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January 17, 2011

Ralph Ellison in the Paris Review

by

Ralph Ellison

Today is the day we remember and celebrate the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. While it’s important to remember the man and his achievements directly, for the purposes of this post I thought it’d be interesting to remember him by recognizing one of the giant literary and cultural figures of the decade in which he came to prominence. Someone who, in a way, helped to create the cultural and political space for King to do what he did.

Ralph Ellison won the National Book Award for Invisible Man in 1953, a remarkable achievement considering “Separate but Equal” was still the law of the land. While Ellison was a consummate artist who was as much concerned with the quality of his writing as he was of whatever social message was being presented, it’s hard to deny the raw social and political power of his novel. And when I think of the Civil Rights Movement (at least, as much as I can know of it from reading about it and not living through it), I always think of it through the prism of novels like Ellison’s Invisible Man, Richard Wright‘s Native Son, or W.E.B DuBois‘s The Souls of Black Folk, just to name a few.

So it’s in that spirit I thought I’d excerpt this excellent interview Ellison did with the Paris Review in 1954, a year after winning the NBA. It’s a great interview and I’d suggest following the link and reading the whole thing.

INTERVIEWER

Why did you give up music and begin writing?

ELLISON

I didn’t give up music, but I became interested in writing through incessant reading. In 1935 I discovered Eliot’s The Waste Land, which moved and intrigued me but defied my powers of analysis—such as they were—and I wondered why I had never read anything of equal intensity and sensibility by an American Negro writer. Later on, in New York, I read a poem by Richard Wright, who, as luck would have it, came to town the next week. He was editing a magazine called New Challenge and asked me to try a book review of Waters E. Turpin’s These Low Grounds. On the basis of this review, Wright suggested that I try a short story, which I did. I tried to use my knowledge of riding freight trains. He liked the story well enough to accept it, and it got as far as the galley proofs when it was bumped from the issue because there was too much material. Just after that the magazine failed.

INTERVIEWER

But you went on writing—

ELLISON

With difficulty, because this was the recession of 1937. I went to Dayton, Ohio, where my brother and I hunted and sold game to earn a living. At night I practiced writing and studied Joyce, Dostoyevsky, Stein, and Hemingway. Especially Hemingway; I read him to learn his sentence structure and how to organize a story. I guess many young writers were doing this, but I also used his description of hunting when I went into the fields the next day. I had been hunting since I was eleven, but no one had broken down the process of wing-shooting for me, and it was from reading Hemingway that I learned to lead a bird. When he describes something in print, believe him; believe him even when he describes the process of art in terms of baseball or boxing; he’s been there.

INTERVIEWER

Were you affected by the social realism of the period?

ELLISON

I was seeking to learn and social realism was a highly regarded theory, though I didn’t think too much of the so-called proletarian fiction even when I was most impressed by Marxism. I was intrigued by Malraux, who at that time was being claimed by the Communists. I noticed, however, that whenever the heroes of Man’s Fate regarded their condition during moments of heightened self-consciousness, their thinking was something other than Marxist. Actually they were more profoundly intellectual than their real-life counterparts. Of course, Malraux was more of a humanist than most of the Marxist writers of that period—and also much more of an artist. He was the artist-revolutionary rather than a politician when he wrote Man’s Fate, and the book lives not because of a political position embraced at the time but because of its larger concern with the tragic struggle of humanity. Most of the social realists of the period were concerned less with tragedy than with injustice. I wasn’t, and am not, primarily concerned with injustice, but with art.

INTERVIEWER

Then you consider your novel a purely literary work as opposed to one in the tradition of social protest.

ELLISON

Now, mind, I recognize no dichotomy between art and protest. Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground is, among other things, a protest against the limitations of nineteenth-century rationalism; Don Quixote, Man’s Fate, Oedipus Rex, The Trial—all these embody protest, even against the limitation of human life itself. If social protest is antithetical to art, what then shall we make of Goya, Dickens, and Twain? One hears a lot of complaints about the so-called protest novel, especially when written by Negroes, but it seems to me that the critics could more accurately complain about the lack of craftsmanship and the provincialism which is typical of such works.

INTERVIEWER

But isn’t it going to be difficult for the Negro writer to escape provincialism when his literature is concerned with a minority?

ELLISON

All novels are about certain minorities: the individual is a minority. The universal in the novel—and isn’t that what we’re all clamoring for these days?—is reached only through the depiction of the specific man in a specific circumstance.

INTERVIEWER

But still, how is the Negro writer, in terms of what is expected of him by critics and readers, going to escape his particular need for social protest and reach the “universal” you speak of?

ELLISON

If the Negro, or any other writer, is going to do what is expected of him, he’s lost the battle before he takes the field. I suspect that all the agony that goes into writing is borne precisely because the writer longs for acceptance—but it must be acceptance on his own terms. Perhaps, though, this thing cuts both ways: the Negro novelist draws his blackness too tightly around him when he sits down to write—that’s what the antiprotest critics believe—but perhaps the white reader draws his whiteness around himself when he sits down to read. He doesn’t want to identify himself with Negro characters in terms of our immediate racial and social situation, though on the deeper human level identification can become compelling when the situation is revealed artistically. The white reader doesn’t want to get too close, not even in an imaginary recreation of society. Negro writers have felt this, and it has led to much of our failure.

Too many books by Negro writers are addressed to a white audience. By doing this the authors run the risk of limiting themselves to the audience’s presumptions of what a Negro is or should be; the tendency is to become involved in polemics, to plead the Negro’s humanity. You know, many white people question that humanity, but I don’t think that Negroes can afford to indulge in such a false issue. For us, the question should be, what are the specificforms of that humanity, and what in our background is worth preserving or abandoning. The clue to this can be found in folklore, which offers the first drawings of any group’s character. It preserves mainly those situations which have repeated themselves again and again in the history of any given group. It describes those rites, manners, customs, and so forth, which insure the good life, or destroy it; and it describes those boundaries of feeling, thought, and action which that particular group has found to be the limitation of the human condition. It projects this wisdom in symbols which express the group’s will to survive; it embodies those values by which the group lives and dies. These drawings may be crude, but they are nonetheless profound in that they represent the group’s attempt to humanize the world. It’s no accident that great literature, the product of individual artists, is erected upon this humble base…

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