Carol Polsgrove on Ralph Ellison

Among the myriad reasons why Ralph Ellison never completed his second novel, I would propose one that Arnold Rampersad does not consider seriously in his new biography (reviewed by Morris Dickstein, May 25): the impact of Ellison’s disillusion with Communism. The agony of that disillusion comes through in a letter of August 18, 1945, to Richard Wright, which I quoted in my

2001 book, Divided Minds: Intellectuals and the Civil Rights movement. Writing about American Communist leaders’ wartime collusion with liberals, Ellison said these party leaders were “as dangerous as Nazis”. He said, further: “If they want to play ball with the bourgeoisie they needn’t think they can get away with it. If they want to be lice, then by God let them be squashed like lice.

Maybe we can’t smash the atom, but we can, with a few well chosen, well written words, smash all that crummy filth to hell”. This was Ellison’s state of mind when he wrote Invisible Man.

After the novel came out, Ellison refused to identify its Brotherhood with the Communist Party. Indeed, in the post-war, anti-Communist years, when association with Communism could devastate American careers, Ellison did what he could to erase his tracks back to the party. Rampersad, I fear, has been taken in by Ellison’s reconstruction of his own identity: I suspect Ellison’s involvement with Communism was emotionally deeper than Rampersad suggests, and his subsequent disillusion more devastating. Once that disillusion had exploded in the creativity of Invisible Man, Ellison was left standing in the ashes from which he arose as a Cold War liberal, an identity that did not, apparently, serve him well as a novelist.

Carol Polsgrove, Letter to TLS, June 27, 2007

Invisible Man is a novel that twists its issues into complexities that go far beyond its time and place, and the ambiguities it leaves behind always read as greater to me than any possible polemic Ellison could have intended. But the furious portrayal of the Brotherhood, which seeks to turn blacks into icons of oppression for the abstract betterment of man, is not only a defense of humanism over ideological struggles, but also a classic example of individualism as Tocqueville found it in Democracy in America. But these motives are double-edged and do not lend themselves to polemics. They do lead, however, to such things as Ellison’s half-hearted support of the Vietnam War as necessary, and to a more general political paralysis. (This result is played out in Invisible Man.) Supporting Vietnam constituted an abandonment of utopian dreams and a tacit acceptance of the idea of necessary evil, for whenever one proclaims some sort of action as necessary, isn’t it always to make excuses for the evil that it will cause? I cannot imagine that Ellison felt anything like a full endorsement of American actions, but his desire for a form of living that was both creative and positive forbade him, I suspect, from sinking into a nihilism that was internally or externally destructive. At the same time, it narrowed the set of positions he could write from. In response to Irving Howe, Ellison famously said:

Howe seems to see segregation as an opaque steel jug with the Negroes inside waiting for some black Messiah to come along and blow the cork. But if we are in a jug it is transparent, not opaque, and one is allowed not only to see outside but to read what is going on.

In saying this, Ellision was objecting to such a strongly teleological view of black struggle in America (which Howe saw, in my opinion accurately, in Richard Wright) that recapitulated the objectifying processes of Communism. And I suspect Ellison was aware of the irony when, in the 1970s, Amiri Baraka declared race issues to be only a part of a larger class struggle and declared himself a Marxist. Baraka continues to be prolific, if not ambivalent.

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