Ralph Ellison’s music lessons

Anderson, Paul Allen

from The Cambridge Companion to Ralph Ellison. Ed. Ross Posnock. New York: Cambridge UP (82-103)


Perhaps I like Louis Armstrong because he’s made poetry out of being invisible. I think it must be because he’s unaware that he is invisible. And my own grasp of invisibility aids me to understand his music . . .. Invisibility, let me explain, gives one a slightly different sense of time, you’re never quite on the beat. Sometimes you’re ahead and sometimes behind. Instead of the swift and imperceptible flowing of time, you are aware of its nodes, those points where time stands still or from which it leaps ahead. And you slip into the breaks and look around. That’s what you hear vaguely in Louis’s music.

–Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man(1)

Within the first pages of the 1952 novel Invisible Man Ralph Ellison’s narrator relates Louis Armstrong’s music to his own desires and self-conceptions. “I’d like,” the narrator writes, “to hear five recordings of Louis Armstrong playing and singing ‘What Did I Do To Be So Black and Blue’ – all at the same time” (8). When Armstrong recorded the show tune by Andy Razaf and Fats Waller from the Broadway revue Hot Chocolates in 1929 he edited the lyrics to shift a dark-skinned female lover’s lament over intra-racial color discrimination (the song’s place within the plot of the musical Chocolate Dandies) toward a more general lament about racism. Ellison’s narrator considers the lyrics but focuses more intently on the specifics of Armstrong’s tone and phrasing. Ellison’s seemingly central metaphor of invisibility takes on an aural dimension when he attends to Armstrong’s “lyrical beam” and rhythmic mastery at creating a “slightly different sense of time.” The literary translation and transposition of Armstrong’s mastery of swing rhythm opens a window onto the intellectual landscape where the author intertwined his musical and social thought.

Ralph Waldo Ellison was a student at the segregated Frederick Douglass Junior High School in Oklahoma City when Armstrong recorded the landmark Hot Five and Hot Seven sessions. The young Oklahoman witnessed his first Armstrong performance in 1929 but later recalled that he “had been listening to his recordings and admiring the sound of his trumpet for years” while also admiring the local African-American jazz scene.(2) When these players “expressed their attitude toward the world,” Ellison rhapsodized, “it was with a fluid style that reduced the chaos of living to form.” More than a nostalgic idyll from his youth, the scene operated as a regulative norm for the mature Ellison. “The delicate balance struck between strong individual personality and the group during those early jam sessions,” he specified about Oklahoma City’s burgeoning jazz scene, “was a marvel of social organization.”(3)

Ellison’s literary portraits of Louis Armstrong and of the legendary post-war figure Charlie Parker (two figures who might be said to exemplify the idiomatic distance between early “swing” and “bop”) illuminate the pivotal terms of a “delicate balance” in the author’s thought. To pursue the contrasting portraits of Armstrong and Parker is thus also to reconsider the “delicate balance” between Ellison’s stated commitments to individuality through masterful self-invention and “a slightly different sense of time,” on the one hand, and his idealizations of the “marvel of social organization,” on the other hand. A closer look at his skeptical commentaries on Parker’s prominent role in the stylistic innovations of the 1940s jazz modernists reveals Ellison’s fascinating and rarely discussed inhabitation of the posture of a musical revanchist committed to the musical superiority of certain pre-World War II idioms. His tendency toward commemoration in music moves in striking counterpoint to Ellison’s prospective tendency toward what he labeled “the futuristic effort of fulfilling the democratic ideal” (Collected Essays 466). One might consider these two tendencies as thematic reservoirs from which Ellison drew to fuel his lyrical literary flights. The gaps or points of slippage and irresolution between these seemingly distinct visionary tendencies demanded of Ellison a masterful capacity to “slip into the breaks,” a feat all but impossible to maintain.

The frame of ritual action

Ellison attended Tuskegee Institute from 1933 to 1936 on a music scholarship. He later wrote proudly of the oft-misunderstood school and his rigorous studies in music and literature under assorted African-American instructors. “The only form that I studied as a student both in high school and college,” he later recalled, “was musical form.” “I was kind of stuck with that,” he added mischievously. Further reading suggested to Ellison that the form of “the nineteenth-century novel” had itself depended on the prior “form of the symphony.” Moreover, Ellison held that symphonic form itself leaned on a prior artistic form: it was “basically a play upon tragic form” (Conversations 266). “Tragic form” served Ellison as an umbrella term evoking thematic and functional continuities across artistic media. On this view, structures of artifice generally stood as recognizable frames for ritual activity. Artists employed the occasion of ritual to reveal, contest, solidify, and transform group values. The challenge Ellison set himself in writing a first novel was not only the “local” one of translating the symphonic ambitions of African-American musical nationalism into literature. As a “play upon tragic form,” a serious novel also needed to “stage” and work through the general challenge of balancing the values of individual integrity and social solidarity.

When Ellison discussed “tragic form” as the novel’s dramatic basis he often noted the influence of André Malraux’s writing on him in the 1930s and later. He held Malraux’s post-war treatise The Psychology of Art (1949-50), a book shorn of the author’s earlier revolutionary sympathies, in especially high regard. One can imagine Ellison happily assenting to Malraux’s vaulting judgment that each artistic masterpiece was “a purification of the world.” Such purification took place when a masterpiece of world culture convincingly portrayed the necessarily fleeting “victory of each individual artist over his servitude” to chaotic forces beyond his control. The individual achievement of formal mastery and promethean creativity served as a metonym in Malraux’s existential vision for a universal human struggle against destiny, absurdity (an existentialist buzzword he popularized), and the onward rush of death that defined la condition humaine. Each of these secular victories spread “like ripples on the sea of time” and implemented “art’s eternal victory over the human condition.” “All art,” Malraux poetically concluded, “is a revolt against man’s fate.”(4)

Malraux’s heroic vocabulary of servitude, revolt, conquest, and victory, portrayed art-making and the human condition as decidedly martial affairs.(5) Such imagery suited Ellison’s similarly masculinist vision of the prototypical African-American artist and culture hero as a male jazz musician. Malraux presented a framework for interpreting musical compositions and performances in all idioms as reflections on the possibilities of heroic action in a “victory of each individual artist over his servitude.” When music seemed immune or resistant to translation into a master-code at once existential and anthropological it remained dull and inert to Ellison. Musical occasions, that is, play no role in Ellison’s writing by figuring as sites of untranslatable otherness or estrangement. He regularly displayed a Malrauxian fervor for ritual interpretation in his explorations of southern and southwestern African-American music and folkways. Especially in Ellison’s early postwar work, a sense of modernization as an abrupt and volcanic process of cultural upheaval hovered over these explorations. What was happening to African-Americans’ “traditional” cultural tools – what Ellison’s friend Kenneth Burke called “equipment for living” – in the seemingly chaotic context of northern migration and urban proletarianization?(6) Ellison adapted the work of Malraux and other theorists to style his own response to the processes of disruption, survival, and transformation in African-American modernity.

“Rites are there to form and to test character,” Ellison once offered,”and I believe speaking abstractly that this is the way I want my fiction to work” (Conversations 261). The rhetoric of ritual action within the vortex of African-American modernization would also color his non-fiction commentaries on African-American music and musicians. The New Negro musical doxa taught at Tuskegee officially endorsed vernacular “Negro idioms” – such as work songs, spirituals, blues, and even jazz – as raw or provincial resources for formal cosmopolitan art. But Ellison refused this cultural evolutionist view that folk and popular idioms were or had been merely valuable folkloric resources for formal concert music. After all, the symphonic form held no priority as a social site for the ritualized testing of individual and communal values and the cultivation of tragic consciousness. As Ellison wrote Albert Murray (with whom he developed many of these ideas), “Bessie Smith singing a good blues may deal with experience as profoundly as Eliot, with the eloquence of the Eliotic poetry being expressed in her voice and phrasing.” “Human anguish,” Ellison added in a universalizing gesture, “is human anguish . . . only expressed in a different medium.”(7) An extraordinary philosophical faith in the translatability, if not transparency, of meaning across artistic media shone through Ellison’s joint account of racial invisibility and musical technique.

The music of invisibility

Ellison introduces the figure of invisibility on the first page of Invisible Man to mark certain characteristics of the US racial regime during the first half of the twentieth century. The maintenance of white supremacy through systematic legal segregation in the South, racially exclusive institutions, and racism nationwide had an inestimable economic and psychological impact upon dominated racial groups as well as the “white” majority. The metaphor of racial invisibility spotlights the power and consequences of what scholars have since come to refer to as the racializing gaze. Simply put, the racializing gaze works to define and objectify another human being not as a fellow subject worthy of equal recognition but rather as a racial other and socially subordinate object. “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me” (3). Through the act of non-recognition toward the socially invisible – the refusal “to see me” as a human equal – the white American imagined his own autonomy and superiority. The refusal of recognition crystallized not only the white American’s racism, but also his self-deception and irresponsibility to his nation’s democratic ideals. It also evidenced the white American’s pathological and destructive fear, Ellison insisted. A dominating white majority and a socially submerged black minority – whose “high visibility” as social objects overshadowed their invisibility as individualized subjects before the white majority’s gaze – both suffered and acted irresponsibly. “Irresponsibility is part of my invisibility,” the narrator admits. “But to whom can I be responsible, and why should I be, when you refuse to see me?” “Responsibility,” in other words, “rests upon recognition, and recognition is a form of agreement” (14).

An ideal of unobstructed visibility and mutuality in a post-racist democracy emerges in Invisible Man through images of recognition and care within a reciprocated gaze. While a straightforward corrective progression from invisibility to visibility might seem desirable, the novel’s prologue also clarifies invisibility’s valuable double-sidedness. “I am not complaining” about being invisible, “nor am I protesting,” the narrator offers. He adds that “it is sometimes advantageous to be unseen, although it is most often rather wearing on the nerves” (3). The intelligent and necessary manipulation of invisibility had been and continued to be useful for processing and responding to the experience of racial hierarchy. However, the proper development of self-consciousness does not proceed in a straight line, the narrator concludes, but rather through violent contradiction. The narrator’s movement will be “not like an arrow, but a boomerang” (6). At this point, Ellison’s reverie on Armstrong’s musical achievement becomes paramount for retracing the narrator’s progress via turnabout and indirection.

The influential jazz critic Martin Williams once marveled at how often Armstrong’s playing seemed to float “majestically over his accompaniment.” Moreover, the trumpeter’s phrases floated between and ahead of the heard or felt pulse while remaining “in perfect time” or sync with the band.(8) What Williams called Armstrong’s “perfect swing” derived from an artful cultivation of sonic discrepancy; Armstrong’s playing (whether improvised or not) would carve out and occupy an alternative rhythmic space within a collective performance. His vastly influential approach to swinging a tune included the prying open of unpredictable and even thrilling gaps between his own melodic phrasing, the accompanists’ rhythmic support, and the listener’s expectation of hearing the familiar melody played “straight.” The listener’s perception of unity in a group’s sense of time is set askew, if not suspended, when a soloist sounds like he or she is floating above or tilting against the accompanists’ time. The improvising soloist or vocalist flying “ahead and sometimes behind” the beat has the commanding opportunity to reshape a group’s musical journey in the real time of performance. The smooth and flowing ideal of swinging, Armstrong once suggested, was “like a basketball team, everybody passing the ball just right.”(9)

Armstrong may have been a representative of an African-American “underworld of sound” but his musical revolution was on intimate terms with the white mainstream of American popular music. The critic Nathaniel Mackey has recently elaborated a theoretical understanding of intimacy and discrepancy through a distinction between “musical othering” and “social othering” that is relevant to this discussion of invisibility’s ironic benefits. He introduces the distinction to elucidate “black linguistic and musical practices that accent variance, variability – what reggae musicians call ‘versioning.’ ” Through examples not so far from Ellison’s Armstrong, Mackey writes of how practices in minority-based expressive idioms can also stand as critical negotiations with the mainstream. “Such othering practices,” Mackey suggests, “implicitly react against and reflect critically upon the different sort of othering to which their practitioners, denied agency in a society by which they are designated other, have been subjected.” The machinery of “social othering” is the transformation of groups into “others” or out-groups misrecognized and rendered invisible by majority stereotypes. It operates, for example, through declarations and practices whereby dominant majorities circulate fixed or otherwise restricting notions of minority “authenticity” in the arts. In turn, antiphonal responses found in “musical othering” pursue the critical aesthetic opportunities of being rendered a discrepancy, variation, or point of slippage from the social and aesthetic norm. “The black speaker, writer, or musician whose practice privileges variation subjects the fixed equations that underwrite that denial (including the idea of fixity itself) to an alternative.” Thus, musical othering can submit dominant “fixed equations” and aesthetic norms to what Mackey dubs a “dislocating tilt.”(10)

For Ellison, the music of invisibility at its best gestured toward an American future of pluralistic integration along the lines of mutual and reciprocal recognition. His championing of the aesthetic and cultural promises of pluralistic integration moved in tandem with his focus on African-American popular music as a singularly prophetic American landmark. After all, something like pluralistic, if unequal, integration characterized a past and present America defined by white domination. His highlighting of African-American music-making as a prophetic site echoed many texts but especially the chapter on the “sorrow songs” in W. E. B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk (1903). “Negro Americans have never, as a group, felt alienated from any music sounded within their hearing,” Ellison summarized in 1964, “and it is my theory that it would be impossible to pinpoint the time when they were not shaping what [LeRoi] Jones calls the mainstream of American music.” Ellison sought to make the erstwhile cultural leadership of an otherwise all but invisible and disenfranchised minority group more visible and more audible to a nation divided over the black freedom struggle. Referring again to the epistemic advantages of a dominated population, Ellison proudly concluded that “the most authoritative rendering of American in music is that of American Negroes.” “Whatever the degree of injustice and inequality sustained by the slaves,” he added, “American culture was, even before the official founding of the nation, pluralistic” (Collected Essays 285). The cultural bases for a social and political revolution in the direction of pluralistic integration – an imagined American future unburdened by “fixed equations” – were already in place.(11) On the level of vernacular culture (if not elsewhere), an invisible but irrepressible “underworld of sound” had already quietly taken over the mainstream. This, too, Ellison heard in Armstrong’s popular music. But how was the United States to pass from the sonic and cultural pluralism Ellison discovered to the post-racist social and political revolution of which it offered some kind of foretaste?


Armstrong’s music imparts lessons in Invisible Man about time. Like the boxer who can step “inside of his opponent’s sense of time,” the expert improviser knows to “slip into the breaks and look around” – with similarly stunning effects (8). Ellison’s notion of slipping “into the breaks” refers, most simply, to those places within a performance where the rhythmic accompaniment goes silent, as if halting the crafted flow of time, or merely punctuates in stop-time a soloist’s break. At these points, the improvising soloist (usually singular) fills the otherwise empty sonic space with dramatic solo obligatti, usually without abandoning the overall performance’s established feel or its tempo of rhythmic propulsion. Armstrong moved to master playing the breaks during his apprenticeship in King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band in the early 1920s. Ellison suggested elsewhere that solo breaks are nothing less than moments when “the jazzman must lose his identity” in separating himself from the ensemble “even as he finds it” as a solo voice and individual (Collected Essays 267).

The prologue’s image of slipping “into the breaks” foreshadows the narrator’s resistance to the Brotherhood’s rigid vision of time and historical change. Immediately following a violent street encounter with Ras the Exhorter, Tod Clifton confides to the narrator, “I suppose sometimes a man has to plunge outside history . . . turn his back.” “Otherwise,” he adds, “he might kill somebody, go nuts” (377). Clifton’s remark on the “plunge outside history” shows his understanding of Ras’s alienation from American life. Clifton himself straddles two worlds: he has one foot in the white-dominated, downtown-based Brotherhood and another in the street life of black Harlem. Once he leaves the Brotherhood, Clifton loses his balance and fatally plunges “outside history” without finding or crafting a strong new identity. The narrator will need to calculate his alternatives more carefully if he is to plunge out of the Brotherhood and its deterministic vision of history. Instead of moving up in New York City, the protagonist only finds himself slipping downward again and again. A series of slips and plunges – including the final “plunge down, down . . . upon a load of coal” (565) – demand that he learn how to make more productive use of such unplanned slips. The “movement vertically downward” in the novel, Ellison later explained, is ultimately “a process of rising.” Plunging, slipping, and falling give the protagonist opportunities to rise “to an understanding of his human condition” (Collected Essays 111). Ultimately, the narrator will summon Armstrong’s “beam of lyrical sound” as a heroic model for transforming slips, breaks, and plunges into opportunities to master “the swift and imperceptible flowing of time.” A dawning transvaluation of slips and plunges derived from the African-American blues, one of Armstrong’s chief idiomatic sources, will also enrich the narrator.

What the French began calling “existentialist consciousness,” Ellison once noted, had long been a central “property of the blues” (Conversations 138). Blues was not a folk music per se but rather a symptom and response to the “seething vortex” of modernity, on Ellison’s account. It preceded and carried more practical value, Ellison decided, than the comparatively arid abstractions of French existentialism. “While the Frenchmen must plunge from the springboard of thought into reality,” he noted to Richard Wright, “that is hardly a problem of us who live too often beneath the surface and in the texture of that reality.”(12) The force of the blues, Ellison wrote in an admiring 1945 review essay on Wright’s Black Boy, is captured in how “they at once express both the agony of life and the possibility of conquering it through sheer toughness of spirit” (Collected Essays 143). The agony and potential for spiritual conquest dramatized in the blues illustrated how contemporary “Negro life does not exist in a vacuum, but in the seething vortex of those tensions generated by the most highly industrialized of Western nations” (Conversations 138). Invisible Man elaborates a kind of blues modernism in several episodes, one being the narrator’s street encounter with Peter Wheatstraw, a blues singing street character. The episode suggests Ellison’s sense of the human condition’s absurdity and indeterminism by addressing the unreliability of prefabricated abstractions or overconfident blueprints. Wheatstraw’s name refers to both a mythic African-American folk figure and a historic blues artist, Peetie Wheatstraw. Born William Bunch, the St. Louis pianist and singer recorded widely in the 1930s and died in 1941 at the age of thirty-nine. The novel’s Wheatstraw pushes a cart full of blueprints through Harlem’s streets. “Here I got ’bout a hundred pounds of blueprints and I couldn’t build nothing! . . . Folks is always making plans and changin’ em.” “Yes, that’s right,” the narrator answers, “but that’s a mistake. You have to stick to the plan.” “You kinda young, daddy-o,” Wheatstraw retorts, “suddenly grave” (175).

In “Richard Wright’s Blues” Ellison foreshadowed Wheatstraw’s existential lesson: “It is only when the individual, whether white or black, rejects the pattern that he awakens to the nightmare of his life” (Collected Essays 142). Facing modern life as an unpredictable “seething vortex” compels the awakened individual to find a new “toughness of spirit.” In sticking “to the plan,” Ellison’s protagonist naively evidences his social blindness and somnolence before a chaotic reality. Wheatstraw’s blues wisdom offers entry into a world where plunging is inevitable, but mastery is possible too. Ellison’s Wheatstraw wants the narrator to turn away from a mechanical dutifulness to an old blueprint of racial uplift and peer into Wheatstraw’s cart of leftover and unused blueprints. The protagonist needs to re-value himself not as the object of someone else’s blueprint but as a self-authored and open-ended blueprint. A dawning “toughness of spirit” helps the narrator hold cynicism and despair at bay after his disillusioning experiences with the Brotherhood.

Invisible Man concludes as the narrator considers the discrepancy between a racist society and a prospective post-racist ideal. The latter ideal can be understood in terms of what Ralph Waldo Emerson once dubbed “this new yet unapproachable America.”(13) A striking double-movement takes place when the narrator shifts registers from blues individualism to idealistic nationalism. On the one hand, the existentialist blues voice of Wheatstraw convincingly derided the naïve determinism of a “hundred pounds of blueprints.” On the other hand, the narrator follows the well-worn path of the American jeremiad to resuscitate another grandiose and unfinished blueprint in the epilogue. “A novel,” Ellison wrote in a revised 1981 introduction to Invisible Man, “could be fashioned as a raft of hope, perception and entertainment that might help keep us afloat as we tried to negotiate the snags and whirlpools that mark our nation’s vacillating course toward and away from the democratic ideal”(xx-xxi). Less than a blueprint and more than a cipher of despair, the democratic “raft of hope” figures as a saving remnant and a make-shift instantiation of the national community. In such a case Ellison redescribed the African-American blues as a raft, if not a generating motor, for moving closer to the “democratic ideal.” At least on some occasions the blues came to the aid of his anti-racist dialectic of democratic national becoming.

Alongside the notion of plunging outside history, Ellison evokes another kind of dramatic plunge below everyday waking consciousness. He once noted that as an eleven-year-old he had dipped into Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams (1905). Ellison’s quest for models of behavioral complexity appropriate to the richness of “human personality” led him to stock his novel with dream sequences and hallucinatory or surreal evocations of the unconscious and its libidinal pulsions. Not surprisingly, music triggers many of these sequences in Invisible Man. Readers encounter the novel’s first dream or hallucinatory sequence with the narrator’s reflections on Armstrong’s “slightly different sense of time” (8). Armstrong’s music acts as a trigger or key to open an “underworld of sound” otherwise unknown to the narrator. The opening portion of the scene includes the following passage:

I not only entered the music but descended, like Dante, into its depths. And beneath the swiftness of the hot tempo there was a slower tempo and a cave and I entered it and looked around and heard an old woman singing a spiritual as full of Weltschmerz as flamenco, and beneath that lay a still lower level on which I saw a beautiful girl the color of ivory pleading in a voice like my mother’s as she stood before a group of slaveowners who bid for her naked body, and below that I found a lower level and a more rapid tempo and I heard someone shout.


The passage’s excavation of what, for the narrator, lies beneath Armstrong’s “Black and Blue” amounts to a vertical tour through the psychic underworld. Italics mark the psychological descent, as is the case with numerous dream sequences or eruptions from or within the unconscious throughout Invisible Man. Beneath and behind Armstrong’s bluesy rendition of a romantic lament lies the condensed matter of African-American memory. The narrator could consciously summon and process the italicized journey, of course, only after the worldly journey packed between the novel’s prologue and epilogue. According to this psychic topography the “movement vertically downward” through a series of vignettes returns as another “process of rising to an understanding of the human condition.”

The Dantean journey into the unconscious in the prologue of Invisible Man builds on familiar tropes within African-American literary modernism. Numerous novels and short stories associated with the interwar Harlem Renaissance or Negro Renaissance, for example, included scenes where black protagonists experience acute psychic distress and destabilization during episodes of musical listening. Some critics have described a psychological or social “movement vertically downward” as nothing less than elemental to the African-American literary tradition. Facing an imagined “primitive” Other buried within their psyches, black protagonists in works like Jean Toomer’s Cane (1923) and Nella Larsen’s Quicksand (1928) lose their sense of psychic stability at the site of certain “unrefined” African-American musical performance. The dislocation of racial identity can coil around a disturbing experience of class differentiation when protagonists plunge in the company of musical performers or ritual participants cast as either rural folk or their newly urbanized kin. Such limit-case experiences of racial identification cause a kind of psychological and epistemological vertigo. The models of black identity these New Negro characters had previously assumed, comfortably or otherwise, now seem altogether unworkable: a tide of irrational jouissance erupts within them, bringing repressed libidinal energies closer to the ego’s now destabilized surface. The extent of the characters’ disquiet during these plunges from the psychic stability of everyday experience into (what Ellison would ironically term) “the blackness of blackness” roughly equals their measure of repressed and unreleased libidinal energy.

The representation of moments of plunging, however, had a double edge, for such depictions flirted with primitivism. In remarks about some Harlem Renaissance authors, Ellison asserted: “As Americans trying to win a place as writers, they were drawn to the going style of literary decadence represented by [white author] Carl Van Vechten’s work.” In addressing the taste for decadence among a predominantly white reading audience, Ellison concluded, these predecessors “insured, even more effectively than the approaching Depression, the failure of the ‘New Negro’ movement.” (Conversations 114). Van Vechten’s “literary decadence” and his exoticizing appreciation of the blues and jazz (as in his 1926 bestseller Nigger Heaven), Ellison was convinced, had been anything but productive for African-American literature.(14) The supposedly unrepressed psychic abandon energizing black popular music offered some whites a frisson of bohemian decadence while transvaluating and reinscribing an exoticizing logic of racial difference. In response to the strain of racial romanticism in literary modernism, Ellison’s commentaries on African-American music and art-making typically stressed the centrality of discipline and artifice. While “the Negro” functioned as a guilt-inducing and thus repressed or demonized presence within white American culture, a psychoanalytically informed post-war modernism might point to more sober possibilities for working through the nation’s racial pathologies. Here was another reason for Ellison’s blues aesthetic to eschew the romanticization of unmediated expression or naturalness in favor of a nearly classicist stress on restraint and self-control. The latter provided the firmest stabilizing equipment for the existential plunge into the “seething vortex” of modernity.

Coursing through Invisible Man were Ellison’s critical concerns with the African-American’s aesthetic management of social masks and performances, on the one hand, and (as we have stressed here) existential plunges into the psychological world beneath any naively accepted blueprint for uplift or social progress. Near the novel’s end, the Reverend B. P. Rinehart offers the startling image of a character purely made of surfaces. What we might call the Rinehart scenario speaks to the plunge into the “underworld of sound” in a philosophical valence related to the legacy of epistemological skepticism within modern Western philosophy. Such philosophical skepticism (a core component of most transatlantic literary modernist discourses) contests the belief that the world presented to us by our senses is also the one that may exist independent of our necessarily limited human perceptions. Rinehart serves Invisible Man as a limit-case mystery: like the “transitional” zoot-suiters of Harlem who appear to the narrator as “men out of time,” Rinehart too has plunged “outside of historical time” (441). Fleeing from Ras’s violent henchmen late in the novel, the narrator can only escape them by disguising himself – perhaps dissembling for the first time. He buys a pair of dark sunglasses and finds himself immediately “plunging into darkness and moving outside” (482). People in the street mistake him for Rinehart at which point he reconsiders the confidence man’s multiple identities and constituencies:

I had heard of it before but I’d never come so close. Still, could he be all of them: Rine the runner and Rine the gambler and Rine the briber and Rine the lover and Rinehart the Reverend? Could he himself be both rind and heart? What is real anyway? But how could I doubt it? He was a broad man, a man of parts who got around. Rinehart the rounder. It was true as I was true. His world was possibility and he knew it. He was years ahead of me and I was a fool. I must have been crazy and blind. The world in which we lived was without boundaries. A vast seething, hot world of fluidity, and Rine the rascal was at home. Perhaps only Rine the rascal was at home in it: It was unbelievable, but perhaps only the unbelievable could be believed. Perhaps the truth was always a lie.


Where a person’s identity is “both rind and heart” there can be no fully differentiated “inside” to regulate the truthfulness or sincerity of the shifting surfaces made available to the public. Thus the narrator wonders “What is real anyway?” Without a capacity to unambiguously “plunge from the springboard of thought into reality,” access to truth or a foundational reality is threatened by endless vertiginous plunging.

Ellison later glossed Rinehart’s doubleness as both a negative “personification of chaos” and a positive cipher of American fluidity. The dissembling confidence man embodies the “constant threat of chaos” beneath and beside the fragile patterns upon which people impose the meaningfulness of their experiences. As Ellison put it, chaos signaled the “irrational, incalculable forces that hover about the edges of human life like cosmic destruction lurking within an atomic stockpile” (Collected Essays 324). The multifarious threats of chaos, he insisted, had wreaked a special havoc on the psychology of African-Americans transplanted from the South. “Negro life,” Ellison wrote in preparatory notes for Invisible Man, has moved at an extraordinary “tempo of development from the feudal-folk forms of the South to the industrial urban forms of the North.” The tempo was “so rapid that it throws up personalities as fluid and changeable as molten metal rendered iridescent from the effect of cooling air” (Collected Essays 343). Here was an ominous image of the “the swift and imperceptible flowing of time” against which Ellison would pose the idealized jazz soloist and his heroic work of conquering and recrafting time.

Ellison countered the negative and anomic aspects of Rinehart with more positive visions of an aesthetic master armed with African-American folk wisdom. As a mysterious and cynical character on intimate terms with a chaotic “country with no solid past or stable class lines,” Rinehart “knows how to manipulate” these conditions artfully (Conversations 18). To master chaos by creating a web of masks, mediating structures, and virtuoso performances: here was the charge of the Ellisonian hero. But Ellison’s essays often set to the side the ambiguities of Rinehart and the anonymous changeling he would later celebrate as “the little man at Chehaw Station.” Instead he would sometimes spotlight figures from the past like Oklahoma City’s African-American jazzmen of his youth or musicians who played in continuity with earlier big band idioms. They had been true masters of reducing “the chaos of living to form” while unambiguously fulfilling some of the black community’s most important ritual needs (Collected Essays 229).(15) Only in holding themselves close to their native community and its rituals of socialization were these men able to cultivate the deepest level of individuality and artistry. Mastering musical form in the swinging guises of jazz and the blues committed these musicians to what we might call a centripetal ethos of lyrical transition even as they enacted “from performance to performance” a more centrifugal and decentering process of what Kimberley Benston calls “multiplication and substitution.”(16)

Lyricism and the semblance of wholeness

After publishing Invisible Man Ellison moved slowly to confront the immediate postwar era’s most influential and celebrated virtuoso improviser, Charlie Parker. Ellison described the alto saxophonist, also known by the names “Bird” and “Yardbird,” as “a confidence man and a practical joker.” Like a mockingbird, he would “take off on the songs of other birds, inflating, inverting and turning them wrong side out” (Collected Essays 258). The final collapse of bebop’s central figure in 1955 at age thirty-four, Ellison concluded, stemmed from Parker’s flawed understanding of his opportunities as an artistic mockingbird and confidence man. The mythic mockingbird of bebop was a peerless improviser at peak tempos who took flight in musical “moments of sustained and meaningful integration through the reeds and keys of the alto saxophone.” As a man deviled by outsized appetites and lethal addictions, however, Parker’s incapacity for “sustained and meaningful integration” elsewhere in his life grounded and destroyed him. Bird was “many things to many people,” Ellison asserted, but in the end he remained a confidence man “essentially devoid of a human center” (Collected Essays 264). Unlike those survivors the centerless Rinehart or the protean narrator who recounts his own education in Invisible Man, Ellison’s Parker lost all balance and plunged heedlessly into the “seething vortex” of a vertiginous world. The mockingbird’s wings turned “wrong side out” and a period-defining musical genius lost everything. The essay, “On Bird, Bird-Watching, and Jazz,” shows the full force of Ellison’s musical boomerang, striking themes reaching far beyond the particularities of Parker’s musical genius.

Parker, as Ellison describes him, enjoyed too few moments of stability to safely secure his daring plunges into a fevered chaos captured in the breakneck tempos and brilliance of his daring music. Parker stood for Ellison as an alternative kind of modernist. As we have seen, Ellison wrote regularly with Malrauxian brio about the “constant threat of chaos” in all corners of modern life. Yet, he took more and more care to distance himself from the heat of political battle or social risk. Perhaps one explanation for this distance is Ellison’s uneasy response to the givens of modernist discourse. Ellison recognized, to borrow the words of William James, the metaphysical homelessness of “finite experience” where “nothing outside of the flux” that is our “tramp and vagrant world” can secure or vouchsafe the truths issuing from our inevitably partial and finite experience.(17) But this recognition impelled Ellison, as it did James, to hold fast to ideals and elements of his cultural heritage that he perceived as relatively secure centripetal anchors in an centrifugal environment of increasing disorientation and protean transformation. While the “out of stride and seemingly arbitrary” sounds of bebop music accurately captured the harried jolts and chaos of African-American urban life in the 1940s, Ellison later clung harder still to pre-war idioms of African-American popular music as exemplified by ensembles led by Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and Louis Armstrong (Collected Essays 240).

The Ellison scholar Robert O’Meally once noted that Ellison was obviously “deaf to virtually all jazz beyond Basie and Ellington.”(18) One might add that the older jazz of the southwestern territory bands (in which many of the “beboppers,” including Parker, had apprenticed) seemed to offer Ellison what James called “a go-between” or “smoother-over of transitions.” As such, the music exerted if not “a minimum of jolt,” then certainly “a maximum of continuity.”(19) “Lyricism” was a key term Ellison used to convey his sonic and social sense of preferred centripetal anchors or Jamesian “go-betweens.” The big band blues singing of his friend Jimmy Rushing, for example, imposed a “romantic lyricism upon the blues tradition . . . a romanticism native to the frontier” (Collected Essays 276). Ellison’s preferred mode of lyricism in African-American music belonged to what struck him as a comparatively optimistic pre-bebop music of social romance. The tempered longing of its “romantic lyricism” deliberately sounded the Orphic impulse in music – the impulse through which music “gives resonance to memory” (Collected Essays 240). Ellison’s appeal to centripetal lyricism in music, it must be said, did not commit him to commemorate a Golden Age amidst the restrictive climate of Jim Crow segregation. Instead, his lyricism – or what Jerry Watts has pointedly framed as “folk pastoralism” – functioned as an aestheticizing “smoother-over” between a chaotic present and a childhood past that could be remembered in terms of an idealistic temper of individual assertion and mobility (rather than static satisfaction) within a context of African-American social cohesion.(20) But as Watts rightly notes, the barnyard whiff of “folk pastoralism” in Ellison’s thought sometimes threatened to coagulate into the implication “that if a subjugated people feel good about themselves, their situation is not desperate.”(21)

Ellison’s myth-making account of what he elsewhere dubbed “the curse of Charlie Parker” provides an apt bookend to his metaphoric uses of Armstrong and the blues in Invisible Man (Trading 205). In the “Bird-Watching” essay Ellison admits to the virtuosity and occasional brilliance of Parker and the “beboppers,” but nonetheless finds in him a new symbol of decadent tendencies. Of Parker’s acolytes – “screwedup” purveyors of “miserable hard-bopping noise (defiance with both hands protecting their heads)” – Ellison wrote to Albert Murray that “they believe in the witchdoctor’s warning: If Bird shits on you, wear it” (Trading 193). Although his “moldy fig” criticisms suggested otherwise, Ellison (born in 1914) was Parker’s elder by only six and a half years. Ellison certainly recognized the serious “thrust toward respectability” that unified Parker’s peer group of African-American modernists. A campaign of cosmopolitan vindication, after all, marked Ellison’s aggressive efforts to solidify his own reputation as a cutting-edge social commentator and American novelist. At the center of the bebop movement, Ellison noted, was an “understandable rejection of the traditional entertainer’s role,” a role that a Parker acolyte like Miles Davis saw exemplified by Louis Armstrong (Davis’s elder by twenty-five years) (Collected Essays 259). We recall the comments from Invisible Man about Armstrong’s genius for making “poetry out of being invisible.” “I think it must be,” the narrator concluded, because Armstrong is “unaware that he is invisible.” Parker, Davis, and the other inventors of the “bebop” idiom during World War II, by contrast, were all too aware of their racial invisibility and the racism that sustained it. In response to their relative invisibility as virtuoso professionals the African-American jazz modernists crafted a forbiddingly complex idiom to help them pry open a market niche in the wartime world of white-dominated “swing music.” Having interpreted Armstrong’s stage persona – a smiling southern black virtuoso eager to draw laughter and delight from all audiences – as an embarrassing reminder of minstrelsy, the new generation “demanded, in the name of their racial identity, a purity of status which by definition is impossible for the performing artist” (Collected Essays 259).

In making the demand for a “purity of status,” Ellison argued, the bebop musicians lost the firm cultural footing enjoyed by earlier jazz practitioners. Behind the specifics of the case lay Ellison’s conviction that performers should not seek to transcend the impurities of mediation in performance for the sake of immediate expression. The so-called impurities of most public performances of jazz – announcements, jokes, and other forms of explicit interaction with the audience – struck Ellison as essential to bringing to life the ritual action that bound together performers and their audience. These interactions served almost literally as Jamesian “go-betweens” or accessible points of transition between centrifugal displays of metamorphic improvisational prowess. To operate otherwise, Ellison’s foreboding note on the “curse of Charlie Parker” implied, was to court personal disaster and cultural irrelevance. In other words, disaster shadowed the antinomian and alienated response to the predicament of racial invisibility. Parker’s example also demonstrated how the quest for “purity” was especially dangerous for African-Americans who entered the music business already facing a gauntlet of constricting stereotypical expectations. The hub of professional bebop performance moved during the war years from the legendary Harlem clubs that incubated the idiom (most notably Monroe’s Uptown House and Minton’s Playhouse) to the higher-paying downtown clubs of 52nd Street. The new scene catered to a mixed, but primarily white audience. Ellison argued that many of these listeners held up a constricting and ultimately racist stereotype of black musical purity. According to the stereotype, such purity resided in the black musician’s distinctive surplus of emotional expressivity that could be summoned free of the impurities of mediation or artistic sublimation.

Ellison’s Parker (who should be distinguished from the historical Parker) sought a purity of artistic expression free of the mediation of stagecraft. In so doing, he inadvertently fell or plunged into the stereotype of the instinctive black musical genius from whose saxophone poured a formless ocean of expressivity for a club’s predominantly white customers to play in. In Ellison’s hands, Parker ended up “a sacrificial figure.” His “struggles against personal chaos, onstage and off, served as entertainment for a ravenous, sensation-starved, culturally disoriented public which had only the slightest notion of its real significance” (Collected Essays 261). Ellison’s cultural critique of Parker and his “ravenous” and “cultural-disoriented public” paralleled his running Du Bois-styled denunciation of Carl Van Vechten’s influence (especially through his racial exoticism and “literary decadence”) over the Negro Renaissance authors whose work preceded that of Wright and Ellison. Moreover, the lurid tableau of Parker’s plunge into self-degrading performance before a “ravenous, sensation-starved” white audience closely follows a fictional precedent from Invisible Man: Tod Clifton’s final appearance as a vacant-eyed street performer indistinguishable from the paper Sambo doll he manipulates for small change. “Who wants Sambo, the dancing, prancing? . . . There’s no license for little Sambo, the joy spreader. You can’t tax joy, so speak up, ladies and gentlemen” (433). Here was the full price of vertiginous plunging.

Ellison’s Armstrong (who should also be distinguished from the historical Armstrong) may have been unaware or not fully conscious of his racial invisibility; nevertheless, Ellison presumed that the musician had distinguished his private life from his public performances. He had, in other words, mastered the artist’s ritual function in the deft manipulation of mediating frames. According to Ellison, “certain older jazzmen possessed a clearer idea of the division between their identities as performers and as private individuals” (Collected Essays 260). An essay from 1948, for example, went so far as to identify “folk jazz” as the “embodiment of a superior democracy.” Earlier jazzmen, it implied, enacted richer relations with each other as ensemble performers and between themselves and the audience. Ellison contrasted the embodiment of democratic interaction in “folk jazz” against more recent alternatives (bebop serving as the obvious target for opprobrium) that failed to intertwine the musicians’ pursuit of aesthetic mastery with the fulfillment of communal ritual needs. “The lyrical ritual elements of folk jazz” were the “artistic projection of the only real individuality possible for [the Negro] in the South.” That projection of individuality and minority-group cohesion also embodied “a superior democracy in which each individual cultivated his uniqueness and yet did not clash with his neighbors.” The pre-war “lyrical ritual” idyll had “given way to the near-themeless technical virtuosity of bebop, a further triumph of technology over humanism” (Collected Essays 325). The merely “technical virtuosity” of bebop musicianship offered only a mechanistic and impersonal response to the “seething vortex.” Ellison’s criticisms moved half-way toward Theodor Adorno’s stinging denunciations of jazz in toto: the new idiom, according to Ellison, presented a dehumanizing mimetic defense against the alienating industrialized conditions that inhibited the “lyrical ritual elements of folk jazz.” The “artistic projection” of an individuality fulfilled within a democratic and affirmative ritual practice, Ellison suggested, was falling out of style. In his 1958 essay on Jimmy Rushing, the long-time featured vocalist of the Count Basie Orchestra, Ellison wrote warmly of the “feeling of communion which was the true meaning of the public jazz dance.” “The thinness of much of so-called ‘modern jazz,’ ” he asserted again, “is especially reflective of this loss of wholeness” in the decline of the public jazz dance. While Ellison wrote elsewhere in a pluralistic vein on the theme that “American culture is of a whole,” he also lamented the “loss of wholeness” within the particularities of the African-American life he knew as represented by “the small Negro public dance.” Rushing symbolized a fading communal life where rituals played out to the danceable lyric music of big band jazz and blues “helped to give our lives some semblance of wholeness” (Collected Essays 275-6).

Ellison’s criticisms of bebop as the post-war lingua franca of “modern jazz” were so sweeping because they were primarily cultural rather than musical. Some bebop leaders, most notably the composer and trumpeter John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie, did not forgo the on-stage role of announcer and raconteur inherited from Armstrong, Ellington, and others. Ellison’s lament centered on his view that a “total culture” crystallized in pre-war public performances by the great black big bands was disintegrating. For him, decline and fragmentation was following an earlier moment of crystallization – what hindsight revealed as a classical moment offering “some semblance of wholeness.” Ellison’s musical nostalgia, however, was not that of a Spenglerian pessimist stuck on an image of decline. There were, for example, complex motivations behind his avid interest in high-fidelity stereo and his admitted obsession “with the idea of reproducing sound with such fidelity that . . . it would reach the unconscious levels of the mind with the least distortion” (Collected Essays 234). In order to move with fidelity toward the distant new world of an idealized pluralistic and post-racist America, an older segregated African-American world, with its joys and its restrictions, had to give way. Ellison could at least maintain fidelity to that past world through his home-made stereo and private archive that sonically reproduced the beautiful world of his youth as he imagined it.

When playing his Emersonian song of the future, Ellison would celebrate his nation’s ideal identity as an ever-expanding fabric of overlapping pluralistic influences and brilliant “motley mixtures.” “Here, theoretically, social categories are open, and the individual is not only considered capable of transforming himself, but is encouraged to do so” (Collected Essays 503). As a kind of Rinehart-like confidence man, Ellison issued conflicting prose rhapsodies, by turns retrospective and prospective, centripetal and centrifugal. Thus, the epilogue of Invisible Man boomerangs back against the disillusioning thrust of the novel’s preceding chapters with a dramatic shift toward affirmation as the narrator considers emerging from hibernation to speak for an anti-racist and integrationist strain of liberal American nationalism. Echoing the preacherly cadences heard throughout his youth and summoned during his career as a Brotherhood spokesman, the narrator’s secular sermon takes the form of an American jeremiad. While Emerson pledged himself to “this new yet unapproachable America which I have found in the West,” the narrator of Invisible Man plays on the ideal nation’s unapproachability – whether its impossibility or its necessity – by presenting the views in the form of questions about his cryptic grandfather. Inquiring as to his grandfather’s deathbed advice, the narrator asks:

Could he have meant – hell, he must have meant the principle, that we were to affirm the principle on which the country was built and not the men, or at least not the men who did the violence. . . .. Was it that we of all, we, most of all, had to affirm the principle, the plan in whose name we had been brutalized and sacrificed – not because we would always be weak nor because we were afraid or opportunistic, but because we were older than they, in the sense of what it took to live in the world with others and because they had exhausted in us, some – not much, but some – of the human greed and smallness, yes, and the fear and superstition that had kept them running


The dialectical form of the Brotherhood’s theory about how the predicament of racial invisibility might be transcended through class consciousness and revolution, shifts register in this passage into the protagonist’s new liberal nationalist dialectic of American self-becoming. Precisely because they were still victimized by America’s distance from its non-racist democratic principles, African-Americans “most of all” remained the truest keepers of the nation’s ideals. Only they could teach other Americans how to become truly American and “what it took to live in the world with others.” The narrator allies himself first with the Brotherhood’s vision of history but rejects their class-based, anti-racial interpretation. In rejecting the Brotherhood’s rationalist theory of history as class warfare, the narrator of Invisible Man moved toward identifying with the passed over (or dialectical residue) represented not only by Peter Wheatstraw’s cart of discarded blueprints, but by Brother Tarp’s chain link, the blues records of the evicted Harlem tenants, the street vendor’s hot sweet yams, and other reminders of his southern heritage. Putting his blues modernism to work on a nationalist project, Ellison transforms the embrace of the remainder into a new dialectic and an American jeremiad in an African-American idiom. Here he sides with the ideal of an unbuilt and prospective America. Rejecting one dialectical model of history but identifying with all that is left out of that model, the narrator brilliantly uses these very residues to fuel another dialectic of history.

Ellison followed the existentialist “plunge from the springboard of thought into reality” with an ascent or perhaps a retreat from the “irrational, incalculable forces” of chaos and fragmentation into a more orderly world of “romantic lyricism” offering “some semblance of wholeness.” His rejection of the rationalist’s world of philosophical abstraction, in other words, was only partial. He laced his Americanist project, however impure and variegated, with a tincture of idealism as ineradicable as the drop of black dope that makes possible the purity of “Optic White” paint in Invisible Man. A first plunge landed Ellison in an invisible African-American underworld “beneath the surface” of a dominant reality. It was an underworld where an ultra-modern existential individualism possessing a finely honed tragic sense and bias toward improvisation mingled freely with centripetal anchoring-points offering affirmation and release in communal musical rituals. A public intellectual who described himself as “a true outsider,” Ellison preferred not to plunge further still beneath an established repertoire of lyrical forms of musical sociality (Collected Essays 663). Hence his chastening references to “the curse of Charlie Parker.”

Rather than plunge further into the metamorphic possibilities of alternative models of African-American musical and literary modernism, Ellison fastened himself more firmly to idealized images of social integration – whether of a segregated black community brought together by the assertive lyricism of Jimmy Rushing and other legends of southwestern jazz or a prospective post-racist America buoyed by a pluralistic and democratic ideal. He wrote of Armstrong’s “different sense of time” in terms of being sometimes “ahead and sometimes behind” the beat; Ellison’s genius, and perhaps his limitation, resided in being both at once. If the tragicomic blues spirit of collective affirmation he identified with a music born in his youth was less frequently heard with the passing of time, Ellison worked all the more to commemorate the “romantic lyricism” of a receding world. Thus he offered the following dedication to his never-published second novel: “To That Vanished Tribe Into Which I Was Born: The American Negroes.”


This essay appears in a different form in American Literary History, 17.2 (2005).

(1) Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (New York: Vintage Books, 1995), p. 8. Hereafter citations will appear in the text.

(2) Ron Welburn, “Ralph Ellison’s Territorial Vantage” (1976), in Conversations with Ralph Ellison, eds. Maryemma Graham and Amritjit Singh (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1995), p. 311. Hereafter citations will appear in the text.

(3) Ralph Ellison, “Living with Music” (1955), in The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison (New York: Random House, 1995), p. 229. Hereafter citations will appear in the text as Collected Essays.

(4) André Malraux, The Voices of Silence, trans. Stuart Gilbert (Princeton University Press, 1978), p. 638.

(5) For a useful overview of the martial theme in Malraux, see Roger Shattuck, “Malraux, the Conqueror,” in Andre Malraux, ed. Harold Bloom (New York: Chelsea House, 1988), pp. 57-72. For a detailed examination of Malraux’s existential aesthetic over the course of his career, see Geoffrey T. Harris, Andre Malraux: A Reassessment (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996), esp. pp. 169-95.

(6) Burke wrote of works of art as “strategies for selecting enemies and allies, for socializing losses, for warding off evil eye, for purification, propitiation, and desanctification, consolation and vengeance, admonition and exhortation, implicit commands or instructions of one sort or another. Art forms like ‘tragedy’ . . . would be treated as equipment for living, that size up situations in various ways and in keeping with correspondingly various attitudes.” Kenneth Burke, “Literature as Equipment for Living” (1937), in Perspectives by Incongruity, ed. Stanley Edgar Hyman (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1964), p. 109.

(7) Ralph Ellison to Albert Murray (June 2, 1957), in Trading Twelves, eds. Albert Murray and John F. Callahan (New York: Vintage, 2001), p. 166. Hereafter citations will appear in the text.

(8) Martin Williams, The Jazz Tradition: Second Revised Edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), p. 56. Williams is referring specifically to an Armstrong recording of “I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues,” and adds that “one has to wait almost until the jazz of the ‘sixties for such freedom of musical phrase”(56).

(9) Louis Armstrong, In His Own Words: Selected Writings, ed. Thomas Brothers (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 166.

(10) Nathaniel Mackey, “Other: From Noun to Verb,” in Discrepant Engagement: Dissonance, Cross-Culturality, and Experimental Writing (Cambridge University Press, 1993), pp. 266-7, 284.

(11) Ellison later credited Alain Locke as an early advocate of an open-ended vision of cultural influence and American pluralism capable of seeing “members of a minority group” who “affirmed and defined not only the black experience, but what was basically an American experience, and, when it was most transcended, the experience of human beings living in a world of turbulent transitions” (Collected Essays 444). For connections between Locke’s pluralism and his music writings, see Paul Allen Anderson, Deep River: Music and Memory in Harlem Renaissance Thought (Durham: Duke University Press, 2001), esp. pp. 113-66.

(12) Ralph Ellison to Richard Wright (June 24, 1946), Richard Wright Papers: Personal Correspondence, James Weldon Johnson Collection, Yale University, Series ii, Box 97, Folder 1314, p. 3.

(13) Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Experience,” from Ralph Waldo Emerson: Essays and Lectures, ed. Joel Porte (New York: Library of America 1983), p. 485.

(14) Langston Hughes kindly protected his friend Van Vechten from this knowledge when Van Vechten praised Ellison’s novel.

(15) For an alternative discussion that stresses “The Little Man at Chehaw Station” as Ellison’s pragmatist critique of identity logic in the tradition of William James and Alain Locke, see Ross Posnock, Color and Culture: Black Writers and the Making of the Modern Intellectual (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998), pp. 184-91, 200-7.

(16) Kimberly W. Benston, Performing Blackness: Enactments of African-American Modernism (London: Routledge, 2000), p. 13. For a recent analysis stressing the non-identitarian, centrifugal, and “avant-gardist” elements of Ellison’s aesthetic, see, for example, Kevin Bell, “The Embrace of Entropy: Ralph Ellison and the Freedom Principle of Jazz Invisible,” Boundary 2 30.2 (Summer, 2003): 21-45. For a recent analysis that sketches the distance between the novel’s framing sections and its more disorientating contents, see Fred Moten, In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), pp. 63-73. By focusing on Ellison’s comments on swing and bop my discussion instead stresses Ellison’s coherent and consistent interest in what might be called centripetal lyricism as a dream of stability and mastery amid chaos and flux.

(17) William James, Pragmatism (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1988), p. 117.

(18) Robert G. O’Meally, The Craft of Ralph Ellison (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980), p. 169.

(19) William James, Pragmatism, p. 31.

(20) I mean to highlight here the centripetal or commemorative element of Ellison’s temperament without neglecting his centrifugual assertion elsewhere that “our cultural wholeness . . . offers no easily recognizable points of rest, no facile certainties as to who, what or where (culturally or historically) we are. Instead, the whole is always in cacophonic motion. Constantly changing its mode, it appears as a vortex of discordant ways of living and tastes, values and traditions, a whirlpool of odds and ends . . . Deep down, the American condition is a state of unease.” Ralph Ellison, “The Little Man at Chehaw Station,” (Collected Essays, p. 504). As for music as a resting-point or centripetal and Orphic force-field, consider Ellison’s assertion that “one of the chief values of living with music lies in its power to give us an orientation in time. In doing so, it gives significance to all those indefinable aspects of experience which nevertheless help to make us what we are. In the swift whirl of time music is a constant, reminding us of what we were and of that toward which we aspire” (Collected Essays p. 236).

(21) Jerry Gafio Watts, Heroism and the Black Intellectual: Ralph Ellison, Politics, and Afro-American Intellectual Life (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1994), p. 109. Watts’ harsh denunciation of Ellison’s “folk pastoralism” (and its presumed antidemocratic and elitist political implications) and his (Emersonian) idealism in general offers a stunning riposte to Ellison’s romanticization of a tough-minded blues existentialism and tragic view of life. “Pastoralism,” however, does not strike me as an appropriate description of Ellison’s modernist and conflict-bound urban vision.

Paul Allen Anderson in the Department of History and in the Program in American Culture at the University of Michigan, is the author of Deep River: Music and Memory in Harlem Renaissance Thought (2001).

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