Invisible Criticism: Ralph Ellison and the American Canon

Invisible Criticism: Ralph Ellison and the American Canon

Alan Nadel

Language: English

Pages: 197

ISBN: 0877453217

Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub


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."

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traditions, it is really a conglomerate of change, an amassing of alterations, a few of which this book has attempted to articulate, thereby making explicit that process of  rearrangement which our body of unavoidably self­referential literature always already urges upon us covertly.    Page 151 Notes 1.  The Origins of Invisibility 1. Webster attempts to write a history of twentieth­century American literary criticism by employing a methodology based on Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of

but from the set of assumptions they imply. Those assumptions limit the possible "explorers" to exclude, for instance, microbe hunters and moonwalkers. My intention in belaboring the obvious here is to suggest one of the reasons something seems obvious is that it operates within a set of assumptions—rarely  articulated—implied by the text and assumed by the audience so quickly that the text virtually interprets itself. When we strip away those assumptions, we delimit the

nature by virtue of the way memory alters time, so that, as the opening of the Four Quartets says, "Time present and time past / Are both perhaps present in time  future, / And time future contained in time past." This understanding of time is fundamental to modernism, and Four Quartets is far from the only work to show this influence of Freud and Einstein. The famous last

referents. Since no text can exist completely independent of reference to some aspects of reality, and yet since no author can possibly reveal all the referents for even  one limited scene, Iser posits that authors reveal their referents in an inverse manner, in an act of what he calls "negation": "Expectations aroused in the reader by  allusions to the things he knows or thinks he knows are frustrated; through this frustration, we know that the standards and models alluded to are somehow to be

able to supersede the human dimension, and the great majority of slaveholders, those who owned fewer than ten slaves, did not have the personnel to implement such  a bureaucracy. Slavery thus required a system in which the power to discipline was often both personal and absolute; it affected not only the master's relationship with  black slaves but    Page 6 also his attitude toward other whites. And, by setting a tone of behavior, it carried over to nonslaveholding southern whites.

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