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Reviewed by:
  • Ralph Ellison
  • Joseph F. Trimmer
Mark Busby. Ralph Ellison. Boston: Twayne, 1991. 170 pp. No price given.

The Twayne United States Author Series (TUSAS) began in 1958 with the publication of Frederick Hoffman's William Faulkner. Since that time each of the almost 600 titles in the series has followed the same format. Each book opens with a "Chronology," a convenient list of events in the author's life. The first chapter contains a biographical sketch, the middle chapters explicate the works, and the final chapter offers an assessment of the author's legacy. Each book concludes with two useful bibliographies: a complete bibliography of the author's works and a selected, annotated bibliography of criticism.

This familiar format has many advantages. Writers can arrange information according to specifications, while readers can anticipate information in established locations. Writers can present the basic issues in an author's life and works, while readers can perceive the overall design and crucial details in an author's achievement. The disadvantage of this formula is that it forces writers to adapt their analysis to the TUSAS pattern and purpose. Writers must work within restricted page limits to develop balanced arguments about their author's work. There is no space for discussion of special problems nor justification for speculation about theoretical issues. Indeed, readers do not expect to find ground-breaking research or breakthrough readings in a Twayne book.

Although Mark Busby has written Ralph Ellison to specs, he is able to retouch the conventional portraits of Ellison's life and reclaim some of his work from critical neglect. In the opening biographical sketch, for example, Busby reminds readers that although many critics focus on Ellison's education at Tuskegee, his apprenticeship in New York, and his exploration of the African-American experience, Ellison-in autobiographical essays and interviews—muses on the meaning of his frontier heritage in Oklahoma. Busby pushes this frontier thesis throughout his study to explain Ellison's preoccupation with the contraries of the borderland experience—"ordered chaos, visible darkness, traditional individuality, antagonistic cooperation."

In Chapter Two, Busby reclaims eight of Ellison's short stories for critical analysis. This neglected body of work enables Busby to trace Ellison's development from propagandist to mature artist. The middle stories in this group—the three Buster and Riley stories—provide more evidence for Busby's thesis about the impact of Ellison's southwestern frontier childhood. The final three stories—"In a Strange Country," "Flying Home," and "King of the Bingo Game"—enable Busby to track the themes and strategies that shape Invisible Man (1952).

Busby's chapters on Ellison's masterpiece are compact and balanced, but they add nothing to the conventional readings of the novel. Chapter Three is essentially an explication with some closing comments on Ellison's treatment of theme, character, symbol and imagery. Chapter Four uses the novel's allusions to document Ellison's indebtedness to European, American, and African-American cultures, territory that has been given extensive investigation in Alan Nadel's Invisible Criticism: Ralph Ellison and the American Canon (1988).

Perhaps the most valuable commentary appears in Chapter Five where Busby discusses the eleven stories Ellison has published since Invisible Man. The first of these stories, "Out of the Hospital and Under the Bar," was originally intended as Chapter Eleven in Invisible Man; the second, "Did You Ever Dream Lucky?" extends our vision of Mary Rambo, a character in Invisible Man; and the third, [End Page 474] "A Couple of Scalped Indians" is another installment on the Buster and Riley stories. The remaining eight stories are fragments from Ellison's second novel, And Hickman Arrives, begun in 1958 and still unpublished. Busby is particularly helpful in speculating about the design of this project and in explaining how these published pieces connect and advance the narrative.

Busby finishes his explication with an efficient but unimaginative chapter on Ellison's two collections of nonfiction, Shadow and Act (1964) and Going to the Territory (1986). Admittedly, both collections are scrapbooks of odds and ends, but they contain some of the best essays in the language. Ellison's achievements in this genre deserve more than mere plot summaries.

True to TUSAS...


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