Fighting at Cross-Purposes: Irving Howe vs. Ralph Ellison

Fighting at Cross-Purposes: Irving Howe vs. Ralph Ellison

In the early nineteen sixties, Irving Howe and Ralph Ellison crossed swords in an exchange of vehemently argued essays. Ellison’s half of the exchange remains handily available, “The World and the Jug,” reprinted in his now canonical essay collection Shadow and Act. Ellison is rarely a hot-tempered essayist, but “The World and the Jug” bristles. The essay to which Ellison is abrasively responding, Howe’s “Black Boys and Native Sons,” (Dissent, Autumn 1963) has gotten his dander up. He is defending his raison d’être. He is reclaiming his artistic value and independence from easy political categories (especially those imposed by Marxist-influenced white critics). His oratorical powers at full blast, with resounding indignation, he is asserting nothing less than the lasting significance of art.

“The World and the Jug,” then, looks like the definitive statement on artistic autonomy vs. liberal condescension. Or, at least, it looks that way until one reads the somewhat less well-known Howe essay. Ellison is so blisteringly, so persuasively indignant that the Howe essay is often unjustly summarized. For example, in 1991 Mark Busby states that “Howe charged Ellison with insufficient anger and called for more protest against racism in his work.” This is flat-out incorrect.

The Howe-Ellison fireworks were preceded in the fifties by James Baldwin’s eloquent “Everybody’s Protest Novel.” In terms occasionally similar to Ellison’s later essay, Baldwin upbraided the social protest “School of [Richard] Wright.” Baldwin’s strictures cut deeper than a personal manifesto. To him the American racial protest novel—from Uncle Tom’s Cabin to Native Son—had amounted to little more than a sentimental indulgence. The books reinforced the categories they hoped to deconstruct. They entrapped whites in a guilty role, blacks in an angry, hostile corner. Because Wright never publicly responded to Baldwin’s assertions—Howe’s essay implied that Wright thought it beneath him to do so—Howe was, so to speak, coming to Wright’s defense. Rather than demanding anything of any black artist, it would be truer to say that Howe was defending Richard Wright’s artistry and protest as a literary genre.

Have the arguments dated? Yes. Have the Howe-Ellison essays become museum pieces? Not entirely. An echo of their debate occurs whenever one minority member accuses another of “forgetting his roots” or whenever shouting matches erupt over whether “the canon” consists predominantly of dead white European males. But insofar as the Howe-Ellison squabble pitted the values of the committed artist against the values of aesthetic purity, it appears hackneyed, largely because today minority artists feel much less pressure to view “commitment to the struggle” and aestheticism as oppositional. Times have changed.

Ellison could feel justified today in survey...

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