Thursday, September 22, 2005

Irving Howe vs. Ralph Ellison

Fighting at Cross-Purposes
Irving Howe vs. Ralph Ellison

by Darryl Lorenzo Wellington

In the early nineteen sixties, Irving Howe and Ralph Ellison crossed swords in an exchange of vehemently argued essays. Ellison’s half of the exchange remains handily available, “The World and the Jug,” reprinted in his now canonical essay collection Shadow and Act. Ellison is rarely a hot-tempered essayist, but “The World and the Jug” bristles. The essay to which Ellison is abrasively responding, Howe’s “Black Boys and Native Sons,” (Dissent, Autumn 1963) has gotten his dander up. He is defending his raison d’être. He is reclaiming his artistic value and independence from easy political categories (especially those imposed by Marxist-influenced white critics). His oratorical powers at full blast, with resounding indignation, he is asserting nothing less than the lasting significance of art.

“The World and the Jug,” then, looks like the definitive statement on artistic autonomy vs. liberal condescension. Or, at least, it looks that way until one reads the somewhat less well-known Howe essay. Ellison is so blisteringly, so persuasively indignant that the Howe essay is often unjustly summarized. For example, in 1991 Mark Busby Twayne states that “Howe charged Ellison with insufficient anger and called for more protest against racism in his work.” This is flat-out incorrect.

The Howe-Ellison fireworks were preceded in the fifties by James Baldwin’s eloquent “Everybody’s Protest Novel.” In terms occasionally similar to Ellison’s later essay, Baldwin upbraided the social protest “School of [Richard] Wright.” Baldwin’s strictures cut deeper than a personal manifesto. To him the American racial protest novel—from Uncle Tom’s Cabin to Native Son—had amounted to little more than a sentimental indulgence. The books reinforced the categories they hoped to deconstruct. They entrapped whites in a guilty role, blacks in an angry, hostile corner. Because Wright never publicly responded to Baldwin’s assertions—Howe’s essay implied that Wright thought it beneath him to do so—Howe was, so to speak, coming to Wright’s defense. Rather than demanding anything of any black artist, it would be truer to say that Howe was defending Richard Wright’s artistry and protest as a literary genre.

Have the arguments dated? Yes. Have the Howe-Ellison essays become museum pieces? Not entirely. An echo of their debate occurs whenever one minority member accuses another of “forgetting his roots” or whenever shouting matches erupt over whether “the canon” consists predominantly of dead white European males. But insofar as the Howe-Ellison squabble pitted the values of the committed artist against the values of aesthetic purity, it appears hackneyed, largely because today minority artists feel much less pressure to view “commitment to the struggle” and aestheticism as oppositional. Times have changed.

Ellison could feel justified today in surveying a literary landscape where black writers roam freely through a variety of subjects, styles, and genres. The same writer might be a committed social realist one week, a satirist the next, and a postmodernist the week after. Howe could point out that although the social pressures upon writers have changed, they still exist. And protest novels—straight out of the school of Wright—are still being written. Certainly large numbers of black writers feel compelled to decry racial injustice; this must reflect either a historical memory or a contemporary reality. The example of the major black writer of our day, Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison, exposes the insufficiency of either/or categories. Stylistically, her books are highly refined, preciously composed, jewel-like, while her themes and public identity blend comfortably with racial and feminist activist agendas.

“How could a Negro put pen to paper, how could he so much as think or breathe, without some impulsion to protest, be it harsh or mild, political or private, released or buried?” wrote Howe. Ellison interpreted him as limiting black artistry to crude, polemical works, and responded, “Twelve years ago a friend argued with me for hours that I could not possibly write a novel because my experience as a Negro had been too excruciating to allow me to achieve that psychological and emotional distance necessary to artistic creation.” But to Howe, Wright was an artist, however flawed. Howe was examining the pressures upon a Negro artist to make particular choices. To understand the artistic merit of Wright’s books, one must understand his roots and his America. Ellison thought that Howe was slumming.

The circle goes round and round. Ellison understood Howe as ghettoizing black writers. Howe’s original essay argues that given the social circumstances of the time (redoubled by American history), blacks will understandably feel a particular sympathy with protest themes, and that an intimate, necessary relationship exists between social circumstances and literary products, certainly a relationship that influences literary content, and a relationship that can be a consideration when assessing accomplishment. Ellison, too, allows for the pressure upon blacks to write protest fiction, but indicts Howe for presumptively denying blacks the capacity for other avenues of expression: Howe has consistently used phrases that restrict black creativity to a one-dimensional, sociological category.

“The World and the Jug” takes its title from Ellison’s stinging remark, “Howe seems to see segregation as a steel jug with the Negroes waiting for some black messiah to come along and blow the cork. But if we are in a jug it is transparent, not opaque, and one is allowed not only to see outside, but to read what is going on out there; to make identifications as to values and human quality”—to which Howe would likely agree and answer that his earlier remarks were in the interests of liberating the fullness of black humanity, by pointing up not the exclusive, but the most urgent, aspect of black experience. What could be more urgent than liberation from suffering?

In interesting ways, their exchange over protest literature resembles later arguments over the phrase “African American.” From one perspective, African American enforces parochialism and self-segregation from full democratic participation—but only if the word is approached skeptically. From another perspective, the term expresses a position, an identity from which to initiate honest participation, rather than the exclusions of the steel jug. But most of all, the exchange is indicative of the pressure of the early sixties, with Ellison welcoming a new frontier and liberation from the old pedagogy and Howe taking a cautionary stance.

Wymptomatic of an argument at cross-purposes, it bogs down in minutia. Ellison’s response to Howe’s response picks at phrases taken out of context, “pain and anguish,” “one may doubt that any Negro writer can,” “authentic,” for their white man’s bias. Are these phrases presumptuous? The nuances are so particular that readers should consult Howe’s text themselves. It seems to me, however, that Ellison has personalized Howe’s remarks in ways that widened their differences. It’s not often noted that “The World and the Jug” ends with a slew of generalizations far more sweeping than any Howe penned. Ellison brandishes a vision of Art with a capital A. He holds up his accomplishment as a shining example of American Individualism. He is a rough-and-ready artist-god, whose potential is unbound by race or class—because, despite Jim Crow, America is a land of opportunity. It’s uncertain whether Ellison is disclaiming any belief in the concept of an African American literature, but he steadfastly denounces comparison of his own work with Richard Wright’s. He is an American writer, and his true godfathers are Stephen Crane, Mark Twain, and Ernest Hemingway.

Round and round. The argument they began hinges upon one’s opinion of Richard Wright’s work; the broader questions they engage are infinitely worth speculating upon, but probably unanswerable. Where does the parochial vision end and the universal vision begin? To what extent is art a matter of truth telling? When is art exclusively the result of an individual will, and when is talent at least partially related to one’s place and times? Can art function in the political sphere and retain its integrity? Does privilege enter into the realm of the arts?

When the dust has settled, these arguments are still circular. But the essays are full of brilliant flashes of writing, interesting asides, and qualifiers. Rather than assigning victory to one writer, I want to examine some passages and themes for the heft they’ve gained or lost forty years later.

One man’s steel jug is another man’s starting point. One man’s sympathy for the anger of others is another man’s smug, sentimental gesture of genuflection. And it’s trickier still when the man espousing empathy is a white man, making judgments about an experience that isn’t his own. He skates on thin ice indeed. The most powerful salvo launched by Ellison is that Howe’s vision “leaves no room for the intensity of personal anguish which compels the artist to seek relief by projecting it into the world in conjunction with other things; that anguish which might take the form of an acute sense of inferiority in another, an overwhelming sense of the absurdity of life for still another.” In short, the danger is that a collective vision such as Howe’s erases the individual black artists’ common humanity with all members of the human family.

But this implies that Howe expressed himself much more deterministically and simplistically than was the case. In “Black Boys and Native Sons,” he wrote about the “pressure” upon black writers, implying a seesawing motion between individual impulses and social weight. Whereas Ellison saw a danger in collective generalizations, Howe was attuned to the perils of erasing society. In his autobiography, A Margin of Hope, Howe asks, “Since language has unbreakable ties to possible events in experience, can the meaning or value of a work be apprehended without some resort—be it as subtle and indirect as you wish—to social and moral categories?” The quote is taken from a passage on Howe’s student days, studying the tenets of the New Critics and their aspiration to substitute close analysis of a text for the study of background historical forces. Typically for projects this high-minded, the New Critics failed to see that “the evaluative terms offered by New Criticism—terms like coherence and complexity—were heavily freighted with associations drawn from history, psychology, morality. Is there any evaluative term not so freighted, and must not any attempt to find purely ‘intrinsic’ values wither into sterility?”

Thus he believed criticism was best approached with a conscious awareness of historical forces, and in 1963, in the case of black writers, this meant the influence of racism. This influence was entirely negative in human terms; in literary terms, as I understand Howe, it was neither necessarily negative nor necessarily positive. It could produce shrill polemics; it could produce masterpieces. But the fact of racism justified protest literature.

In “Black Boys and Native Sons,” Howe provides an overview thus far of the career of James Baldwin. In the fifties, Baldwin poeticized himself as “liberated” from bygone ideological stances, from the missionary zeal of Richard Wright. Howe suspected that the early Baldwin was too much under the influence of a fashionable Freudian-influenced critical method that “approached all ideal claims with a weary skepticism. If Dreiser wrote about power-hunger and dreams of success corrupting American society, that was because he was really infatuated with them. If James Farrell showed the meanness of life in the Chicago slums, that was because he could not escape it.” By the early sixties, Baldwin had become a much more polemical writer, a “clenched fist” author of essays and novels riddled with outrage. An understated theme throughout “Black Boys and Native Sons” is that it is difficult to know when one is “liberated,” when one is paying lip service to fashionable ideals, or when one is under the influence of a subtler set of biases. It is difficult to know when a social category has lost its past significance, and when the pretense that it is no longer significant risks contributing to a less overt, but still real form of oppression. Hence Howe’s continued emphasis upon the individual as part of the group.

For some, Howe’s emphasis upon social determinants will appear negative; some will prefer Ellison’s democratic idealism. But it is possible to believe both that individual human potential is boundless and that group, racial, and class dynamics usually matter. It is possible to believe that racism wounds, that society marks the artist, and that creativity isn’t determined by the marking. An awareness of probabilities isn’t inconsistent with a profound respect for possibility.

Is it really so much easier to see this forty-two years later? What has changed? It seems the Howe-Ellison quarrel was heavily constrained by the social dialectic of their times. In 1963, Howe defended “committed” writing, and both essayists bandied the concept of black protest primarily in the context of writing engaged with racism. Today, the landscape of “protest and commitment” would include black artists involved in environmental, feminist, gay, and transgender movements. Tributaries such as these would complicate an analysis of the role of race. Among the many “then” and “now” changes, this, too, eases the rigidity of the discussion.

It is among artists who have already come to regard themselves as “committed” in one sense or another, I suspect, that disputes like the Howe-Ellison debate will retain the most significance. Many such artists struggle to negotiate the personal and the political, self-realization and social obligation, and many will see that struggle mirrored in the argument of four decades ago. “We do not make our circumstances,” wrote Howe, “we can, at best, try to remake them, and the arena of choice always proves to be a little narrower than we supposed.”

Shifts in literary reputation are a fact of life; these weather changes influence how generously creative and critical texts are read, the sympathies we allot or refuse. I think it is interesting to look at these essays in that light; their fortunes are tied, irrevocably, to the general reputations of Native Son and Invisible Man.

Invisible Man’s reputation has scaled the mountaintop. It is no longer just a classic, but the classic of the African American literary canon. It’s almost a cliché for younger African American writers and novices to cite it as their inspiration, their turning point, their favorite novel. (One can only hope these ubiquitous citations are matched by the in-depth study the book deserves.) “The World and the Jug” benefits from Invisible Man’s reputation. Whatever its excesses, the essay is usually read with deference to Ellison’s accomplishment (as it should be) and appreciation that he bequeathed us this resounding credo, his paean to the only values that—for true artists—count.

For several decades since the sixties, Richard Wright’s reputation has been on the decline. The damage began with Baldwin’s attack upon, and Ellison’s subsequent disavowal of, Wright’s influence. By the seventies his work had already withstood repeated and severe hammering. This state of affairs worsened with the rise of structuralist and deconstructionist criticism after whose methods Wright’s work looks stodgy and woodenly unambiguous. In his early writings, Wright held to concepts such as truth and justice, and sometimes without sufficiently self-conscious literary irony; his later excursions into existentialism remained characterized by directness. He was simply too plainspoken a writer to satisfy postmodernist critical modes. There was a period in the eighties when (it seemed to me) Wright criticism generally implied that he was an influential writer, but overrated and spent as a force. This changed in the late nineties. It is safe to say that Richard Wright is on the ascent again, especially since the release of Hazel Rowley’s Richard Wright: His Life and Times, published in 2001.

Rowley’s book retells Wright’s story for a new generation of readers; his (remarkable, improbable, is it too much to say, heroic?) journey from a Mississippi sharecropping family, to hunger and poverty in Chicago, to fame as a novelist, to exile in Paris and acquaintanceship with Sartre and Beauvoir. The biography renews appreciation for the awkwardness of his position as a black trailblazer.

In Wright’s case, as in Hemingway’s, truth be told, the biography usually influences assessments of the work. Wright was, after all, “Black Boy.” His up-from-slavery memoir undoubtedly played a part in the Ellison-Howe squabble. “I suggest that my credentials are just as valid as Wright’s… and it is possible I have lived through and committed more violence than he,” wrote Ellison, and countered the Wright myth—with its romance of opposition, its emphasis upon hunger and the necessity of struggle, however slim the chances of victory—with a myth of his own that emphasized education and self-actualization. Its gods stood on the pinnacles of Art; its primary zone of liberation was the mind. Ellison put less emphasis on the battle scars suffered by the oppressed than on the fields of opportunity awaiting the self-empowered. He recast the issue of racial oppression: no longer a battle between blacks and whites hopelessly pitted against each other because of social and class ties, and more a non-race-specific battle of progressive Americans against ignorance and stupidity. No wonder they argued at cross-purposes—it was in part a conflict of myths.

For those of us who believe in Wright’s literary merit and look forward to his literary restoration, Howe’s essay is an early example of the same arguments positive evaluations offer today: that there are purely artistic values at the core of Wright’s vision, among them ambiguity, that extend its interest beyond ideological concerns.

Ellison indulges himself in mocking Howe as ignorant of black culture. But I do think Howe’s essay was forward-looking in its analysis of Wright. With his sensitivity to social and generational changes, Howe perceived, as is more evident today, how Native Son had been the victim of hidden agendas masquerading as aesthetics. Readers familiar with Baldwin’s and Ellison’s critiques will remember their discomfort with Bigger Thomas: Thomas highlighted the crude, murderous impulses of a disturbed individual rather than the everyday communal habits of the underprivileged. This argument dovetailed into the criticism that Bigger Thomas lacked Richard Wright’s perception and intelligence. (Should Madame Bovary have reflected Flaubert’s cosmopolitanism?) These arguments reflected the period’s entrenchment in the politics of black images. Beneath thick veils of language, Baldwin and Ellison damned Thomas as an unprogressive image of black masculinity. Howe understood that this criticism, however well intended, avoided the sociological point that was the source of Thomas’s literary power. Their words implied “that Wright could not see beyond the limitations of the character he created”—which was unbelievable. The question was never the extent to which Wright resembled Bigger Thomas, but rather the extent to which Bigger Thomas resembled the young, disenfranchised inhabitants of the nation’s ghettos and represented in metaphor a legitimate aspect of the reality of urban poverty. If Bigger Thomas lived inside a steel jug, that was the point.

Rereading the exchange, the Howe essay strikes me for its insightful passages; the Ellison essay for its inspirational vigor; the Howe essay seems occasionally to slip into a thud-thud emphasis upon oppression, the Ellison essay into an easy glorification of American egalitarianism. The circularity of the arguments bedevils me. When Ellison writes of art, he will put in an aside to say, in effect, “but politics matter.” Similarly, when Howe writes of the rage he feels must accompany black life in America, he will implicitly stipulate that rage is futile as diatribe, but meaningful as art. Occasionally the debate almost ceases to be an argument; it is preposterously semantically finicky, a difference in qualifiers.

Certain phrases and posturings surprise me—making me wonder whether I fully appreciate the sensitivities that led to the falling out—as when Howe describes Ellison’s accomplishment as “miraculous,” a word that might smack of a patronizing liberalism. I’m taken aback by the vitriol with which Ellison denies and denounces the influence of Wright. The Howe-Ellison essays retain intrinsic, historical interest, but at the same time they live in the shadows. Howe defends Wright; Ellison attacks Wright. Ellison defends creative autonomy; Howe explicates the thematic significance of protest. And behind the debate stand two major works of literature that are their own best defenses.

Darryl Lorenzo Wellington is a poet and literary critic. He has published essays and reviews in the Nation, Dissent, and the Washington Post Book World.