I don’t know what to say about a 900 page collection of essays that represent the 50 year career of Ralph Ellison. What I can talk about are some of the various interests, ghosts, and other throughlines that make their way through these essays. He’s a writer who’s very concerned about the racialized criticism of language, of the experiences of Blackness, of literature, and of music. And I guess I mean by that that he’s concerned about each of those items on their own, as well as in the way each is and isn’t racialized in their own way.
He’s also a writer who adores writing in a very fetching and earnest way. He’s great at both breaking down problematic writers’ contributions to American Literature while also having a clear affection for them. For all his criticism of Faulkner, Hemingway, and Mark Twain, there’s a kind of reverse avuncularism to his discussion of them. He does not dismiss them because they’re not perfect; he’s disappointed in their imperfections. Throughout his essays, he’s also dealing with his own sense of being a novelist. I’ve always found it really interesting that in all of his interviews he always downplays certain things about himself. He’s always referred to as being a novelist first, but if your only novel comes out in 1950, what can you say about the experiences of being a novelist in 1990 that still has resonance. I don’t think most people consider him a failed novelist by any stretch….given that he wrote one of the most important American novels ever….because his importance to the world becomes a little more singular than I think he’s comfortable with by the end. There’s an interview from the 70s where’s being interviewed by John Hersey, a more minor writer, but also a more prolific one, that strikes me as the crystallization of this version of Ellison that I have.
Regardless, his essays on literature are so very good. I found myself skimming his music essays, not because of their quality, but because of my own lack of interest in music (as an application of analysis). I also found myself beyond interested in the French writer Andre Malraux after he’s a touchstone for Ellison in some 10 different essays.
This collection is both essay collection Ellison published alongside many additional essays and speeches and interviews given throughout his life.
(Photo: Everett Collection Historical / Alamy)