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Ralph Ellison, Invisible Folklorist

This blog post about the novelist Ralph Ellison is part of a series called “Hidden Folklorists,” which examines the folklore work of surprising people, including people better known for other pursuits.

Ralph Ellison, photographed in 1960 by a United States Information Agency staff photographer. NARA reference number 306-PSA-61-8989.

Ralph Ellison was born in 1914 in Oklahoma City.  The grandson of slaves, he grew up to be a brilliant writer, who produced short stories, essays and novels.  He is best known as the author of Invisible Man, one of the most celebrated works of 20th century American fiction. When it was published in 1952, Invisible Man spent 16 weeks on the bestseller list. It won the National Book Award in 1953. More than 40 years later, Nobel Prize winner Saul Bellow declared: “This book holds its own among the best novels of the century.” The success of Invisible Man allowed Ellison to spend the rest of his life writing, lecturing, and teaching as a revered figure in American letters.  For that reason, not many people know that he was also a folklorist.

Ellison’s folklore work stems from his 1936 break from university in Tuskegee, when he went to New York, to make enough money to complete his degree. He was unsuccessful at making fast money, but met Richard Wright, who convinced him to try his hand at writing. He began publishing essays and short stories in such periodicals as New Masses, The Negro Quarterly, The New Republic, and Saturday Review.  Eventually, to make ends meet, Ellison got a job with the WPA Federal Writers Project, collecting folklore and life histories. Like Zora Neale Hurston, Sidney Robertson Cowell, and so many others, Ellison was a New Deal folklorist. [1]

For the rest of his days, Ellison remained convinced of the importance of folklore to black culture. This conviction certainly influenced Invisible Man; from the time it was published, scholars have recognized connections between the novel and African American folklore. In particular, the trickster figures so prominent in African American culture have been suggested as a way to understand Ellison’s characters, by scholars such as Trudier Harris, John W. Roberts, George E. Kent, and Henry Louis Gates.

This trend in Ellison scholarship began when Ellison was very much alive and writing. One of the earliest examples of such a reading is by Stanley Edgar Hyman, whose lecture “The Folk Tradition” argued for Ellison’s reliance on the African American archetypal trickster, citing examples such as Brer Rabbit. Hyman was a friend of Ellison’s, and  sent the lecture to the author for comment. Ellison wrote a friendly rebuttal, which became the essay “Change the Joke and Slip the Yoke.”  The two essays were published in 1958, side-by-side in The Partisan Review, and can be found online here. In his piece, Ellison wrote:

I use folklore in my work not because I am Negro, but because writers like Eliot and Joyce made me conscious of the literary value of my folk inheritance. My cultural background, like that of most Americans, is dual (my middle name, sadly enough, is Waldo).  I knew the trickster Ulysses just as early as I knew the wily rabbit of Negro American lore, and I could easily imagine myself a pint-sized Ulysses but hardly a rabbit, no matter how human and resourceful or Negro. [2]

Ellison’s claim was, of course, well founded. Literary critics have identified both European and African-American literary references in Invisible Man; in addition to Eliot and Joyce, the well-read author’s allusions ran the gamut from Homer and Shakespeare to Faulkner and Twain, all by way of contemporaries like Wright. But Ellison did have a special place in his heart for black folklore, as he also made clear in “Change the Joke and Slip the Yoke”:

For me, at least, in the discontinuous, swiftly changing and diverse American culture, the stability of the Negro American folk tradition became precious as a result of an act of literary discovery. Taken as a whole, its spirituals along with its blues, jazz and folk tales, it has, as Hyman suggests, much to tell us of the faith, humor, and adaptability to reality necessary to live in a world which has taken on much of the insecurity and blues-like absurdity known to those who brought it into being. For those who are able to translate its meanings into wider, more precise vocabularies it has much to offer indeed.

Draft pages of Invisible Man. Ralph Ellison Papers, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress. These pages appeared in the exhibit The Civil Rights Act of 1964: A Long Struggle for Freedom. Find more details at the exhibit site.

So Ellison acknowledged his debt to black folklore with the caveat that it was one among many influences. However, as far as I know he didn’t comment extensively on his time with the WPA as an influence on Invisible Man. So did Ellison’s work as a folklore collector really influence his masterwork?  I think it did.  A small example is the phrase “I’m in New York but New York ain’t in me,” which, as Barbara Foley points out, Ellison collected from Floridian Lloyd Green in Harlem, and then placed in the mouth of his character Mary Rambo.

As a more significant example, let’s consider the story of “Sweet-the-monkey,” a literal “invisible man” who was also a trickster. Ellison collected the story for the Federal Writers Project from an African American man named Leo Gurley on June 14, 1938. The manuscript is now online here at the Library of Congress.  Here is the text of the tale [3]:

I hope to God to kill me if this aint the truth. All you got to do is go down to Florence, South Carolina and ask most anybody you meet and they’ll tell you its the truth.

Florence is one of these hard towns on colored folks. You have to stay out of the white folks way; all but Sweet. That the fellow I’m fixing to tell you about. His name was Sweet-the-monkey. I done forgot his real name, I caint remember it. But that was what everybody called him. He wasn’t no big guy. He was just bad. My mother and grandmother used to say he was wicked. He was bad allright. He was one sucker who didn’t give a dam bout the crackers. Fact is, they go got so they stayed out of his way. I caint never remember hear tell of any them crackers bothering that guy. He used to give em trouble all over the place and all they could do about it was to give the rest of us hell.

It was this way: Sweet could make hisself invisible. You don’t believe it? Well here’s how he done it. Sweet-the-monkey cut open a black cat and took out its heart. Climbed up a tree backwards and cursed God. After that he could do anything. The white folks would wake up in the morning and find their stuff gone. He cleaned out the stores. He cleaned up the houses. Hell, he even cleaned out the dam bank! He was the boldest black sonofabitch ever been down that way. And couldn’t nobody do nothing to him. Because they couldn’t never see im when he done it. He didn’t need the money. Fact is, most of the time he broke into places he wouldn’t take nothing. Lots a times he just did it to show ’em he could. Hell, he had everybody in that lil old town scaird as hell; black folks and white folks.

The white folks started trying to catch Sweet. Well, they didn’t have no luck. Theyd catch ‘im standing in front of the eating joints and put the handcuffs on im and take im down to the jail. You know what that sucker would do? The police would come up and say: “Come on Sweet” and he’d say “Youall want me?” and they’d put the handcuffs on im and start leading im away. He’d go with em a little piece; Sho, just like he was going. Then all of a sudden he would turn hisself invisible and dissapear. The police wouldn’t have nothing but the handcuffs. They couldn’t do a thing with that Sweet-the-monkey. Just before I come up this way they was all trying to trap im. They didn’t have much luck. Once they found a place he’d looted with footprints leading away from it and they decided to try and trap im. This was bout sun up and they followed his footprints all that day. They followed them till sundown when he come partly visible. It was red and the sun was shining on the trees and they waited till they saw his shadow. That was the last of the Sweet-the-monkey. They never did find his body and right after that I come up here. That was bout five years ago. My brother was down there last year and they said they think Sweet done come back. But they caint be sho because he wont let hisself be seen.

This copy of Invisible Man is part of the Herman Finkelstein Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress. It appears in the Library of Congress’s online exhibition Books that Shaped America. Find out more at the exhibition site.

Gurley’s invisible hero, Sweet-the-monkey, finds invisibility to be an advantage when confronting all the limits placed on him by society, whether racial or otherwise. But because his only protection IS invisibility, he is eventually discovered and defeated. Invisibility also has the effect of negating Sweet. The narrator can only remember Sweet’s nickname and invisibility, describing him only in terms of what he’s not: not big, and not visible.

The end of Sweet’s tale points out further perils of  his invisibility, as it ultimately calls into question his very existence. When the police catch Sweet, it is “the end” for him, but what does this mean exactly?  “They never did find his body” sounds all too familiar in the Jim Crow south. The story raises uncomfortable questions: can invisible men be “disappeared?” And if racists lynch an invisible man, do they even have to hide the body? In the end, the narrator and hearer are left not knowing whether “Sweet done come back.”  Without knowing his name or description, they’re not likely to ever find out.

These ambiguities inherent in Sweet’s invisibility resonate with several of the characters in Invisible Man, including the protagonist, the protagonist’s grandfather, and Peter Wheatstraw [4]. As Sara Rutkowski points out:

In Invisible Man, invisibility signals both the narrator’s inability to be seen for his true self and his own reclamation of his identity by disappearing from his tormentors. Invisibility is both the source of and the solution to his predicament; it is saying “yes” and “no” simultaneously, as the narrator’s grandfather instructs him to do at the novel’s outset: “overcome ’em with yeses, undermine ’em with grins, agree ’em to death and destruction, let ’em swoller you till they vomit or bust wide open.”

Yet, the story of Sweet-the-monkey has neither the Dante-like scope nor the Kafkaesque surrealism, neither the Dostoyevskyan darkness nor the Joycean mythic overtones of Invisible Man. Ellison deployed such stylistic and thematic references liberally throughout his own meditation on the invisible trickster. Because of this, Invisible Man may be regarded as the tale of Sweet-the-monkey with its meanings translated into the “wider and more precise vocabular[ies]” of the western literary canon. The folklore he collected for the WPA, then, was a central part of the cultural material he fashioned into an American masterpiece.

Ellison’s friend Gordon Parks shot this photo in Harlem in 1943. Adjacent photos make it clear that the man walking toward the camera sold green beans from the pushcart at the left of the photo. Ellison might well have seen or even known this same vendor during his time in the neighborhood, contributing to his depiction of Peter Wheatstraw and his pushcart full of blueprints. This is a detail; see the whole photo and its bibliographic details here. [ //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8d28511 ]

Let’s give the last word on folklore to Ellison himself. In a 1955 interview in The Paris Review, he described folklore in a wise and beautiful way, revealing a folklorist’s approach within his writerly practice:

Ralph Ellison, photo by Gordon Parks ca. 1950. [More Info.]

Folklore…preserves mainly those situations which have repeated themselves again and again in the history of any given group. It describes those rites, manners, customs, and so forth, which insure the good life, or destroy it; and it describes those boundaries of feeling, thought, and action which that particular group has found to be the limitation of the human condition. It projects this wisdom in symbols which express the group’s will to survive; it embodies those values by which the group lives and dies. These drawings may be crude, but they are nonetheless profound in that they represent the group’s attempt to humanize the world. It’s no accident that great literature, the product of individual artists, is erected upon this humble base.

Notes

[1] I derived much of the information in these first two paragraphs from Ellison’s biography at read.gov.

[2] It’s interesting to note that Ellison does very directly mention Brer Rabbit in Invisible Man, and even has his main character claim Brer Rabbit as “an old identity” from childhood. So the fact that Ellison personally identified more with Ulysses is interesting, but doesn’t necessarily negate Hyman’s point that many authors might identify with Brer Rabbit or use Brer Rabbit as a model. Complicating this, however, is the fact that Ellison’s character has at the time lost his memory after a form of lobotomy, and is reminded of Brer Rabbit by white people trying to spark his memories–surely an indication that Brer Rabbit is the part of his identity most expected and approved of by whites. Therefore, Hyman’s recognition of this part of Ellison’s identity, while not wrong, was both predictable and reductive, which was part of Ellison’s point in his rebuttal.

[3] The text was transcribed by the WPA in such a way that the reader can’t tell which unconventional usages are intended to capture the speaker’s dialect, and which are just typos.  I’ve therefore presented the text exactly as transcribed with no attempt at correcting it.

[4] Much has been made of the connections between Peter Wheatstraw and blues musician William Bunch, who recorded under the name “Peetie Wheatstraw.” Ellison was adamant that he based his own Peter Wheatstraw on a character from a “frontier brag (or boast)” employed by pool sharks in his youth. You can read about that in a letter from Ellison at this link. He also claimed that “Peter Wheatstraw” was a traditional name adopted by a lot of people, similar to “Jack the Bear.” If this is true, the name of the musician Peetie Wheatstraw was taken from a version of the same folkloric character.  On the other hand, Bunch adopted the Wheatstraw moniker when Ellison was a teenager. Some researchers suspect that Bunch invented the name, which caught on quickly and gave Ellison the impression that it belonged to a much older folkloric character.

 

Ralph Ellison Resources at the Library of Congress

Complete list of collection items and web pages at the Library related to Ralph Ellison.

Curated Library of Congress web resources concerning Ellison include the following:

Biography at read.gov

Finding aid to the Ralph Ellison papers

Book talk with Ellison’s biographer, Arnold Rampersad

American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1940 (Includes some of Ellsion’s collected folklore.)

 

 

 

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