- The New Territory: Ralph Ellison and the Twenty-First Century eds. by Marc C. Conner and Lucas E. Morel
Ralph Ellison's œuvre and scholarship on his life and work have each grown considerably since his death in 1994. Previously uncollected and/or unpublished essays and works of fiction by Ellison have appeared in The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison (1995), Flying Home and Other Stories (1996), an edition of the Book II typescript of Ellison's unfinished second novel, Juneteenth (1999), Trading Twelves: The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray (2000), and the most complete version of Ellison's second novel manuscript yet to be assembled, Three Days before the Shooting… (2010). Interest in Ellison among literary scholars has similarly increased in recent years. As a consequence, more books and essays about the author have appeared since the turn of the millennium than were published in the preceding five decades.
Twenty-first-century scholarship on Ellison hasn't been entirely encomiastic, however. A small but influential chorus of critics remains fixated on the author's shortcomings, whether real or imagined, as a writer and an activist. Foremost among these critics are Arnold Rampersad and Barbara Foley whose critical works, Ralph Ellison: A Biography (2007) and Wrestling with the Left: The Making of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (2010), respectively, express disillusion with, if not disappointment in the author. Together, they make a Procrustean bed for the National Book Award winner. Foley contends that Ellison, the author, abandoned a more pointed (and, in her estimation, more empathetic) materialist critique in Invisible Man when he revised the novel into its published form. Rampersad, by contrast, faults Ellison, the man, for not being expansive enough in his social interactions with and encouragement of black artists and intellectuals. Each takes a negative and fundamentally myopic view of the author's life and work. Foley dismisses Ellison's shift from proletarian realism to "depoliticized mythic individualism" (83) as a sellout to Cold War liberal ideology in general, and to its literary critical adherents in particular. Rampersad, in turn, (ab)uses Ellison's social calendar to draw misleading inferences about the author's perceived lack of political engagement, and to suggest that Ellison was too busy smoking cigars in the Century Club and currying favor with powerful whites to fulfill a legacy that the publication of Invisible Man (1952) ought to have inaugurated.
Marc C. Conner and Lucas E. Morel's The New Territory: Ralph Ellison and the Twenty-First Century constitutes a collective rejoinder to these views—views that, as Robert Butler and Ross Posnock show in their contributions to the collection, dogged Ellison even at the pinnacle of his success. Rather than take the author to task for what could or should have been, the volume's contributors portray Ellison as a visionary, not only of the post-segregation period, but also of twenty-first-century American society and culture. The result is an ambitious collection of essays that, in the esteem of its editors, "represent the most far-reaching and original assessment of Ralph Ellison's entire career and body of work ever published" (30). [End Page 151] This is a bold claim, but it is also an accurate one. Indeed, The New Territory is an important work of Ellison scholarship that evinces a generosity of scope, sense of possibility, and complexity of analysis befitting of the author's corpus. It promises to do for Ellison's reputation what Foley and Rampersad have done to it.
The fourteen essays that comprise the collection are, with the exception of John Callahan's speculative but rewarding conclusion, divided into three parts: one on new approaches to Invisible Man, a second on Ellison's unfinished second novel, and a third on Ellison's transhistorical view of American culture. The collection is worth obtaining for the essays on Three Days alone. Here, for the first time, is a substantial cross-section of work by scholars earnestly grappling with Ellison's unfinished tome, posthumously...