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Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, and the Liberal Imagination
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MICHAEL NOWLIN Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, and the Liberal Imagination Irving howe's 1963 essay "Black Boys and Native Sons" is today remembered primarily for occasioning Ralph Ellison's eloquent rebuttal , "The World and the Jug," a vigorous argument on behalf of African American cultural vitality and the African American artist's creative autonomy. From our historical vantage point, Ellison seems to have trumped Howe, for critics have generally followed Ellison in judging Howe presumptuous and narrowly prescriptive (ifnot inadvertently racist). But Howe's essay might be better remembered as a rather bold defense of Richard Wright and call for an African American literary opposition at a moment when Wright's critical stature was at its lowest, and when the notion of an African American literature was virtually inconceivable to the most sophisticated literary critics of the day, both within and without the academy. Howe used the highly select recognition afforded first Wright, and then Ellison and James Baldwin at the expense of Wright, as the surest gauge of national cultural tendencies he assumed to be deeply political. In effect, his subject was the politics of canon formation. Published in his own venue Dissent, which though anti-Communist sought to keep socialist political possibilities alive in the wake of McCarthyism, "Black Boys and Native Sons" articulated divisions within a loose community of white, largely Jewish, New York-based intellectuals that the consensus-oriented political and aesthetic culture of the early Cold War era was threatening to render insignificant . This entailed challenging the modes of modernist aesthetic resistance espoused in particular by the once radical Partisan Review, and a seemingly widespread willingness on the part of adversarial intellectuals to embrace the possibilities of Americanism.1 Arizona Quarterly Volume 60, Number 2, Summer 2004 Copyright © 2004 by Arizona Board of Regents ISSN 0004-1610 ??8 Michael Nowlin The deeper target ofHowe's essay manifests itself in its third section. In their ostentatious rejection of the protest novel and "a narrow naturalism ," in their acceptance ofboth a tragic human condition and their guarded faith in America's possibilities, Baldwin and Ellison were squarely in line with "the outlook so many American intellectuals took during the years of a postwar liberalism not very different from conservatism " (Selected Writings 126-27). That "postwar liberalism," peculiarly harnessed to a modernist canon, got one of its most influential elaborations in Lionel Trilling's The Liberal Imagination (1950), which, though devoid of a single reference to an African American writer, helped establish the terms for debunking Richard Wright, despite the ironic fact that Trilling had favourably reviewed Black Boy when it came out in 1945.2 Of particular importance was Trilling's devastating judgment against Theodore Dreiser and left-wing naturalistic fiction— and more pointedly, against the "liberals" who acclaim such fiction— that formed the nucleus of THe Liberal Imagination's opening essay, "Reality in America." In the section that revised his 1946 review of Dreiser's The Bulwark for the Nation, Trilling argued that a taste for Dreiser precluded a proper recognition of the rarer achievement of Henry James, and thus signaled a politically dangerous indifference to the freedom encoded in aesthetic, which for Trilling were intellectual, distinctions. "Dreiser and James," wrote Trilling: with that juxtaposition we are immediately at the dark and bloody crossroads where literature and politics meet. . . . the difference between James and Dreiser is not of kind, for both men addressed themselves to virtually the same social and moral fact. The difference here is one of quality, and perhaps nothing is more typical of American liberalism than the way it has responded to the respective qualities of the two men. (Liberal io-n) Behind the Wright and Baldwin-Ellison opposition of Howe's essay, I would argue, lies the Dreiser-James opposition. Thirteen years after The Liberal Imagination appeared—with a 1950s brand of liberalism akin to conservatism in mind instead of a 1930s liberalism open to Communist fellow-traveling—Howe tried unsuccessfully to turn the tables on Trilling by arguing that the sorry state ofAmerican liberalism is typified by its uncritical response to Ellison and Baldwin.3 The Liberal Imagination 119 Howe had good reason to charge the new African American literary lions...