Culture is also a storehouse of values. In 1963, in an essay titled “The World and the Jug,” Ellison famously took white liberal literary critic Irving Howe to task for elevating Wright’s anger in Native Son over his more “modulated” approach in Invisible Man. Ellison, in one of the best literary beat-downs of the 20th century, informed Howe that Negro life isn’t only a burden “but also a discipline—just as any human life which has endured so long is a discipline teaching its own insights into the human condition, its own strategies of survival … Crucial to this view is the belief 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.”
3. The Fulfillment of His Civic Duty as an American Writer and Citizen
Ellison played a central role in the development of what became PBS, the Public Broadcasting System. This was one example of his civic engagement with the nation. But his main means of engagement was with his pen and typewriter. In the cauldron of the 1960s and the black power and Black Arts movements, the political fervor of the times led some to mischaracterize Ellison as standing aside from the movement.
Yet Invisible Man itself not only reflected the history of black Americans from the mid-19th century through the mid-20th century. It was also a portent of the civil rights movement. As the epigraph at the beginning of this essay confirms, the creation of literature was not, to Ellison, a frivolous departure from structural or social realities. Writers, he often said, create or reveal hidden realities by asserting their existence. Ellison believed that one of his tasks was to explore America and to describe it in order for the promise of the nation to become a reality. To Ellison, this responsibility was almost sacred.
In 1967 Ellison was interviewed by three young black writers. They asked: “What do you consider the Negro writer’s responsibility to American literature as a whole?”
Ellison responded: “The writer, any American writer, becomes responsible for the health of American literature the moment he starts writing seriously … regardless of his race or religious background. This is no arbitrary matter. Just as there is implicit in the act of voting the responsibility of helping to govern, there is implicit in the act of writing a responsibility for the quality of the American language … ”
In a consideration of Ellison’s contemporary significance, his interviews, essays and letters should also be factored in, as well as his uncompleted second novel, Three Days Before the Shooting. Ellison entire body of work remains relevant because it reverberates with a vision of American possibility as magnificent as that of any other writer of the 20th century.
Greg Thomas, after a two-year stint as jazz columnist for New York’s Daily News, has gladly come back home to The Root.