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Innovation, Integration and Transcendence-A Study of Ralph Ellison’s Literary Works

Author: TanHuiJuan
Tutor: NingYiZhong
School: Beijing Language and Culture University
Course: Comparative Literature and World Literature
Keywords: Innovation Fusion Exceed Ralph Ellison Cultural Studies Naturalism Modernism
Type: PhD thesis
Year: 2007
Downloads: 722
Quote: 1
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Ralph Ellison(1914 -1994), the most important American black writer since 1950s, is also an outstanding literary critic, and one of the most significant pioneers of American cultural studies. He made a milestone contribution both to African American literature and American literature, and acted in full sense as a successor and a forerunner in the history of African American literary theory and practice.He showed in his literary works a foreseeing cultural vision, obviously inheriting from Alain Lock, a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance, continuing to exert a profound and far-reaching impact on such famous African American writers and critics as Toni Morrison, Ishmael Reed, and Henry Louis Gates. He captured the wide attention of world literature as a modern writer by deviating from Richard Wright’s naturalistic protest and social realistic fiction and was lionized for his Invisible Man, while it should be further noted that Ellison’s milestone contribution to African American literature is far more than that.This dissertation tries to examine Ellison’s literary works in the context of cultural studies, taking the success and failure of Richard Wright’s naturalistic protest novel as a point of departure, and going ahead with a discussion of James Baldwin’s literary patricide and his moralistic flaw, towards a comprehensive engagement of Ralph Ellison literary works and cultural studies. The dissertation consists of five chapters:In the first chapter, the author seeks to place Ralph Ellison in the historical chains of African American literary development, and to examine why Wright’s protégé, James Baldwin, an American black ephebe, advanced an unrelenting criticism of naturalism of Richard Wright, the precursor in African American literary circle. Baldwin’s action, which might be interpreted as the literary patricide described in Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence, was rather triggered by the upcoming turn of African-American writing from protest school to modernism triumphantly achieved by Ralph Ellison, than motivated by the patricide complex in his life experience. Though Baldwin took the initiative in depicting black humanity, advocating black culture, uplifting black literature and exploring racial discrimination and conflict, trying to transcend Richard’s protest writing, his writing principles revealed certain inconsistencies and dilemma. Baldwin’s personal and literary patricides brought about internecine both to Wright and himself, while as an indispensable tache in the African- American literature progress, its positive significance must never be overlooked, but it is Ralph Ellison’s Invisbile Man which brought about a new direction to the development of African American literature.Chapter Two dwells on the literary dispute between Irving Howe and Ralph Ellison on ideology and artistic aesthetics. Irving Howe’s essay“Black Boys and Native Sons”takes James Baldwin as the main target, who just kept silent, while Ralph Ellison as the secondary target, who gave prompt responses with his marvelous and masterful essays“The World and the Jug,”and“Hidden Name and Complex Fate,”elaborating with refreshing insight on such crucial issues as the field of influence for a black writer, the social and art obligation of a black writer, and the new directions in black literary writing. The author tries to justify Ellison’s view by a detailed analysis of Ralph Ellison’s early short fiction, and to demonstrate the significance of Ralph Ellison’s literary patricide to the new development trend in African American literature, which also illustrates why Ellison turns out to be the winner, and Irving Howe, the loser of this literary debate. The internal law for the development of African American literature is also a factor not to be ignored.The third chapter centers on Ralph Ellison’s anatomy of humanity. The debate whether the black man possesses human nature or not started from the slavery time in the 18th century in America till the present time. The white man’s dehumanization of the black man to get a sense of superiority gives rise to various social conflicts and uprisings. The black intellectuals have been consistently battling for their humanity ever since. Ralph Ellison nimbly defends the blacks’humanity with his outstanding cultural vision, and his witty use of metaphors in language. He outdid the traditional literature focusing on moralistic propaganda by Mrs. Stowe, and the naturalistic protest fiction centering on hard-boiled remonstration and violence by Richard Wright, firstly by speaking highly of the 19th century classic works by such white writers as Melville, Faulkner and Mark Twain, who showed humanistic spirit affirming the blacks’humanity, and secondly by making use of the highly symbolic and subversive language both to represent negro’s humanity and whites’inhumanity, and more importantly by probing into the universal human nature by alluding to the Riddle of the Sphinx, which demonstrates, in a broad sense, the author’s humanistic concern for the living dilemma of the contemporary people and also his advocatory tendency to revive the humanistic spirit of some 19th century writers.The primary focus of the fourth chapter is the use of blues in Ralph Ellison fiction. Blues is the primitive form of jazz, and it witnesses the jagged grain of the blacks’experience in the United States, and so it is spiritually interwoven with Ralph Ellison’s literary writing. People in adversity may transform the transcendental ambience which classic blues songs and blues singers deliver into the fabric of their optimistic existence. Ralph Ellison is the first to realize the literary potential of blues and theorized its expressiveness and life philosophy with eloquent and indelible concision, and to transform it into an act of literature with such originality that he made a tremendous success in the history of African American literature. Ellison’s achievement lies in his bringing a shift from naturalistic tendency of protest literary writing to a new modernist style, focusing on American culture. This chapter contains a probing discussion of how Ralph Ellison derived his philosophical and expressionistic inspiration from the blues and how Ellison juxtaposes individual disaster with blues code, so as to reveal Ellison’s multiple modes of profound thinking and speaking concerning racial problems.Chapter Five is devoted first to an elaboration of the relevance and difference of Richard Wright’s naturalistic protest fiction from the American mainstream naturalistic writing represented by Theodore Dreiser, with an objective analysis of Richard Wight’s literary talents and literary contribution to African American literature; and then, the writer moves on to discuss Ralph Ellison’s transcendence of Richard Wright by his stepping around and by traces of modernism and post-modernism in his literary writing, literary criticism and cultural review.In the last chapter, traits of post-modernism and cultural studies in Ralph Ellison’s texts are discussed at length with the help of Jacques Derrida’s“White Myth”and Roland Barthes’“Demystification”in order to touch upon two core ideas:One is Ralph Ellison’s anatomy of black/ white binary opposition in Western myth and rites, and the other is ancestral presence in Ellison’s writing, so as to bring to light his literary originality and foreknowledge. Invisibility, as a central metaphor in Invisible Man, is a stimulation Ellison got from his deep brooding of Negro culture and its value, and also marks a shift from Richard Wright’s naturalistic protest fiction to modern aesthetic novels and to post-modern novels with subversive features. The new direction is signified by Ellison’s deconstruction of binary opposition in Europe and social rituals in Deep South of America. Ralph Ellison’s continuing belief in American amalgamation when“ethnic integrity”overshadowed the“melting pot”as a cultural touchstone, and his rediscovery and reinterpretation of myth and ritual significantly represent his cultural vision in his literary writing, and also a persuasive rectification from the prevailing writing in sociological perspective, while ancestral presence in his writing conduces to the American racists’reexamining American identity and American culture, which helps to decode the genuine significance of the twisted meaning of“invisibility”.

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