Consciousness and Literary Form: The Aesthetic Commitment of Ralph Ellison (Essay for Kids’ Book, 2010)

NOTE: This was written as a 600 word essay. I will publish the titles. The book was a coloring book for kids, never published due to financial distress of the book company for which I worked 3 months in 2010. It was fun, my first full-time job, only 15 and hour (but a free lunch) and 9 to 5. The older couple had a very old house on 2 acres in Hope Ranch and breathtaking Calico kitty who got eaten by an evil coyote after 6 weeks there. I was crushed as this was my “surrogate” kitty. Amber was her name and before Ollie, J’s cat, she was the most beautiful feline I had ever seen in my life and my sister had many cats living in Topanga in my childhood and adolescence.

When I got laid off I decided to bind the essays just for myself and I gave them as Xmas presents to my family and a few friends. Kinko’s will bind 35 pages for a nominal fee and it’s quite nice to have a collection of one’s essays bound in this manner. Of course I beefed it up; the kids’ version was much simpler.

My mother wrote me an email (“Are you insane”) when I wrote the “racial melancolia” essay by a critic named Anne Cheng. She discussed the seminal 1917 essay, “Mourning and Melancolia” by Freud which discusses the faulty incorporation of the lost love object and then casts this in racial terms. I am not big on Freud for many reasons. Of course I realize he changed the world on one level, and many of his insights about the psyche and discoveries about the subconscious are vital and correct. However, in my view, he is far too hung up on sex. Also, Freudian psychoanalysis does not work.I know someone with 3 decades under his belt and it didn’t do a fucking thing in terms of altering behavior; it just gave him insight to why he was so miserable and in turn, made those around him so miserable.

But this 1917 essay by Freud is wonderful and Cheng’s piece in one of the Cambridge Companions to African-American Literature is really wonderful.

Enjoy! I am loving my typing job and will blog about the book I finished this week–Monaco Cool and the novel I will type next week–Zubrick’s Rock: Lunacy and Intrigue in Monte Carlo–endorsed on the back cover by none other than Former Director of the CIA, William Colby! The writer worked as a CIA agent and has a fascinating history.


“Then, [in adolescence], I began to look at my life through fictional characters,” said Ralph Ellison in a 1967 interview. “I began quite early,” he went on, “to connect the worlds projected in literature and poetry and drama and novels with the life with which I found myself.” Ellison’s comments in Newsday reveal two constants in his life and writing: his deep love of all literature and literary tradition and his lifelong preoccupation with personal, not just racial, identity. Ellison would later say that he was made free by Marx, Freud, T.S. Eliot and Pound not the Negro Freedom Movement.

Ellison, one of the greatest and most influential African-American writers of the twentieth-century, was born in Oklahoma in 1914 to a construction worker father who died when he was three, and a mother who worked cleaning houses to support him. Ellison’s parents named him after the great American philosopher and poet, Ralph Waldo Emerson, which shows how high their hopes were for their son. His mother brought home books and magazines from the white homes in which she worked, and exposed him to jazz, giving her son a love and respect for literature and music of all kinds at an early age.

Ellison attended the Tuskegee Institute, founded by Booker T. Washington, for three years, beginning in 1933. This is the model for the college in Invisible Man, which allows Ellison both to express and to question the passive Washingtonian ethic he learned when there. In 1936, Ellison went to New York City to work for the Federal Writers Project, where he met Langston Hughes and Richard Wright, later author of Native Son. There Ellison read Henry James, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Joseph Conrad, all great influences. Three years later, Ellison was contributing short stories, book reviews and essays to many publications. He continued to write until he enlisted in the United States Merchant Marines, where he served two years, from 1943 to 1945.

After World War II, he was awarded a fellowship which allowed him to devote his full attention to the writing of his masterpiece, Invisible Man, which he published in 1952, and for which he won the National Book Award in 1953. “Tough, brutal, sensational”: these are the words used by the New York Times in 1952 to describe Ellison’s novel about a young black man who struggles with identity, race, the past, and his role in America. The central character, who must make sense of his past in the South and his present in the North, has no name, which makes the obvious but still important point that this black man has been made invisible, denied the opportunity to become a fully human, voiced part of white society.

The “Prologue” of the novel presents the protagonist underground in a basement, contemplating life in the dark. There he discovers the connection between light and truth, amidst 1369 bulbs. The novel represents the protagonist’s Odyssean journey of self-discovery and Homeric references abound. The novel’s opening chapter presents a confrontation between a black man and and white man. But it is the black man who bumps into the white man, who demands an apology. The ensuing altercation is complex and reveals what Anne Cheng considers the “selective” vision of whites and what she calls “racial blindness.” The white man is angry because he was confronted with something he did not want to see. It is not that whites simply “erase” black identity, rendering it invisible. Rather, whites see blacks in a particular way which enables them to retain total power over them and perpetuate their dominant role.

The novel traces the protagonist’s experiences with various political organization and tells the story of his relationship with music and his attempt throughout to deal with his pain, his suffering, his “woundedness,” as one critic puts it. Facing the pain of racism is the only way to overcome it, for Ellison. And while, for Ellison, art is not politics–his goal as a writer is always to “make sense out of chaos”–he told an interviewer in the 1960s that no one could doubt his support of the freedom movement.

Cheng has discussed the pain in the novel in terms of the “politics of melancolia,” drawing on Sigmund Freud’s crucial 1917 essay, “Mourning and Melancolia.” For Freud, a person must grieve a serious loss–whether of a loved one or an idea(l)–in order to heal and move on. A failure to do so leads to the pathological condition of “melancolia” whereby the lost love object is erroneously incorporated into the self. This is, as she notes, a problematic and paradoxical situation, in which the lost love object is both “self-deploring and self-sustaining” (124, The Cambridge Companion to African American Literature). The loss is at once “denied and maintained” and all one’s confusing emotions are directed inward on the self. Blacks, the claim is, suffer a kind of racial melancolia due to the horrors of slavery and segregation, and their inability proper to mourn and heal.

Just over ten years after his masterpiece, Ellison published a crucial book of essays, Shadow and Act, in 1964. The book contains twenty essays, personal pieces in which he reflects on his life and art, and two interviews. Ellison said in the introduction that the book gave him a chance to philosophize about art, without “cluttering up” his fiction with “half-formed or outrageously wrong-headed ideas.” Ellison was a highly self-conscious writer, deeply influenced by the work of Kenneth Burke, American literary theorist and critic. From Burke he learned, according to a 1977 interview, not the “technique of fiction but the nature of literature ..and literary form.” For Ellison, the main basis for any novel is other novels, not slave narratives. His intertextuality may derive from his reverence of Burke, and his deep fascination with psychology.

After Invisible Man, Ellison worked on his 2000- page second novel Juneteenth, published five years after his death, in 1999, in condensed form. The novel is an intricate study of the relationship between a white politician and a black man of faith. Eight-hundred pages of the novel were lost in a fire, and he struggled with this much-anticipated sequel for decades. Ellison worked on the novel while teaching at many universities, including NYU, Bard, and Yale. Ellison was respected greatly throughout his life, though his reputation suffered during the 1960’s and the Black Arts Movement. For more politically radical writers like Richard Wright and later Amiri Buraka, Ellison’s determination to be judge on aesthetic not political grounds, was viewed as a betrayal of his race, at worst, and a deplorable passivity at best. In the 1980’s, Ellison reclaimed his status as one of the pioneers of modern African-American fiction. Ellison died in 1994.

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