One-Hit Wonder

Ralph Ellison’s short stories confirm his novel’s greatness.

Flying Home and Other Stories

By Ralph Ellison; edited with an introduction by John F. Callahan

Random House; 176 pages; $23.00

It is a curious but perhaps essential dimension of the Ralph Ellison literary myth that he published only one novel, Invisible Man, and that his entire authority as a writer and intellectual rests on this work, which whites felt brought black writing of age, beyond mere protest and sociology. Ellison, who died in 1994, published no other collections of fiction in his lifetime. Some of the fugitive pieces of fiction he did publish in magazines and journals are collected in Flying Home and Other Stories, along with some very early unpublished work. The book appears during something like an Ellison revival, as the last year has also seen the publication of a volume of his collected essays and one of his interviews.

The creative-writing teacher’s cliché is that we each have one good novel in us. Ellison seemed to have discovered instantly that his one good novel was his first. Maybe that is why he never published his second, that most talked-about advent that produced only excerpts here and there. The adulatory reception of the first may have made a second impossible–if Ellison felt he had to produce an even greater book, that is. He might have especially felt this pressure as the years went by and public expectation grew with the wait. Perhaps he said everything he had to say in Invisible Man.

Whatever the case, the payoff from Invisible Man was everything a writer could want. No black writer roughly of Ellison’s generation–not Richard Wright, not Langston Hughes, not Zora Neale Hurston–was able to parlay one novel into a position of being a respected critic and theorist of American literature. Ellison became a true intellectual as no other black novelist had been. The full apparatus of American intellectual life–the major universities, the literary organs, the forums for speaking–were open to him in ways they were not even to James Baldwin, the most noted crossover black literary star of the 1950s. Ellison drew this welcome partly because he was the first black writer to win a National Book Award (in 1953) and the only novelist among his contemporaries to win one of the major literary prizes. In the age of integration, this endorsement of Ellison’s genius by the white mainstream meant he had “transcended” his race.

Yet, his reception also had much to do with his attitude toward writing and toward race. Ellison believed firmly in the artist’s detachment from politics and political engagement, in the primacy of aesthetics over the political and sociological dimensions of literature. These beliefs are reasonable enough, even liberating for black artists burdened by the political demands of their race. But they were also in concord with the dogma of the white literary establishment (a dogma that persists to this day): that art should transcend the social conditions that produced it. The white literati appreciated Ellison because he didn’t drag the bugaboo of race into the literary act. “I wasn’t, and am not,” he said, “concerned with injustice, but with art.”

With one exception, all the stories in Flying Home and Other Stories were written before Invisible Man, from the late 1930s to the middle 1940s. Thus, the tendency is to see the stories not in their own right, judging them strictly on the basis of their own strengths and weaknesses as short fiction, but as adumbrations of Invisible Man. The less-fair question is: Would these stories have been published if some unknown writer had written them? Are they worthy of our attention when considered apart from the person who wrote them?

This is not easy to answer. These are obviously apprentice works, the equivalent of art-book sketches, practice-room exercises. Ellison was clearly trying to learn how to write fiction. And while it is true that no author, no matter how accomplished, ever ceases to struggle with the craft of writing, there is surely a difference between that stage when one is fumbling around, trying to discover if one can even be a writer, and the stage where one is fully confident of addressing the world as nothing but a writer, because one is as compelled to write as to breathe. Isn’t the entire premise of this collection based on the idea that they suggest a culmination, an arrival, in Invisible Man?

Some of the adumbrations of Invisible Man are not hard to spot. The old man who tells of his dream of flying around heaven in “Flying Home” obviously is a prototype of Trueblood, the novel’s storytelling, incestuous black farmer. Aunt Kate in “That I Had the Wings” suggests Mary Rambo, the down-home black woman who nurses the Invisible Man back to health.

But such a literary game does not address the significance of these stories. What is of moment here is how much in these stories Ellison struggled to find his own voice, not to replicate, say, the voice of Richard Wright, but to use Wrightian elements in an Ellisonian way, as he did in “A Party Down at the Square,” a story about a lynching and an airplane crash told from the point of view of a visiting white adolescent. Here Ellison uses Wright’s preoccupation with interracial violence and graphic, near-surrealist detailing to provide the reader an ironic, ambiguous tale of a white boy, a moral innocent, coming of age. “A Hard Time Keeping Up” is very much a Chester Himes-type of hard-boiled story told through Ellison’s prism. Taking Himes’ unromantic, harsh view of black urban underground life, Ellison delivers a payoff not of violence but of a seeming violence that is, in fact, comic.

Ellison wrote these stories after having abandoned a career in music for one in literature. He was reading a great deal, trying to establish his literary ancestry and ascertain precisely the kind of writer he could be. The struggle with influences and the experiments with points of view, narrative mode, characterization, realism, surrealism, vernacular language, and the like is all very natural–even predictable–and thus, baldly apparent here. There are several stories about “riding the rods,” as illegally riding trains was called (Ellison did this as a college student), as well as tales about growing up in the Midwest, with Ellison making use of his Oklahoma upbringing. We see the apprentice writer trying to transform his raw autobiography into art, with varying success.

Of the notable stories in this collection, “A Coupla Scalped Indians,” published in 1956 and possibly a fragment for a new novel, is the biggest disappointment, since it is the latest Ellison work here. The unnamed narrator seems to be the same person as the narrator of Invisible Man, and the story seems to replicate what was done in the earlier novel. Buster and the narrator are camping out in the woods, in a male initiation ceremony like the Australian walkabout. What Ellison is doing here, as Hemingway did, is equating the process of becoming an artist with that of becoming a man. Throughout the story, Ellison uses the symbol of horns, investing them with a number of meanings relating to sexual desire (the horny young boys), artistic creation (the instrument of jazz), and masculinity (the symbol of a bull). But the symbolism ultimately overwhelms the story. The story seems self-conscious, heavy-handed in its intimations of meaning via symbols, preoccupied not with its characters but with its intention of being larger than itself.

The two most successful stories here, “That I Had the Wings” and “Flying Home,” are less self-conscious than “A Coupla Scalped Indians.” They show Ellison exploring black folklore as a source for black fiction, using flight, for example, as a metaphor for escape–a common trope among slaves who imagined themselves able to fly back to Africa. The two stories further illustrate the unease, even hostility, that blacks have tended to feel about their folklore, and about black history generally: In “That I Had the Wings,” Riley, a young black boy Ellison uses in several stories, hates his Aunt Kate and wishes she “had died back in slavery times”; in “Flying Home,” the black pilot who seeks escape hates the black farmer who rescued him after his crash. In Invisible Man, the Talented Tenth narrator must overcome not only the various ideologies that are presented to him as masks or subversions of identity, but also the various roles and prescriptions for leadership his own race wishes him to fulfill. Similarly, in these two stories, the pilot and the two boys are, in effect, fighting against the power of race consciousness as a form of conformity, even as they are trying to find their meaning through their race.

These stories particularly reveal Ellison’s concerns with the individual’s complex confrontation with his society and his group, and the way they assign him roles and identities. Ellison was not, by any means, the first black writer to explore these issues. But he was among the first to explore them with a level of intellectual verve and artistic sophistication that suggested to blacks and the world that there was, within the American dilemma of race, not only the expression of mere local and immediate political protest but the broad and rich possibilities of the human condition itself. Whatever the merit of these stories, it is certainly clear from them how Ellison was able to write his masterpiece, Invisible Man.