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The Cambridge Companion to Ralph Ellison

Cambridge Companions to Literature


Edited by Ross Posnock


Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005

$90 / £47.50 (Hardback), £19.99 (Paperback), 256 pages, ISBN 0-521-53506-9


Reviewed by Gerardo Del Guercio

Collège Jean-de-Brébeuf, Montréal



With the publication of The Cambridge Companion to Ralph Ellison, Ross Posnock proves once again that he is among the leading African American literary scholars. Although Ralph Ellison has traditionally been seen as a one- novel writer known primarily for Invisible Man, Posnock and his eleven contributors prove that Ellison was a far more diversified writer. Posnock’s contributors include Lawrence Jackson, Laura Saunders, Sara Blair, Paul Allen Anderson, Gregg Crane, Anne Anlin Cheng, Tim Parrish, John S. Wright, Shelly Eversley, Kenneth W. Warren, and Eric J. Sundquist. Posnock’s collection of essays demonstrates how Ellison made significant contributions to gospel, music, photography, politics, law and philosophy. With this collection of essays on Ralph Ellison, Ross Posnock once again makes an important contribution to an already large body of criticism.

Ralph Ellison used many forms of language to express his views. Laura Saunders suggests that Ellison used religious language most effectively.  Saunders examines Hickman’s conversion scene in Juneteenth when Hickman considers poising the woman. Although Ellison used aggressive language when he described Hickman in the following scene: “just sitting there and hating … and thinking back three generations and more of my people’s tribulations and trying to solve the puzzle of that long-drawn-out continuation of abuse” [50]. The language in such scenes is quite religious because Hickman maintains what the lord attests, most notably that “I’m starting you out right here—with the flesh and with the Eden and Christmas squeezed together.” Ellison’s language in Juneteenth is religious given that Ellison stated rather directly that “human beings don’t initiate or control sacred encounters.” What controls scared encounters instead is religious language that humans have attained in reading the bible and attending sermons. What I suggest is that Hickman’s conversion and beginning of his new life is now complete simply because he seeks the birth of a child to redeem himself much like human kind did with the birth of Christ. Like Jesus Ellison’s baby must “redeem” as well as “help us all.”          

Ralph Ellison’s language was not only oratory, but visual as well. In “Ellison, Photography, and the Origins of Invisibility” Sara Blair argues that Ellison asked his readership to read his work as ambidextrous shifting on Jazz and literary histories while simultaneously creating a unique authorial identity. What I consider Blair’s most significant point is the juxtaposition she draws between photography and invisibility. Sara Blair asserts that the apparatus of photography is one of “vision and insight, real and figurative, work to occlude, to deceive, to produce the expanse of hard fought humanity in the service of false and imprisoning (and racially charged) ideals” [58]. Ellison’s narrator in Invisible Man is invisible because of how white culture viewed and defined him by his race. Photography was one form of expression that Ellison adopted. Blair summarizes Ellison’s use of photography as follows:

By turns reflective, authoritative, and absorbed in the delicate intricacies of recording the lived moment, the Ellison who appears in these images wills himself into being as an artist even as he deflects the camera’s security. Of a piece with his life-long- self-representations as urbane intellectual and dandy, the image of Ellison as image-maker or auteur affords him certain cults of authority, and what we might call invisibility: a mode of open self-concealment [61].       

What Ellison did then was transcend the oppressing invisibility that white culture imposed on blacks into a liberating mode of attaining freedom of expression. Just like the narrator in Invisible Man who used his invisibility to travel into areas that would normally be closed to him, Ellison used photography as a way of using invisibility to create a place between himself and reality. What I believe Ellison achieved in this middle ground was the creation of a unique literary persona that was able to transcend racist boundaries. I consider writing and photography to be related forms of expression that share a common language because both are forms of expression that both reader and writer can examine and scrutinize closely. The writer and reader can then use writing and photography as a mode of self-refection and a medium towards discovering language.

Tim Parrish’s essay “Invisible Ellison: the fight to be a Negro Leader” argues that Ellison used narrative structure to create a social consciousness that would allow for the possibility for a black leader to exist. Ellison’s strive to be a Negro leader is best exemplified in his short story “Boy on a Train.” Ellison’s dilemma in this short story was “[h]ow to respect the distinctiveness of Negro American culture without being consumed by the soul-killing racism endemic to American life” [137]. The scene that I will now examine is the one where the boy and his mother are riding in a Jim Crow train car from Oklahoma City after James’ father dies. The boy’s innocence is corrupted by Jim Crow laws “seeing that the hostile treatment his family receives is in part a consequence of others’ perception of their skin color, the boy begins to understand his place in a racially divisive society.” I suggest that “Boy on a Train” expresses Ellison’s strive to b e a Negro leader came from a life time of witnessing racist practices. What eventually occurred was a drive to have blacks become equal to whites. In Ellison’s Invisible Man, Ida speaks in a language that expresses racial equality. Ida speaks of “a tax-payer whose common Americaness, or humanity, was not open to question” [147].  By using the terms “tax-payer” and “common Americaness”, Ellison described perfectly the type of citizenship and equality that he wanted black Americans to attain. I argue that Ellison believed that writing in a language that stressed social reform was the only way that black Americans could achieve liberation. Only once social reform was attained could black Americans pass the achievement on to next generation to pass on to the next generation.

In the book’s final chapter, Eric J. Sundquist explores how Ellison was always focused on the black race’s place in American culture. The Black Arts Movement made positive use of the one drop rule by making membership into the black community the only way to acquire power. According to Ellison, blackness was to be embraced if African Americans were to gain power and recognition. Creating a black national voice and identity was the only way to achieve this goal. Ellison once suggested that “this society is not likely to become free of racism … it is necessary for Negros to free themselves by becoming what a free people should be” [225]. I consider Ellison’s stance that blacks should rely on themselves to attain freedom and power is a valid point that he made evident throughout his life. Remaining self-reliant then lowers the chances that blacks assimilate into white culture and subsequently lessens the chances that black identity be compromised. Also by remaining self-reliant blacks would define freedom on their own terms.

The Cambridge Companion to Ralph Ellison  is yet another valuable contribution to African American studies by Ross Posnock. Posnock’s collection of essays includes strong readings that Ralph Ellison was a multi-dimensional author and not simply a one-novel writer. Readers of American literature and black studies will enjoy Posnock’s text for its detailed essays that prove that Ellison was a complex writer and that he deserves to be regarded as a major figure in modern American writing. I believe that Ellison warrants such a distinction given that his writing embodied a variety of critical approaches and disciplines including race studies, feminism, and Marxism. Readers will find that Posnock’s text is a needed addition to an already large existing body of criticism on Ralph Ellison.   



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