The Impulse to Exclude

From The American Scholar:

Images_2 Ralph Ellison became famous in 1952 with the publication of Invisible Man, which remained for some 30 years the most widely read and respected novel by an African-American writer. Ellison died in 1994 having never produced the second novel he spent so much of his life working on. Arnold Rampersad, as fine a biographer as is working today, author of the splendid two-volume biography of Langston Hughes as well as a biography of Jackie Robinson, is fully up to answering the obvious question “Why no second novel?” But his book suggests, more interestingly, that it may be the wrong question to ask. The right one would be “How did he manage to write Invisible Man?” For, as Rampersad shows, Ellison’s instincts and core talents were not those of a novelist.

He was cerebral, judgmental, meaning-oriented oriented rather than experience-oriented in his approach to fiction. He had no impulse merely to represent life in its variety, an impulse that, like the urge to chronology, can sustain a fiction writer when all else fails. Crucially influenced in the late 1940s by Kenneth Burke and Stanley Edgar Hyman, Ellison embraced the myth and symbol school of criticism as a program for generating fiction. Idolizing Joyce and T. S. Eliot as well as Hemingway, he seems to have thought that the power of Ulysses and The Waste Land came from their mythic substrata and that if he could summon up mythic resonances, readers would respond. Thus he was deeply upset when a young scholar got the name of one of his characters wrong. It wasn’t Julian Bledsoe. It was Hebert Bledsoe, and “Hebert” was pronounced in the French way, “a bear,” and if you didn’t get that, you didn’t see that the character was an avatar of the bear archetype. Such narrowness, aggravating in an English professor, is deadly in a creative writer. Fortunately for us fans of Invisible Man, Ellison also had a powerful impulse to riff at the typewriter, which countered the effect of his theorizing. Between those two poles of prescriptive literary theory and jazz improvisation was generated his wild, semisurrealistic masterpiece.

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