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American Literature 72.2 (2000) 321-355
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The Birth of the Critic:
The Literary Friendship of Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright
Lawrence P. Jackson
Three years following the 1960 death of Richard Wright, an increasingly isolated Ralph Ellison saw civil unrest and belligerence on the rise. The renowned author, who as a youth in the 1930s had picketed side-by-side with Communists, continued to put more distance between himself and his radical past. Ellison was not eager for a frontline role in the Civil Rights Movement; he pursued neither public notoriety nor civil leadership. At fifty, he felt little need for the radicalism of the thirty-nine-year-old expatriate James Baldwin, who was attempting to surpass the public image of Richard Wright. In fact, Ellison made a point of clarifying his own debt to Wright in a 1963 telephone interview with Myron Kolatch of the New Leader, an anti-Communist journal of politics. In this interview, which later became “The World and the Jug” (1964), Ellison offered a harsh estimate of Wright’s literary range: “How awful that Wright found the facile answers of Marxism before he learned to use literature as a means for discovering the forms of American Negro humanity.”1 Indeed, when one compares their most recent novels at this point, Ellison’s heralded Invisible Man (1952) and Wright’s misunderstood The Long Dream (1958), the two men do not seem linked.
Wright may not have shown Ellison the “forms of American Negro humanity,” but he did introduce the younger man to the serious literary life. Beginning in June of 1937, at Ellison’s urging, Richard Wright served as the younger writer’s intellectual and literary mentor for many years. Langston Hughes had introduced Ellison to Wright’s penetrating poetry, including “Between the World and Me,” which [End Page 321] had appeared in the then-Communist literary journal Partisan Review. Wright was one of the first politically and philosophically complex black authors Ellison encountered in New York. After escaping from a smothering education at Tuskegee’s music school in July of 1936, Ellison leapt into a New York literary and artistic world pervaded by the socialist zeitgeist. He used André Malraux’s politically vigorous prose to light a path through Communists and social democrats, Trotskyites and socialists, and remnants of the African Blood Brotherhood and adhering Garveyites, but after a year he mainly gravitated toward the man who had come from Chicago to sell stories and a novel. Wright’s deep-South origins and his commitment to exposing glaring racial and social injustice were attractive to the younger man—undoubtedly because Ellison had managed to learn a considerable amount about white brutality himself. “Between the World and Me” details the lynching of a sentient young black man. Ellison had narrowly escaped being blinded in an Alabama freight yard by railroad detectives while hoboing to Tuskegee Institute.2 But as significant to Ellison as Wright’s ideas was the older writer’s almost religious devotion to the craft of writing and to the objective of becoming a published novelist.
Their friendship blossomed. Ellison called himself a willing “leg-man” to the exhausted Wright, who at the time was working for the Harlem branch of the Daily Worker while revising the short stories that became Uncle Tom’s Children (1938).3 The intellectual innocence of many of the blacks clustered around the Harlem Communist Party vexed both young migrants. Although black Communists such as the journalists Abner Berry and Ted Bassett, the lawyer Ben Davis, and later the academics Max Yergan and Doxey Wilkerson may not have appealed to the rising literary men, the Communist United Front program was extremely popular among black intellectuals and critical thinkers. In 1937 Communists advocated Negro self-determination and equal rights, and the Party already had a rich history of advancing black causes, including their public advocacy for Angelo Herndon and the Scottsboro Boys, and their protests of the Italian invasion of Ethiopia. Despite this record of Communist goodwill toward the Negro, Wright had reason for...