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Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, and the Liberal Imagination
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Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, and the Liberal Imagination
Michael Nowlin
University of Victoria
Michael Nowlin

Michael Nowlin is Associate Professor of English at the University of Victoria. He has published several articles in the field of twentieth-century American literature, and is the editor of Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence in the Broadview Literary Texts series. He is at work on a study of F. Scott Fitzgerald and literary prestige.


1. Howe's account of the rationale and fate of Dissent can be found in A Margin of Hope (234-46). The best scholarly account of the post-war intellectual and political paths taken by the so-called "New York intellectuals" is by Bloom: see especially 177-208. Also see Pells (117-82); Cooney (251-62); and Wald (226-30). For specific discussions of Howe's efforts at dissenting from what he regarded as an "age of conformity," see Bloom (279-90); Pells (352-53, 380-83); and, from a doctrinaire Marxist standpoint, Wald (311-24).

2. See Trilling's "A Tragic Situation," which while far less thorough and sophisticated than Ralph Ellison's seminal essay "Richard Wright's Blues," praises Black Boy in compatible terms.

3. For Howe's more pointed, if retrospective, critique of Trilling, see Margin of Hope (229-32).

4. Ellison's and Baldwin's connection to this political and aesthetic milieu is too generally downplayed or unobserved. This owes something, on the one hand, to critical paradigms committed to creating and explicating a specifically African American literary tradition (with a concomitant emphasis on difference and on strategies of critical subversion) and, on the other hand, to a critical preoccupation with the Jewishness and/or the left-to-center political movement of the New York intellectuals. In the historical studies of the New York intellectuals by Bloom, Cooney, and Wald, for example, Baldwin and Ellison receive passing mention in Bloom's book alone. Important work recognizing the connection and its implications for understanding Ellison and Baldwin has been done, however, to which I am indebted: see Dickstein (180-210); Budick (19-60); Schaub (91-115); Hilfer (40-47); Scruggs (40-41); and Jackson (393-444). Budick offers an exceptionally good reading of the Howe-Ellison debate (see 19-32) in terms of a pattern whereby African American and Jewish American intellectuals and writers tend to construct one another's cultural identities in the process of constructing their own.

5. On Baldwin's amicable and professionally beneficial ties to the liberal intellectual community associated with these journals, see Weatherby (51-55, 69-77) and Leeming (50-53 and passim).

6. See Jackson (356-65, 433-35). Jackson repeatedly insists that Ellison felt hostile towards the Partisan Review editorial circle even as he drifted towards the literary and political center. His claims, though, are inadequately supported and his narrative of the evolution of Ellison's "inevitable rapprochement with the Partisan Review crowd" (355) is jagged and confusing. While Jackson has done us a service by revealing in such detail how Ellison struggled to define himself in relation to a complex network of intellectual affiliations and institutions, his book's numerous errors on matters pertaining to New York intellectuals besides Ellison should make one less than wholly confident in some of his assertions about American intellectual history.

7. In light of fresh evidence, Fabre seems to have offered the most accurate pre-archival account of Ellison's leftist proclivities, though O'Meally's (Craft 37-55) has remained more influential because it squares so well with the record Ellison left in his post-Invisible Man writings and with the anti-Communist tenor of the finished Invisible Man itself. Jackson's biography offers the most substantial record to date of Ellison's involvement with the Left in the late 1930s and early war years, and reveals the extent to which the effort to construct himself as a major American writer and critic in the post-war years involved covering up the tracks leading backward to his leftist past. Despite her tendentious arguments on behalf of Ellison's early writing because of its pro-Communist themes, Foley's recent essays ("Ellison's" and "Seeing Red...