Shadow and Act

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Shadow and Act

Ralph Ellison 1964

Author Biography
Plot Summary
Key Figures
Historical Context
Critical Overview
Further Reading


In his introduction to Shadow and Act (1964), Ralph Ellison describes the essays to come as "an attempt to transform some of the themes, the problems, the enigmas, the contradictions of character and culture native to my predicament, into what Andre Malraux has described as 'conscious thought."'

This collection consists of essays written over two decades, spanning Ellison's growth as a literary and social critic, his rise to recognition as a serious fiction writer, and his establishment as a thinker and teacher. The essays are divided thematically into three sections; as the author summarizes, they are "concerned with literature and folklore, with Negro musical expression—especially jazz and the blues—and with the complex relationship between the Negro subculture and North America as a whole."

The bulk of the collection consists of the first section, "The Seer and the Seen," in which Ellison uses interviews and essays to address his personal experience of being what he calls "Negro American," of African descent, but specifically American. He draws on classic American authors, particularly Twain, Hemingway, Faulkner, and Richard Wright, and both lauds and criticizes them in an effort to represent his experience. "Sound and the Mainstream" explores the way music is fundamental to his life and chronicles the careers and influence of several artists.

Shadow and the Act draws on different aspects of the way African American and Caucasian American culture intersect. In keeping with his lifelong commitment to representing the individual with integrity, Ellison draws on personal anecdotes as well as his sophisticated analyses of literary and musical culture in an effort to chronicle his experience of being an African American.

Author Biography

Ralph Waldo Ellison was born on March 1, 1914, in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. His father, who died when the author was three years old, named his son for the philosopher-writer Ralph Waldo Emerson in hopes that his son would one day become a poet. In his introduction to Shadow and Act, Ellison characterizes his Oklahoma community as a "chaotic" mix of cultural influences, curiously free of the race stigma inherent to the South and Northeast, and the epitome of the American frontier. The jazz scene in Oklahoma City and Kansas City, in particular, had an impact on the author's view of the world; he studied music throughout his childhood, and when he finished high school, traveled to Tuskegee University in pursuit of formal training in classical music. He was a voracious reader all of his life and, while at Tuskegee, Ellison read T. S. Eliot's The Wasteland, which moved him greatly and directed him toward a career in writing.

In 1936, after his third year at Tuskegee, he left the South for a summer job in New York City, where he met the author Richard Wright. Newly arrived in New York himself, Wright invited Ellison to write a book review and a short story for his publication, thus initiating Ellison into the world of writing. Wright fostered Ellison's work for the next several years, during which Ellison published articles for magazines sponsored by the New York Federal Writers Project, such as New Challenge and New Masses. Shadow and Act contains work largely from this period and details the author's personal reckonings with race, politics, literature, and music in his American culture. In 1952, Ellison's novel Invisible Man, the product of seven years of work, was given the National Book Award. Somewhat autobiographical, the novel draws upon the author's experiences as a young man at a southern university, and the influence the communist party had over him as he explores his identity. The novel brought Ellison national fame, both for its artistry and its controversial content, and it continues to be taught regularly in schools today. Following the success of Invisible Man, Ellison began teaching at various universities nationwide although his home base, and the heart of his work, was Harlem. He died in Harlem on April 16, 1994, with his long-awaited second novel unpublished. The unfinished work was edited after his death by his literary executor and published posthumously with the title Juneteenth.

Plot Summary

The title Shadow and Act is drawn from a movie review Ellison wrote in 1948 for Magazine of the Year entitled "The Shadow and the Act." The title makes reference to the disparity between screen images of African Americans, in effect mere shadows of real people designed to suit the ideas of the mainstream, and the reality of African-American life. The collection as a whole is aimed at representing the same disparity on a broader level; drawing on American folklore, ritual, literature, and music, Ellison illustrates the complicated relationship between American culture as a whole and what he calls the Negro-American subculture. In the course of essays, reviews, and interviews written over twenty-two years, Ellison demonstrates his evolution as a writer and a thinker, makes observations about American culture as a whole, and in particular, represents autobiographically his experience of being black in America.

Section One: "The Seer and the Seen"

The first section of Shadow and Act is comprised of ten pieces mainly concerning fiction and folklore. In the interviews, "That Same Pain, That Same Pleasure" and "The Art of Fiction," as well as in the speech, "Brave Words for a Startling Occasion," Ellison discusses his influences and evolution as a writer, culminating in his novel Invisible Man. "Twentieth-Century Fiction and the Black Mask of Humanity" and "Beating That Boy" concern ways that modern fiction writers struggle with how to represent African Americans in fiction. Ellison discusses the ways black Americans, by definition, challenge American cultural assumptions, and the responsibility of black and white writers alike in representing them. "Hidden Name and Complex Fate" is a discussion of the power of names, and of the act of naming, which is by definition the work of the novelist. "Stephen Crane and the Mainstream of American Fiction" is Ellison's introduction to the 1960 release of The Red Badge of Courage, in which he lauds the author's skills, focused mainly on his use of moral imperative in his fiction. "Change the Joke and Slip the Yoke" is a response to Stanley Edgar Hyman's assertions about the function of the "darky entertainer" in American culture. In his response, Ellison outlines his thesis that the comical image of the minstrel serves to invert white America's guilt over slavery into laughter, and thus absolve the culture through identification. "Richard Wright's Blues" is Ellison's contention that the autobiographical Black Boy fits the definition of the blues, in the sense that the blues amount to the lyrical expression of individual pain and tragedy. "The Word and the Jug," by contrast, is a response to critic Irving Howe's assertion that Wright is a better and more culturally responsible writer than Ellison and James Baldwin. In the essay, Ellison discusses the ways that Wright's writing falls short of major modern fiction because of its adherence to ideology, and he contends that social critics fall prey to the tendency to view minorities as isolated entities, rather than as part of the larger American culture.

Section Two: "Sound and the Mainstream"

Part 2 of Shadow and Act is concerned with music, particularly jazz and blues, as expressions of African-American culture. "Living With Music" is Ellison's account of the music in his neighborhood and how, although it can be cause for writer's block, it is integral to his life. "The Golden Age, Time Past" is a nostalgic look at Minton's Playhouse, the site of the evolution of jazz culture in New York. In "As the Spirit Moves Mahalia," Ellison praises and chronicles the rise of Mahalia Jackson, a gospel singer who, despite her mastery of jazz and blues, maintains the church as her forum. "On Bird, Bird-Watching, and Jazz," he speculates on the way that Charlie Parker, although preoccupied with avoiding the role of performer, effectively made his entire life a performance through his infamous wild behavior. Ellison essentially eulogizes jazz guitarist Charlie Christian and blues singer Jimmy Rushing in "The Charlie Christian Story" and "Remembering Jimmy." In "Blues People," Ellison takes writer LeRoi Jones to task for his limited vision in establishing blues in the context of American culture.

Section Three: "The Shadow and the Act"

In the final section of Shadow and Act, Ellison considers the way African-American culture is both integrally a part of, but deeply misunderstood by, the mainstream. "Some Questions and Some Answers" is an interview in which Ellison espouses his notion that African-American culture is an outgrowth of and a response to the larger American culture and the ways it is impossible for the two to be mutually exclusive. "The Shadow and the Act" is Ellison's response to several films that depict African Americans in new, though limited, ways. "The Way It Is" summarizes an interview with a middle-aged black woman in an effort to chronicle the effects of World War II, poverty, and discrimination on the average African American. In "Harlem Is Nowhere," the author describes the work of the Lafargue Psychiatric Clinic, a clinic that meets the needs of the chronically mentally ill in Harlem, and the ways that disenfranchisement of the African-American subculture has created conditions that foster mental illness. Finally, "An American Dilemma: A Review" is Ellison's indictment of the attempt at practicing sociology in a vacuum. Once again he contends that African-American culture cannot be understood as simply a social pathology, but as interactive with and inextricably a part of American culture as a whole.

Key Figures

Louis Armstrong

Although no essay in Shadow and Act focuses on Louis Armstrong (1900-1971) alone, Ellison makes reference to him many times throughout the collection, both as a blues master and as a distinctive type of musical performer. In several instances, but most explicitly in "On Bird, Bird-Watching, and Jazz," Ellison makes the point that although Armstrong's theatrical, joking, and self-deprecating style is clown-like, it is "basically a make-believe role of clown." Although other jazzmen, such as Charlie Parker and Miles Davis, sought to disassociate themselves with the role of such performance in the name of respecting their racial identity, Ellison asserts that Armstrong's strength of lyric and trumpet redeem his performance and make him "an outstanding creative musician."


See Charlie Parker

Charlie Christian

In "The Charlie Christian Story," Ellison calls his friend Christian "probably the greatest of jazz guitarists." Originally from Ellison's native Oklahoma City, he led a "spectacular career" with the Benny Goodman Sextet and shares with Ellison his training in classical music as a child in the school band. Ellison goes so far as to charge Christian with giving the guitar its jazz voice, and, in so doing, changing the face of the art forever.

Samuel Clemens

See Mark Twain

Stephen Crane

In "Stephen Crane and the Mainstream of American Fiction," Ellison offers his introduction to the 1960 publication of The Red Badge of Courage. The novel is an acknowledged classic, and Ellison hails Crane as the youngest of the nineteenth-century "masters of fiction." The youngest of fourteen children and the son of a Methodist minister, Crane (1871-1900) diverged from his family's religious fundamentalism by immersing himself in all things worldly. Although he was infamous for his adventures and exploits, his writing is sensitive to the individual's process of self-definition in society.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) was the esteemed abolitionist author, speaker, and poet, after whom Ralph Ellison was named.

William Faulkner

In "Brave Words for a Startling Occasion," Ellison states that as a young writer, he "felt that except for the work of William Faulkner something vital had gone out of American prose after Mark Twain." Ellison names Faulkner (1897-1962) as another "literary ancestor." In "Twentieth-Century Fiction and the Black Mask of Humanity," he takes Faulkner to task for relying too heavily on stereotype in creating black characters for symbolic use, but he suggests "we must turn to him for continuity of moral purpose which made for the greatest of our classics." Later in the collection, he reviews the film version of Faulkner's Intruder in the Dust and deems it revolutionary in that "the role of Negroes in American life has been given what, for the movies, is a startling new definition."

Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) is another acclaimed twentieth-century writer whom Ellison claims as a "literary ancestor." Although in one of his earlier pieces in "Twentieth-Century Fiction and the Black Mask of Humanity," Ellison charges Hemingway with abandoning moral ideals in fiction in favor of technique, he still considers him a greater artist than his mentor, Richard Wright. He states in "The World and the Jug" that Hemingway is more important to him than Wright because his writing

… was imbued with a spirit beyond the tragic with which I could feel at home, for it was very close to the feeling of the blues, which are, perhaps, as close as Americans can come to expressing the feeling of tragedy.

Irving Howe

Irving Howe is a Jewish-American author of an essay entitled "Black Boys and Native Sons" for the magazine New Leader."The World and the Jug" entails Ellison's two responses to Howe's assertion that because of his ideological commitment, Richard Wright is a superior artist to Ellison and James Baldwin.

Stanley Edgar Hyman

Stanley Edgar Hyman is a friend of Ellison's and, in his words, "an old intellectual sparring partner." In "Change the Joke and Slip the Yoke," Ellison responds to a lecture Hyman prepared for a series at Brandeis University concerning the African-American relationship to folk tradition. Generally, Ellison contends that Hyman oversimplifies the American tradition, particularly when it comes to the practice of blackface, or the "darky" entertainer.

Mahalia Jackson

Mahalia Jackson (1911-1972) was a singer from New Orleans whose performance Ellison reviews in "When the Spirit Moves Mahalia." Ellison asserts that Jackson synthesizes the best of classic jazz and blues artists such as Bessie Smith, but in the venue in which she was raised, the church. According to Ellison, she merges technique and influence so effectively that he considers her "not primarily a concert singer but a high priestess in the religious ceremony of her church."

Charlie Parker

Charlie Parker (1920-1955) is a famous jazz saxophonist and the subject of "On Bird, Bird-Watching, and Jazz." In the essay, Ellison reviews a book on Parker that chronicles the artist's life and exploits. Ellison speculates on the origin of the artist's nickname, Bird, and how it might relate to his famously erratic, often aberrant behavior, and the function of identity in the public eye. He asserts that Parker resisted the role of entertainer, in contrast to artists such as Louis Armstrong, but ironically eliminated his private life by leading such an infamous public one.

Jimmy Rushing

Jimmy Rushing (1901-1972, though some biography sources list 1903 as a birthdate) is an Oklahoma blues singer whom Ellison eulogizes in "Remembering Jimmy." He is remembered for his clear, bell-like voice that he paired with dance, and a lyricism that Ellison identifies as "of the Southwest; a romanticism native to the frontier."

Mark Twain

Mark Twain is the pen name of Samuel Clemens (1835-1910), the celebrated American author of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The latter, the story of a southern boy on the run with an escaped slave, is considered his masterpiece. Ellison considers Twain his foremost "literary ancestor," a writer whose work captures the colloquial language and climate of frontier America, while holding to a moral ideal of democracy. In "Twentieth-Century Fiction and the Black Mask of Humanity," he applauds Twain's willingness to represent the black character Jim as a whole, flawed human being rather than an idealized version of a man, and throughout the collection cites him as the father of twentieth-century American fiction.

Richard Wright

Richard Wright (1908-1960) is the African-American author of several controversial, ground-breaking works, namely his memoir Black Boy and the novel Native Son. Wright is recognized as Ellison's mentor, but their relationship was a charged one. On one hand, Ellison lauds Wright's work as an exemplary representation of keeping the blues tradition alive by detailing the pain in one's life. In "Richard Wright's Blues," he also praises Wright's work as an effective means of confronting white America with the brutal reality of the African-American experience. However, later, Ellison asserts several times in Shadow and Act that Wright sacrifices good writing in the interest of ideology.



In his introduction to Shadow and Act, Ellison asserts that as a Negro American born in Oklahoma in post-Civil War America, he is a "frontiersman." By Ellison's definition, the American frontier is the territory of the individual, the realm in which, like Twain's Huckleberry Finn, he is allowed to seek out his destiny, make rash, "quixotic gestures" and approach the world as full of possibility, unhampered by categorical limitations such as race. Ellison attributes this self-image to his childhood in a community rich in diverse cultural influences in a state unburdened by pre-Civil War affiliations of North or South. Throughout Shadow and Act, Ellison uses the image of the frontier as synonymous with or tied to ideas of invention, action, newness, cultural development, and the American ideal of democracy. At several points, for example, he identifies the frontier with passion for the outdoors as depicted in Hemingway's work. At other points, he identifies the frontier with the world of Huckleberry Finn and his quality of self-invention and adventure. In other contexts, he asserts that jazz is a form of the frontier, in the sense that it is an expression and outgrowth of African-American culture, an everchanging response of the individual to environment, especially in the arena of the jam session, an act of challenge and self-invention. As he explains in the closing of "The Art of Fiction: An Interview," Ellison's understanding of the act of self-representation through writing is an act of shaping culture as he represents his own corner of it. In his words, "The American novel is in this sense a conquest of the frontier; as it describes our experience, it creates it."


Ellison makes the point that the task of his fiction is to discover exactly who he is, how he defines himself, taking into consideration the filter of American society and his own experience as integrally a part of it. The essays in Shadow and Act embody the author's efforts to confront and clarify these issues for himself, and in this capacity, they are preoccupied with the issue of identity on many levels. Throughout his career, Ellison has been criticized for what some take to be his lack of militancy, and for his relationship to the classics of American and European literature, many of which are written by white people. In response, the author has always contended that he is an individual in relationship to his environment, and that his work is committed to resisting stereotype, both black and white. The first section of the collection, "The Seer and the Seen," is particularly devoted to Ellison's ideas about identity as he examines different ways African Americans are perceived by the mainstream. In some of the essays, he discusses the ways that mainstream American society projects a distorted image of African Americans, while in others, such as his portraits of jazz artists, he fleshes out musicians who have previously been viewed as caricatures through their celebrity. While in "Twentieth Century Fiction and the Black Mask of Humanity" he indicts white authors, such as Faulkner, for presenting only limited African-American characters in their fiction, in "The World and the Jug" he takes Wright to task for creating similarly simple characters out of ideological drive. Ellison plays upon the themes of masking, naming, and role-play; he examines the ways in which Americans keep themselves and others bound by such devices but also suggests the endless possibility implicit there. As he asserts in "The Art of Fiction: An Interview," the search for identity is " the American theme."

Topics for Further Study

  • Research and read some of the work of Richard Wright. In what ways did Wright and Ellison differ in style and philosophy?
  • Investigate the ideology of the black power movement. In what ways might Ellison's politics be scrutinized by organizations affiliated with this movement?
  • Consider Ellison's assertions about the ways jazz and blues are musical expressions of African-American culture. In what ways do more recent forms of music, such as rap and hip hop, express the African-American culture of today?
  • Choose a work by Twain or Faulkner that features an African-American character. Is the life of this character realistically portrayed?


Since Ellison was trained as a composer and raised in a community focused on musical expression, music is central to his identity and his writing. In "Richard Wright's Blues," for example, he defines blues as a means of holding and examining the details of one's pain, and as an expression of African-American life, a means of confronting the mainstream with that pain. He characterizes Wright's memoir Black Boy as just such a blues expression. Similarly, elsewhere, such as in "The Golden Age, Time Past," he examines the way jazz expression is an assertion of self, in the sense that it is a relatively new outgrowth of other musical traditions, and, as such, fundamentally American. Several of his essays commemorate the lives of musicians; in "As the Spirit Moves Mahalia," for example, he examines the way gospel and blues intersect in one artist's form, while in his review of a biography of Charlie Parker, he fleshes out the American popular image of the musician. In other essays, such as "The Sound and the Mainstream," Ellison's language mirrors the flow of the music he describes; in its own form and in relation to the art of writing, he sees music as critical to the act of African-American expression.

Black and White

As a person of mixed ancestry, black and white, Ellison considers himself a personification of the blend of influences that make up America. His work by definition is about challenging the mythical associations of the polarities of black and white, light and darkness, that are projected upon African Americans in particular. In "Twentieth-Century Fiction and the Black Mask of Humanity," Ellison asserts that historically "the Negro and the color black were associated with evil and ugliness." In several places in Shadow and Act he discusses ways in which blackness serves as a metaphor for the buried psychology of all things dark; he asserts that white Americans attribute to African Americans qualities they wish to be disassociated from, such as anger, passion, and sexuality. He examines the ways American culture expresses these stereotypes through literature and film, and how, in his own fiction, he challenges such imagery through depicting a whole, self-contradictory individual. In his commitment to representing himself as a mix of the chaotic influences found in American culture, Ellison draws upon the most obvious metaphors of color to resist simplistic categorization.


Point of View

Many of the pieces that appear in Shadow and Act are drawn from progressive, left-leaning publications such as New Challenge, associated with the labor/communist parties. Some others are interviews and articles for literary magazines or publications with an educated, cultured bent. Hence, many of the pieces come from a first or third person, didactic point of view. They are straightforward and literal in tone, assuming an informed, educated audience. They also assume interest in and familiarity with the basics of civil rights issues, popular music, literature, and culture. Ellison makes the point that although his novel Invisible Man won the National Book Award, most African Americans (at the time of the interview) don't know who he is. This point indicates that although he is African American himself, his ongoing dialogue about the status of race relations in the United States is not necessarily a part of the popular black subculture or the mainstream.


One of Ellison's techniques for locating race issues in American culture is by alluding to the work of other writers. In some essays, in particular "Twentieth-Century Fiction and the Black Mask of Humanity," he criticizes Twain, Hemingway, and Faulkner for portraying African Americans as only partial characters, not even human. At other points, generally later in his career, he embraces aspects of these authors' works, and in fact, in "The World and the Jug" claims them as his "literary ancestors," writers to whose level he aspires. Ellison demonstrates similar ambivalence about the work of his contemporary, Richard Wright. While in "Richard Wright's Blues" he lauds Wright's work as effective confrontation of white America with the brutal conditions for African Americans, in other pieces, he faults Wright for sacrificing quality writing in favor of ideology. These allusions serve as evidence of Ellison's cultural assertions, a springboard for his ideas, and a measure for his own writing.

Historical Context

Ellison's life and the two decades during which Shadow and Act was written span a pivotal period in United States history, one full of change and activity. Born only half a century after the end of the Civil War, Ellison's world was still resonating with the effects of the conflict. In the South, Jim Crow laws were in full effect, enforcing strict segregation between blacks and whites. Abolition of slavery crippled the South economically, and rampant poverty was the result. A rise in northern industry after the turn of the century followed and, consequently, so did a migration of southern blacks to northern urban centers.

The outcome of such a migration was manifold. On one hand, the 1920s marked a period of artistic experimentation during which African-American culture came into vogue. This national temperament, combined with a trend toward altruism and philanthropy on the part of many wealthy, white northerners, resulted in what is known as the Harlem Renaissance, a period during which African-American art and literature flourished. On the other hand, the movement disrupted family traditions from the South and set many African Americans adrift without family support, and the flood of labor to the North resulted in eventual unemployment and poverty. Two major events eventually helped to improve civil rights for African Americans: the Great Depression, which began with the stock market crash of 1929 and continued throughout the 1930s, bringing poverty to whites and blacks alike; and World War II, which began in 1939 and ended in 1945. During the 1930s, Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration created federally funded job programs like the Works Progress Administration (WPA), and made jobs within these programs available to blacks. In 1937, after strenuous work on the part of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Hugo Black became the first African-American appointee to the United States Supreme Court. World War II marked an increased call to desegregate the armed forces, an act that was finalized in 1948 by Harry Truman.

Compare & Contrast

  • 1939: With the onset of World War II, African Americans call for the desegregation of the U.S. military. While blacks are allowed to serve, they are only allowed to serve in non-combat and support roles. Some gains are made during the war; for example, although it is very controversial, black pilots train at Tuskegee University to fight in the conflict.

    Today: The U.S. military has been entirely desegregated since 1948.

  • 1949: Films such as Intruder in the Dust and Home of the Brave depict African Americans in supporting roles and as caricatures.

    Today: African Americans, such as Denzel Washington, star in mainstream box office hits and deliver Academy Award—winning performances.

  • 1950s: In the historic Brown v. Board of Education case, the Supreme Court rules that racial segregation in education is unconstitutional. Opposition to the ruling is huge, and organizations such as the White Citizens Council effectively keep schools segregated.

    Today: All schools in the United States are desegregated and reflect the racial makeup of their communities. Poorer areas with a higher percentage of minorities, however, tend to have overcrowded schools with poorer quality education.

  • 1950s: A fourteen-year-old boy is murdered in Mississippi for allegedly flirting with a white woman.

    Today: Although such hate crimes are far more rare, they still occur. For example, in 1998, James Byrd Jr., an African-American man from Texas, is dragged to his death behind a truck driven by three white men.

The culmination of events known as the civil rights movement, or black freedom movement, began in 1954 with the outcome of the United States Supreme Court case, Brown v. the Board of Education, which declared the racial segregation of education unconstitutional. The year 1955 saw the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, take place; this event eventually resulted in the desegregation of buses in 1956. In 1957, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. was elected president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a group committed to the non-violent direct action and boycotts that characterized the late 1950s and early 1960s. August 1963 marked the March on Washington, at which Dr. King delivered his "I Have A Dream" speech. The march was partially responsible for a new civil rights law proposed by President John F. Kennedy, which was later pushed through after Kennedy's assassination by his successor, President Lyndon B. Johnson. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited all forms of racial discrimination.

Critical Overview

Shadow and Act was published in 1964, in the wake of the civil rights movement and at the time of the rise of the black power movement. Released only a year after the historic March on Washington, it was met by critics with developed opinions about social reform. Both friends and foes anticipated Ellison's new work because of the response to his novel, Invisible Man.

In "Portrait of a Man on His Own," a 1964 New York Times review, George P. Elliot writes that Shadow and Act"says more about being an American Negro, and says it better, than any other book I know of." He asserts that the last section is "less distinguished" than the first section, "The Seer and the Seen." He goes on to say, however, that it is when Ellison "addresses his attention to his particular experience that what the writer says is of the greatest importance." He continues, saying that the essays "build upon a wisdom—not an intellectual apprehension, but a profound, because experienced, knowledge—of political power and the importance of ideas in shaping society and individuals."

Elliot's enthusiasm, however, does not reflect the whole reception to Shadow and Act. In Improvising America: Ralph Ellison and the Paradox of Form, C. W. E. Bigsby writes that:

Those who, in the 1960s and 1970s, proposed their own prescription for cultural and political responsibility … found his determined pluralism unacceptable. For although he undeniably concentrated on the black experience in America, he tended to see this experience in relation to the problem of identity, the anxieties associated with the struggle for cultural autonomy, and the need to define the contours of experience.

This idea is echoed in Brent Staples's 1996 review in which he reports, "Black radicals scorned [Ellison] as a white folks' nigger."

The mixed response to Shadow and Act is in keeping with response to Ellison's entire body of work. John Wright summarizes this in "Slipping the Yoke," an essay in Speaking for You: The Vision of Ralph Ellison, when he writes:

Ralph Ellison's fiction, essays, interviews, and speeches have been characteristically canny and complex. And both white and black readers of Invisible Man and Shadow and Act have routinely, even ritually, approached the politics, the art, and the 'racial' values these books codify in terms narrower than those Ellison himself proposes. In consequence, the body of 'conscious thought' he has erected since the 1930s has been left in shadow, artificially isolated from its intellectual roots in Afro-American tradition, and almost invariably denied a critical context as pluralistic in its techniques and cultural references as Ellison's extraordinary eclecticism demands.


Jennifer Lynch

Lynch is a teacher and freelance writer in northern New Mexico. In the following essay, she explores themes of self-invention and identity found in Ellison's essays.

In his introduction to Shadow and Act, Ellison makes the point that writing is "the agency of my efforts to answer the question: Who am I, what am I, how did I come to be?" When deciding upon a career, he describes wondering "what was the most desirable agency for defining myself." He goes on to describe the essays in the collection as "witness of that which I have known and that which I have tried and am still trying to confront." Ellison is preoccupied with identity—American identity, in particular. As he indicates in the introduction, his essays are "concerned with the nature of the culture and society out of which American fiction is fabricated."

Fabrication is key to Ellison's understanding of American identity and, it follows, American music and fiction; Americans spring from a cultural tradition obsessed with manifest destiny, frontier traditions, and self-invention. Ellison asserts that the real America is constantly unfolding, and as such, the American cultural identity is a thing yet unfinished, always in the process of being invented. Controversy has surrounded Ellison's work because of his consistent defiance of stereotype and categorization, especially concerning race. As an ethnic blend of black, white, and Native American, he is by definition a mix, and as such inherently American. Bearing this in mind, he asserts that African Americans epitomize the tradition of self-invention, particularly with regard to musical expression. Sprung from the "chaos" of the community in which he was raised, his work reflects his preoccupation with American identity as an act of self-invention.

Ellison contextualizes his essays in his introduction by discussing his childhood and the origins of his writing impulse. He calls his childhood home of Oklahoma City a

… chaotic community, still characterized by frontier attitudes … that mixture which often affords the minds of the young who grow up in the far provinces such wide and unstructured latitude, and which encourages the individual's imagination … to range widely and, sometimes, even to soar.

Imagination is key to his self-concept; it affords him the freedom to see his world as one of endless possibility, in which he determines his form. The "chaos of Oklahoma" gives rise to Ellison's self-concept as a Renaissance Man, a master of many art forms. This chaos, he goes on to describe in "That Same Pleasure, That Same Pain", takes the shape of multiple cultural influences, from the classical music of the school band, to southwestern jazz, to European folk dance.

Culturally everything was mixed, you see, and beyond all question of conscious choices there was a level where you were claimed by emotion and movement and moods which you couldn't often put into words. Often we wanted to share both: the classics and jazz, the Charleston and the Irish reel, spirituals and the blues, the sacred and the profane.

The result is Ellison's sense of endless possibility for his own identity; he reports, "we fabricated our own heroes and ideals catch-as-catch can, and with an outrageous and irreverent sense of freedom."

That freedom is often expressed in jazz and blues terms throughout the text, but especially in the section entitled "Sound and the Mainstream." In "Remembering Jimmy," Ellison states that in his youth, "Jazz and the public jazz dance was a third institution in our lives, and a vital one." He discusses ways that music was critical to his upbringing and sense of self; Ellison himself trained as a composer before he chose a career in writing. By definition, jazz is an outgrowth of other forms of music, including classical music and spirituals, and as such serves as an example of the way African-American culture draws on a blend of influences to create new artistic expressions. As Ellison puts it in "The Charlie Christian Story," "jazz finds its very life in an endless improvisation upon traditional materials." Jazz also serves as a means of self-invention or defining identity for the individual musician. In the same essay, he asserts that "true jazz is an art of individual assertion within and against the group." In "The Golden Age, Time Past," he explains that the jazzman must first learn the fundamentals of his art, and "he must then 'find himself,' must be reborn, must find, as it were, his soul.… He must achieve, in short, his self-determined identity."

Although Ellison makes mention of his college ambition to become a composer, his ultimate means of expressing his identity is as a novelist. The influences he cites in the collection range from the black militant to the traditional in the literary canon and transcend easy categorization. Richard Wright is a stated influence for Ellison, both as a mentor and through offering Ellison opportunities to write for New Masses, his first attempt. Wright is known for his absolutist depiction of Bigger Thomas in Native Son, a novel aimed at shocking whites into acknowledging the disparity between white and black qualities of life. In "Richard Wright's Blues," Ellison lauds Wright's work as eloquent literary manifestation of the blues "impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one's aching consciousness, to finger its jagged grain, and to transcend it." Yet, in "The World and the Jug," Ellison asserts that:

Wright as a writer was less interesting than the enigma he personified … he could be so wonderful an example of human possibility but could not for ideological reasons depict a Negro as intelligent, as creative or as dedicated as himself.

Ellison's willingness to express his ambivalence about Wright reflects his resistance to categorization. His simultaneous applause and rejection of a renowned African-American author serves as an assertion of self that is contradictory and complicated. Indeed, he acknowledges in "That Same Pain, That Same Pleasure," it is Wright who instructs Ellison to read the classics, including Conrad, Joyce, and Dostoyevsky, for stylistic instruction.

What Do I Read Next?

  • The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison (1995) brings together many of the essays that appear in Shadow and Act and Going to the Territory with previously unpublished essays and interviews.
  • Invisible Man (1953) is Ellison's National Book Award—winning novel about a young African-American man's search for identity through his encounters with both southern and northern culture.
  • In The Omni-Americans: Some Alternatives to the Folklore of White Supremacy (1970), Albert Murray dispels racist mythology with alternative African-American folklore.
  • Uncle Tom's Children is Richard Wright's 1938 collection of stories depicting the struggles of African Americans before the civil rights movement.

In "The World and the Jug," Ellison explains that, concerning influence and inspiration, Wright is his "relative" and other writers such as T. S. Eliot, Malreaux, Hemingway, and Faulkner are literary "ancestors." His citation of various authors from diverse traditions and nations reflects Ellison's awareness that, as an American writer, he is a blend of cultural influences, and the blend is a matter of choice and intention. Because they are twentieth-century American novelists, Twain and Hemingway are the most discussed "ancestors" in the text, and both are responsible for what is considered invention in their prose styles. Hemingway is the inventor of his precedent-setting style of short, lean, minimalist sentences, which objectively describe such topics as adventure and war. His prose and thematic material are responsible for the author's public persona as a sportsman and adventurer; in effect, he invents himself, at least in the public eye, by depicting his particular, masculine view of the world. Interestingly, Ellison is as ambivalent about Hemingway as he is about Wright. Although in "The World and the Jug" he offers a lyrical explanation for the ways Hemingway inspires him and "was in so many ways the father-as-artist of so many of us who came to writing during the thirties," he is just as willing to indict Hemingway in "Twentieth-Century Fiction and the Black Mask of Humanity" for his lack of moral responsibility in his fiction.

Twain, on the other hand, in the same essay, is noted for his introduction of the use of colloquial language and for his revolutionary depiction of an African-American character who is a whole, rounded person. His depiction of Jim in Huckleberry Finn is the first American fictional presentation of a black character who is, in Jim's case, at times kind, intelligent, and logical, and at other times, superstitious and foolish. Twain's protagonist, Huckleberry Finn, is an act of invention, too, in that he virtually invents himself by running away and choosing people other than his father to influence or parent him. Twain, like Hemingway, fits Ellison's understanding of the frontier writer both in the content of the work and in the fact that their inventiveness suggests the endless possibility of their art. Thus, they embody Ellison's assertion in "The Art of Fiction: An Interview" that "the American novel is … a conquest of the frontier; as it describes our experience, it creates it."

Whether concerning literature or music, Ellison is explicit throughout Shadow and Act about his concern with the construction of American identity through art. He addresses the theme personally by explaining his origins and influences, but the phenomenon of his self-invention is also apparent from the evolution of his work from his earliest pieces in the collection to his latest. This is best evidenced by the preface to "Twentieth-Century Fiction and the Black Mask of Humanity," which was written in 1946. He writes, "I've left in much of the bias and short-sightedness, for it says perhaps as much about me as a member of a minority as it does about literature." In presenting his earlier, less sophisticated work alongside his recent writings throughout the text, Ellison offers a view of his progression as a writer and as an African American in all his complexity. His stated intention in writing is to learn who he is, since, as he asserts in "The Art of Fiction: An Interview," "the search for identity … is the American theme."


Jennifer Lynch, Critical Essay on Shadow and Act, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.

Mark Busby

In the following essay excerpt, Busby focuses on the themes of autobiography and "the fullness and value of African American culture" in Shadow and Act.

When Ellison decided to collect his essays, interviews, and speeches written from 1942 to 1964, he turned to one of his favorite ancestors for the title, Shadow and Act. T. S. Eliot's "The Hollow Men," perhaps because of the emphasis on a complex dialectical process, provides the allusion:

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow.

Ellison's title suggests several meanings. In the introduction Ellison refers to the title and emphasizes the significance of a writer's need to understand both his own personal past and history when he says that the "act of writing requires a constant plunging back into the shadow of the past where time hovers ghostlike." Writing as act requires a constant interaction with the shadow of the past. A second meaning is suggested by the 1949 essay "Shadow and Act," included in the collection, in which Ellison examines three recent films about African Americans, one based on Faulkner's Intruder in the Dust. The film, Ellison suggests, is a shadow of the novel, and films in general involve flickering shadowlike images on a two-dimensional plane.

Shadow and Act contains an introduction and three major divisions: "The Seer and the Seen"—interviews, speeches, and essays on literature; "Sound and the Mainstream"—essays about music and musicians; and "Shadow and Act"—"occasional pieces" concerned "with the complex relationship between the Negro American subculture and North American culture as a whole." Through all three parts Ellison emphasizes the importance of his personal experiences, particularly his Oklahoma past, much quoted in earlier chapters. In fact, some early reviewers labeled the work as autobiography. Both George P. Elliot in the New York Times Book Review (25 October 1964) and R. W. B. Lewis in the New York Review of Books (28 January 1965) called Shadow and Act Ellison's "real autobiography."

In the introduction Ellison stresses what Reilly calls his "fictional" generalized autobiography with its "broad frontiersman scheme." There Ellison describes himself and his friends as "frontiersmen" in a territory that emphasized freedom and possibility, explains how they adopted their Renaissance man ideal, points to the significance of southwestern jazz, and, most important, establishes himself as an initiate who ultimately embraced the significant discipline of writing only after undergoing a variety of experiences. "One might say," Ellison writes, "that with these thin essays for wings I was launched full flight into the dark." And as he searched for his craft, he drew from his frontier experience, especially the emphasis on the possibilities of amalgamation, for "part of our boyish activity expressed a yearning to make any—and everything of quality Negro American; to appropriate it, possess it, recreate it in our own group and individual images."

Related to Ellison's emphasis on autobiography is a second important theme: the fullness and value of African American culture. Ellison scorns "the notion currently projected by certain specialists in the 'Negro Problem,' which characterizes the Negro American as self-hating and defensive." Like the narrator in Invisible Man who learns to reject others' definitions of reality, Ellison learned to repudiate limited definitions of African American life: "I learned that nothing could go unchallenged; especially that feverish industry dedicated to telling Negroes who and what they are, and which can usually be counted upon to deprive both humanity and culture of their complexity."

The issues reappear in the first major section, "The Seer and the Seen," concerned primarily with literature. The section contains interviews with Richard G. Stern titled "That Same Pain, That Same Pleasure" originally published in December magazine in 1961, and with Alfred Chester and Vilma Howard titled "The Art of Fiction" published in the Paris Review in 1955. In the Stern interview Ellison points to many of the same autobiographical details as he does in the introduction: the importance of the frontier past, the power of the imagination, cultural mixture, ("I learned very early that in the realm of the imagination all people and their ambitions and interests could meet"), and the value of African American culture, the "Negro environment which I found warm and meaningful." In the Paris Review interview, Ellison talks specifically about the background, style, structure, and imagery of Invisible Man.

" In Shadow and Act Ellison draws from his vivid and specific memory to recreate a rich and vibrant culture to juxtapose with the dismal one too often attributed to African American life."

The first section also includes two speeches, "Brave Words for a Startling Occasion," Ellison's acceptance speech for the National Book Award in 1953, and "Hidden Name and Complex Fate: A Writer's Experience in the United States," an address to the Library of Congress on 6 January 1964 sponsored by the Gertrude Clarke Whittall Foundation. In his acceptance speech, Ellison stressed the relationship between Invisible Man and nineteenth-century American fiction, explained his stylistic purpose, and defined democratic principles: "The way home we seek is that condition of man's being in the world, which is called love, and which we term democracy." The speech at the Library of Congress was explicitly autobiographical, as the title indicates, as Ellison reflected upon having been named for Ralph Waldo Emerson and having become a writer. He mused about the questions of identity that one's name suggests, recalled the humor that revolved around his name, and remembered the powerful literary and oral influences that permeated his boyhood before comparing the best nineteenth-century fiction and its direct confrontation with democratic themes to twentieth-century fiction of understatement.

Ellison includes in section 1 three literary essays written prior to the publication of Invisible Man. "Beating that Boy," whose title refers to belabored discussions of "the Negro problem," is a 1945 review of Bucklin Moon's Primer for White Folks."Twentieth Century Fiction and the Black Mask of Humanity" (1946) demonstrates Ellison's concerns about the American literary tradition while he worked on Invisible Man, especially his thesis that twentieth-century American novelists had turned away from the social and moral function of literature central to nineteenth-century American writers. "Richard Wright's Blues," a review of Wright's Black Boy for the Antioch Review in 1945, is important because it demonstrates the complexity of Ellison's relationship with Wright. Written before the split with Wright, Ellison found the blues in Wright's autobiography and praised his relative for breaking from the restrictions of both southern society and the cultural possessiveness of black southern culture.

Two essays in the first section are intellectual bouts with white critics. "Change the Joke and Slip the Yoke," published in Partisan Review in 1958, is a response to a Stanley Edgar Hyman lecture at Brandeis University. Hyman had identified the trickster and the darky entertainer as folk figures important to African American writers. Ellison disagrees with Hyman, saying that the trickster is a much more universal archetype, and the "'darky' entertainer," Ellison concludes, appealed not to black Americans but to whites for whom blackness had become a metaphor for "the white American's fascination with the symbolism of whiteness and blackness." Ellison points out that the mask of the "'darky' entertainer" was not limited to black folklore, for the American experience was begun in the masquerade as Indians at the Boston Tea Party. In response to Hyman's comments about the narrator's grandfather in Invisible Man as the "smartman-playing-dumb," Ellison notes that the grandfather's ambiguity rather than his mask indicates his importance.

The second and better-known skirmish was with Irving Howe. "The World and the Jug" combines two separate articles written for Myron Kolatch of the New Leader, who asked for Ellison's response to Howe's "Black Boys and Native Sons," published in the August 1963 issue of Dissent, in which Howe compared Ellison to Wright and Baldwin and found both younger writers lacking. Ellison's second essay responds to Howe's comments about the first piece and therefore takes on an angrier, more combative tone than many of Ellison's other pieces. Ironically Howe had initially charged Ellison with insufficient anger and called for more protest about racism in his work.

Ellison's argument revolves around the distinction between art and propaganda. Protest writing, Ellison asserts, weakens artistic merit if a writer emphasizes protest rather than craft. Judgments about writing should be based on merit, not on whether it includes "racial suffering, social injustice or ideologies of whatever mammy-made variety." But Ellison contends his novel contains protest: "My goal was not to escape, or hold back, but to work through; to transcend, as the blues transcend the painful conditions with which they deal. The protest is there, not because I was helpless before my racial condition, but because I put it there."

The second important part of the argument concerns Ellison's belief in the value of African American experience. Social critics such as Howe, Ellison asserts, refuse to see African Americans as full human beings; rather "when he looks at a Negro he sees not a human being but an abstract embodiment of living hell." This limited view ignores the value of African American culture: "To deny in the interest of revolutionary posture that such possibilities of human richness exist for others, even in Mississippi, is not only to deny us our humanity but to betray the critic's commitment to social reality." Consequently, given his attitude about the merit of African American culture, Ellison believes that the most valuable literature that grows from this experience is celebratory: "I believe that true novels, even when most pessimistic and bitter, arise out of an impulse to celebrate human life and therefore are ritualistic and ceremonial at their core. Thus they would preserve as they destroy, affirm as they reject."

Ellison also stresses the importance of African American culture in part 2, "Sound and the Mainstream," with essays about music over such topics as Minton's Playhouse, Mahalia Jackson, Jimmy Rushing, Charlie Bird, Charlie Christian, and LeRoi Jones's book on the blues, Blues People. Throughout these essays, Ellison points to the central importance of jazz and the blues on his own work as he highlights music as one of the richest contributions of African American culture to the American amalgamation.

In "Living with Music," for example, he recalls how as a boy he learned about artistic discipline from early Oklahoma jazzmen. From them he came to understand the dynamics of the dialectic between tradition and the individual talent: "I had learned too that the end of all this discipline and technical mastery was the desire to express an affirmative way of life through its musical tradition and that this tradition insisted that each artist achieve his creativity within its frame. He must learn the best of the past, and add to it his personal vision." Similarly Ellison found an interplay between freedom and restriction in Jimmy Rushing's singing. Rushing, like Ellison, was a product of the southwestern frontier, and Ellison believes that Rushing's geographical background was the basis for his individual talent. Ellison's comments on Rushing may just as easily be applied to Ellison himself: "For one of the significant aspects of his art is the imposition of a romantic lyricism upon the blues tradition …; a lyricism which is not of the Deep South, but of the Southwest: a romanticism native to the frontier, imposed upon the violent rawness of a part of the nation which only thirteen years before Rushing's birth was still Indian territory. Thus there is an optimism in it which echoes the spirit of those Negroes who, like Rushing's father, had come to Oklahoma in search of a more human way of life." Rushing therefore communicated the blues as "an art of ambivalence" for they "constantly remind us of our limitations while encouraging us to see how far we can actually go."

Besides dramatizing constant tension between freedom and restriction, jazz presents rituals of initiation and rebirth. In his remembrance of Minton's, "The Golden Age, Time Past," Ellison notes that jam sessions there, like the ones he viewed growing up, demonstrated "apprenticeship, ordeals, initiation ceremonies, … rebirth." He continues, "For after the jazzman has learned the fundamentals of jazz …, he must then 'find himself,' must be reborn, must find, as it were, his soul." Charlie Parker became just such an example of transformation. His nickname, the "Bird," indicated metamorphosis: "Nicknames are indicative of a change from a given to an achieved identity, whether by rise or fall, and they tell us something of the nicknamed individual's interaction with his fellows." As he remade himself and adopted a mask, Parker moved over the line into chaos and became "a sacrificial figure whose struggles against personal chaos, on stage and off, served as entertainment for a ravenous, sensation-starved, culturally disoriented public." The comments about Parker provide insight into Ellison's conceptions of two of his characters, Rinehart and Senator Sunraider/Bliss, figures who tempt chaos as they don masks.

Another leitmotif in this section, important to Ellison's Hickman stories, is the value of history. In his review of LeRoi Jones's Blues People, in which he criticizes Jones for reducing blues to ideology, Ellison strikes out against the American tendency to ignore the past: "Perhaps more than any other people, Americans have been locked in a deadly struggle with time, with history. We've fled the past and trained ourselves to suppress, if not forget, troublesome details of the national memory, and a great part of our optimism, like our progress, has been bought at the cost of ignoring the processes through which we've arrived at any given moment in our national existence."

Ellison's title, of course, also points to the importance of history, and the third section is also titled "Shadow and Act." Something of a grab bag, this section includes a 1958 interview with Preuves, the title review of films about African Americans, a Hemingway-influenced piece on a Harlem family during World War II, a description of the Lafargue Psychiatric Clinic written in 1948 but unpublished, and an unpublished 1944 review of Gunnar Myrdal's An American Dilemma. As a group, these pieces continue some of the earlier themes, but they are less autobiographical than most of the other selections in Shadow and Act.

"The Way It Is," the only early New Masses article that Ellison decided to include, demonstrates, as the title indicates, Hemingway's influence and Marxist issues as Ellison describes one Harlem family's response to racial injustice and patriotic demands during World War II. "Harlem Is Nowhere" defines the alienation and discontinuity that Harlem residents, dislocated from cultural roots, felt in the 1940s and serves as an important statement of the concerns from which Invisible Man developed. Finally, in his review of Myrdal's book, Ellison again stresses the value of African American life by sharply criticizing the European sociologist for accepting the flawed conclusion that African Americans are the product of social pathology rather than a culture of "great value, of richness."

When Shadow and Act appeared in 1964, American racial disharmony was high. Riots in Watts, Detroit, Newark, and other American cities loomed on the horizon. Incendiary comments by Malcolm X, LeRoi Jones, and James Baldwin made many white Americans uncomfortable. So it is not surprising that many reviewers found comfort in Ellison's measured prose. For example, the reviewer for Choice (March 1965) called it an" antidote to the more hysterical proclamations coming from the pens of James Baldwin and LeRoi Jones." Ellison was often called "sane" by reviewers, mostly white. In fact, few African American reviewers or journals discussed Shadow and Act.

In his review, R. W. B. Lewis, focusing on autobiographical elements, identified Ellison's purpose as a definition of identity: "Inquiring into his experience, his literary and musical education, Ellison has come up with a number of clues to the fantastic fate of trying to be at the same time a writer, a Negro, an American, and a human being." Stanley Edgar Hyman, in a review for the New Leader (26 October 1964), emphasized Ellison's concern with values: "In his insight into the complexity of American experience, Ralph Ellison is the profoundest cultural critic that we have, and his hard doctrine of freedom, responsibility, and fraternity is a wisdom rare in our time." Robert Penn Warren, reviewing for Commentary (May 1965), found Ellison's concentration on unity from diversity the most important element of Shadow and Act:"The basic unity of human experience—that is what Ellison asserts; and he sets the richness of his own experience and that of many Negroes he has known, and his own early capacity to absorb the general values of Western culture, over against what Wright called 'the essential bleakness of black life in America."'

In Shadow and Act Ellison draws from his vivid and specific memory to recreate a rich and vibrant culture to juxtapose with the dismal one too often attributed to African American life. Instead Ellison offers "the glorious days of Oklahoma jazz dances, the jam sessions at Halley Richardson's place on Deep Second, … the days when watermelon men with voices like mellow bugles shouted their wares in time with the rhythm of their horses' hoofs." The figure of the young Ralph Ellison coming out of Oklahoma territory and becoming a famous author is, as Reilly notes, a "fiction," a shaping of experience by art, and it is an American story most powerful. His second collection of essays, published 22 years later, offers a new extension of the old persona.


Mark Busby, "The Mellow Bugler: Ellison's Nonfiction," in Ralph Ellison, edited by Warren French, Twayne, 1991, pp. 126-33.

Robert G. O'Meally

In the following essay, O'Meally examines Ellison's intentions in Shadow and Act, citing Ellison's "single-minded intention to define Afro-American life."

The initial appeal of Shadow and Act seemed to be that here, at last, the "invisible man" would emerge from underground; that here, as one reviewer proclaimed, was Ralph Ellison's "real autobiography." It is true that Shadow and Act has autobiographical overtones. Two pieces, the Introduction and "Hidden Name and Complex Fate," are explicitly autobiographical in design. And in the book's reviews and interviews the author draws extensively upon his own experience. Furthermore, by including essays (none retouched) written over a span of twenty-two years, Ellison reveals certain aspects of his development from the twenty-eight-year-old, Marxist-oriented WPA worker of "The Way It Is" (1942) to the seasoned writer of 1964: now he was "not primarily concerned with injustice, but with art."

In his Introduction Ellison offers a sort of apologia, explaining that the essays "represent, in all their modesty, some of the necessary effort which a writer of my background must make in order to possess the meaning of his experience." When the first of the essays appeared, he regarded himself "in my most secret heart at least—a musician," not a writer. "With these thin essays for wings," he notes, "I was launched full flight into the dark." Looking at the publication date printed at the end of each text, we may trace the growth of a young intellectual's consciousness. Thus "their basic significance, whatever their value as information or speculation, is autobiographical." Nonetheless, the book has thematic unities that are even more compelling. A good deal of the cumulative power of Shadow and Act derives from its basic contrast of black American life as seen through the lenses of politics, sociology, and popular culture with black American life as observed and lived by one sensitive, questioning black man.

Shadow and Act, a compilation, has enduring validity as a unified work of art because of its author's single-minded intention to define Afro-American life. Sometimes Ellison gently punctures, sometimes wields an ax, against inadequate definitions of black experience. In place of what he detects as false prophesies, usually uttered by social scientists, Ellison chooses as broad a frame of reference as possible to interpret black experience in richly optimistic terms. "Who wills to be a Negro?" he asks, rhetorically. " I do!"

In a number of essays Ellison points out that all too often the white critic treats black art as if it had appeared miraculously, without tradition, as if the black artist just grew like Topsy. To correct for this kind of condescension, Ellison is very careful in his criticism to discuss black music, literature, and the visual arts in the context of tradition: black, American, Western, Eastern, universal. Ellison's warnings notwithstanding, Shadow and Act is a singular achievement. It is not possible to point out another work that deals as fully with Afro-American and American literature and music and politics; and that is varied enough to include tightly drawn literary essays and a formal address alongside breezy interviews and autobiographical reflections. That it all comes together as a well-unified whole is a tribute to its author's power as editor/philosopher/artist.

This is not to suggest that Shadow and Act is without precursors. With its emphasis on ritual and folk forms in art, it recalls the writings of Kenneth Burke, André Malraux, and Stanley Edgar Hyman. The political persuasion, which Arthur P. Davis terms "integrationist," as well as the rhetoric remind us of Ellison's support for the freedom movement. As a study of Americana from the expansive perspective of a writer, Shadow and Act falls within the tradition of Henry James's The American Scene (1907). James Baldwin's Notes of a Native Son (1955), which includes book and movie reviews and political commentary as well as documents for an autobiography, provides another context for Shadow and Act.

Ellison's book of essays has also inspired others, including Imamu Amiri Baraka's Home (1966). Although the perspectives of Ellison and Baraka, who in Home professes his strident black nationalism, clash dramatically, their books are very similar in form. Both consist of essays on Afro-American art and politics; both have autobiographical underpinnings. Then too, in that he painstakingly stresses the particular contributions of blacks to American society, Ellison is in his way undoubtedly a black cultural nationalist.

The central theme of "The Seer and the Seen" (the first of the three sections of Shadow and Act) is "segregation of the word." White Americans, says Ellison, because of their "Manichean fascination with the symbolism of blackness and whiteness," tend to see the world in black (bad) and white (good). When whites contemplate a "profoundly personal problem involving guilt," the conjured images and characters appear, as it were, darkly. Thus:

It is practically impossible for the white American to think of sex, of economics, his children or women-folk, or of sweeping sociopolitical changes, without summoning into consciousness fear-flecked images of black men. Indeed, it seems that the Negro has become identified with those unpleasant aspects of conscience and consciousness which it is part of the American's character to avoid. Thus when the literary artist attempts to tap the charged springs issuing from his inner world, up float his misshapen and bloated images of the Negro, like the fetid bodies of the drowned, and he turns away, discarding an ambiguous substance which the artists of other cultures would confront boldly and humanize into the stuff of a tragic art.

According to Ellison, certain nineteenth-century writers, notably Herman Melville, Mark Twain, and Stephen Crane, produced classic American fiction because they were able eloquently to confront the "blackness of darkness" on the guilt-shadowed edges of their minds. For them, the black man, even when portrayed in the garb of minstrelsy, represented America's moral concern and quest for freedom. Much of the vitality of Moby Dick, Huckleberry Finn, and Crane's short stories derives from the blackness of these works. When other writers left out black characters (or reduced them to the dimensions of badmen, angels, and clowns), these writers presented black characters whose humanity was great and whose principles provided the fiction with a moral context. When other writers ignored or excused Americans' "blackest" political and moral transgressions, these writers faced them directly. "Mark Twain knew that in his America humanity masked its face with blackness."

Ellison writes that, with the Hayes-Tilden Compromise, this moral concern slipped underground. Blacks disappeared almost completely from American fiction; and with them the "deep-probing doubt and a sense of evil" that had immortalized certain nineteenth-century writers. Muckrakers, proletarian writers, and "lost generation" writers raised some doubt about morality. "But it is a shallow doubt, which seldom turns inward upon the writer's own values; almost always it focuses outward, upon some scapegoat with which he is seldom able to identify himself … This particular naturalism explored everything except the nature of man."

" The writer's job is not to deny but to transmute the loadstone of anger and injustice into art."

Even Hemingway's stories, which the young Ellison loved for their descriptions of nature and human emotions, and which he once imitated for their technical excellence, also failed to explore deeply the nature of man. Hemingway authored "the trend toward technique for the sake of technique and production for the sake of the market to the neglect of the human need out of which [these techniques] spring." The understated, hard-boiled novel, "with its dedication to physical violence, social cynicism and understatement," performs on the social level "a function similar to that of the stereotype: it conditions the reader to accept the less worthy values of society, and it serves to absolve our sins of social irresponsibility."

Ellison goes on to consider William Faulkner and Richard Wright, who present a variety of black characters in their fiction. Both recall nineteenth-century writers in their outward and unrelenting concern with America's moral climate. Faulkner's characters, like Mark Twain's, have stereotypical outlines, but Faulkner is willing to "start with the stereotype, accept it as true, and then seek out the human truth which it hides." Wright's characters also verge on the stereotypic: often they are either the usual "bad niggers" of white folklore or the evil, broken blacks of what one critic has called "filthlore" of social-science fiction. Nonetheless, Wright pulls from underground the black character and, with him, the disturbing moral questions that cluster around the black as "seen" by whites. Armed, says Ellison, with the insights of Freud and Marx, Wright sought "to discover and depict the meaning of Negro experience; and to reveal to both Negroes and whites those problems of a psychological and emotional nature which arise between them when they strive for mutual understanding."

Aside from his comments on Wright, Ellison says very little in Shadow and Act about Afro-American writing per se. As a boy he was introduced to New Negro poets, and their works inspired pride and excitement over the glamor of Harlem. "And it was good to know that there were Negro writers." But after reading T. S. Eliot, black poetry faded in Ellison's eyes: "The Waste Land" gripped his mind. "Somehow its rhythms were often closer to those of jazz than were those of the Negro poets, and even though I could not understand them, its range of allusion was as mixed and varied as Louis Armstrong." Ellison says that white writers like Eliot, and later Malraux, Dostoevsky, and others, helped to free him from segregation of the mind. Black writers' portraits of blacks were often unsatisfactory, but certain white writers, dealing "darkly" with the complex human condition, led Ellison to realize some of the possibilities for black characters he would create. The Invisible Man, of course, is as much Candide and Stephen Daedalus as he is Richard (of Black Boy) or Big Boy (of Sterling Brown's poem, "The Odyssey of Big Boy").

In Shadow and Act Ellison spars openly with two literary historians, Irving Howe and Stanley Edgar Hyman. Both "The World and the Jug" and "Change the Joke and Slip the Yoke" began as informal, if heated, rebuttals to articles on Invisible Man."The World and the Jug" germinated through a telephone conversation with Myron Kolatch of the New Leader ; "Change the Joke and Slip the Yoke" through a letter to Hyman. Irritated by the condescending reductionism he felt to be implicit in their approaches, Ellison took aim with both barrels. In fact, in his attempts to correct what he saw as these critics' distortions of the Afro-American image, he scatters the form and substance of certain of their literary theories, twisting them, sometimes unfairly, to serve his own purposes.

In "The World and the Jug" Ellison takes issue with Howe's essay "Black Boys and Native Sons," which deals what it means to be a black American writer. Ellison objects to the notion that, while Richard Wright kept the faith by maintaining his militant stance, Ellison and Baldwin became overrefined, "literary to a fault." Making Howe a strawman, Ellison labels this critic a sociology-oriented writer who values ideology over art and who is blind to works that are not explicitly political. Howe is also stung for his statement that Wright's release of anger allowed Baldwin and Ellison to express their own anger. "What does Howe know of my acquaintance with violence," writes Ellison, "or the shape of my courage or the intensity of my anger? I suggest that my credentials are at least as valid as Wright's … and it is possible that I have lived through and committed even more violence than he." Furthermore, Wright, though a hero and friend, was not as great a literary influence as were Malraux and Hemingway. To say that blacks are influenced only by other blacks assumes that blacks live in a "colored-only" jug with a tight cork. We must remember, however, that the jug is not opaque, but transparent: blacks influence and are influenced by whites and others outside the jug.

Too often, Ellison warns, a writer like Howe, who believes that good art must be overtly engagé, shrinks the image of the black man he is purporting to defend. "One unfamiliar with what Howe stands for would get the impression that when he looks at a Negro he sees not a human being but an abstract embodiment of living hell." Thus the raging Bigger Thomas is preferred to the bemused Invisible Man. Overlooked here is the belief that blacks are unquestionably human and that

Their resistance to provocation, their coolness under pressure, their sense of timing and their tenacious hold on the ideal of their ultimate freedom are indispensable values in the struggle, and are at least as characteristic of American Negroes as the hatred, fear and vindictiveness which Wright chose to emphasize.

Ellison states succinctly where he differs with Wright (and Howe) regarding the purpose of art:

Wright believed in the much abused notion that novels are "weapons"—the counterpart of the dreary notion, common among most minority groups, that novels are instruments of good social relations. But I believe that true novels, even when most pessimistic and bitter, arise out of an impulse to celebrate human life and therefore are ritualistic and ceremonial at their core. Thus they would preserve as they destroy, affirm as they reject.

Ellison says that just as he, and most blacks, have disciplined themselves to live sanely in a hostile America, his novel is a product not of political struggle alone but of disciplined literary struggle. The writer's job is not to deny but to transmute the loadstone of anger and injustice into art.

With its comment on folklore and art, Stanley Edgar Hyman's chapter on Invisible Man, published in The Promised End, could be seen as derivative of Ellison's own critical work. Yet Ellison takes sharp issue with Hyman in "Change the Joke." In a typical preface he puts his essay in context, explaining that it originated as a letter to "an old friend and intellectual sparring partner." Their two articles, he adds, "are apt to yield their maximum return when read together." Despite this gentle beginning, Ellison is quick to point out that Hyman's conception of how literature draws on folk sources is so much at variance from his own that he "must disagree with him all along the way."

Ellison finds fault with the "racially pure" aspects of Hyman's discussion. Hyman identifies the "darky entertainer" as a figure from black American folklore and as one related to the "archetypal trickster figure, originating from Africa." This minstrel man, a professional entertainer who plays dumb, metamorphoses in Afro-American literature into such characters as the wiley grandfather of Invisible Man. This argument offends Ellison by veering toward the claim that black Americans possess idiosyncratic forms directly traceable to an African homeland.

Ellison responds that the black American writer draws on literature of any and all kinds to create character and circumstance. If he uses folklore, it is not because of his ethnic heritage but because he is a student of Ulysses and "The Waste Land" where folk and myth sources provide structure and resonance. The black writer should not be backed into a corner where the oddments and exotica of folklore are said to preside over the true source of good writing, which is good writing.

Ellison adds that when black writers do tap folk sources, they do not use the "darky" figures of minstrelsy. Such characters are by no means black folk types but white ones, born of the white American's need to exorcise the true black man and to drape in black certain troubling behavioral patterns and attitudes. When these entertainers show up in American literature they are repulsive to Afro-Americans. Furthermore, masking and "playing dumb" are American games, not just black ones. Black characters in novels by American blacks are, Ellison says, as homegrown as their authors. Trace them to Africa, and the critic takes a political position not a literary one.

This hyperbolic statement seems to contradict Ellison's belief that folklore provides a secure base for great literature. But, troubled by the "segregated" idea that black writers strictly depend on black sources, and angered by even the dimmest suggestion that as a black writer he himself performed the obscene function of a blackface minstrel man, Ellison threw Hyman a hyperbole. Afro-American folklore provides riches, Ellison says, "but for the novelist, of any cultural or racial identity, his form is his greatest freedom and his insights are where he finds them."

So where does the writer find true portraits of Afro-Americans? In black folklore, yes. In churches, barbershops, workgangs, and playgrounds where the lore abounds. But that kind of study can never replace the needed study of images and modes of characterization in literature. And this does appear in the works of Toni Morrison, Ernest J. Gaines, Ishmael Reed, Al Young, Alice Walker, and James A. McPherson—all of whom also use folklore in their fiction—whose characters spring from the Bible, James Fenimore Cooper, Jonathan Swift, Henry James, Zora Neale Hurston, from Ralph Ellison.

When jazz saxophonist Marion Brown taught at the University of Massachusetts, he required his students to read the second section of Shadow andAct, "Sound and the Mainstream." There, he said, you get an idea of the milieu in which the black musician operates. There, too, are several portraits of Afro-Americans at their eloquent best: as musicians, as artists.

"Blues People," a review of Imamu Amiri Baraka's study of black music, is the theoretical cornerstone of Shadow and Act's middle section. Baraka, another strawman, is said to strain for militancy and to falsify the meaning of the blues and the background of the bluesman. Afro-Americans of any kind are likely to produce genuine art, notes Ellison, not just dark-skinned, country, lower-class, or militant blacks. Furthermore, Afro-American music may not correctly be considered in isolation from mainstream American music. "The most authoritative rendering of America in music is that of American Negroes." One of Ellison's major points here is that black American musicians, throughout their history in the New World, have functioned not as politicians but as artists, leaders of transcending ritual. "Any effective study of the blues would treat them first as poetry and ritual." To white society, Bessie Smith may have been purely an entertainer, a "blues queen"; but "within the tighter Negro community where the blues were part of a total way of life, and a major expression of an attitude toward life, she was a priestess, a celebrant who affirmed the values of the group and man's ability to deal with chaos." The same is true of other black musicians too, as Ellison carries out the theme in his portraits of Mahalia Jackson, Charlie Parker, Charlie Christian, and Jimmy Rushing.

The piece on Mahalia Jackson, "As the Spirit Moves Mahalia," contains a fine thumbnail sketch of the renowned gospel singer, whose ebullience brought her international fame. Also, though untrained in a formal sense, she is portrayed as a highly conscious artist who extended the gospel form. Disciplined by her experiences in a black southern rural and then black northern urban setting, she was influenced not only by blues and jazz, but by the European classics, flamenco, and certain Eastern forms.

Ellison gives an excellent discussion of black sacred music as the music of ritual. He advises those who would truly understand this singer to hear her in the Afro-American church, where she reigns as "a high priestess in the religious ceremony."

It is in the setting of the church that the full timbre of her sincerity sounds most distinctly … Here it could be seen that the true function of her singing is not simply to entertain, but to prepare the congregation for the minister's message, to make it receptive to the spirit and, with effects of voice and rhythm, to evoke a shared community of experience.

The recordings are wonderful, but only in church may she sing truly" until the Lord comes." Only in the music's ritual context may the full mystery and meaning of her songs be comprehended.

"Remembering Jimmy" is Ellison's eloquent appreciation of Jimmy Rushing who, like Mahalia Jackson, is portrayed as the leader of a ritual, in this case a secular one: the public dance. The combination of blues, dancers, musicians, and singers "formed the vital whole of jazz as an institutional form, and even today neither part is quite complete without the rest." Rushing's blues and ballads must be experienced in ritual context. So, too, his music is a product of the black neighborhood, his voice seeming to echo something wondrous about the east side of Oklahoma City where he like Ellison got his start. And Rushing's music has political, social, and national implications, reminding Americans of "rock-bottom reality" along with "our sense of the possibility of rising about it." Herein lies the force of the blues, "our most vital popular art form," and the universal appeal of an artist/interpreter, Rushing.

Ellison's tribute to another childhood acquaintance in "The Charlie Christian Story" focuses on the jazz musician in American society. In a country where high art is viewed as entertainment, and where the complexities of history are reduced to the clichés of legend, the meanings of jazz are dimly understood. Charlie Christian was exposed to many kinds of music as he grew up. Oklahoma City was a bustling, energetic blues and jazz center where Second Street was comparable to Kansas City's famous Twelfth. Moreover, at school, on the radio, at the movies, and, in Christian's case, at home, classical music as well as popular and folk songs were heard. Many jazz performers, including Christian before he reached New York City, remain local heroes inside the narrow radius of their traveling circuit. But the tradition from which their art springs is a rich and diverse one, tapping blues and classics, folk and high art.

As with Rushing and Jackson, Christian and other jazz artists can be most fully understood in the context of ritual. For jazzmen the public dance is a vital institution. But the "academy"—the principal ritual and testing ground—is the jam session. Here the artists exchange ideas (which then, imitated, drift into the vocabulary of mainstream jazz, leaving their creators anonymous); they also participate in a rite wherein the musician's identity is discovered and asserted. In Ellison's words, "Each true jazz moment … springs from a contest in which each artist challenges all the rest; each solo flight, or improvisation, represents (like the successive canvases of a painter) a definition of his identity: as individual, as member of the collectivity and as a link in the chain of tradition." For Ellison, black musicians are tough, astute artists and ritual leaders who teach, purge, destroy, mourn, initiate, delight—and, above all, celebrate.

And black music that is unconnected to these life-sustaining rituals—the church, the dance, the jam session—is liable to be sterile. Such seems the case even with the eloquent saxophone virtuoso, Charlie "Bird" Parker, portrayed in "On Bird, Bird-Watching, and Jazz" as an artist without roots. Though Parker studied and jammed with Kansas City musicians, he (and a generation of imitators) threw off the mask of the dance-hall entertainer only, Ellison says, to become a "white hero" and, ironically, "entertainment for a ravenous, sensation-starved, culturally disoriented public," mostly white. To Ellison, Parker's music reflected the triumph of technique over real feeling (as expressed in sacred and secular ritual) and, finally, adolescent impotence. Of Parker's style, Ellison writes: "For all its velocity, brilliance and imagination there is in it a great deal of loneliness, self-deprecation and self-pity. With this there is a quality which seems to issue from its vibratoless tone: a sound of amateurish ineffectuality, as though he could never quite make it." "Bird lives," in Ellison's view, because he transforms postwar discord and yearning into "a haunting art." Ellison, who obviously is deaf to virtually all jazz beyond Basie and Ellington, says that if Bird could be said to reign as a ritual leader, his was a cult of sad-eyed, self-destructive whites, trying desperately, decadently, to be "hip."

The third and final "movement" of Shadow and Act, the one that gives the book its title, is its least focused section. This "eldest" division (containing essays dated 1942, 1944, 1948, 1949, and 1958) comprises two topical essays, a piece on black Hollywood images, a book review, and a self-interview on politics, race, and culture. This mixed section is not, however, a mere grab bag stuffed with old essays unfitted to the rest of the book. Dealing primarily with culture and politics—rather than literature and music—it provides the reader a background against which to evaluate Ellison's discussions of specific art forms and artists.

Also, the essays in this final section are the book's most radical in analysis. In "The Way It Is," published in New Masses (1942) Ellison coolly defines the misery and near despair of Harlemites on the home front of the world war fought by a Jim Crow army. In "Harlem Is Nowhere" (unpublished, 1948) he discusses the wretched conditions in Harlem and their effects on the minds of desperate "folk" residents. And in "An American Dilemma: A Review" (unpublished, 1944) he delineates the invidious relation of "philanthropic" big business, social science, and black politics. Here we seem to be in the presence of a Young Turk who hurls elaborate curses from the sidelines of American culture. That two of these essays were not previously published (because of their radical bent?) suggests that Ellison may have yet more gems filed away.

As in the first two thirds of Shadow and Act, in this section Ellison deals with the image and role of the Afro-American in the United States. Here again he observes that in terms of culture Afro-Americans are more American than purely African. What binds people of African ancestry throughout the world is "not culture … but an identity of passions." "We share a hatred for the alienation forced upon us by Europeans during the process of colonialization and empire are bound by our common suffering more than by our pigmentation." Thus blacks around the world share what one anthropologist has termed a common "culture of oppression" rather than language and other cultural forms and rites. Now we meet Ellison at his stubborn and limiting worse, blindly ignoring the multiplicity of cultural forms shared by peoples of African descent. According to the Ellison of "Some Questions and Some Ancestors," all that blacks in America have in common with blacks in Ghana or South Africa is white oppression.

This is not to say that Afro-Americans do not constitute a distinctive group; nor, as Ellison makes clear elsewhere, does it mean that Afro-Americans are defined simply by their relation to white Americans. In an often-quoted passage from his review of Gunnar Myrdal's An American Dilemma, Ellison bristles:

Can a people (its faith in an idealized American Creed not withstanding) live and develop for over three hundred years simply by reacting ? Are American Negroes simply the creation of white men, or have they at least helped to create themselves out of what they found around them? Men have made a way of life in caves and upon cliffs, why cannot Negroes have made a way of life upon the horns of the white man's dilemma?

In fact, black Americans have made a way of life which they do not wish to sacrifice entirely, even in their drive for full freedom in America. Ellison accuses Myrdal of presuming that blacks do not participate in "white" culture because they are kept away from it. Ellison offers an important corrective here:

It does not occur to Myrdal that many of the Negro cultural manifestations which he considers merely reflective might also embody a rejection of what he considers "higher values." There is a dualism at work here. It is only partially true that Negroes turn away from white patterns because they are refused participation. There is nothing like distance to create objectivity, and exclusion gives rise to counter values. Men, as Dostoevsky observed, cannot live in revolt.

Men tend to prefer the styles and values of their particular cultural group. Sounding somewhat more like Imamu Amiri Baraka than the moderate integrationist, Ellison comments on the effect of integration on black culture:

I see a period when Negroes are going to be wandering around because, you see, we have had this thing thrown at us for so long that we haven't had a chance to discover what in our own background is really worth preserving. For the first time we are given a choice, we are making a choice … Most Negroes could not be nourished by the life white Southerners live. It is too hag-ridden, it is too obsessed, it is too concerned with attitudes which could change everything that Negroes have been conditioned to expect from life.

Shadow and Act presents explicit and compelling definitions of Afro-American life. The most comprehensive of these appears in "The World and the Jug" (which I talked about earlier in terms of its literary argument):

It is not skin color which makes a Negro American but cultural heritage as shaped by the American experience, the social and political predicament; a sharing of that "concord of sensibilities" which the group expresses through historical circumstance … Being a Negro American has to do with the memory of slavery and the hope of emancipation and the betrayal by allies and the revenge and contempt inflicted by our former masters after the Reconstruction, and the myths, both Northern and Southern, which are propagated in justification of that betrayal … It has to do with a special perspective on the national ideals and the national conduct, and with a tragicomic attitude toward the universe. It has to do with special emotions evoked by the details of cities and countrysides, with forms of labor and with forms of pleasure; with sex and with love, with food and with drink, with machines and with animals; with climates and with dwellings, with places of worship and places of entertainment; with garments and dreams and idioms of speech; with manners and customs, with religion and art, with life styles and hoping, and with that special sense of predicament and fate which gives direction and resonance to the Freedom Movement.

Ellison closes this lyrical definition with: "Most important, perhaps, being a Negro American involves a willed affirmation of self against all outside pressure—an identification with the group as extended through the individual self which rejects all possibilities of escape that do not involve a basic resuscitation of original American ideals of social and political justice."

As seen by Ellison, the Afro-American's life has been torturous and tragic, but it has also been heroic and rich in form and spirit. Sociologists and sociological critics, indeed critics of all kinds, and writers, black and white, have failed for the most part to focus on black American men and women of flesh and blood. A few writers have seen through the greasepaint stereotypes. In Shadow and Act Ellison recommends that those who would truly "know the Negro" study certain nineteenth-and twentieth-century writers (including the Russians) and to learn about black folklore. Moreover, in this abstracted autobiography Ellison surveys his own experience and recommends that blacks be seen (and, especially, that they see themselves) as a group with a special perspective, with beautiful and useful cultural forms, and with a flaming desire for freedom.


Robert G. O'Meally, "Shadow Actor: Ellison's Aesthetics," in The Craft of Ralph Ellison, Harvard University Press, 1980, pp. 160-72.


Bigsby, C. W. E., "Improvising America: Ralph Ellison and the Paradox of Form," in Speaking for You: The Vision of Ralph Ellison, edited by Kimberly W. Benston, Howard University Press, 1987, p. 137.

Elliot, George P., "Portrait of a Man on His Own," in New York Times Book Review, October 25, 1964.

Staples, Brent, "Indivisible Man," in New York Times Book Review, May 12, 1996.

Wright, John, "Slipping the Yoke," in Speaking for You: The Vision of Ralph Ellison, edited by Kimberly W. Benston, Howard University Press, 1987, p. 65.

Further Reading

Bloom, Harold, Ralph Ellison, Modern Critical Views series, Chelsea House Publishers, 1986.

Bloom's text is a collection of critical essays on Ellison's fiction and non-fiction.

Butler, Robert J., The Critical Response to Ralph Ellison, Greenwood Press, 2000.

This work is a collection of critical essays on Ellison's work that were published since the release of his posthumously published work.

Nadel, Alan, Invisible Criticism: Ralph Ellison and the American Canon, University of Iowa Press, 1988.

Nadel offers a collection of essays addressing Ellison's ambivalent relationship to other prominent American authors, including Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, and William Faulkner.

Woodward, C. Vann, The Strange Career of Jim Crow, Oxford University Press, 1966.

Woodward's book is the definitive work detailing the relationship between the civil rights movement and the decades of segregation that preceded it.