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TIMOTHY L. PARRISH Ralph Ellison, Kenneth Burke, and the Form of Democracy Whatever else the Civil War was for, It wasn't just to keep the States together, Nor just to free the slaves, though it did both. She wouldn't have believed those ends enough To have given outright for them all she gave. Her giving somehow touched the principle That all men are created free and equal. And to hear her quaint phrases—so removed From the world's view of all those things. That's a hard mystery of Jefferson's. What did he mean? Robert Frost, "The Black Cottage" 57 We have frequently printed the word Democracy. Yet I cannot too often repeat that it is a word the real gist of which still sleeps, quite unawaken 'd, not withstanding the resonance and the many angry tempests out of which its syllables come, from pen or tongue. It is a great word, whose history, I suppose, remains unwritten, because the history has yet to be enacted.Walt Whitman 960 How will a negro writer who writes out of his full awareness of the complexity of western personality and who presents the violence of American culture in psychological terms rather than physical ones—how will such a writer be able to break through the stereotype-armored minds of white Americans so that they can receive his message? Ralph Ellison, unpublished letter to Kenneth Burke1 The question ellison asks above comes from a remarkable 1945 lettet in which he asks America's greatest litetaty philosopher how he should construct his novel.2 As we shall see, the answet he Arizona Quarterly Volume 52, Number 3, Autumn 1995 Copyright © 1995 by Arizona Board of Regents ISSN 0004- 1610 Timothy L. Parrish found in Burke's writing helped him to fotmulate the rhetorical strategy of Invisible Man. Ellison's goal was to write what at that time would have been the definitive expression of African-American experience and at the same time a representative American book. That he succeeded has accounted for the historically "mixed" critical reception his book has received. As he wrote Butke in that same lettet, "I certainly agree that universalism is desirable but I find that I am forced to arrive at that universe through the facial grain of sand." When the natrator asks in the novel's closing line—the most resonant closing line, I think, in American literature—"Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies , I speak for you?," he invites his readers to discovet their universe within his grain of sand. While the question mark might suggest to some a certain tentativeness, it also conveys that narrator's profound sense of risk and openness. Rathet than merely offeting his story as your stoty, he insists that his story will be incomplete until you—his audience —enter it as well. He writes the type of book Emerson praised in "The American Scholar": "I had better never to see a book than be warped by its attraction clean out of my orbit, and made a satellite instead of a system" (57). By insisting that my stoty will be your story, as yours will be mine, Ellison's book makes manifest its essential claim: "Our fate is to become one, and yet many—This is not prophecy, but description" (Invisible Man 568). No question is more vexed in Ellison criticism than how to read the book's allegedly ambiguous ending. The natratot himself seems to criticize it when he says that "even hibernations can be overdone. Perhaps that's my greatest social crime, I've overstayed my hibernation, since there's a possibility that even an invisible man has a socially responsible role to play" (572). All readers have wondered ifthe narrator eloquently talked himself into a hole out of which he will never emerge, or is his promise of future action sufficient guarantee that his invisibility has ended, that he will become a meaningful voice in American culture? "Ambiguity," once a privileged term in literary studies, has become a cutsed term because it implies a withdrawal from society and politics. Beginning with Irving Howe up through more recent ctitics like Thomas Schaub, Ellison has...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1558-9595
Print ISSN
0004-1610
Pages
pp. 117-148
Launched on MUSE
2014-04-02
Open Access
No
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