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Ralph Ellison, Intertextuality, and Biographical Criticism:
An Answer to Brian Roberts
Brian Roberts raises important criticisms of my argument that the leftist Ellison who in the winter of 1937-38 wrote "A Party Down at the Square" and the Cold Warrior Ellison who in 1952 published Invisible Man were "more significant for their break than for their continuity" (Foley, "Reading Redness" 326).1 If Roberts is right in his counterclaim that the two texts exhibit a similar "conceptual dialectic" based upon a "synthesized intersubjectivity," rather than a polarization between class consciousness on the one hand and existential humanism on the other, he not only queries my analysis of Ellison's individual political and artistic odyssey but also raises a number of larger questions (Roberts 90). Implicated in our varying readings of Ellison's oeuvre, I shall argue, are not just different conceptions of the relationship of the U.S. organized left to African Americans. We also embrace quite different notions about the kinds of evidence—intertextual and biographical—that can legitimately be adduced in arguments about literary interpretation. I am grateful to both Roberts and the editors of JNT for giving me this opportunity to rethink some of my methodological premises.
Roberts summarizes some key points in three articles I have written about Ellison's politics between the late 1930s and the early 1950s; let me [End Page 229] expand briefly. In "The Rhetoric of Anticommunism in Invisible Man," I speculated that anticommunism was central to the invisible man's famous closing proposition, "Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?" The narrator's ability to put in the background the preceding tale's harsh critique of U.S. racism and to assert his oneness with a reader at this point presumed to be white is premised, I suggested, upon a rhetorical loading of the dice; the "other" becomes not the white supremacists and their African-American henchmen who have denied the hero's visibility because of his race, but those enemies of patriotism who are "making the old eagle rock dangerously"—above all, Communists. In "Ralph Ellison as Proletarian Journalist," I argued that Ellison's connection with the left in the late 1930s and early 1940 was of significant strength and duration, since he evidently supported the various changes in line and practice of the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA) accompanying the Hitler-Stalin Pact of 1939 and subsequently the Nazi invasion of the USSR in 1941. This stance indicated that Ellison was, if not "zealous" (Roberts's word, not mine), at least in substantial agreement with CP policy well into the war. In "Reading Redness: Politics and Audience in Ralph Ellison's Early Short Fiction"—the article most central to Roberts's commentary—I proposed that a basic reason why discontinuity prevailed over continuity in the shift from the proletarian to the Cold War-era Ellison was that the bid for multiracial unity contained in the left-inflected early short stories was based upon a call for anti-capitalist class consciousness that precluded rather than celebrated trans-class conceptions of the human condition. Both explicit and implicit in these essays, then, is the proposition that the humanism voiced at the finale of the 1952 novel is premised upon a pseudouniversalism carrying fundamentally conservative implications. If, by contrast, Roberts is right in saying that from the outset of his career Ellison was "revis[ing] the Marxist dialectic" in such a way as to supersede the primacy of the class contradiction, and instead to construe "the sympathetic human body as a natural, material site of equality among human subjects" (90), then he is not, as he proposes, "building upon," but instead fundamentally rejecting, my analysis of Ellison's relationship with the left; Roberts's and my interpretations of Ellison's strategy of "speaking for you" are, finally, incompatible.2
As I'll indicate below, I find a number of Roberts's points, about both texts and contexts, insightful and compelling. But I am not finally convinced [End Page 230] by his argument for the essential continuity between the "two Ellisons." Roberts's thesis hinges upon a series of connections among the various pieces of evidence forming the links in his logical chain. Roberts proposes, to begin with, that a "discourse" which "imagin[es] the CP as an organization using the image of oppressed blacks to further a political agenda with a trajectory beyond that of alleviating black suffering" is not simply a "critical commonplace" of today but "clearly has been present—and thus influenced how some African Americans perceive their relationship with the CP—since at least the 1930s" (92). As evidence of the prevalence of this "discourse"—the truth-value of which is, he asserts, not immediately relevant to his argument—Roberts cites the portrayal of the left in Richard Wright's 1944 Atlantic Monthly essay, "I Tried to Be a Communist," in which Wright concluded (these are Roberts's words) that Wright had felt "used . . . as a type of mascot" (92). Wright's well-known recantation, Roberts argues, serves as an important register not just to Wright's own experience, as he chose retrospectively to describe it in 1944, but to a "discourse famously offered by ex-communist African Americans" regarding "the CP's use of the African American image" (92). Roberts asserts that, by the winter of 1937-38, Wright had already conveyed to Ellison his (Wright's) jaundiced view of CP manipulation. He contends, further, that during Ellison's several-months' sojourn in Dayton, Ohio—where, after the sudden death of his mother in October 1937, he lived in marginal circumstances for several months but produced some half-dozen proletarian short stories of considerable merit, including "A Party Down at the Square"—Wright's end of the correspondence further contributed to Ellison's growing wariness regarding the CP. Even as Ellison wrote to Wright complaining of the inaccessibility in Dayton of the Daily Worker and the New Masses, Roberts concludes, the younger writer was starting to form the "doubts" regarding the motivations of Communists professing anti-racism that he would voice openly in Invisible Man. Roberts cites Ellison's biographer Lawrence Jackson to the effect that "during this time of isolation . . . Ellison realized he needed to 'maintain skepticism about the holy class revolution'" (Jackson 192 qtd. in Roberts 103).3
Also to support his contention that Ellison dug in his political heels very early in his acquaintance with the left, Roberts comments on a literary text that, in his reading, stakes out the discursive parameters within [End Page 231] which the young writer set out upon his project of "revis[ing] the materialist dialectic" (90). Discussing D. Hercules Armstrong's July 1938 New Masses poem "Do They Mean Me?" from the standpoint of a "CP affiliate who felt reservations similar to those Wright claimed to have all along," Roberts states that the poem "critiques the CP affiliates that made [calls for freedom from exploitation and oppression] without considering the plight of African Americans in the South" (93). While the poem apparently takes aim at those who would ignore the widespread practice of lynching and celebrate America as a land of freedom, Roberts believes that its real target is those (presumably white) leftists, "red in the face," who proclaimed their concern for African Americans' welfare but in fact both "used blackness to validate party commentary and manipulate party politics" and, moreover, "used gruesome depictions of violence against African Americans to further [the CP's] larger historical materialist objectives" (93). "When read in the spirit of the anti-Communist discourse offered by Wright," Roberts concludes—echoing his own earlier summary of Wright's narrative—that the poem ironically implies that the lynching victim's body "becomes a mascot around which CP affiliates are to rally" (93).4
Moving beyond the relatively oblique intertextual evidence drawn from Armstrong's poem, Roberts adduces a biographical connection, arguing that a probable direct source for Ellison's horrifically detailed portrayal of the lynching of the anonymous black man—designated by the narrator of "A Party Down at the Square" only as the "Bacote nigger"—was the description of the 1912 Texas lynching of Dan Davis, originally written for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, published in the Crisis in 1912, and then reprinted in the NAACP's landmark 1919 volume, Thirty Years of Lynching in the United States. It is highly likely, contends Roberts, that Ellison came across this book when he spent several weeks in 1937-38 composing short stories in the office kindly loaned to the financially strapped young man by the African-American lawyer William O. Stokes. As much as he deplored the "inflammatory rhetoric" of the CP, Roberts asserts, the young Ellison wished also to distance himself from the false objectivism and "pacifying aesthetic" embedded in the mainstream journalism reproduced by the NAACP. This journalism foreclosed analysis of the causes of lynching, "obviate[ed] . . . social/revolutionary action," and advocated "stabilization through police action" (Roberts 100). In addition, [End Page 232] Roberts hypothesizes, Ellison would have been skeptical of the "civilizationalist" and "colonialist" implications of the newspaper article's characterization of the lynchers of Davis as possessing a "cannibalistic spirit"—a rhetorical move whose embedded racism is reinforced, Roberts opines, when the lynching account is juxtaposed with another 1912 St. Louis Post-Dispatch article pandering to white supremacist assumptions about African savagery (and implicitly comparing "native" hunters with the "'great man-like beast'" they have captured). The NAACP's acceptance—however inadvertent—of racist premises is further illustrated, Roberts contends, in other texts appearing contemporaneously in the Crisis, such as Claude McKay's "To the White Fiends." In this sonnet, notes Roberts, the speaker reproduces the dominant racist ideology associating whiteness with enlightenment and blackness with evil and ignorance. Where Ellison may have been wary of the CP's manipulative portrayal of African American suffering to further its ulterior revolutionary motives, he would have viewed the NAACP's apparently neutral language as signaling a quietistic defense of the status quo. The "two disparate strategies for the representation of violence against African Americans," concludes Roberts, "must have competed within Ellison's mind as a black proletarian writer composing 'A Party Down at the Square'" (91).5
In steering between the Scylla of Communist manipulation and the Charybdis of liberal accommodation, Roberts argues, the young Ellison settled upon the figure of the human body in pain as the site of a discourse that might "synthesize" the historical materialist explanatory power of the first with the rhetorical restraint of the second. The suffering body of the nameless "Bacote nigger" is said to capture and embody a "conceptual dialectic" that bypasses the Marxist call for working-class multiracial unity in favor of a class-transcending "edict against violence . . . —as it were writ on nature, hardwired into an essential humanity, the sympathetic human body" (Roberts 105). The central political declaration in this tale, for Roberts, is thus signaled not so much by such narrative elements as the electrocution of the white woman or the concluding conversation between the two white sharecroppers—although he grants these elements' importance to the text's "historical materialist" aspect—as by the narrative's "speaking for you" through the young white narrator who witnesses the lynching. Indeed, this "blurring of the line between the Self and the Other" enables Ellison even to assume a "benevolen[t]" attitude toward the white [End Page 233] mob (105). This "sympathetic" rendering of the tortured body in "A Party Down at the Square," Roberts believes, would be fully articulated in Invisible Man, where the nameless narrator muses on the similar "'death in the smell of spring . . . in the smell of thee and the smell of me'" (Ellison, Invisible Man, 580 qtd. in Roberts 90). The invisible man is enabled finally to move beyond the limitations of the dispassionate rhetoric that—reluctant to impose the rigid grid of Brotherhood theory upon black tragedy—he had deployed at the funeral of Tod Clifton. In the novel's epilogue, the invisible man can "speak for you," maintains Roberts, because he has attained to the "synthesized intersubjectivity" with which his creator had begun to be fascinated well over a decade before.
Let us examine the various links in this argumentative chain. Though initially skeptical, I find myself intrigued and largely persuaded by Roberts's contention that Ellison very likely drew upon the NAACP's reissued description of the Davis lynching when he wrote "A Party Down at the Square." Eyewitness accounts of lynchings typically recorded similar details—the repertory of possible variations upon the theme of shooting, maiming and burning a human being being, tragically, quite limited. But Roberts nonetheless designates some haunting parallelisms, such as the burning man's request to be treated in a "Christian" manner and the grotesque description of his moving feet. Roberts's argument for Ellison's having come across Thirty Years of Lynching in lawyer Stokes's office relies, perhaps, upon too many hypotheticals that are then treated as certainties. It is relatively unimportant, in my view, whether Ellison had the NAACP text at his elbow as he wrote "A Party Down at the Square" or had previously come across this gripping account, which then stuck in his mind. In uncovering this probable source for Ellison's short story, however, Roberts has made a significant discovery. Not only has he performed some ingenious literary detective work, he has also suggested that the enthusiastic young reader of the CP-sponsored New Masses probably read, and drew upon, the literature of the more mainstream and liberal NAACP. Given that in 1937-38 the CPUSA and the NAACP had for a time buried their doctrinal hatchets and were working on some common campaigns—indeed, to borrow Roberts's term, had temporarily "synthesized" their approaches—Ellison's likely influence by the Association's almost twenty-year-old book on lynching adds to our understanding of Popular [End Page 234] Front-era antiracism while suggesting the fledgling writer's breadth of reading.6
I find less convincing, however, Roberts's extrapolation of an argument about "civilizationism" from the deadpan prose of the description of the Davis lynching (and of the other newsstories gathered in Thirty Years of Lynching). After all, the sort of rhetorical restraint exhibited in these pieces of journalism had been integral to antiracist "protest" writing from Frederick Douglass's Narrative to the naturalistic writing of Ellison's mentor Wright (who himself had quite recently described a lynching in "Big Boy Leaves Home" in a language not dissimilar to that used in the newspaper account of the Davis lynching). Moreover, while I find fascinating much of Robert's application of David Spurr's and Raymond Williams's arguments about the "pacifying aesthetic" of journalism to newspapers of the Jim Crow era, I still do not see how the NAACP, in drawing upon these newspapers, can be charged with promulgating a "problematic, colonized site of equality" in Thirty Years of Lynching (Roberts 100-01). To be sure, the NAACP was—as Roberts points out—hardly a radical organization, either 1919 or in 1938 (or one might add, the present day). It sought, then as now, to speak truth to power by holding up a mirror to the nation's contradiction between democratic theory and practice, rather than by challenging the foundations of American racism in capitalism, colonialism, and imperialism. Nonetheless, the Association's 1919 reproduction of a 1912 text characterizing lynchers as cannibals hardly demonstrates its uninterrogated acceptance of an accompanying discourse of white supremacy. Especially in the wake of World War I, when the mutual carnage and destruction wrought by European nations prompted widespread commentary across the political spectrum on the paradoxical relationship between barbarism and civilization, to charge white people with cannibalism as the ultimate symbol of savagery did not necessarily bespeak a covert embrace of colonialist assumptions. Indeed, in the early 1920s the NAACP explicitly and defiantly equated lynching with cannibalism, parading outside its 1922 convention with placards reading, "SAVAGES EAT PEOPLE WITHOUT COOKING—AMERICANS COOK HUMAN BEINGS WITHOUT EATING." The patent intent of this slogan—notably "inflammatory," by the way, both literally and figuratively—would be, it seems to me, not to "blacken" lynchers but to de-racialize the notion of barbarism altogether.7 [End Page 235]
In this context, a comment on Roberts's reading of McKay's "To the White Fiends" is in order. I believe that McKay too was invoking the equation of imperialism with savagery when wrote that he "'could 'match—outmatch' the lynchers' savagery because he is 'Afric's son, Black of that black land where black deeds are done,'" and, further, declared that he would refrain from revenge because "'because the Almighty has called him to 'be a light [. . .] on the benighted earth.'" To read into these lines a dominant discourse equating good with white and bad with black effaces McKay's ironic critique of that very discourse, divesting the poem of its metaphorical power. Moreover, this reading flies in the face of what is known about McKay's revolutionary internationalist politics at the time he wrote this poem. As I read it, the speaker's claims to a morally superior blackness in "To the White Fiends," where whiteness is rendered as hellish, is—from Marxist standpoint—problematically Afrocentric. Where in a revolutionary class-conscious poem like "Birds of Prey" (published in the African-American Socialist Messenger in December 1919) McKay stipulated that capitalist predators tore at the bodies of workers of all races, here—as in another important 1919 poem, "The Lynching"—he suggested no basis for multiracial class-based solidarity. But I am not persuaded of Roberts's conclusion that "To the White Fiends" implicitly endorses "civilizationist" premises, thereby further illustrating the NAACP's reproduction of a discourse that Ellison would have felt the need to supersede and sublate.8
Finally, if one is going to make the case for a stark dichotomy between the approaches to lynching by the NAACP and the CP, it is important to take into consideration not just the kind of discourses deployed by the Association in its 1919 anthology—which reproduced some newspaper articles dating back even to the previous century—but also discourses prevalent in the Crisis of 1938, the relevant year of comparison with the Armstrong poem. As it happens, in July 1938 the Crisis, angrily confronting a ruling by the District of Columbia Board of Education that the magazine had been "not approved" for classroom use, went back over its recent record. Besides noting articles published on a range of subjects deemed "objectionable," from combating syphilis to criticizing segregation in baseball, the editors reprinted a poem titled "Flag Salute" that ironically juxtaposed phrases from the "Pledge of Allegiance" with details of a lynching. It reads in part: [End Page 236]
"One Nation, Indivisible"—
(Popel, "Flag Salute," 146)
Noteworthy here is not just the grotesque rendering of a lynching's physical details but also the ironic commentary on the government "pledge" to insure the blessings of liberty to all in the nation; the poem hardly affirms "stabilization through police action." Although the same issue of the Crisis contained an editorial pressing Congress and the Attorney General's office to answer the President's call for a federal investigation of lynching, this unabashedly reformist stance did not, it would appear, rule out the Association's use of graphic language and highly emotional—indeed, "inflammatory"—rhetoric in its representation of the live burning of a human being. To claim that the CP alone deployed the image of the black body in pain in order to further a political agenda, as Roberts does, ignores the fact that this image was in fact central to the discourse on lynching associated with organizations elsewhere on the political spectrum.9
Not only do I find unwarranted a sharp polarization of NAACP and CP representations of lynching; I also disagree with Roberts's interpretation of Armstrong's "Do They Mean Me?" as an ironic commentary on (white) Communist indifference toward black oppression. Where the political and historical setting of McKay's "To the White Fiends" demands that it be read with more irony, the context surrounding this 1938 New Masses poem requires, I think, that it be read with less. "Do They Mean Me?" offers a fairly straightforward condemnation of the violence inflicted upon African [End Page 237] Americans and the hypocrisy of a "they" who would deny that this systemic brutality has any bearing upon the truth-value of the democratic slogans which "they" mouth. (Indeed, its "message" is quite similar to that in "Flag Salute.") Other than suggesting that the phrase "red in the face" signifies embarrassed (white) Communists, however, Roberts offers no textual support for his avowedly "anti-Communist" reading of Armstrong's poem. But why should we assume that "red in the face" signifies a specifically leftist hypocrisy, rather than a generally white hypocrisy? And why—if this critique of red inattention to "the plight of African Americans in the South" is so self-evident an interpretation of the poem—would the editors of the New Masses have chosen to publish a text that would for so many of its readers call into question the integrity of the leftist political movement that it was the journal's mission to publicize and uphold? The hostility toward U.S. Communism that has gone into the post-Cold War groundwater might understandably prompt some present-day readers to view the poem as an ironic commentary on red perfidy. But for 1938 New Masses readers in the orbit of the Popular Front-era CP—which was still deeply involved in the Scottsboro case—the notion that it was the left, and not the capitalists and Jim Crow racists, who had inherited the true democratic legacy of the Founding Fathers would have been a central (and non-ironic) proposition.10
What is more, even a cursory survey of other texts addressing matters of race in the 1937-38 New Masses—an investigation clearly relevant to determining whether Armstrong's poem can be read in intertextual relation to a generally acknowledged contemporaneous "discourse"—reveals that the journal regularly ridiculed racist pseudoscience, condemned lynching, featured the special oppression of African Americans within the working class, and criticized bigotry within the labor movement. When the journal linked racial oppression to capitalist exploitation, it did not deny the horrors of the Jim Crow South but instead featured lynching and its accompaniments as central among the reasons why revolutionary change was in fact necessary, for the great majority, black and white alike. Moreover, a number of these pieces exhibited the continuing influence within the CP of the "Black Belt Thesis," which was premised upon the theory that African Americans in the South should be able to exercise the right to self-determination, thereby themselves choosing whether and when they might want to participate in a class-based anti-capitalist revolution. [End Page 238] There were plenty of problems with this formulation, in my view; but it hardly accords with Roberts's assertion that the CP was attempting to "accomplish[h] an agenda with a trajectory beyond the elimination of black suffering" (91). The prevalent approach to race, racism, and racial violence in the late-1930s New Masses thus suggests that the irony suffusing "Do They Mean Me?" derives from Armstrong's critique—in my view, a fairly frontal critique—of false notions of democracy premised upon the irrelevance, indeed, the invisibility, of the experience of African Americans to the white majority, but not specifically to white leftists. The Ellison who craved the New Masses while in Dayton—and who would soon serve on its editorial board for over a year—must have been acquainted with the magazine's treatment of racial issues. Indeed—now it is I who speculate, though I think with some security—the New Masses' trenchant critique of U.S. racism was most likely part of the reason why Ellison was so attached to the premier journal of the literary left in the first place. Even if one grants for the sake of argument the plausibility of Roberts's avowedly "anti-Communist" reading of "Do They Mean Me?", then, there still remains the question of the text's typicality, which cannot be avoided if one is to engage in intertextual commentary. That is, if the poem's purported critique of red-faced Communists is anomalous, and runs counter to everything else published in the New Masses in this period, how can this text function as evidence to shore up the claim that Ellison would in 1937-38 have been both familiar and sympathetic with the "anti-Communist" discourse upon which the poem was presumably premised?11
I also remain largely unconvinced by the biographical material brought in to support Roberts's contention that, from as early as the winter of 1937-38, Ellison was beginning to entertain the "doubts" about the motivations of Communists that would achieve full expression in Invisible Man. Roberts acknowledges the danger in "view[ing] Ellison's later self-representation as impervious to the anti-Communist rhetoric of the [Cold War] era" (103). But he offers, in my view, insufficient rationale for his counter-proposal that "dismissing Ellison's statements as strictly revisionist would be equally naïve" (103). Why would this be so? Prima facie, the evidence for ex post facto "revisionism" would seem to be preponderant. In Ellison's numerous works of short fiction from the late 1930s and early 1940s—I think here especially of "Slick Gonna Learn" and "The Black Ball"—the possibility for alliance between initially wary black characters [End Page 239] and the radical working-class whites they encounter is contingent upon the latter giving evidence to the former of authenticity and sincerity. In "Slick Gonna Learn," the white truck driver—who sports a union logo on his cap, gives Slick a ride, and expresses sympathy with his distressed circumstances—is contrasted with the bigoted judge and strike-breaking police who have brutalized the protagonist earlier in the day. Part of what Slick has to "learn," evidently, is to distinguish allies from enemies in the ranks of white folks. In the latter story, a white union organizer bears on his scarred hands and limping leg visible traces of his having defended a black friend from violent white supremacists. His fire-deformed body signifies not "a natural, material site of human equality"—Roberts's formulation for the basis of trans-racial "intersubjectivity" (90)—but by contrast, a materiality historically produced in and through the struggle for proletarian solidarity.12
The many analytical articles and reviews that Ellison published in the left press in the late 1930s and early 1940s further suggest their author's considered endorsement not just of leftist attitudes in general but of Communist doctrines in particular. As I have elsewhere noted, pieces such as "Camp Lost Colony," "A Congress Jim Crow Didn't Attend," and "The Way It Is" not only stress the need for class-based multiracial unity but also reveal Ellison's adherence to the Popular Frontist, isolationist, and "Win the War" positions successively held by the CPUSA during these years. It is difficult to believe that Ellison voiced these views if he did not espouse them, or that he only "seemed," as Roberts suggests, "to rigorously endorse the aims of the CP" (107). It is also difficult to understand why Ellison would have maintained for several years a working relationship with the CP—playing a significant role in organizing such Communist-affiliated cultural activities as the 1941 Congress of the League of American Writers—if he had begun suspect as early as 1937-38 that Communists were "using" black suffering to "manipulate party politics" (92). Moreover, since the centerpiece in Ellison's portrayal of Communist perfidy in his 1952 novel is the accusation that the Brotherhood abandoned its antiracist program in deference to international priorities and deliberately provoked the 1943 riot, the concordance with CP global strategies suggested in Ellison's wartime writings warrants close scrutiny. Even when he co-edited Negro Quarterly with Angelo Herndon in 1941-42—and apparently enjoyed considerable political independence— [End Page 240] Ellison advocated critical support of the war effort that did not break with the CP position, even though he pressed against its limits. In other words, Ellison did not publicly express a critique of war-era Communist opportunism until well after the war was over. Indeed, the drafts of Invisible Man, which Ellison began writing in 1945, indicate that even in the late 1940s he only gradually decided to accuse the Brotherhood of toeing the Comintern line and sacrificing Harlem to the march of History. Unless we suppose that Ellison had entered into some kind of pact with the devil when he issued his many wartime declarations of solidarity with the CP, we should entertain the possibility that he—in fact like many other progressives and leftists, black and white, in and out of the Party—felt it necessary to hold in abeyance any criticisms he might have had. Policies that were viewed as pragmatic and necessary during the war would be reinscribed as opportunist only after the fascists had been militarily defeated.13
But we are jumping too far ahead. For what is at issue here is not the nature and extent of Ellison's gradual disaffiliation from the CP sometime well after the Dayton period, but the views that can be attributed to him in 1937-38, thereby delineating the parameters within which the story can be interpreted in historical context. For all the interpretive free rein made possible by intertextual analysis, the introduction of biographical evidence—which Roberts, rightly, understands to be important to his argument—inevitably raises not just the matter of authorial "intention" (old-fashioned as that notion may be) but also the historical specificity and variability of that intention. Relying exclusively upon Wright's 1944 essay, "I Tried to Be a Communist," as evidence of the "discourse famously offered by ex-communist African Americans," Roberts contends that Wright, "who had recently been discouraged by the CP's apathy concerning the 'Negro experience,'" by 1937-38 "already had reservations about the CP's use of African Americans" (92). Yet, as several of Wright's biographers and commentators have pointed out, "I Tried to Be a Communist" is riddled with misrepresentations of Wright's actual historical relationship with the CP. Although Wright would declare in this essay that he had quit the CP and left Chicago for New York as early as 1936, after being expelled from a May Day march in Chicago, he actually left for New York a year later; moreover, as Addison Gayle has pointed out, "two years after he had arrived in New York, he wrote his friend Joe Brown of [End Page 241] his decision to leave Chicago" and "did not offer his difficulties with the Party as a rationale or leaving. The trip had been germinating in his mind for some time" (Gayle 97). Michael Fabre also notes errors in Wright's retrospective account and observes that Wright did not—at least publicly—leave the CP until 1944, upon the publication of "I Tried to Be a Communist" (Fabre 136-39). So the very text proclaiming Wright's break with the Party was, in fact, the cause of that break, at least in its final form.14
It is evidently true that, from his early days in Chicago, Wright clashed with various members of the CP, especially African-American leaders who were, he felt, unappreciative of the distinct writerly contribution that he wished to make to the revolutionary movement. In this connection, John P. Davis and Oliver Law would emerge as particular antagonists, as would Harry Haywood, ruthlessly lampooned as Buddy Nealson in "I Tried to be a Communist." But upon moving to New York in 1937, Wright served for over a year as Harlem Bureau Editor of the Daily Worker, during which time—partially overlapping, we might note, with Ellison's Dayton period—Wright authored over one hundred articles publicizing and/or supporting various CP events and campaigns, particularly those relevant to Harlem's working class. Between April and October 1937 alone—the period leading up to the death of Ellison's mother in Dayton—Wright also published three pieces—one poem, one review, one fictional sketch—in the New Masses; he would also issue, in the CP-supported black radical magazine New Challenge, the essay "Blueprint for Negro Writing," a sophisticated application to literature and culture of the CP's complex (and somewhat contradictory) analysis of Negro liberation. In 1938, Wright would publish the first version of Uncle Tom's Children, ending with a favorable—if cameo—portrayal of white/black Communist unity in "Fire and Cloud." The second edition of Uncle Tom's Children, appearing two years later, would be capped by a depiction of revolutionary organizing on the part of black and white Communist sharecroppers in "Bright and Morning Star." In 1941, Wright would publish the forthrightly Marxist Twelve Million Black Voices, which embodied in poetic prose much of the doctrine assigned to the more abstract and didactic speeches of Boris Max in Native Son.15
Wright's personal life, moreover, would also remain largely centered in Party relationships in the late 1930s through the mid-1940s. While writing [End Page 242] Native Son, Wright, no longer employed by the Daily Worker, would continue his close association with the CP, living in Brooklyn with the interracial Communist family of Herbert and Jane Newton and discussing many features of his novel-in-progress (including its representation of the CP) with white Jane Newton. It was in Party circles that he would encounter the two women (both white) who would become his wives, the latter for life. Although Wright was later to complain that he had felt suppressed and undermined when in the Party, it would appear that, during the most productive decade of his life, he breathed the atmosphere of the CP. Moreover, as has been pointed out by Gerald Horne, the biographer of African-American CP leader Benjamin Davis, Wright would remain on cordial terms with various CP members and leaders up to 1944, supporting Davis in his successful 1943 run for the City Council, leading a committee in Paris to free African-American CP leader Henry Winston, and refusing at this time to contribute to The God That Failed, the "anti-Communist screed" in which "I Tried to Be a Communist" would ultimately appear (Horne 109).
As his letters to Ellison from 1940 indicate, Wright would be angered—if not entirely surprised—by the controversy that the publication of Native Son stirred up on the left. Ellison's end of their correspondence during this period reveals that, serving as the older writer's defender and proxy while the latter vacationed in Mexico, he would share much of his friend's ire and frustration. The impassioned and often ironic exchanges between the two men would either criticize specific (usually black) Communist leaders for their aesthetic obtuseness or question whether the CP's Marxism could adequately address the realms of psychology—and pathology—embodied in Bigger Thomas. Although Wright would produce a fully-etched portrait—indeed, caricature—of CP manipulation of blacks in his 1953 novel The Outsider, the contemporaneous record suggests that Wright's evolving differences with the Party in the late 1930s and early 1940s centered far more on various CP leaders' approaches to revolutionary writing in general, and his own role as a black revolutionary writer in particular, than on any larger generalizations about the hypocrisy of red antiracism. Wright's "I Tried to Be a Communist" thus provides tenuous grounds for the argument that, as early as 1937-38, Wright was entertaining reservations about the CP's "use" of African Americans to [End Page 243] further a revolutionary program fundamentally indifferent to the welfare of black people.16
Besides drawing upon Wright's 1944 essay, Roberts opines that, during the Dayton period, Ellison's "doubts" about the CP were fueled through his correspondence with Wright, since "Ellison's contact with the CP was largely limited to correspondence with Richard Wright" (103). Although Roberts' argument appears to rely upon Jackson's biography rather than upon the primary texts, these are worth examining, especially since, if read through the "anti-Communist lens" supplied by Wright's 1944 essay, they might be taken to support Roberts's position. The correspondence consists of only three letters, all written in the early weeks of Ellison's sojourn. Ellison's first missive to Wright revealed grief at the loss of his mother and anxiety at his uneasy relationship with his brother Herbert; besides complaining about the unavailability of the Daily Worker and the New Masses," Ellison requested that Wright send Ellison some copies of "the magazine." Presumably this was New Challenge—in which Wright's "Blueprint for Negro Writing" had just appeared—since in his reply Wright mentioned that he had given Ellison's New York address to Marian [Minus], the magazine's co-editor. In this letter Wright empathized with Ellison's loss and discussed his own writerly frustrations and anxieties, bemoaning that he "see[med] to be turning [his] life into newspaper copy from day to day." He also alluded to having gone to Philadelphia for two hours to look in on the NNC [National Negro Congress], where "some funny things went on" and he "pulled a good, old Chicago trick on the comrades." In his reply, Ellison complained about the lack of political awareness in the Midwest, where the CIO was thought to be a railroad, and restated his hunger for the New Masses and the Daily Worker. He also expressed sympathy with Wright's publishing problems, mentioned reading "Hem's new book" [Ernest Hemingway's To Have and Have Not], and remarked on the temptation posed by a young woman who was "so nice, so brown, so firm and so smilingly naïve that I must avoid her or act disgusting to keep my values warm." The younger man declared, "Gee but it is swell to be the man of the world in a small town." Ellison then alluded specifically to the CP and continued his thoughts on sex:
I can see you running out on Mr. John Davis' little party. What did happen there. I've scanned the [Pittsburgh] [End Page 244] Courier and [Chicago] Defender but the information was nil. . . . What happened to Harry and his wife. The last and the second time she saw me she kissed me. I stopped by the drug store to insure myself in event I met her a third time. Mr. Wright would you rape easy? Would Mr. Ellison? Perhaps that is where she gets her knowledge of Negro culture. Would you be cultured, would you fathom the Nigger mind, would you know the language the tom tom speaks? If so write Miss M.S. by all means. If Negro suffering from a loss of racial memory, see Miss M.S. by all means. All things are revealed in bed.
Closing with another request that Wright send "the mag" and arrange a gift subscription for "Leadbelly's mama," Ellison signed off, "Workers of the World Must Write!"17
The comments about the CP by both Wright and Ellison have a caustic ring. Wright's remark regarding the New Negro Congress suggests that he found the event not worth his time; his somewhat ambiguous allusion to having "pulled an old Chicago trick on the comrades" reveals not only a negativity abiding from his Chicago days but also Ellison's awareness of that negativity. Ellison's reply voices an acknowledgement of Wright's dislike of John P. Davis and disdainful attitude toward the NNC, of which Davis was a principal organizer. Ellison's sardonic remarks about the white wife of "Harry" do not necessarily target a member of the CP. Following as they do upon the allusion to the NNC, however, they suggest that Ellison may here have been discussing the sexual politics of interracial relationships on the left. But while the comments of both men have a satiric edge, they also reflect the views of insiders; Wright's wisecrack about his Chicago days and Ellison's joke about "John P. Davis' little party" seem to have diminished neither Wright's commitment to writing for "the mag" nor Ellison's desire to learn what actually did happen at the NNC—nor, for that matter, his hunger to read the left press, disseminate it to others (including the mother of left-wing blues artist Hudie Ledbetter), and above all participate as a writer in answering Marx's famous call at the end of The Communist Manifesto. Moreover, Ellison's comments about Harry's wife, when read alongside his remarks about the young woman he met in Dayton, reveal at least as much about Ellison—who had [End Page 245] apparently gone without female companionship for some time—as they do about the woman in question. His off-color remark about rape suggests Ellison's own problematic implication—perhaps self-critical, perhaps not—in the sexual politics about which he jokes. Although the Dayton-era correspondence between Wright and Ellison shows that both men were unabashed in expressing critical observations about life on the left, the letters are more gossipy than skeptical. And when one bears in mind that Ellison would both sing the praises of the 1941 NNC and himself soon become involved in an intense love affair with a white Communist woman, it is difficult to conclude that Wright's sole letter to Ellison during the Dayton sojourn played any significant role in fueling his "doubts" about the CP. Indeed, the preponderant textual evidence suggests that Ellison hit his leftist stride when he returned from Dayton.18
One might argue that I have been splitting historical and political hairs. If the notion that Communists exploit black oppression to further their own ends at some point came to exert significant influence among African American activists and artists who had been around the left—and if both Wright and Ellison both would "famously" articulate this view—does it matter exactly when this discourse came into play?
I think that it does matter, for reasons I can set forth only briefly here. First, Wright and Ellison themselves have emerged as central figures—indeed, as Exhibit A—in the promulgation of the "discourse" about Communist manipulation to which Roberts retrospectively assigns typifying status. The version of Wright's experience with the CP that was first published as "I Tried to Be a Communist" in the Atlantic Monthly in 1944 was reissued five years later in Richard Crossman's The God That Failed, which would go through some nineteen reprintings by the mid-1960s, becoming, as Christopher Z. Hobson has noted, one of the most influential texts of early Cold War anti-Communism. The widespread influence of Invisible Man upon American anticommunism (although welcomed by many as a good thing) has been generally acknowledged. Because of these writers' highly influential roles in not simply reflecting but in fact forming this ideology, it is all the more vital that their particular political odysseys be traced through the marshalling of concrete evidence, rather than asserted through circular argumentation assigning iconic status to the anticommunist attitudes which they themselves helped—"famously"—to bring to prominence. Second, if the "discourse" affirming that the CP pursued [End Page 246] "an agenda with a trajectory beyond the elimination of black suffering" (91) does not in fact originate primarily in African-American experiences with the left during the Depression years, but instead stems from a retrospective assessment of the CP's wartime policies that was then extended back another decade, the historical origin of this "discourse" needs to be taken into consideration. The CP itself, after all, engaged in a good deal of postwar hand-wringing about its "soft-pedaling" of the fight for Negro rights during the war; to join the chorus castigating the CP for opportunism once the war against fascism had been won was not the same thing as proposing that the CP had from the Depression onwards "used" African Americans to further its own ends. Third, if the doctrine of Communist manipulation would be "famously" codified only in the period of the Cold War, then it clearly needs to be studied not as an independently existing "discourse," but instead as a narrative implicated in the ideological matrices of the Cold War and its aftermath. Acts of literary analysis that read this "discourse" back into such texts as Ellison's "A Party Down at the Square" or Armstrong's "Do They Mean Me?" should at the very least be alert to the historical conditions of their own production.19
Furthermore, I would note that such interpretive acts should be alert to their own illocutionary formulations (and perlocutionary effects). Continually to deploy in accounts of CP practice terms such as "manipulate" and "use," as Roberts does, loads the rhetorical dice. His description of Wright's retrospective sense of having been viewed as a "mascot" in the John Reed Club, and subsequent repetition of this term in characterizing the CP's attitude toward the image of the lynchee, verges on being argument by innuendo. In the context supplied by the 1912 St. Louis Post—Dispatch article about the African gorilla hunt, where the caricatured hunters are implicitly compared with the "man-like beast" they have captured, this double deployment of the term "mascot" implies all the more serious charges about the reds' putative anti-racism. Roberts may simply be adhering to the practice established in Jackson's biography—where CP activity is rarely mentioned without some kind of modifier or metaphor suggesting mechanism and dogmatism, such as "holy class war." But these consistently negative characterizations of CP motivation and behavior make it difficult to keep in mind Roberts's proviso that he is, after all, describing not a historical actuality but simply a "discourse surrounding race issues in the CP" with which "the politicized representational strategy endorsed [End Page 247] by the Brotherhood finds easy correlation" (94). After a while, the distinction between correlation and reflection becomes overly fine, and the argument effectively assigns an objective truth-value to what was originally posited simply to be a way of talking about the world.
I return, in closing, to a consideration of Roberts's argument that Ellison's humanism, rather than constituting a repudiation of the "materialist dialectic," as manifested in both "A Party Down at the Square" and Invisible Man, constitutes at once a "revision" of CP historical materialism and a "synthesis" of it with NAACP reportorial objectivism. I agree with Roberts that Ellison's rhetorical strategy in "A Party Down at the Square" is indirect; the tale's "protest" component—as opposed to the more frontal method employed in, for example, "Slick Gonna Learn"—demonstrates both narrative inventiveness and psychological acuity on the part of the talented young writer. Ellison's decision to recount the horror of a lynching from the point of view of a young white observer, one being schooled in the ethics of living Jim Crow but not quite ready to absorb that education, is a masterly experiment in trans-racial imagining, enabling the author at once to portray the lynching in flat, straightforward prose and to examine the workings of ideology in and through that prose. As the young narrator struggles between a reluctant admiration for the stoicism of the tortured black man on the one hand and a reduction of the suffering man to nothing more than a "nigger" on the other, the tale's nameless narrator recalls Huck Finn, who undergoes a similar conflict derived from similar racial conditioning. But, in my view, Ellison's powerful treatment of his narrator's ambivalence has little to do with an authorial ambivalence toward the actions of the lynch mob, or with a perception of the body of the lynched man as "natural" or "basic" beyond ideological codification. To the contrary, the lynching is both an actual and a metaphorical barbeque, in which the image of the black body in pain functions to interpellate the mobsters in their whiteness.20
To the extent that "Party" makes possible any sort of "shareable world" (I allude here to Roberts's quotation from Toni Morrison ) among the reader, the "Bacotte nigger," and various white characters appearing in the story, this happens, I believe, not because a humanist Ellison is urging the reader to assume an attitude of intersubjective "sympathy" with—much less "benevolence" toward—the mob. Roberts astutely points out the shepherding function served in the lynching by representatives of the law and the guiding role played by Jed, who is ambitious to be elected sheriff. [End Page 248] But Ellison suggests that the majority of whites participating as both actors and spectators are engaged in a ritual that is not only revoltingly inhumane but also manifestly against their own self-interest. This is why the image of the electrocuted white woman and the closing conversation between the two hungry-looking white sharecroppers are, as I see it, such crucial elements in the story. The electrocution directs attention to the fact that the presumed beneficiary of lynch violence—the white woman—is herself jeopardized by the "civilized" violence symbolically released by the storm. The conversation between the sharecroppers, in which one splits off from the "we" of whiteness as he articulates his distressed material situation, presages a possible reorganization of consciousness among exploited Southern whites along lines of class rather than race. As the story invokes awe and pity and aligns the reader along the axis of a trans-racial commonality, then, this rhetorical move is insistently yoked to a class analysis that necessarily includes some by excluding others. To the implied readership of the tale, those deriving satisfaction from lynching need not apply. The young narrator may himself remain mired in an ambivalence stemming from the racially-coded false consciousness from which he cannot yet—or perhaps ever—escape. But the narratorial perspective supplied by the author suggests the necessity for the reader to move beyond the confused ambivalences of ideology toward a class-conscious, and revolutionary, negation of the social system that creates the categories of lyncher and lynchee in the first place. The category of class interest, in other words, is what mediates between the particular and the universal and enables the formation of trans-racial sympathy and identification. There is, as I read it, no "revision of the materialist dialectic" in this story, but a profound enactment of it.
By contrast, the divided stance of the invisible man at the end of the 1952 novel, and the dehistoricized existential humanism to which this stance corresponds, valorizes ambivalence as such. When the ghostly and disembodied underground voice states, "I denounce and I defend and I hate and I love," he posits oscillation between the poles of antinomy as a privileged, indeed heroic, epistemological stance. That the invisible man's decenteredness is conveniently yoked with his very recently—and quite implausibly—regained faith in the possibilities of American democracy remains untheorized and indeed uninterrogated. "Democracy" and "diversity" would seem to be—in 1952 as in 2004—mantra terms that require [End Page 249] proclamation rather than examination. At the finale of Invisible Man, a relativist epistemology, an anticommunist politics, and a humanist ethics do not merely cohabit the same discursive space; they mutually reinforce one another. The physical elements of which the nameless protagonist in the Prologue claims to consist—"flesh and bone, fiber and liquids" (Ellison, Invisible Man, 3)—do not assert a "sympathetic body" upon which to base a "revised dialectic." Rather, these reminders of the invisible man's corporeality, conjoined in the Epilogue with allusions to the fertile funk of spring, rewrite materialism as a fetishized materiality that proves readily assimilable to ideologies dominant in the Cold War moment of his emergence from hibernation. The Ellison who in 1937 penned the words "Workers of the world must write!" had to undergo a significant negation of self in order to create the persona of the 1952 novel.
Barbara Foley's most recent book is Spectres of 1919: Class and Nation in the Making of the New Negro (U of Illinois P, 2003). She is currently working on a book about Ralph Ellison and the Cold War, provisionally titled Sins of Omission: The Unmaking and Making of Invisible Man. She is professor of English at Rutgers University, Newark campus.
1. This essay is a response to Brian Robert's essay "Reading Ralph Ellison Synthesizing the CP and NAACP: Sympathetic Narrative Strategy, Sympathetic Bodies" which appeared in the last issue of JNT 34.1 (Winter 2004), 88-110).
2. The articles relevant to Roberts's discussion are "The Rhetoric of Anticommunism in Invisible Man"; "Ralph Ellison as Proletarian Journalist"; and "Reading Redness: Politics and Audience in Ralph Ellison's Early Short Stories." More recently I have published an examination of the different drafts of the Brotherhood section of the novel in "From Communism to Brotherhood: The Drafts of Invisible Man." For a discussion of the racial identification of the implied reader(s) in Invisible Man, see Michel Fabre, "The Narrator/Narratee Relationship in Invisible Man." Roberts throughout his discussion uses the term "anti-Communist"; I shall use both this term and "anticommunist" throughout my discussion.
3. See Ellison, Invisible Man, 576. For the dating of "A Party Down at the Square" in the winter of 1937-38, see Callahan, xi-xiv, xxii-xxiii; and Jackson, 196. The title was supplied by Callahan; Ellison left the story untitled.
4. The view that the CP "used" African Americans was an early staple of Cold War-era commentary. See, for example, Record, Nolan, Redding, and Schlesinger esp. pp.121-23. Harold Cruse's The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual was influential in giving a specifically anti-Semitic cast to this argument. For a critique of Cruse's anti-Semitism, see Wald, 141-62. For alternative historical accounts of the relationship of [End Page 250] African Americans to the CP, see Kelley, Naison, Horne, Dawahare, and Mullen. In Heroism and the Black Intellectual: Ralph Ellison, Politics and Afro-American Intellectual Life, Jerry Gafio Watts traces the connection between anticommunism and Ellison's post-Invisible Man career.
5. It would in fact have been impossible for Ellison to have read "Do They Mean Me?" before writing "A Party Down at the Square," since Armstrong's poem appeared some months after Ellison returned from Dayton in the spring of 1938.
6. For descriptions of lynchings, see National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Thirty Years of Lynching in the United States, 1889-1918 1919 and Anonymous, "The Burning Alive of John Henry Williams." The frequent comparison of lynchings with barbecues by willing witnesses to—and perhaps participants in—lynchings is recorded in James Allen et. al., Beyond Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America.
7. For an account of this protest see Anonymous, "The Thirteenth Annual Conference of the N.A.A.C.P." Albeit in a less Marxist mode than such leftist African-American journals as the Crusader and the Messenger, the NAACP participated in the contemporaneous critique of colonialism and imperialism. See, for example, NAACP field secretary William Pickens's pamphlet on Jim Crow tellingly titled "The American Congo." For more on representations of racial violence in the postwar press, see my Spectres of 1919: Class and Nation in the Making of the New Negro, 1-69. Wright would frequently read "Big Boy Leaves Home" aloud at Writers Group meetings in Chicago and New York; Ellison read this and the other stories in Uncle Tom's Children in the summer of 1937 at the Daily Worker office in Harlem (Jackson 185).
8. See McKay, "Birds of Prey," 23. A slightly less militant and multiracialist version of the poem appeared in his Harlem Shadows, 76. For more on McKay's politics in the 1910s and 1920s, see Maxwell, Old Negro, New Left and "F.B Eyes: The Bureau Reads Claude McKay."
9. See Popel, "Flag Salute," 146; and Editorial, 140, 145. Also noteworthy is the editors' rhetorical query: "If war should come, why should the Negro fight?" (145).
10. It is difficult to believe that anyone with the name "D. Hercules Armstrong" ever existed. "Do They Mean Me?" bears stylistic similarities to much of Langston Hughes's Popular Front-era poetry, but there is no evidence that Hughes ever used "D. Hercules Armstrong" as a pseudonym (although, according to Arnold Rampersad, Hughes was acquainted with the prizefighter Henry Armstrong [Life of Langston Hughes, 302]). It is noteworthy that the title of the poem appearing in the Table of Contents to the New [End Page 251] Masses of 19 July 1938 was still more frontal: "Do They Want Me?" Whether or not this was the correct title for the poem, this alternative version, which underlines the speaker's view that he/she feels rejected by "they," makes it all the less likely that the New Masses editors would have viewed the poem as a commentary on specifically Communist insensitivity to African-American suffering.
11. Relevant writings from the New Masses of this period include: Editorial, "A Great Negro Congress"; Kenneth Burke, "The Science of Race Thinking," review of Jacques Barzun, Race: A Study in Modern Superstition; Eugene C. Holmes, "Herndon's Story"; Martha Thomas, "Negroes and Unions," review of Charles Lionel Franklin, The Negro Labor Unionist of New York; Editorial, "Lynch Law Lady"; and Morris U. Schappes, "An Oppressed Nation," review of Benjamin Brawley, The Negro Genius, and The Associates in Negro Education, The Bronze Booklets. In his interpretation of "red-faced" as referring to embarrassed white Communists, Roberts invokes my allusion to a "'sharp internal criticism of individual members' white chauvinism'" within the CP. This internal criticism was, however, typically voiced in intra-Party organs such as The Communist or Party Organizer, not in the New Masses. Moreover, it routinely targeted white Communists' personal difficulties in overcoming socially ingrained racial stereotypes ; it was not linked with the larger political claim that the CP "used" African Americans or celebrated U.S. democracy while ignoring the horrors of Jim Crow. For more on the Black Belt Thesis, see Allen, The Negro Question in the United States; Harry Haywood, Negro Liberation; and my chapter on "The Negro Question" in Radical Representations: Politics and Form in U.S. Proletarian Fiction, 1929-1941, 170-212.
12. Ralph Ellison, "Slick Gonna Learn," Direction 2 (September 1939): 10-11, 14, 16; Ellison, "The Black Ball," in Flying Home and Other Stories, 114-15. Ellison planned a novel-length narrative about Slick; the drafts are in the Library of Congress, still inaccessible as of this writing. In the early drafts of Invisible Man, Ellison continued to represent black-white proletarian unity in the friendship between the merchant marine sailors Leroy and Treadwell. See my "From Communism to Brotherhood."
13. See Ellison, "Camp Lost Colony," "A Congress Jim Crow Didn't Attend," "The Way It Is." See also my "Ralph Ellison as Proletarian Journalist." For more on Ellison and the League of American Writers, see Jackson, 259-60, and Folsom, 201-09, 238-39. For a discussion of Ellison's changing representation of the causality behind the riot in the drafts of Invisible Man, see my "From Communism to Brotherhood." For the view that Ellison diverged significantly from the CP line on World War II in Negro Quarterly, see Neal, "Ellison's Zoot Suit," 105-24. [End Page 252]
14. For a less critical assessment of "I Tried to Be a Communist," see Rowley, Richard Wright, 291-95.
15. For more on Wright's Daily Worker articles, see Jeffries, "Richard Wright and the Daily Worker."
16. For Ellison's end of the Wright-Ellison correspondence, see Box 97, Folder 1314, Richard Wright Papers, Beinecke Library, Yale University.
17. Quotes are from the following letters: Ellison to Wright, 27 October 1937 and 8 November 1937, Box 97, Folder 1314, Wright Papers; Wright to Ellison, 2 November 1937, Ellison Papers, Library of Congress. The NNC meeting was presumably the one covered in the 26 October 1937 New Masses (see note 11 above). "Harry" might be Wright's bete noire Harry Haywood, although Ellison's two references to "Miss M.S." make this interpretation unlikely.
18. Ellison, "A Conference Jim Crow Didn't Attend" (see note 13). For more on John P. Davis and the NNC, see Solomon, 234-37. For more on Ellison's affair with the white Communist Sanora Babb, see Rampersad's forthcoming biography of Ellison. I am indebted for this information to Rampersad's 2002 MLA Convention presentation on Ellison, "Visible and Invisible Politics."
19. See Christopher Z. Hobson, "Richard Wright's Communisms: Textual Variance, Intentionality, and Socialization in American Hunger, 'I Tried to Be a Communist,' and The God That Failed." Hobson, noting that most Wright critics have equated the two accounts, traces carefully the differences between the two narratives and argues that the version of Wright's withdrawal from the CP in Black Boy/American Hunger "had a nuanced and moderate quality—a generosity in assessing communism's positive features even in an account of disillusionment—that was missing from the condensation, whose compression increased the harshness of its tone" (308). For more on the unsuitability of taking Wright's experience with the CP as exemplary of African Americans, see Chapter I of Mullen, Popular Fronts, titled "Chicago and the Politics of Reputation: Richard Wright's Long Black Shadow," 19-43. For more on the CP and the postwar self-criticism regarding "soft-pedaling," see, for example, Wilkerson, 20-22, and Jones, 717-20. See also Isserman, 141-43.
20. Ellison was a strong—if critical—admirer of Twain's novel. While not published until 1953, "Twentieth-Century Fiction and the Black Mask of Humanity"—Ellison's important essay on race in such classic works of nineteenth-century American literature as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn—was, according to Jackson (344-45), begun in the mid-1940s and even earlier on his mind (Confluence [Decembr 1953], 3-21). [End Page 253]
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