature, the King James version of the Bible, Shakespeare or the great poets, but we rejected the values which enspirited that language and we began to try to discover how to create an American literature. This was consciously stated over and over by many people.

Ellison summarizes succinctly the American strategy of appropriation while arguing for the African American influence on American literature. In a sense, he suggests an African American origin of American cultural/literary nationalism in the same way that he locates slave-dancers at the origin of American cultural manifestations. From the same perspective, Ellison asserts that African Americans have “a highly developed ability to abstract desirable qualities from those around them, even from their enemies” (Shadow xx), and that African American folklore “took what it needed to express its sense of life and rejected what it couldn't use” (Going 283).

In his 1964 review of LeRoi Jones's Blues People, Ellison ascribes the African American strategy to the peculiar situation of African slaves in colonial times: The slaves, “with the ruthlessness of those without articulate investments in cultural styles, [took] whatever they could of European music, making of it that which would, when blended with the cultural tendencies inherited from Africa, express their own sense of life—while rejecting the rest” (Shadow 255). He also maintains that the tactic of simultaneous acceptance and rejection was one of the “survival strategies” encoded in African American folklore that warns against “embrac[ing] uncritically” white values in rejection of “the validity, even the sacredness” of the African American experience (Going 179; Shadow 166). But Ellison perfectly knows that the strategy of acceptance and rejection, which he calls “identification and rejection,” is not an (African) American monopoly, since he finds it in Jawaharlal Nehru's Toward Freedom as well as in Wright's Black Boy (78).

In a 1965 interview with James Thompson, Lennox Raphael, and Steve Cannon, Ellison defines “identification and rejection” as a pattern to “identify with what a writer has written, with its form, its manners, techniques, while rejecting the writer's beliefs, his prejudices, philosophy, [and] values.” He finds its best examples in Jewish American writers' appropriations of T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, and Ernest Hemingway. According to Ellison, Jewish American writers identified with the canonical figures “as writers” while rejecting their racial, religious, and political views in order to express their own sense of reality and definition of the American experience (Going 278). Ellison, then, appropriates the very position of the Jewish American writer when he defines his relationship to American literary tradition: “…my sense of reality could reject bias while appreciating the truth revealed by achieved art” (Shadow xx).

The strategy of “identification and rejection”—variously termed “embracing and distancing” (Lyne 323) or “engagement and revision” (Benston, “Introduction” 4)—lies at the heart of Ellison's critical vision.  7 In fact, the complex tactic has become his second nature, probably because he started his literary career with book reviews, combining praise and criticism. Even in his first publication, “Creative and Cultural Lag,” he approves Waters Edward Turpin's exploration of “the rich deep materials of the Negro” in These Low Grounds but denounces the characters' “lack of historical and political consciousness” (90–91). Ellison's pattern continues in his reviews of Gunnar Myrdal's An American Tragedy and LeRoi Jones's Blues People: He joins “in the chorus of ‘Yeas’” while “utter[ing] a lusty and simultaneous ‘Nay’” to Myrdal's book; he approves of Jones's attempts to see the blues in a larger context but questions some of his assumptions (Shadow 303, 248). This duality also informs Ellison's reading of his literary “ancestors” and “relatives”: He admires Hawthorne's belletristic achievements but criticizes his blindness to America's racial realities; he agrees with Hemingway regarding the importance of Huckleberry Finn in the tradition of the American novel but takes issue with “his dismissal of its ethical intention”; he recognizes Native Son as Wright's achievement to “define the human condition” as seen from a specific African American perspective “at a given time in a given place” but refuses to see Bigger Thomas as “any final image” of an African American personality (Going 263, 268; Shadow 118). Similarly, Ellison praises the Founding Fathers' democratic and egalitarian ideals as revealed in what he calls America's “sacred documents” but denounces their “mystification,” “blatant hypocrisy,” “racial pride,” or “failure of nerve” motivated by their hierarchical status and economic interests (Going 332–35). His customary tribute to Abraham Lincoln is also qualified by his hint at the President's “vacillation, procrastination, and rescissions” prior to the Emancipation Proclamation (80). Even his theories of the novel are colored by the conflicting pattern: Ellison recognizes the “artistic perfection” of “the tight well-made Jamesian novel” but denounces its concern as too belletristic and parochial to contain the diversity of American life; he regards the language of the hard-boiled novel as a supreme achievement of twentieth-century American writing but finds it still “embarrassingly austere” when compared with African American idiomatic expression, full of “imagery and gesture and rhetorical canniness” (Shadow 103). He also maintains, paradoxically, that true novels “would preserve as they destroy, affirm as they reject” (114). Lastly, the pattern of identification and rejection is the very vision at which Ellison's nameless protagonist arrives in the Epilogue of Invisible Man: “So it is that now I denounce and defend, or feel prepared to defend. I condemn and affirm, say no and say yes, say yes and say no” (566).

The invisible narrator acquires this vision after he has interpreted his grandfather's deathbed riddle as advice to affirm the principle of America's sacred documents but to denounce its manipulators and corrupters (561). His decoding of the grandfather's cryptic message is in fact Ellison's own stance toward the political documents, the stance which he first learned while working in an Oklahoma barbershop. In “Perspective of Literature,” Ellison recalls listening to barbershop conversations of the affair of a Mr. Harrison, an African American lawyer, who, Ellison states, was expelled from Oklahoma because of his excellent legal skill. What he found interesting in the conversations was that the African Americans taking part in the conversations “directed their disapproval not so much against law in general, but against those persons and forces that imposed the law undemocratically” (Going 323). As if to echo those African Americans, Ellison repeatedly expresses his belief in the spirit of America's democratic documents, but not in their application. But this does not mean that he finds no problem in the documents per se. He judges them to be self-contradictory and problematic since they both affirm and negate equality and freedom: “In the beginning,” writes he, “was not only the word, but the contradiction of the word” (243). He understands that all great democratic documents “contain a strong charge of anti-democratic elements.” In the face of the contradiction, he suggests the strategy of identification and rejection:

Perhaps the wisest attitude for democrats is not to deplore the ambiguous elements of democratic writings but to seek to understand them. For it is by making use of the positive contributions of such documents and rejecting their negative elements that democracy can be kept dynamic.

(Shadow 304)
Since he believes that “the interests of art and democracy converge” (Invisible xvi), Ellison in this passage expresses the clearest reason that he uses the tactic of identification and rejection in his engagements with democratic and literary traditions. In short, he identifies with the positive qualities of a tradition and rejects its negative qualities in order to affirm and expand its fundamental and redeeming principles.

Identification and rejection, then, lead ultimately to what Ellison calls “antagonistic cooperation,” which means simultaneously to cooperate and resist in the spirit of “an it-takes-two-to-tango binary response” (Going 7). Ellison hints at the spirit of antagonistic cooperation in his open debate with Stanley Edgar Hyman, whom he characterizes as “an intellectual sparring partner,” and he first used the term at the end of “The World and the Jug” when he asked Irving Howe to regard their open debate as “an act of…‘antagonistic co-operation’” (Shadow 45, 143). Although he discovers the process of antagonistic cooperation also in the relationship between an artist and her or his audience, Ellison finds the supreme example of antagonistic cooperation in jazz musicians' jam sessions (Going 7, 29). Ellison's much-quoted definition of jazz is probably the best explanation of antagonistic cooperation: “true jazz is an art of individual assertion within and against the group. Each true jazz moment…springs from a contest in which each artist challenges all the rest; each solo flight, or improvisation, represents…a definition of his identity: as individual, as member of the collectivity and as a link in the chain of tradition” (Shadow 234). The Ellisonian jazz artist must express his uniqueness through his antagonistic engagements with his musical tradition. More concretely, the jazz musician should demonstrate his individuality in tone while maintaining the musical harmony between his own voice and other musicians' voices during group improvisation.

The harmonious balance between a jazzman and his group during a jam session is Ellison's metaphor for the ideal relationship between an artist and his tradition. For Ellison, jazzmen are more than artists; they personify the Renaissance Man. Just as the Renaissance Man represented “an idea of human versatility and possibility,” so jazz musicians were “artistically free and exuberantly creative adventurers” who had made the maximum use of the little freedom lying within their musical restrictions and social limitations (xiv, xiii). Thus the “delicate balance” between a jazzman and his group has extramusical implications for Ellison, who regards this balance as a “marvel of social organization” reflecting the spirit of antagonistic cooperation (189). In other words, Ellison argues, “the lyrical ritual elements of folk jazz” embody “a supreme democracy in which each individual cultivate[s] his uniqueness and yet d[oes] not clash with his neighbors” (300).

Naturally enough, then, Ellison reads the spirit of antagonistic cooperation in the sociohistorical context of America's race relations, and maintains that Americans of various backgrounds have used their experiences and values “as sources of morale” in the “continuing process of antagonistic cooperation,” the process of “adjusting the past to the present in the interest of the future” (Going 26). In all these instances, Ellison argues, antagonistic cooperation has enhanced “the original theme” (129). Indeed, Ellison himself has enhanced the original theme of American cultural nationalism by participating in the American debate on national culture in the spirit of antagonistic cooperation and revising the monologic cultural ideologies of the early nineteenth century to the needs of the dialogic social context of the twentieth century.

In his last effort to revise the nineteenth-century nationalists, Ellison takes issue with their representations of the Native American. Nationalists did not portray the Native American realistically in his own terms but delineated him fictively according to the Homeric, Ossianic, Gothic, or Roussauistic models, for they incorporated him with a specific role into their master plan of American literature. Whether depicted as a noble hero or a diabolic antihero, the Native American was, in the final analysis, no better than a foil to an Anglo-Saxon American hero in the nationalist imagination. He was ultimately the personification of dissolution, death, and disappearance, and, even in symbolic roles, was associated only with the dark side of human imagination, such as the somber, the terrible, and the pathetic. Hence he was rarely endowed with such quintessential Americanism as American ideals and manners in the nationalist agenda.  8 Ellison questions and refutes the nationalists' characterization of the Native American obliquely with his representation of the African American because African Americans are the “surrogates” for Native Americans in Ellison (Stepto and Harper 434).  9 Indeed, he inverts the racial dichotomy of the nationalist imagination when he sees “the mixture of the marvelous and the terrible” as “a basic condition of human life” and finds “the essence of the terrible” in the white American community while endowing the African American community with a sense of the marvelous (Shadow 20–21). He also challenges the nationalists' profession of American ideals indirectly when he contends that African American slaves took the essence of the aristocratic and Christian ideals more seriously than did their masters (xviii). Thus, finding “sources of strength” in the African American slave past, he affirms those things which are “warm and meaningful” in African American life and the African American community: courage, faith, humor, independence, optimism, patience, and sense of life (269, 7, 21). He celebrates African Americans' democratic, human, and moral qualities, partly because they are quintessentially American attitudes and values. For instance, he finds the main significance of the Civil Rights Movement in the fact that the best of the American tradition—“the moral and physical courage”—found its most eloquent expression through African Americans (Geller 18). In a similar vein, he argues that “the most dramatic fight for American ideals” has been sparked by African Americans in accordance with “American Constitutionalism” (Shadow 270). Even in discussing African Americans' concern with names and naming, he contends that African Americans, not their white “relatives” across the color line, are the true inheritors of the admirable qualities possessed by the original bearers of their common family names (149). His argument is an indirect attack on the hypocrisy or duplicity of the American cultural nationalism that was first propagated with a divided agenda to affirm a democratic and free society while retaining slavery (Reed et al. 137). In conclusion, after denouncing the racial limitations of the nationalist campaign, he portrays African Americans as the true inheritors of American ideals and makes them “a source of moral strength to America” (Shadow 17), thereby ultimately contesting nineteenth-century nationalists' assumption of the representative American.

Ellison regards American civilization not as an independent thing in itself but as “a continuation of a European civilization” and finds its uniqueness in Americans' “variations upon…[and] amplification of European themes (Going 312). One can similarly characterize Ellison's African American cultural nationalism as a continuation of American cultural nationalism and find his uniqueness in his “racial” variations on and amplifications of American themes, since he repeats, challenges, reinterprets, and expands major themes of American cultural nationalism by substituting “race” for “nation” and translating the American/British dichotomy into an African American/Anglo-Saxon American one. In other words, as his most famous protagonist situates himself in “the great American tradition of tinkers” and taps a power line from Monolpolated Light & Power to illuminate “the blackness of [his] invisibility” (7, 13), so Ellison aligns himself with the tradition of early nineteenth-century American cultural/literary nationalism and appropriates its power ultimately to affirm his African American identity.

Of course, Ellison is not the only African American writer to use this strategy of appropriation in African American literature. The strategy was first used by the writers of antebellum slave narratives in African American literary history. Zora Neale Hurston, in “Characteristics of Negro Expression,” calls the strategy “modification” and states that the African American, while living in the midst of a white civilization, has reinterpreted “everything…he touche[d]…for his own use” (230). Wright anticipates Ellison's “identification and rejection” perfectly when he recalls in Black Boy that he and his childhood friends “always twisted [Bible stories], secularized them to the level of [their] street life, rejecting all meanings that did not fit into [their] environment” (92–93). Moreover, he makes the classic statement of the tactic in “How ‘Bigger' Was Born”: “I took these [white writers'] techniques, these ways of seeing and feeling and twisted them, bent them, adapted them, until they became my way of apprehending the locked-in life of the Black Belt areas” (Native xvi).

But Ellison uses and theorizes the African American tactic throughout his works more arduously and persistently than any other writer. He quotes Wright's classic statement on the African American strategy, significantly enough, in his first important literary essay, “Recent Negro Fiction” (24–25). He echoes the strategy in characterizing his and his boyhood friends' self-projection as “Renaissance Men”: Their activity “expressed a yearning to make any - and everything of quality Negro American; to appropriate it, possess it, re-create it in [their] own group and individual images” (Shadow xvii). He has the tactic in mind even when he defines his fiction as “the agency” of his efforts to answer one of his perennial questions: “What does American society mean when regarded out of my own eyes, when informed by my own sense of the past and viewed by my own complex sense of the present?” (xxii). It is also the strategy of appropriation through identification and rejection that lies at the core of his life-long negotiations with the canonical writers in the American literary tradition.

Ellison's negotiation with T.S. Eliot provides a case in point. Ellison acknowledges his indebtedness to Eliot on several occasions and even confesses that his reading of The Waste Land was his “real transition into writing” (159). Ellison also reveals that the neoclassicist poet made him conscious of the elements and “traditions” that went into the creation of literature (Going 40). Indeed, Eliot's essay “Tradition and the Individual's Talent,” which contends that a new artist alters the tradition while he is directed by it, has had an indelible influence on Ellison's revisionist aesthetic. Suffice it to note that jazz, the quintessential art form in Ellison, is explained in Eliotic terms: The jazz tradition “insist[s] that each artist achieve his creativity within its frame”; the jazz musician, therefore, “must learn the best of the past, and add to it his personal vision” (Shadow 189).

More often that not, however, Ellison makes a subtle change of Eliot when he alludes to his literary ancestor. In the “Preface” to For Lancelot Andrews, Eliot describes the general viewpoint of the collected essays, published partly to “refute any accusation of playing ‘possum,’” as “classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and anglo-catholic in religion” (ix). As if intrigued by the incongruity between the Americanism of “playing possum” and the un-American viewpoints, Ellison characterizes African American culture in terms that curiously echo Eliot in a 1958 interview: “Its spiritual outlook is basically Protestant, its system of kinship is Western, its time and historical sense are American (United States), and its secular views are those professed, ideally at least, by all the people of the United States” (Shadow 262–63). In his emphasis on America, Ellison indirectly criticizes his predecessor's fundamentally Eurocentric viewpoint and questions the “ideal” and “complete” order of the Eliotic tradition. Ellison signifies on The Waste Land from a similar perspective. What initially interested him in the poem was its jazz-like rhythms and range of allusion, “as mixed and as varied as that of Louis Armstrong” (159–60).

In a 1965 interview with Richard Kostelanetz for the BBC, Ellison elaborated on this point and stated that he found in the poem “overtones of a sort of religious pattern” that could be identified with the African American religious community and “a style of improvisation” that was very close to jazz. The similarity of The Waste Land and jazz was inevitable, Ellison continues, since both grew out of “a similar and quite American approach to the classics”; that is, to “take a theme and start improvising.” Ellison identifies the poem with jazz by interpreting the poet's “ruthless assault” on and “irreverent reverence” for the literature of the past as literary translations of jazz musicians' almost iconoclastic appropriation of classical and religious music (4). For instance, Eliot's eclecticism—his “snatching of phrases from the German, from the French, from the Sanskrit, and so on”—is in harmony with jazz musicians' eclectic appropriation of musical traditions—sacred, classical, and secular (Going 40). It comes as no surprise to Ellison, then, “that at least as early as T.S. Eliot's creation of a new aesthetic for poetry through the artful juxtapositioning of earlier styles, Louis Armstrong, way down the river in New Orleans, was working out a similar technique for jazz” (Shadow 225). In identifying Eliot with Armstrong, Ellison resituates the Eurocentric poet/critic in the American context and reconceives him in African American cultural terms. In so doing, he suggests the African American influence on the poet and reinterprets the Eliotic tradition as meaning not only the classical tradition but also the various cultural/racial traditions of America (Kostelanetz 4–5). Thus Ellison ultimately claims the Eliotic tradition by reading jazz into the poet.

Relatedly, Ellison praises and claims Stephen Crane and Hemingway as his literary ancestors by filling in the understated backgrounds of their works: He reads Crane's critique of America's “tendency toward moral evasion” in The Red Badge of Courage, a book that has only one African American character (68), and paradoxically he finds Hemingway's affirmation of American values and morality in his explicit denial of them (Going 255). Ellison deliberately misreads or overreads Crane's and Hemingway's understatements. Kimberly W. Benston finds “this strategy of ‘misprision’” at the heart of Ellison's confrontation with tradition generally: Ellison “claims for Wright's Black Boy a ‘ritual' and ‘blues' thrust which [are]…actually repudiated by that book” and “overreads the blues into Hemingway's fiction,” thereby including “two essentially non-blues writers” into his blues tradition (“Ellison” 343). Robert G. O'Meally also notes the misprision in Ellison's debates with Hyman and Howe: “In fact, in his attempts to correct what he saw as these critics' distortions of the Afro-American image, he scatters the form and substance of certain of their literary theories, twisting them, sometimes unfairly, to serve his own purposes” (Craft 164).

As he reads jazz into Eliot, morality into Crane and Hemingway, and the blues into Wright and Hemingway to claim them, so Ellison reads blackness, race, slavery, democracy, and morality into the American Renaissance to claim its tradition. He argues that, from 1776 to 1876, there was a conception of democracy “that allowed the writer to identify himself with the Negro.” According to Ellison, “Whitman, Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville and Mark Twain” could identify themselves with the African American slave, since slavery “was a vital issue in the American consciousness, symbolic of the condition of Man, and a valid aspect of the writer's reality” (Shadow 98). His 1945 reading of these canonical writers is original and interesting, but far from being convincing since even his own critique of Hawthorne's racial limitations, as I have demonstrated earlier, undoes his praise of the romancer's democratic vision. Therefore, although most scholars have tended to accept Ellison's interpretation of nineteenth-century writers uncritically, R.W.B. Lewis was right when he questioned Ellison's assertion that the slave and slavery were central to the canonical writers' imaginations. Lewis identifies Ellison's reading of the canonical writers with “Eliot's Protestant American reading of Donne and Dante”: Both are “the critical paraphrase by which every authentic writer creates a new literary tradition for himself, to suit his artistic needs and abilities” (10).

Ellison has never been blind to the canonical writers' racism, as his acceptance speech for National Book Award amply demonstrates. While locating himself in their tradition, he reinterprets the image of the African American in their writings only after understanding their racial ideas: “Whatever they thought of my people per se, in their imaginative economy the Negro symbolized both the man lowest down and the mysterious, underground aspect of human personality” (Shadow 104; my emphasis). Ellison's passage clearly differentiates the image of the African American in the canonical writers' “imaginative economy” from their conceptions of the African American in real life. He similarly reveals the fictionality of his construct of the democratic themes in American literature when he confesses that, while writing Invisible Man, he wanted to “relate [him]self to certain important and abiding themes which were present—or which [he] thought were present—in the best of American literature” (Going 45).

Ellison's reading blues, jazz, morality, democracy, blackness, race, or slavery into the canonical writers, then, evidences his covert allusion to the racial limitations that complicate and undo their liberating visions. We can find a case in point also in Ellison's negotiations with Eliot. Ellison's racial variations on the Eliotic tradition ultimately make one reread Eliot's theory of the artistic tradition. Indeed, “Tradition and the Individual Talent” contains problematic implications that do not allow an easy appropriation by an African American writer. The problem of Eliot's neoclassical paradigm is best demonstrated when one reads race into it, for race, while not a category in Eliot's essay, was of some concern to Eliot, whose search for the tradition embodying “the Mind of Europe” made the concept of race implicit. If the tradition was understood to be comprised of exclusively European literatures, literatures of other cultures and races were handicapped from the start. Eliot's construct of the tradition was a sophisticated Eurocentric fiction that effectively disqualified literary works of other races with “aesthetic” criteria that valorized only European standards. His construct of the tradition evinced the critical apotheosis of the long-held Eurocentric assumption that literature as the quintessence of human culture was a European monopoly.

Eliot's racial idea, bracketed skillfully in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” showed itself in his reformation of the tradition in the context of the American scene in his 1933 lectures at the University of Virginia. There he argued that “the chances for the re-establishment of a native culture” in America were better in the South than in the North, partly because the South had been “less invaded by foreign races” than the North, in which “the influx of foreign populations ha[d] almost effaced” a tradition (After 15–17). He continued to maintain that tradition involved human activities that “represent[ed] the blood kinship of ‘the same people living in the same place’” (18). For Eliot, race was thus a significant condition congenial to the establishment of a tradition. He betrayed his racism in the notorious passage “…reasons of race and religion combine to make any large number of free-thinking Jews undesirable” (20). Even though Eliot does not mention the African American or the Native American specifically, his elitist and aristocratic view on literature, emphasis on racial homogeneity, and anti-Semitism do not make it difficult to guess his opinion on American racial minorities.  10 From the viewpoint of the American racial minorities, then, Eliot's Eurocentric construct of the tradition is, as Henry Louis Gates, Jr., has interpreted it, a literary equivalent of the “grandfather clause” (“Writing” 4). Hence, Ellison claims the Eliotic tradition through his identification with Eliot's revisionist frame and rejection of the poet's racial limitations.

As in the case if his negotiation with Eliot, Ellison upholds and undermines his literary ancestors at the same time. To use his own rhetoric, he has enjoyed the comic and almost hilarious game of wearing his traditionalist mask, hiding his revisionist face in his incongruous and fluid America. After all, his struggle as a writer has been “a desperate battle” usually fought “in silence”—“a guerilla action in a larger war” (Shadow 122). He seems merely to follow his white American literary ancestors when he recalls the canonical writers through direct references to their names, oblique echoes of their passages and scenes, comic paraphrases of their key concepts, and ironic repetitions of their characterization, symbolism, imagery, and narrative structure. As befits a man who shows a healthy distrust of all “trustee[s] of consciousness,” however, his repetitions of the canonical writers are “never quite on the beat” (Invisible 88, 8). The off-beat allusions to the canonical writers defamiliarize their most prominent ideas, rhetoric, symbols, and visions, thereby baring the incongruities of their ideas, rhetoric, and symbols, disclosing their racial limitations, and ultimately reformulating their abstract visions in the context of America's race relations. As in the case of his signifying allusions to early nineteenth-century literary nationalism, Ellison's responses to the canonical writers' (unintended) calls are in the final analysis antiphonal and dialogic, since they contain his ironic comments, comic satires, devastating critiques, ruthless rejections, and creative reformulations, as well as the ultimate expansion of his literary ancestors. His racial variations on American themes are, then, his way “to make some small contribution” and “offer some necessary modifications” to American literature with his unique African American perspective (Shadow xix).


1. See Baker, Journey and Blues; Gates Figures and Signifying, O'Meally; Smith; and Stepto.

2. See Black World 20.2; Bloom; CLA Journal 13; Delta 18; Gottesman; Harper and Wright; Hersey; O'Meally, New, and Reilly.

3. Although most contemporary writers and journalists joined in the nationalist campaign, its major proponents were Orestes A. Brownson, Edward Tyrell Channing, William Ellery Channing, Timothy Dwight, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Philip Freneau, David Humphreys, Grenville Mellen, John Gortham Palfrey, Theophilus Parsons, William Gimore Simms, Jared Sparks, William Tudor, Royall Tyler, Robert Walsh, and G.M. Wharton. See Ruland and Spiller for comprehensive selections of nationalist writings during the period, and Spencer for a good study of the nationalist campaign.

4. See Brownson, “American” and “Specimens”; Edward Tyrell Channing; Emerson, “The American Scholar” and “The Poet”; Humphreys; Parsons; and Walsh.

5. See Brownson, “Literature”; Mellen, Palfrey; Simms; Sparks; Tudor; and Wharton.

6.  Ellison, in his 1964 review of LeRoi Jones's Blues People, first highlights the elements of burlesque or satire in the slaves' music and dance and criticizes the “social and cultural snobbery” of white Americans that led to their failing to notice these elements: “The effectiveness of Negro music and dance is first recorded in the journals and letters of travelers but it is important to remember that they saw and understood only that which they were prepared to accept. Thus a Negro dancing a courtly dance appeared comic from the outside simply because the dancer was a slave. But to the Negro dancing it…burlesque or satire might have been the point, which might have been difficult for a white observer to even imagine” (Shadow 255–56). Ellison's statement of white travelers' blindness to the satiric element, however, is not correct and can be easily refuted by, among other things, Nicholas Cresswell's journal entry written sometime between 1774 and 1777: “In [the black slaves'] songs they generally relate the usage they have received from their Masters or Mistresses in a very satirical stile (sic] and manner” (qtd. In Gates, Signifying 66).

7. African American scholars have found the strategy in most areas of African American cultures and literature and, echoing Ellison consciously or unconsciously called it “‘differentiation’ within repetition” (Snead 65), “productive misunderstanding” (Ostendorf vii), or “repetition with a difference, a signifying black difference” (Gates, “Criticism” 3).

8. See Brownson, “Literature”; Mellen; Palfrey; Simms; Sparks; Tudor; and Wharton.

9. This is not to suggest that Ellison identifies the African American with the Native American in every respect. He differentiates them clearly in their destinies (Going 299), but identifies their symbolic roles in the white American imagination. His identification seems to have derived partly from the African American-Native American “confusion” in the African American community of Oklahoma City during his childhood (Shadow 158). See also Going 132–33 and Shadow 156–57 for Ellison's understanding of African American-Native American relationships.

10. Eliot understands that the repository of culture is the dominant elite class of a society. Though he recognizes the role of the lower classes as producers of culture, Eliot minimizes their role as conscious consumers, preservers, and transmitters of culture. His élitist view of culture in a society can easily be expanded into a worldwide scene: While other societies may produce cultures, these can be transmitted as significant cultures to posterity only after being endorsed by the elitist European societies. See Soldo on Eliot's élitism and its American background.


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From African American Review 30 (Fall 1996) 421–440.

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The Critical Response to Ralph Ellison --


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