Invisible Criticism: Ralph Ellison and the American Canon
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In 1952 Ralph Ellison won the National Book Award for his Kafkaesque and claustrophobic novel about the life of a nameless young black man in New York City. Although "Invisible Man" has remained the only novel that Ellison published in his lifetime, it is generally regarded as one of the most important works of fiction in our century.This new reading of a classic work examines Ellison's relation to and critique of the American literary canon by demonstrating that the pattern of allusions in "Invisible Man" forms a literary-critical subtext which challenges the accepted readings of such major American authors as Emerson, Melville, and Twain.Modeling his argument on Foucault's analysis of the asylum, Nadel analyzes the institution of the South to show how it moved blacks from enslavement to slavery to invisibilityOCoall in the interest of maintaining an organization of power based on racial caste. He then demonstrates the ways Ellison wrote in the modernist/surreal tradition to trace symbolically the history of blacks in America as they moved not only from the nineteenth century to the twentieth, and from the rural South to the urban North, but as they moved (sometimes unnoticed) through American fiction.It is on this latter movement that Nadel focuses his criticism, first demonstrating theoretically that allusions can impel reconsideration of the alluded-to text and thus function as a form of literary criticism, and then reading the specific criticism implied by Ellison's allusions to Emerson's essays and Lewis Mumford's "The Golden Days, " as well as to Benito Cereno and The "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." Nadel also considers Ellison's allusions to Whitman, Eliot, Joyce, and the New Testament."Invisible Criticism" will be of interest not only to students of American and Afro-American literature but also to those concerned about issues of literary theory, particularly in the areas of intertextual relationships, canonicity, and rehistoricism."
invisible assumptions which structure that understanding. Using the stylistic techniques he learned from studying Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, Ellison constructed an intense network of allusions in contexts which force the reader to reinterpret their historical or literary referents. Ellison, however, does not create a deconstruction but rather reconstructs a coherent alternative to the "accepted" ways of reading American history and literature in 1952. Page 27 2. Translating Tradition
call to be embraced by it. The past, in other words, remains the knowable constant applied to the unknowable—unfolding—work, and thus tradition is static. One can easily see how this static vision could come under criticism from any of a number of contemporary critics and theorists. But it may be more useful here to compare Brower's view of tradition with the view held by someone normally considered an antagonist by postmodern critics, T. S. Eliot. In Eliot's famous essay
"equating and differentiating." Iser treats the effects, however, as an author's strategy, while Derrida treats them as a property of language. Making sense of something as problematic as language is, as Derrida shows, a monumental task, so monumental in fact that it is relatively easy for him to prove it almost impossible. The reader must conduct a constant test for meaning, a constant hypothesizing: what is the context for this word? how does it refine my previous understanding? It seems an
When the argument is printed and concerns literature, we call it literary criticism. And often we find a critical article convincing, meaning that it impels us to substitute a new understanding of text A for an old one. Because the argument is formal, the point is clearly stated, and we know exactly what Page 57 we are being asked to accept and what it will replace in our "storehouse" of knowledge. We can therefore acknowledge the substitutions without rejecting our
rebuke to the acquisitive, essentially materialistic com Page 4 pulsions of a society that from the outset was very much engaged in seeking wealth, power and plenty on a continent whose prolific natural resources and vast acres of usable land, forests and rivers were there for the taking. (xv) One could add to Rubin's remarks that the same pastoral image found equal acceptance from the Progressivist Critics. Although their antipathy to the machine