GOING TO THE TERRITORY
In sonorous, often autobiographical terms, these essays (reprinted from speeches and articles originally published between 1963-83) survey the role of the artist in society, the role of society in fiction, and the relationship of black cultural values to American myths and the American dream. The tone is judicious throughout, though Ellison remains very much a spokesman for his own generation--a group for whom slavery was a memory as immediate as memories of grandparents. The essays are often rooted in recollections of the 1930's--his years as a music student at Tuskegee and, somewhat later, as an ambivalent New Yorker committing himself to a literary life ("the writing of novels is the damndest thing I ever got into"). There is no apparent theory or method here--just a meticulous marshalling of memories, facts, and measured conclusions. One of the strongest essays is a tribute to Richard Wright, whom Ellison decided to meet after reading a poem by Wright while still at Tuskegee. Visiting New York at the same time that Wright was transferred from Chicago to New York (as editor of the magazine New Challenge and Harlem bureau reporter for The Daily Worker), Ellison not only got to know this uncompromising, troubled genius, but was one of the few to read Native Son in manuscript: "I didn't know what to think of it except that it was wonderful. I was not responding critically. After all, how many of you have had the privilege of reading a powerful novel as it was, literally, ripped off the typewriter?" Ellison later developed critical reservations about ideological bias in Wright's fiction, but the essay expresses them without detracting from Wright's enormous achievement. Curiously, another very fine essay is on a writer who must be the antipode of Wright--the novelist Erskine Caldwell. Ellison is no ideologue. Indeed, some of the reprinted speeches might have been better edited to remove glowing references to then-reigning presidents (including Richard Nixon). These flattering comments were probably graceful in context but out of context sound vaguely sycophantic. It's the only awkwardness in an otherwise magisterial performance.