Decoding Ralph Ellison

Decoding Ralph Ellison

The curious, but essential, dimension of the Ralph Ellison literary myth is that he published only one novel, and that his entire authority as a writer and intellectual rests on this one work. The success of the book made Ellison not only the exemplary black creative writer but also an intellectual of some considerable standing. On one level, Ellison’s career stopped with the 1952 publication of Invisible Man, because the rest of his life was a long effort to produce a second novel that never appeared and that, probably, was never even finished, though he scribbled endlessly. On another level, the novel’s publication was only the start of his career, if one considers the career to be the position that Ellison was able to occupy as a result of the acclaim Invisible Man garnered. Was this career an engagement on the highest level of principle that a black artist heroically demanded of himself, his audience, and his society, or was it a kind of brilliant evasion, a failure of nerve that only a black artist could have experienced because of what he implausibly demanded of himself, a demand that in onerousness or pretension neither his audience nor society could lessen?

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