- Ralph Ellison and Kenneth Burke: At the Roots of the Racial Divide by Bryan Crable
Throughout his career, Ralph Ellison acknowledged in various essays and interviews that he was strongly influenced by Kenneth Burke’s work, and he once revealed that he had even considered dedicating Invisible Man to Burke. In recent years, an entire book has explored in very careful, detailed ways how the two men influenced each other’s thinking. Arnold Rampersad’s 2007 biography of Ellison argued convincingly that Burke’s ideas were critically important in the shaping of Invisible Man, and that Ellison’s long friendship with Burke was crucial to his development as a writer. Several penetrating essays have also appeared over the past ten years which carefully document the precise ways in which Burke’s theories of politics and semantics played a key role in Ellison’s growth as a novelist and cultural critic.
So one can reasonably ask if there is anything new to add to this important subject. Bryan Crable’s Ralph Ellison and Kenneth Burke: At the Roots of the Racial Divide provides an emphatic “yes” to this question. Approaching the Ellison-Burke relationship from a unique perspective, Crable makes significant contributions to Ellison scholarship by providing fresh insights as well as correcting a number of misconceptions which have marred previous research.
Crable’s training in rhetorical theory enabled him to probe Burke’s extremely complex ideas more deeply and comprehensively than previous scholars were able to do. But more important is that he made ample and astute use of three archives that were not fully available when most previous studies were conducted. His intensive study of unpublished letters and notes from the Kenneth Burke Papers at [End Page 667] Pennsylvania State University and the Ralph Ellison Papers and the Stanley Edgar Hyman Papers at the Library of Congress produced a wealth of new information leading to a much richer, more nuanced understanding of the extraordinary fifty-year friendship shared by Burke and Ellison. Another special feature of this study is its careful focus on Ellison’s nonfiction, an area which has never been adequately examined and appreciated.
Crable traces the Burke-Ellison relationship back to 1939, when the two men attended the Third American Writers’ Congress in New York. He describes this as “a formative moment in Ralph Ellison’s life” (47) because Ellison was just beginning to emerge as a writer, and was searching for a coherent vision of modern life and a literary style adequate to express its complexities. Burke’s paper, which was a brilliant integration of Marx and Freud, helped Ellison come to terms with the tensions that had developed between his political and personal outlooks. For the next three years, Ellison began “a systematic study” (46) of Burke’s work, especially Permanence and Change and Attitudes toward History, books that would transform his thinking about the nature of literature and its relation to culture. Hyman introduced Ellison to Burke in 1942, initiating a three-part friendship which would endure for many years and would deeply influence their writing. By the mid-1940’s, Burke and Ellison were carefully reading each other’s work and were engaged in a lively exchange of ideas on a regular basis. Burke was deeply impressed with “Richard Wright’s Blues,” Ellison’s 1945 review of Black Boy, and Ellison actually read the galleys of A Grammar of Motives in 1945 when he was beginning to compose Invisible Man.
Crable, unlike most scholars who stress the importance of Burke’s influence on Ellison but who ignore Ellison’s impact on Burke’s thinking, argues convincingly that the influence went both ways: “We could no more have Invisible Man without Burke than we could have A Rhetoric of Motives without Ellison” (5). Burke’s interests in psychology and symbol helped Ellison to move beyond the social realism and determinism of his early stories and, in this sense, he replaced Richard Wright as Ellison’s most trusted mentor. Burke’s theories...