What I haven't discussed is the mass of magazines on our third floor, which I sometimes consult when stuck, or when something interesting pops up in the news that can be referenced via some older piece of journalism that rests among the heaps stored up there.
The latter scenario happened recently when the obituary for Ralph Ellison's wife, Fanny, appeared in The New York Times. When I read about how instrumental she'd been - by the novelist's admission - in the writing of Ellison's great, great novel Invisible Man, I recalled that somewhere upstairs there was an old copy of The New Republic that contained a fabulous essay about Ellison by Shelby Steele. I went up right away and dug it out.
The piece appeared in the issue of March 1, 1999 (for anyone with the fortitude to look it up), as it has relevance now, and will long into the future. In fact, I consider it a basic statement for a complete understanding of how race and art operate in the United States.
Steele's article, "The Content of His Character," is highly personal, and begins with a discussion of the critic's adolescence spent avidly reading many of the black writers of the day - though not Ralph Ellison. The reason for the avoidance was complex and telling.
The period Steele was speaking of was the early '60s, the civil-rights era, when James Baldwin was "the black writer of the moment."
"And there was still Richard Wright, and then there were new writers such as Loraine Hansberry and the hip Leroi Jones. You could get right into these writers. They articulated an easy and inevitable militancy; and against the backdrop of the Freedom Movement, such militancy suddenly seemed the point of black life in America. In Baldwin especially there was an open and bristling disdain for American society that he filtered through his famous King James prose into a kind of beautiful outrage. But Ellison was more a literary militant than a racial one, and in his work there was an intellectual challenge that intimidated. Even the prologue to Invisible Man was daunting, with its architecture of symbols, themes and allusions."
Steele moved on to say that despite Ellison's clear genius, he was dismissed at the time as conservative and bourgeois, and that he, Steele, read Invisible Man only very late in the decade and "on the sly" since the "narrative of our group 'truth' for my age group was Soul on Ice, in which Eldridge Cleaver denounced even James Baldwin as a black sycophant. The literary Ellison did not even warrant consideration."
Steele then went on to discuss the difference between protest writing and the literature of Ellison; his rich argument is worth the time of every dedicated reader.
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