by Margaret Kolb
Published by University of Massachusetts Press, 2012 | 254 pages
In February 2014, President Obama publicly tweeted his plans to binge-watch House of Cards, a show that erases the first black presidency and imagines, in its place, the rise of a white, Southern, murderous political climber. A few eyebrows lifted, but only slightly, at the idea of this President’s ruminations over the brutally Machiavellian Frank Underwood, and the imposition of an alternate history rewriting his own symbolic political victory. In such a world, it’s difficult to pick up a book titled Ralph Ellison and the Genius of America (2012) without feeling at least a little cynical. But it may be worth suspending one’s twenty-first-century political exhaustion to entertain Timothy Parrish’s corrective account of Ellison as the “essential visionary,” not just of the Civil Rights movement, but of “post-Civil War America.” Parrish accomplishes his task of “restor[ing] urgency” to Ellison’s career, crafting his text so as to create genuine cross-over interest. Considered now, when realities of American racial inequality are daily exploding into the public view—Ferguson, Missouri barely needs mentioning—Genius provides a provocative and eminently readable encounter with Ellison’s political vision and legacy in all its unresolved depth.
Notoriously, Ellison published Invisible Man in 1952, but never published the expected follow-up novel, although he was always working it until his death in 1994 (an edited version of over 2000 pages of working draft was finally published posthumously by Ellison’s friend and executor John Callahan under the title Juneteenth in 1999. Callahan, in collaboration with Adam Bradley, released a more complete edition in 2010 titled Three Days Before the Shooting). The “loud silence” of these decades without a follow up novel raised the ire of some readers and critics, who saw the post-Invisible Man years as a political (and moral) retreat. The most notorious among these critics is Arnold Rampersad, whose 2007 Ralph Ellison: A Biography paints the writer’s later career as a failure, and the author’s most famous novel as an anomaly. In partial “response” to Rampersad, Parrish in Ralph Ellison and the Genius of America dismisses outright questions regarding Ellison’s failure to generate a follow-up book—“There is no answer to the question of why Ellison did not finish. He simply did not.” Moreover, the question itself threatens to obscure Ellison’s arguably greater accomplishment: the non-fictional work he did publish after Invisible Man, which provides ample evidence as to its author’s subtle, complex political vision. In fact, Ellison’s public engagement increased after Invisible Man, evolving, in essays, speeches, and other fora during the writer’s long post-Invisible Man career, into what Parrish describes as “the conscience of democracy in the wake of the Civil Rights movement.” Parrish, an American literature professor at Virginia Tech, reframes our discussion and understanding of Ellison’s life and legacy. Discerning Ellison’s influence upon the students he taught as a literature professor at NYU and elsewhere, upon the activism and thought of Martin Luther King, Jr., Richard Wright, Robert Penn Warren, C. Van Woodward, and through to the present day and the presidency of Barack Obama.
Admittedly, Parrish has his work cut out for him, as he is entering into a literature and discussion of considerable ambiguity when it comes to both popular and critical perceptions of Ellison. Since at least the late 1960s Ellison’s political philosophy has been controversial, especially for the left. Ellison became singled out for compromising too readily with the white establishment, especially by members of the Black Arts movement. At the end of Invisible Man, for instance, Ellison’s protagonistchooses retreat and isolation over revolution, which was seen by some as an imaginative failure. Although the aesthetics of the novel remain appreciated for their play with dialect and kinetic textual effects—the book lies somewhere in the midcentury chasm between modernism and post-modernism—Ellison’s politics were written off as a historical relic ground in the mill of Jim Crow. The critic Kenneth Warren, in his 2003 Ellison monograph So Black and Blue, has even suggested that the extent to which Invisible Man continues to speak to readers can be taken as a measure of how our society remains fundamentally racist.
Parrish, by contrast, argues that Invisible Man is in fact very much a powerful model of pre-Brown v. Board of Education resistance, and that Ellison’s subsequent outreach in essays, speeches, and in his life as a public intellectual “defined a post-Brown ethic of American cultural citizenship.” This model resonated with, and impacted upon, the era’s seminal Civil Rights movement philosophies, including those of Martin Luther King, Jr. Invisible Man’s unnamed protagonist, you will recall, rejects violent revolution and hides underground, memorably contemplating his situation in a den lit by 1369 light bulbs, which he powers with electricity siphoned off the city grid. There, he resolves to wait and to write, famously concluding his narrative with this question: “Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?” Invisible Man argues that a black man’s disillusionment in a white world is emblematic of a greater disillusionment shared by the entire body politic. In Parrish’s view, the Civil Rights movement adopted this idea – the idea of a shared American identity, both in malady and destiny, for whites and blacks – to immense effect. For Ellison, progress in equality was often a matter of “random synthesis” and “cultural mixing.” The apex of this process might seem to be the election of Barack Obama to the US presidency. Parrish is careful to make it clear, however, that the election of a black president, however symbolic, is best read, not as confirmation that a post-racial American political landscape has finally stabilized, but instead as a “startling twist” in US post-Brown history.
Genius accomplishes its primary goal of recovering Ellison’s misunderstood political vision. But Parrish is in the first place a literary critic, and one would do short shrift to the text by not touching upon his literary analysis. One of the study’s most provocative claims emerges as part of an embedded literary critical discussion in an early chapter called “Philip Roth’s Invisible Man.” There, Parrish proposes that Roth’s acclaimed Zuckerman novel The Human Stain (2000)—about an African American classics professor who passes for decades as Jewish, only to lose his job in scandal when he unwittingly offends several African American students with the racial epithet “spooks”—is at once a kind of “sequel” to Invisible Man, a revisionist Ellison biography, and a revealing homage by one ethnic American author to another. Of all the chapters in Genius, the Roth chapter is probably the least accessible to a non-academic audience; it presupposes a certain level of familiarity with Roth’s novel, and makes an exceedingly complex argument that forces the reader to imagine Ellison transformed, in The Human Stain, into a Jew, and then “resurrect[ed]” as the African American he always was. But if the chapter appears to imagine a legacy of literary inheritance not superficially apparent, it does so to illustrate the very real “interpenetration” between Roth’s struggles as a Jewish American author and Ellison’s as African American. Parrish also notes Roth’s well-documented respect for and identification with Ellison, including a moment when Ellison defended Roth at a Yeshiva University symposium against critics who believed he pandered negative representations of his people. For Parrish, Ellison and Roth were equally repulsed by “cultural purity fanatics.” Both authors responded by promoting similar—and similarly complex—models of pluralistic American identity.
Ellison is usually taken as a decidedly American novelist. He rejected Communism after early involvement with the Party in the 1940s, and his literary and political interests bear decidedly American legacies; Invisible Man opens with an epigraph from Herman Melville, and Ellison’s essays frequently pitch his ideas in response to nineteenth-century American authors such as Melville and especially Twain. But, as Parrish exhaustively demonstrates, our temptation to pigeonhole him as a “one-hit wonder” author scorched by success—another stereotypically American phenomenon—is a gross misreading of history. Ellison’s shift to essays, teaching, and political consultation can, in fact, make possible a quite different reading: Ellison as the conscience of a nation, who also was the author of an influential, historically significant, and aesthetically virtuosic novel. Rather than one-hit literary wonder, as Parrish shows, Ellison was in fact a protean figure adept at switching genres in pursuit of lasting truth and social change.
Rampersad’s reductive biography from 2007, mentioned above, presents Ellison as a literary technician lacking in political vision, who spent the post Invisible years in a prolonged creative crisis. Parrish’s Ralph Ellison and the Genius of America serves as the corrective to Rampersad’s misinformed reading, recovering Ellison as “the most important black visionary after DuBois” and establishing him as a writer whose conception of what it meant to be an ethnic American author and thinker left a lasting impression on countless who were to follow. In the final line of his Preface, Parrish offers a moving dedication that reveals the stakes of his intervention in Ellison’s reputation: “this book is dedicated to the memory of Ralph Ellison, whose living spirit mingles with Emerson and Lincoln, among so many others, and whose example continues to inspire whoever will venture to meet it. Ralph, I have tried.” There is an element of corrective hyperbole here, which also looms over the volume at large. The publication of Ralph Ellison and the Genius of America may mark an inflection point toward a better appreciation of this misunderstood author’s life’s work, and a cautious act of hope for American democracy in the twenty-first-century.
Kevin C. Moore is a lecturer in the Writing Program at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He earned his PhD in English from UCLA, where he began his current book project The Myth of Writer’s Block: Unblocking the Ethics of American Realism. In addition to UCSB, he has taught writing, critical thinking, and literature at the University of Arizona, Loyola Marymount University, the UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine, and the UCLA English Department. His scholarly and creative work has appeared in journals including Arizona Quarterly, Composition Studies, and Souciant. His current research interests include nineteenth- and twentieth-century American literature, American intellectual history, and writing studies.