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Ralph Ellison and Kenneth Burke

At the Roots of the Racial Divide

Bryan Crable

Publication Year: 2011

Ralph Ellison and Kenneth Burke focuses on the little-known but important friendship between two canonical American writers. The story of this fifty-year friendship, however, is more than literary biography; Bryan Crable argues that the Burke-Ellison relationship can be interpreted as a microcosm of the American "racial divide." Through examination of published writings and unpublished correspondence, he reconstructs the dialogue between Burke and Ellison about race that shaped some of their most important works, including Burke's A Rhetoric of Motives and Ellison's Invisible Man. In addition, the book connects this dialogue to changes in American discourse about race. Crable shows that these two men were deeply connected, intellectually and personally, but the social division between white and black Americans produced hesitation, embarrassment, mystery, and estrangement where Ellison and Burke might otherwise have found unity. By using Ellison’s nonfiction and Burke’s rhetorical theory to articulate a new vocabulary of race, the author concludes not with a simplistic “healing” of the divide but with a challenge to embrace the responsibility inherent to our social order.

American Literatures Initiative

Published by: University of Virginia Press


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Title Page, Copyright

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pp. ix-xiii

Many events, large and small, conspired to help me write this book. (Unfortunately for me, I have surely forgotten many of them.) My parents were among the strongest influences on my choice of vocation, both as a teacher and as a scholar. Both are writers, and both spent decades...

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A Note about Archival Materials

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pp. xv-xvi

In addition to the published works written by both Kenneth Burke and Ralph Ellison, in the chapters that follow I draw extensively upon unpublished archival materials by and concerning these men. I have had the privilege and good fortune to spend a great deal of time...

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pp. 1-7

In the preface to Counter-Statement, Kenneth Burke reflected upon the relationship between a writer and her social context, distinguishing between two types of writing: pamphleteering and inquiry. Pamphleteering, he suggested, represents a reaction, corrective or supportive...

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1. Birth of an Ancestor

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pp. 9-45

In one famous episode in the history of American letters, during the summer of 1945 an aspiring writer with an unlikely name holed up in a barn in Vermont—to escape New York, improve his health, and gain inspiration. Though Ralph Waldo Ellison had planned to continue...

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2. Antagonistic Cooperation

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pp. 46-78

The Third American Writers’ Congress proved a formative moment in Ralph Ellison’s intellectual life. In Kenneth Burke’s address to the congress, “The Rhetoric of Hitler’s ‘Battle,’” Ellison found a model for his own viewpoint—since Burke integrated the seemingly disparate...

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3. From Acceptance to Rejection: Invisible Man

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pp. 79-111

When Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man was published in April 1952, he and Kenneth Burke had been friends for nearly ten years—a span of time that had provided Burke a unique window into the painstaking creation of the novel. Burke had first learned of its existence from...

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4. Was Kenneth Burke a Racist?

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pp. 112-137

When the correspondence between Burke and Ellison ended—in 1987, six years before Burke’s death—the relationship inaugurated by “The Rhetoric of Hitler’s ‘Battle’” was midway through its fifth decade. Despite the peaks and valleys of the years following the...

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5. From Turmoil to Peace: An Ultimate Vocabulary of Race

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pp. 138-174

The previous chapter introduced Burke’s critique of binaristic thinking in A Rhetoric of Motives, and his tripartite distinction between positive, dialectical, and ultimate terms. Recognizing the incomplete nature of positive and dialectical terminologies, Burke’s text instead advocates...


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pp. 175-224


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pp. 225-236


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pp. 237-242

E-ISBN-13: 9780813932170
E-ISBN-10: 0813932173
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813932163
Print-ISBN-10: 0813932157

Page Count: 264
Publication Year: 2011

OCLC Number: 797833731
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Ralph Ellison and Kenneth Burke

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Subject Headings

  • Ellison, Ralph -- Criticism and interpretation.
  • Burke, Kenneth, 1887-1993 -- Criticism and interpretation.
  • Race awareness -- United States -- History.
  • United States -- Race relations -- History -- 20th century
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