Global Ralph Ellison
Aesthetics and Politics Beyond US Borders
Table Of Content
- About the editors
- About the book
- This eBook can be cited
- Introduction (Tessa Roynon)
- Part I The World in Ellison: Migratory Intertexts
- 1 Ralph Ellison and the Divergent African American Claims on Henry James (Sam Halliday)
- 2 Ellison’s Appropriation of Jane Ellen Harrison’s Themis : From Sacrifice to Sacrament (Bryan Crable)
- 3 Ralph Ellison and the Metamorphoses of Ovid: Transformative Allusions (Tessa Roynon)
- 4 Ellison and Dostoevsky: A Critical Reassessment of the Aesthetics and Politics (Stephen Rachman)
- Part II Ellison in the World: Translations and Receptions
- 5 (In)visible Man: Tracing Ralph Ellison’s Legacy to South Africa (Aretha Phiri)
- 6 Ralph Ellison in the USSR and Post-Soviet Russia: ‘Hidden Name and Complex Fate’ (Olga Panova)
- 7 Ellison in East and West Germany: Early Reception in a Divided Country (Christa Buschendorf and Nicole Lindenberg)
- 8 Ralph Ellison and African American Literature in Post-World War II Japan: Making Blackness Visible (Michio Arimitsu and Raphaël Lambert)
- Afterword: How Ralph Ellison Speaks to the World (Marc C. Conner)
- Notes on Contributors
- Series index
The editors wish to thank the contributors to this volume for their painstaking research and dedicated commitment to this project over the last four years. They are also grateful to the following institutions, organizations and individuals for numerous different kinds of support, both for the International Ralph Ellison Symposium (Oxford, September 2017) and for this volume: the Library of Congress, Washington DC; The Ralph Ellison Trust; The Ralph Ellison Society; the Race and Resistance Programme at TORCH (The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities); the Rothermere American Institute at the University of Oxford; the Vere Harmsworth Library at the University of Oxford; Merton College, Oxford; the anonymous reviewers and series editors for Peter Lang; Professor Elleke Boehmer; Dr Alexey Kostyanovsky; Dr Laurel Plapp and her colleagues at Peter Lang; and Professor Stephen Tuck.
‘Thinking about Ralph Ellison as an internationalist requires tinkering with some of our most closely guarded assumptions about his work’, states Brent Hayes Edwards in his contribution to the 2010 essay collection, Globalizing American Studies. To do so ‘might seem something close to perverse’, he continues.1 Edwards, like Jonathan Arac before him, persuasively attends to the often hidden and always complex elements of resistant black diasporic thinking in Ellison’s work, locating in this most self-avowedly ‘American’ of writers what he terms a problematic ‘grain’ of ‘radical internationalism’.2 Taking a different but related tack, Sara Marzioli and Daniel Williams separately demonstrate that a comparativist engagement with Europe – whether with classical and renaissance Rome (Marzioli), with Cold War politics (Marzioli again) or with Wales and Welsh nationalism during World War II (Daniels) – is fundamental to Ellison’s explorations of African American identity and American history.3 The eight original chapters collected here, as Global Ralph Ellison, both build on and diverge from these prior scholarly insights in important ways.←1 | 2→
As the first full-length work to consider the transnational dimensions of Ellison’s life, intellect, literary works and reception, this volume challenges a truism that – despite the ground-breaking work of Edwards, Marzioli et al. – has continued to dominate Ellisonian scholarship. This truism is that Ellison, in his commitment to democratic ideals of the country of his birth, is ‘exceptionally American’ to the extent that both culture and politics outside of the USA are of only secondary importance in his writing. At the same time, Anglophone scholarship has until now paid regrettably scant attention to the infinitely varied and often counter-intuitive ways in which Ellison’s work, in particular Invisible Man (1952), of course, has been translated and read, reformulated and even at times appropriated, in numerous different countries, continents and transnational constituencies. Global Ralph Ellison takes two specific approaches in its analyses of the Ellisonian oeuvre. First, in its focus on what the Library of Congress archives reveal about this writer’s extensive reading in and responses to the work of four profoundly influential prior authors, it significantly advances our understanding of the truly international nature of Ellison’s intellectual formation and of his cultural allusiveness. And second, in examining the reception histories of Invisible Man in four distinct non-American locales, it demonstrates this novel’s apparently infinite adaptability and relevance to a range of contrasting intra- as well as international political struggles, right across the second half of the twentieth century and well into the twenty-first. In so doing, this volume as a whole contributes new complexity and nuance to abiding questions about both the nature of Ellison’s aesthetics and their political implications.
The intellectual context and projects which have given rise to Global Ralph Ellison are various. One foundation, of course, is the transnational approach to American literature as a whole that primarily characterized the post-millennium wave of ‘new’ American studies: as theorized by Wai Chee Dimock and Lawrence Buell in Shades of the Planet: American Literature as World Literature (2007), for example, by Brian T. Edwards and Dilip Parameshwar Gaonkar in Globalizing American Studies (2010); and by Paul Giles in The Global Remapping of American Literature (2011).4 As Gayle Rogers has argued in her useful discussion of ‘American Modernisms in ←2 | 3→the World’,5 these recalibrations are by definition inseparable from the diasporic and black internationalist approaches to black culture and history exemplified by Paul Gilroy, Robin D. G. Kelley, Brent Hayes Edwards, Minkah Makalani and Imaobong Umoren, among others.6 A specific formative influence on both this book and on the International Ralph Ellison Symposium that preceded it (held at the University of Oxford in 2017)7 was a prior Oxford project: a workshop entitled ‘The Global History of the Book (1780–the Present)’. This event, together with the publication that inspired it and those to which it gave rise, all explore the rich, chiasmic concept of ‘the world in the book; the book in the world’. This concept has defined our own approach to Ralph Ellison, which we have conceptualized as both ‘the world in Ellison’ and ‘Ellison in the world’.
While the concept of the ‘global’ is of course imperfect and contested,8 in this volume we follow the way the term is used in Boehmer et al.’s invaluable publication deriving from the Oxford workshop: The Global Histories of Books (2017).9 Drawing directly on this work’s introduction, we argue ←3 | 4→that both Ellison’s own works and the cultural forms that shape them are ‘errant texts’, texts that wander from their originating locale.10 Ellison’s writing and the literatures that inform it both clearly exemplify the ‘capacity for mobility, migration and mutability’ that define the ‘global lives of books’.11 Our implicit critique of the exclusively Americanist lens through which Ellison is too often viewed, and of his Americanist self-fashioning, is indubitably part of what Boehmer et al. (building on Martin Lyons) describe as ‘the transnational or global challenge to the national histories of the book emerging with particular vigour since the 1990s’.12
In suggesting that Ellison’s oeuvre be viewed as a collection of ‘global books’, and in positing that a ‘global’ approach to his reception is instructive, we do not of course make any claims for geographical or linguistic comprehensiveness in terms of the reach of his work, its reception, or our coverage.13 Nor does our volume engage in any detail with the capitalist-oriented implications of the recent and current usage of the term ‘globalization’. As Boehmer et al. discuss, books and their circulation can never be distinct from capitalist structures, from the market forces that drive circulation and consumption and that they in turn influence.14 Indeed, there exist numerous important questions surrounding the status of Invisible Man as a ‘monumental book’ and Ellison’s particular negotiations of individualism, the cultural and socio-economic privileges he enjoyed following the success of this publication, and neo-liberalism. Yet while two of the chapters in this volume touch briefly on these issues, these concerns are ←4 | 5→not our central focus.15 Detailed discussion of Ellison and ‘globalization’ in its post-1990 ‘world market’ sense belongs to another, different book.
Global Ralph Ellison: Aesthetics and Politics Beyond US Borders brings together eleven scholars working in six different countries across four different continents. Its first part, ‘The World in Ellison: Migratory Intertexts’, extends prior scholarship by drawing on hitherto undiscussed archival evidence about the novelist’s use of both classic literature and numerous other academic disciplines in which he was so widely read. The four chapters therein explore in detail the way Ellison thinks and writes elements of his own work at once through, with and (sometimes) against sources as various as the expatriate American Henry James (Sam Halliday), the British classicist Jane Ellen Harrison (Bryan Crable); the Roman poet Ovid (Tessa Roynon), and the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky (Stephen Rachman). Together these chapters demonstrate that the world’s intellectual and cultural resources are equal in significance to its history and politics in their role as fundamental enablers of, or key comparative catalysts to, Ellison’s conceptions of African American experience and of the many implications of Americanness. The new discoveries in the archive, particularly in the copies of the books that Ellison himself actually read and annotated, have thus to a large extent revealed the significant global dimensions of his thinking and of his oeuvre.16
The second part of this volume, meanwhile, ‘Ellison in the World: Translations and Receptions’, focuses on the translation history of Invisible Man, engaging both the linguistic and cultural-political senses of that word, ‘translation’. These chapters explore the complex and often contradictory ways in which the novel has been read in the specific and always shifting contexts of apartheid and post-apartheid South Africa (Aretha Phiri); the USSR and post-Soviet Russia (Olga Panova); East and West Germany prior to reunification (Christa Buschendorf and Nicole Lindenberg); and post-World War II Japan (Michio Arimitsu and Raphaël ←5 | 6→Lambert). This new direction in Ellison studies, while it cannot of course be comprehensive (and does not seek to be), unambiguously demonstrates the significance of Invisible Man in a range of non-US narratives of national identity and racial formation, and hence to processes of political and cultural coercion, complicity and/or resistance in those various settings. Both in its individual case studies and as a whole, then, this volume shows that to liberate Ralph Ellison from the imposed confines of US borders is at once to illuminate and to complicate the always-fraught questions of protest, subversion and appropriation that animate our understandings of his life and work.
One factor in the critical focus on Ellison’s ‘Americanness’ is indubitably the 1950s / Cold War era ‘old American studies’ perspective of the many canonical Ellison scholars who for so long dominated the field. And not coincidentally, of course, Ellison’s own presentation of both himself and his work, in letters, interviews and essays over the decades, is itself deeply invested in the many and often-conflicting meanings of ‘America’. His claims to ‘Americanness’ lie at the core of his nuanced self-fashioning during the 1950s–1970s, including his careful self-positioning in relation to both the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Arts Movement. Yet while the word ‘American’ may well be the adjective that recurs most frequently across his Collected Essays, as Brent Hayes Edwards and countless others have argued, ‘American’ as Ellison uses it is by no means a stable or uncomplex term.17 Potentially at least, there is a notable slippage between the intentions of Ellison’s self-descriptions, and the effects of many critics’ re-inscription of that self-positioning. In asserting his ‘Americanness’ across the decades of the 1940 to the 1990s Ellison, of course, meant many different things by the term, but one of these was an insistence that African Americans be properly recognized as Americans (and so a novel by an African American author be recognized as an American book); another, connected implication was in order to insist on and stake a claim to the as-yet-unrealized democratic vision of equality, freedom and individual opportunity in which the author staunchly believed. And so, as Lucas Morel and Timothy Parrish (among ←6 | 7→others) have separately argued,18 this novelist’s claim to an American identity and American aesthetic can in itself be seen as a radical and resistant act. It was not necessarily the conservative endorsement of nationalism, American exceptionalism and concomitant (cultural) imperialism that our transnationally reattuned ears might detect in the easy reification of Ellison’s Americanness that characterizes some quarters of the critical field.
Another factor in the scholarly reluctance, in some quarters, to consider Ellison’s work in global contexts may be the perceived scarcity of international settings in both this author’s biography and his literary work. The reality, of course, is that although (unlike Richard Wright or James Baldwin) Ellison never relocated on a long-term basis to Europe, he travelled widely in the 1950s in particular, and throughout his life he maintained a deep interest and investment in global cultures and issues. Beyond the always-and-already transnational nature of the African American folklore and music in which this author was immersed, the training in classical music that he received both at high school and at the Tuskegee Institute must have been one of his first encounters with an international culture. His subversive deployment of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in Invisible Man, however, is rarely if ever documented as a ‘transnational moment’ or an ‘international allusion’ by critics. Similarly, while there are many invaluable studies of the novelist’s allusiveness to non-American literature – for example, to the Greek and Roman classics, to Dante, to James Joyce, to the nineteenth-century Russian novelists, to Wole Soyinka or to Derek Walcott – again, critics rarely emphasize or examine the transnationalism itself of this intertextuality.19 Indeed, one conscious ←7 | 8→aim of our volume, in including chapters on Ellison’s engagement with Jane Ellen Harrison and with Ovid, is to reframe his classical allusiveness as part of his ‘worldliness’.20 The comparative contexts that our first four chapters provide for each other are key to our reframing of Ellison’s referentiality, and undergird our thesis that that the extra-national reach of his reading must be properly recognized as part of his life story.
Furthermore, with a few notable exceptions – including Marzioli and Edwards, of course – critics have not been especially well attuned to Ellison’s interest in international affairs. For example, it is commonplace to use the anecdote about Ellison copying out Hemingway’s New York Times pieces on the Spanish Civil War (while in Ohio during the winter of 1937–8) to emphasize his interest in Hemingway, but not to explore his interest in Spanish politics.21 And even though both Lawrence Jackson and Arnold Rampersad devote several pages of their respective biographies to documenting Ellison’s role, from 1942 to 1943, as Managing Editor at the ←8 | 9→short-lived magazine, Negro Quarterly, each biographer homes in on the articles therein that most pertain to the American national scene.22 Edwards does usefully parse the internationalism of Ellison’s own editorials in this publication; Williams attests to the fact that ‘the comparative approach to race relations was particularly evident’ in this journal as a whole; and Jackson, in an interesting turn of phrase, rightly summarizes that its ‘cries for black rights, understood within a broad international context of Asian and African anticolonial movements’, were ‘bordering on the seditious’.23 Yet, although beyond the scope of our own study here, there is surely a need for further and more detailed scholarly analysis of the transnational, anti-colonial and anti-racist nature of much of this journal’s contents, which include, for example, ‘Some Aspects of the Color Problem in Cuba’, by Romula Lachantañere; ‘India and the People’s War’ and ‘The Crisis in India’ both by Kumar Goshal; and ‘Africa Against the Axis’ by John Pittman.24
It was in 1943, soon after the Negro Quarterly folded, that Ellison himself went abroad for the first time, as a sea cook in the Merchant Marine. His ensuing travels in Europe included his being stationed in Swansea (in South Wales), an experience that precipitated his sense of identification with Welsh nationalists that he immortalizes in the short story of 1944, ‘In a Strange Country’, and of connectedness over national borders that he dramatizes in ‘A Storm of Blizzard Proportions’.25 Despite Williams’s nuanced essay on Ellison’s relationship with Wales, and Edwards’s invocation of both this formative cultural encounter and of the gesturing towards Haitian history in another short story, ‘Mister Toussan’,26 the prevailing understanding of Ellison’s stories pays little heed to their transnationalism. ←9 | 10→Instead, they are predominantly read as uniformly articulating, in Callahan’s words in his introduction to the Flying Home anthology, ‘Ellison’s discovery of his American theme’, and as pointing to his ‘remarkably consistent vision of American identity over the fifty-five years of his writing life’.27 Without question, Ellison emerges in these stories as an insightful chronicler of many dimensions of American and African American experience, but in that chronicling he is also profoundly conscious of America’s global identity. And this consciousness only increases during the post-World War II era that was characterized both by that nation’s problematic global dominance and by his own assured success as a novelist.
It is now widely accepted that the author’s engagement with black internationalism in Invisible Man is more complex than the erstwhile conventional wisdom, rooted in the negative depiction of Ras the Destroyer, has allowed. And it was of course the worldwide success of this novel that propelled Ellison himself fully into the international sphere. As Chapters 6, 7 and 8 in this book testify (and as Jacqueline Covo began to explore in her 1974 assessment of the French, German and Italian critical reception of the novel),28 numerous translations and foreign editions of the novel followed on from the Norwegian version that, first off the blocks, appeared in 1953. And, as Covo documents, the novel was reviewed not just across Europe but also in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe); Australia, New Zealand and India. As the contributors to the second part of Global Ralph Ellison attest, the many fascinating notes and letters in ‘Foreign Rights and Translations’ file on Invisible Man in the Library of Congress indicate both Fanny and Ralph Ellison’s clear investment in and commitment to the many non-American incarnations of Invisible Man.29 While we leave the bibliographic task of publishing a coherent catalogue of these translations and foreign editions to future scholars, the ‘Ellison in the World’ ←10 | 11→section of this volume initiates the retrieval of this novel’s transnational histories from their current place in the shadows of the extant biographical and critical record.
Following hot on the heels of his globetrotting novel, from 1954 onwards Ellison undertook a series of overseas trips to which scholars are only now beginning to pay focused attention.30 As Buschendorf and Lindenberg discuss in Chapter 7 of this volume, he travelled to Austria and several times to West Germany; he also lived for two years in Rome and visited nearly every other major Italian city; he went at least three times to Paris; and also visited the Netherlands, London and Madrid. He became something of a regular at PEN International conferences, attending those held in London in 1956; Japan (as Arimitsu and Lambert discuss in Chapter 8 here) in 1957, which was a trip that also took him to Hong Kong and Pakistan; and in Frankfurt in 1959. The very fact of his participation in PEN and in the 1957 World Congress for Cultural Freedom in Mexico City speaks to the politically engaged international dimensions of his perspectives and position.31 Yet it is curious that while biographer Rampersad dutifully notes all these trips and encounters, he is at far greater pains to emphasize Ellison’s self-distancing from Africa and African resistance movements in the late 1950s and early 1960s – a subject returned to by Phiri in Chapter 5 here – than he is to interpret the international travels that Ellison did undertake as in any way important or formative. In fact, in a strange parenthetical paragraph, Rampersad instead infers great significance from where (and how) Ralph Ellison did not go: ‘He never visited Africa. His brief trip to Mexico marked his only time in Latin America. In fact, Ralph and Fanny never once paid for a visit or vacation outside the United States’.32
If we conversely understand Ellison from the late 1950s onwards as someone profoundly shaped by the global mobility that he enjoyed during those few years, it comes as no surprise that the manuscripts that make up Three Days Before the Shooting … (2010) reflect, in the words of Welborn McIntyre, ←11 | 12→the narrator of Book I, the recognition that ‘the world is of a sad, complex whole’.33 McIntyre remembers his wartime days in France, a peacetime visit to Salzburg, and an incident when socializing with the international intellectual elite in Rome. While he reflects on his friendship with a French writer named Vannec (whose name is inspired by Malraux),34 his racist colleague McGowan makes dismissive reference to the freedom struggles of ‘Nehru, Nasser, and the Mau Maus’ from his comfortable seat in a Washington DC club.35
As the vast task of interpreting and analysing Three Days has only just begun, it is perhaps inevitable that the important first collection of scholarly essays on this work, The New Territory, only briefly treats the transnational dimensions of the work. While its introduction cites Posnock’s declaration of Ellison’s relevance to our ‘global, transnational age’, this volume does not itself unequivocally claim the new Ellisonian territory as global.36 For example, while Eric Sundquist explores Ellison’s interweaving of West African, African American and Graeco-Roman myths about flying in ‘Hickman in Washington DC’, and while Conner takes our understanding of Ellison’s engagement with Joyce in significant new directions, no explicit claim is made in that volume for the transnationalism of Three Days as a whole.37 While we do begin that process here – especially in the chapters by myself (Tessa Roynon) and by Stephen Rachman, on the influence, on the unfinished ←12 | 13→novel, of Ovid and of Dostoevsky, respectively – this important task is one that we hope future scholars will continue. Among the many new analyses that these manuscripts still demand, for example, it could certainly be argued that Hickman’s prolonged encounter with Native American culture and traditions, manifest in his lengthy exchanges with the character of Love New in the ‘Hickman in Georgia and Oklahoma’ section, have their place in post-colonial and globalized understandings of this work and this author. They epitomize just one of the many ways in which Ellison, in this text, ventures beyond the parameters of United States identity.
Although Parts I and II of Global Ralph Ellison differ significantly (and consciously so) in both their subject matter and their methodology – the first four chapters focus on the literary and intellectual forces that shaped Ellison’s creativity, while the last four chapters examine how his published writing shaped and was received by the worlds in which it appeared – they do have much in common beyond their globality. Each chapter in this volume tells a previously untold story: the story of a complex and multifaceted encounter either between Ellison and a specific intellectual ancestor, or between Ellison and his many worldwide readers. The nature of these encounters, moreover, is often counter-intuitive. Ellison’s relationship with Henry James, for example, or his reception in apartheid and post-apartheid South Africa, have dimensions to them which challenge many of our first and too-easily-made assumptions.
These chapters are also striking for the insights they contain that are not exclusively about Ellison. From thinking about how he read Jane Ellen Harrison or Ovid or Dostoevsky, we discover more about those figures too, as well as about the often almost intangible processes of reading and intellectual formation in general. Through focusing on how Soviet critics or, in a very different way, contemporary novelists such as Ōe Kenzaburō (from Japan) have responded to Ellison, and have to some extent harnessed him to their own agendas, we see just how subjective and motivated literary reception invariably is. These chapters reveal the power and influence that individual translators, publishers and scholars exert in the shaping of whole cultures and political mindsets. The glimpses into how African American literature was conceptualized behind the Iron Curtain – in East Germany or the USSR in the 1950s and 1960s – reconnects ‘Western’ readers with black American novelists such as John O. Killens (1916–87), ←13 | 14→who was contemporaneous with Ellison and was paid significant attention in those regions at that time, but whose name is seldom heard within the US academy of today.
Lastly, all eight chapters in this volume are remarkable for their use of the archive. The respective studies of Ellison’s engagement with Jane Ellen Harrison, Ovid, Dostoevsky and Henry James all make significant use of the ‘Ralph Ellison Collection’ in the Library of Congress – the treasure trove that is the author’s personal book collection. The authors of these chapters posit provocative new connections between texts, and focus in detail on specific passages that were important to Ellison, often bringing to light annotations that scholars have never discussed until now. For the chapters in Part II, contributors have made extensive use of material in the ‘Foreign Rights and Translations’ folders in the Ralph Ellison papers, and have conducted extraordinary detective work in tracking down translated editions of Invisible Man and in early reviews of the novel in long-buried newspapers and journals in their respective locales. The authors of these chapters have proved beyond doubt this text’s impact as a ‘world novel’, through seeking out and contacting figures who played a significant role in the trajectories they have reconstructed. Communication and correspondence – whether in the form of the magisterial Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison (whose timely arrival has been so useful to our project),38 or of relevant letters by Ellison that remain unpublished, or of letters by would-be translators and enthusiastic readers and scholars from around the globe to Ellison, or of letters to and from Fanny Ellison both to family members and to publishers and agents, or of recent e-mails between the authors of these chapters and the key players in their research (both students and professors) – are one of the most important resources on which this volume draws.
‘The World in Ellison: Migratory Intertexts’, Part I of Global Ralph Ellison, begins with Sam Halliday’s study of Ellison’s ambivalent relationship with Henry James. It focuses in particular on how aspects of the ‘international’ or expatriate James paradoxically helped the African American author to explore many dimensions of Americanness. Using letters, notes ←14 | 15→and marginalia alongside the published record, and examining Ellison’s responses to James alongside those of Baldwin and Wright, Halliday argues that all three black writers found paradigms for their explorations of racial exclusion and a sense of exile through the white, expatriate nineteenth-century writer’s perspectives on Europe.
Next, in Chapter 2, Bryan Crable explores Ellison’s debt to the writings of the well-known ‘Cambridge Ritualist’, Jane Ellen Harrison, and in particular to her work Themis, which first appeared in 1912. Crable shows that Harrison’s scholarship on archaic Greek culture played a key role in Ellison’s thinking about racial identity, race relations and race conflict in the USA, and was a significant influence on Invisible Man. This chapter goes on to argue that Harrison’s conceptualizations of sacrifice and of sacrament, in particular, crucially informed the novelist’s approach to American race ritual, and may even have played a role in his struggle to complete his second fictional work.
- VIII, 316
- ISBN (PDF)
- ISBN (ePUB)
- ISBN (MOBI)
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- Publication date
- 2021 (September)
- Ralph Ellison Invisible Man intertextual translation international reception Ellison in Japan Ellison in South Africa Ellison in Germany Ellison in USSR/Russia Dostoevsky Ovid Henry James Jane Ellen Harrison Global Ralph Ellison Tessa Roynon Marc C. Conner
- Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2021. VIII, 316 pp.