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Book Reviews : 2 Works: Once Upon a Time in Black and White America

August 08, 1986|DAVID BRADLEY | Bradley is the author of "The Chaneysville Incident" (Harper & Row). and

Going to the Territory by Ralph Ellison (Random House: $19.95)

The publication of a book by Ralph Ellison is apt to arouse expectations that here, finally, is the new novel by the author of "Invisible Man." It therefore behooves a reviewer to state immediately that "Going to the Territory" is not what we have all been waiting for. It is not a novel but a collection of 16 essays. Nor is it exactly new; all but two of the essays have been published previously, more than half before 1970. This makes commenting on "Going to the Territory" a bit of a problem.

Or, to put it another way, Ralph Ellison is a bit of a problem. Author of one of the finest novels written by an American, he is considered a major figure of contemporary letters. Yet, in the nearly 35 years since "Invisible Man" won the National Book Award, he's published only one other book. By any standard, certainly by that of his contemporaries, Norman Mailer and James Baldwin, he has been less than prolific; indeed, one is tempted to compare him to Tillie Olsen, or to his own Invisible Man. This must be mentioned because the understandable disappointment with what "Going to the Territory" is not might lead readers to miss what it is.

Although the book can hardly be seen as a unified work, a powerful theme flows through the pieces it comprises, a theme announced in the lead essay, "The Little Man at Chehaw Station." In this essay, Ellison describes how he, a music student at Tuskegee Institute, was instructed by Hazel Harrison, a musician and teacher, never to underestimate the sophistication of any audience. "You must always play your best, even if it's only in the waiting room at Chehaw Station, because in this country there'll always be a little man hidden behind the stove." From this rather cryptic statement, Ellison moves to a less-than-gentle attack on "the newly fashionable code word 'ethnicity' " and an avowal of the cultural plurality that he believes is undeniable. "In this country," he writes, "the artist is free to choose, but cannot limit his audience."

Hilariously Sarcastic

To make his point, Ellison employs both the prose of rhetoric and the prose of fiction. His style is often hilariously sarcastic ("What, by the way, is one to make of a white youngster who, with a transistor radio screaming a Stevie Wonder tune glued to his ear, shouts racial epithets at black youngsters trying to swim at a public beach . . . in the name of the ethnic sanctity of what has been declared neighborhood turf"), while the climax of the essay is a scene reminiscent of "Invisible Man." Now in New York, Ellison discovers four "foul-mouthed black workingmen" arguing about opera "in a small, rank-smelling, lamplit room. . . ."

The theme of American cultural pluralism is so central to all of these pieces that one is tempted to argue that Ellison planned it. The truth is more likely that Ellison has, at least since the writing of "Invisible Man," been consistent in beliefs which, given the passion for racial purity that has colored critical discussion, especially of books written by blacks, are pretty radical. The autobiographical sequences in "Going to the Territory" more than suggest that Ellison, from the beginning of his career, was interested in moving away from the "Blueprint for Negro Writing" drawn up by Richard Wright. Speaking of his thoughts while writing "Invisible Man," Ellison reveals: "I realized, fighting for a certain orientation (as a Negro writer taking on the burden of the American literary tradition), that I would have to master, or at least make myself familiar with, the major motives of American literature-- even when written by people who philosophically would reject me as a member of the American community. How would I do that without being, in my own eyes, something of a slave, something less than a man? The point, of course, was to be relieved of the burden of interpreting all of life . . . in racial terms."

Punching Holes in Theory

Given that Ellison is now in his 70s, one might expect "Going to the Territory" to have about it an air of memoir. There are some interesting recollections--of Langston Hughes, of reading "most of 'Native Son' as it came off the typewriter," of "the deep magenta skies that descend upon the Tuskegee campus at dusk in summer," of the teachers who instilled in him the confidence to be an intellectual in an America which, to a great extent, considered "black intellectual" a contradiction in terms.

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