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RALPH ELLISON: TWENTY YEARS AFTER David L. Carson* The following conversation took place in the New York City resi­ dence of Ralph Ellison on 30 September 1971. Mr. Ellison published his novel, Invisible Man, in 1952. Winner of a National Book Award at the time of its publication, the novel continues to hold its position of high esteem for both the popular and the critical audience. In 1965 it was judged “the most distinguished single work” published after 1945 by a Book Week poll of prominent authors, critics, and editors. A similar survey conducted by Professors John K. Crane and Daniel Walden of the Pennsylvania State University during the summer of 1972 shows that the nation’s leading critics still place Invisible Man at the head of the list of two dozen American novels (1945-1972) “most likely to endure.” Mr. Ellison published a collection of his own critical essays, Shadow and Act, in 1964, and he is currently finishing his second novel. He holds the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Chevalier de I’Ordre des Arts et Lettres; he is presently Albert Schweitzer Professor of Humanities at New York University. C: Is there a future for the American novel, Mr. Ellison? Most young people don’t really seem to like to read. Those who do would rather read Cleaver than Ellison, McKuen rather than Frost. E: Well, the novel will be here, I think, and the experience of elec­ tronic culture notwithstanding, a few people will continue to read, and those who seek to achieve their identities and fulfillment of self through the writing of fiction will continue to write. I think that this attitude is a phase. I have students who haven’t read as much as I would have expected them to read, but as a teacher I find that I can get to them if I start wherever it is they are at and try to work back. I think the novel is going to be here because it is one of the literary forms that can deal with the great diversity of the experience in this country, and it can grapple with the essential loneliness which our very numbers impose upon us and which the character of the culture, the unifying agency of the big media, forces upon us. I think people are going to have to start reading in order to escape some of the pressure from television. ♦David Carson teaches English at the United States Air Force Academy. Copyright by Ralph Ellison and David L. Carson. 2 David L. Carson C: You think television may force us full-cycle the other way? E: I think so. I think that the country has once again to look at where it came from and what it promised itself, then, you’re going to have to go to fiction for any sort of insight into the complexity of passion and action that goes into being American. I think that the form is tied up, in a way that we don’t pay enough attention to, with the nature of the society. C: What specifically do you mean by that? E: Well, I think fiction has a way of dealing with the complexities of a democratic equalitarian society wherein there are so many things that you can’t say, so many ambivalences toward values, toward status, toward the concept of equality itself, toward class. All of these things we live with; we swim with them. Our politics are made up of manipulating these ambiguities; and the individual, if he thinks at all about what he is and what he is doing, has to come back to them somehow. And I don’t think that soul-searching editorials in newspapers are enough. C: I think this ties in with a comment you made once before. You said that one of the problems of young people today was that they were unaware that they had yet to learn the rules by which the game was played. I think this would apply to all young Americans, and it may be their most difficult adjustment. E: I think so. Over and over again you find people making assumptions about the...