Excerpts from: Ernest Kaiser, "A Critical Look at Ellison's Fiction & at Social & Literary Criticism by and about the Author" (Black World, December 1970 [a special Ralph Ellison issue]).

Ellison home page.

In this first passage, Kaiser characterizes the group of reactionary literary critics who became known as the "New Critics," among them Cleanth Brooks, Robert Penn Warren, and John Crowe Ransom.

Robert Penn Warren's vicious, racist piece about Negroes was called "The Briar Patch." Cleanth Brooks is also a southerner. These critics and their disciples, who had competition during the socially conscious 1930's, gained complete control of the literature departments of the universities and the literary quarterlies after World War II in the 1940's, and are still in control today. These critics, writing a close and difficult, objective, "scientific," line-by-line, word after word criticism of the structural properties of poetry and fiction, apply psychology to form, regard a poem as an entity or end in itself, with its own kind of knowledge imbedded in its form and style regardless of subject matter. They are art for art's sakers in the extreme. Allen Tate, in Reason in Madness (1941), attacks the social sciences as a fundamental menace in general, and the use of history and the physical, biological, social and political sciences as a danger to criticism in particular. Ransom has also attacked the use of science and the social sciences, such as anthropology and psychology, in criticism while using them all in his criticism. Addison Gayle, Jr., in "Cultural Hegemony: The Southern White Writer and American Letters" (Amistad 1, 1970), calls these agrarian critics, poets and fictionists southern aristocrats and anti-democratic racists for whom "a poem or novel, like a well-wrought urn, was an 'autotelic structure,' governed by inner rules and conforming to verbal structures which only the chosen few could analyze or interpret. The function of the writer was not, as Henry Fielding had believed, to instruct, but to produce masterpieces which would satisfy the aesthetic tastes of the cultured elite."

[John Crowe Ransom, one of the "New Critics" just mentioned, preferred his art "cool" (read: cold). Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren's published Understanding Poetry, a New Critical poetry textbook that helped create the critical power Kaiser is decrying here.

Now Kaiser turns to Ellison, whom he sees as implicated in/with the New Critical movement:]

The creative writing called for by the New Critics, and the work produced by the writers who follow the New Critics' rules and criteria, are enormously controlled, cerebral and studies. Ellison called writing, in his Harper's (March 1967) interview, "a very stern discipline." The spontaneity is strictly controlled and within the patterns set up in the beginning. The effects are worked out in advance. This kind of writing, unemotional, uncommitted and uninvolved in the people's problems, is a cop-out and an escape in the heartbreak house of a dying, exploiting, murdering capitalistic society. It is the antithesis of progressive writing and art committed to and concerned with the people's problems and struggles and dedicated to throwing some light on helping to solve the people's problems and to ushering in a better society shaped to human needs rather than to exploitation, profits, poverty and wars.

[Now Kaiser turns directly to Invisible Man. He writes:]

All good, honest fiction writers create basically out of their own experiences, reworking and embroidering as they build their works. Historical fiction has history as a factual base to build upon. Good fiction has to be experienced and lived. It cannot be contrived and created from symbols and myths as the formalists and the New Critics demand. But Ellison has done this in writing the novel, Invisible Man. He says, in an interview in Shadow and Act, that the social realists are concerned with injustice, but that he is concerned not with injustice to Blacks but with tragedy and art. He explains the genesis of his novel in this same interview: "I was reading Lord Raglan's The Hero [about mythic heroes] and thing about [white-picked black leaders]. The symbols and their connections were known to me. I began it with a chart of the three-part division. It was a conceptual frame with most of the ideas and some incidents indicated. The three parts represent the narrative's movement from, using Kenneth Burke's terms, purpose to passion to perception. These three major sections are built up to smaller units of three which mark the course of the action and which depend for their development upon what I hoped was a consistent and developing motivation. However, you'll note that the maximum insight on the hero's part isn't reached until the final section. After all, it's a novel about innocence and human error, a struggle through illusion to reality." The hero's identity or social role is always defined by others and they kept him running, Ellison said. His enlightenment and some voice in his destiny came when the hero got rid of his old identities and illusions. Written during the period of communist hysteria and McCarthyism, Ellison had his innocent Black hero tricked by so- called Communist duplicity. The book devotes far more space to this one thing that it does to any of the other injustices visited upon the hero by whites. "The hero's invisibility is not a matter of being seen," says Ellison, "but a refusal to run the risk of his own humanity, which involves guilt. This is not an attack upon white society! It is what the hero refuses to do in each section which leads to further action. He must assert and achieve his own humanity; he cannot run with the pack and do this--this is the reason for all the reversals."

So there you have the explanation of the novel from the author himself. It is not about whites' not seeing Blacks or injustices against Blacks. It is not about Black protest or Black struggle against injustice.

The critic, Irving Howe, goes along with the other critics on Eliot, Pound, Yeats and the rest. But when he published his essay, "Black Boys and Native Sons" (Dissent, Autumn l963; included later in A World More Attractive, 1963), in which he sided with Richard Wright (who said that only through struggle could Black men and all oppressed humanity achieve their humanity) and chided James Baldwin and Ellison for turning away from social fiction and toward willed affirmation despite oppression, he really made Ellison angry. Howe, not knowing Negro life, is taken in somewhat by Invisible Man, its technique and talent. But he says that Ellison tries to satisfy the New Critics by writing objectively, unemotionally about Black experience and he fails; that his anti-Communism is laid on too thickly to be believed; and that the hero's world of infinite possibilities at the end of the novel is simply incredible; that the social oppression of Blacks remained. Ellison answered Howe in The New Leader (Dec. 9, 1963); Howe replied, and Ellison rejoined in The New Leader (Feb. 3, 1964). Ellison's pieces are combined in Shadow and Act (1964). With a Niagara of words, with innuendoes and rationalizations aplenty, he tries to justify his nightmarish, escapist; surreal, nonsocial protest, existential novel. But it is to no avail. That a white critic has to ask him about the lack of protest against Black oppression in his novel embarrasses us all. Ellison tries to destroy Wright and his social view in fiction. But here again Ellison is speaking for the somewhat insulated, educated Black middle class in the South. He says he fears the Left more than he fears the murdering state of Mississippi. He says that Blacks are not pressuring him to join the Freedom Movement and that his inane reply to Howe is action in the struggle for Black freedom!

The white critics, Robert Bone and Stanley Edgar Hyman, agreed with Ellison against Howe. But Black writer James Walker's "What Do You Say Now, Ralph Ellison?" (Black Creation, Summer 1970) says that while white critics praise Ellison highly, "Black students of literature only grudgingly mention his name if at all and Invisible Man is not rated highly as a meaningful novel dealing with the Black experience. There is a sense of anger with Ellison that he has sold out, that he has not dealt with things as they are, that he says little to Black people today and that he is dated in his outlook...[that] part of the current dissatisfaction with Ellison centers largely on his vision of Black people as an integral part of a society controlled by whites. Current-day thinking rejects this viewpoint, and asserts that the image of the Black man is not controlled by or subject to the whims of whites...Blackness will not and should not be defined in white terms...There is in Invisible Man a sense of accommodation and willingness to try and change the prevalent white views...this is out-of-date with the current mood of young Black people in general."

Ellison doesn't like militant Black protest writing but he loves James Alan McPherson's book of short stories Hue and Cry (1969), which is about lonely, confused, used, discarded, wronged people who don't fight back. McPherson's experience, as he says, is very small and extremely limited here. The stories are cold, cruel, inhuman, analytical, uncaring tales about niggers and bitches (that is, women). Using sex-obsessed characters who are mostly Uncle Toming to make it and fighting each other, McPherson tells about these pathetic little experiences of defeated people (only the narrator-author does all right) in the hard-boiled objective, sadistic style of Horace McCoy, James M. Cain and other American writers. And like Invisible Man, he has quite a bit about the Brotherhood (read Communist Party). Ellison says that McPherson will never be an embarrassment to such people of excellence as Duke Ellington and Leontyne Price; that he is a most gifted writer of insight, sympathy and humor. These mean, trivial, naturalistic stories are a real embarrassment to sensitive, full-of-feeling artists like Miss Price and Ellington. They left me with a bad taste in my mouth and a feeling one gets from wallowing in manure. No day of triumph here.

  • Links to Ellison material


    Document URL: http://www.writing.upenn.edu/~afilreis/50s/kaiser-on-ellison.html
    Last modified: Thursday, 31-May-2007 09:42:19 EDT