Category Archives: Ralph Ellison

Links: Lost Pages

A run of Lolita had to be pulped after the publisher neglected to include the novel’s faux foreword. This isn’t the first time it’s happened.

“The odds are stacked against someone I know writing a good book,” says Gary Fisketjon, leading into a lengthy interview with Mr. Peanut author Adam Ross, a friend of Fisketjon’s.

A plaque honoring Julia C. Collins, author of the first published novel by an African-American woman, The Curse of Caste; or the Slave Bride, will be installed this weekend in Williamsport, Pennsylvania.

Clive Owen is Ernest Hemingway.

The two scholars who helped bring Ralph Ellison‘s second novel to light.

A piece by Mark Z. Danielewski will be in the debut issue of Slake, an LA-based literary journal.

Daniel Clowes on why graphic novels gravitate toward themes of angst: “[T]hink about the job. It only attracts a … certain kind of person, really. It’s hard, and solitary. We only come out periodically. You’ve got to write for four hours a day, and even then you’re not done, because you’ve still to draw the panels.”

It’s nice to see Lola Pushlight get the respect she deserves, though frankly I prefer her embryonic work.

Links: Status Symbols

Ray Bradbury: “Do you know why teachers use me? Because I speak in tongues. I write metaphors. Every one of my stories is a metaphor you can remember. The great religions are all metaphor.”

Nathan Englander on his relative disinterest in historical accuracy in fiction: “So if a reader wants to write in and say, ‘There’s no way that an Egyptian soldier ever accidentally sat down with an Israeli soldier because they were wearing identical French-supplied uniforms,’ I’d feel comfortable responding, ‘That may generally be true, but it definitely happened once—because it happened to Shimmy Gezer. It says so right there in paragraph two.’”

Parsing the strangeness of Walker Percy‘s Lost in the Cosmos.

Gerald Early discusses jazz in literature the upsides of urban fiction with the Bad Plus’ Ethan Iverson. (via)

An in-progress illustrated version of Cormac McCarthy‘s Blood Meridian (via).

Given a sizable enough advance, Michael Chabon would write a nonfiction book on baseball.

A new book of scholarship on Ralph Ellison reveals that the hero of Invisible Man had a wife in early drafts of the novel.

Yiyun Li on why her books haven’t been translated into Chinese: “Just from a literary point of view, my stories rely on space: what you say and what you don’t. It doesn’t work to translate them. I would have to rewrite a lot, which I don’t want to do. I’m not going to rush into that.”

It’s been years since I thought to track down a copy of Cometbus, then a Berkeley-centric fanzine dedicated to the personal essays and fiction by its author, Aaron Cometbus; once upon a time I was in a mood to overstate things and called him the Great Bay Area Writer. Not quite, but I’m happy to hear he’s still writing.

I’m working on a series of Q&As with literary websites for Critical Mass, the blog of the National Book Critics Circle. The latest one, with C. Max Magee of The Millions, is now up.

Matterhorn author Karl Marlantes on Eudora Welty‘s influence: “When I read her book, Delta Wedding, about 30 years ago it taught me the power of literature. She said to me, through that book, ‘Karl, this is worth doing.’ “

A blogger, perhaps having lost a bar bet, is spending 117 days reading James Patterson: “[W]hen I was timing how long it took me to read each chapter, I realized that they were all readable in under 2 minutes, placing them conveniently within the space of a 2-minute commercial break on television. Coincidence? Maybe.” (via)

The Fact of the Land

Yesterday the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill hosted an all-day seminar called “The Classical Southern Novel,” during which participants discussed four acknowledged regional classics: Harper Lee‘s To Kill a Mockingbird, Margaret Mitchell‘s Gone With the Wind, Robert Penn Warren‘s All the King’s Men, and Eudora Welty‘s The Optimist’s Daughter. According to a News & Observer report on the event, the seminar concluded without much argument or incident, but the fact that no black writers were included in the discussion didn’t pass without comment:

Though the subject of race is omnipresent in most Southern classics, none of the works discussed Friday was written by blacks. There were few, if any, blacks in attendance at the event at the UNC Center for School Leadership Development.

Several participants seemed unsure whether “The Invisible Man,” Ralph Ellison’s tale of an unnamed black man who considers himself invisible due to his race, qualifies as a “Southern” novel. Ellison, who was black, was a native of Oklahoma, and a portion of his novel is set in the South.

Jill McCorkle, a novelist and professor at N.C. State University, acknowledged that many consider the portrayal of black characters in the novel she lectured about, “Gone With the Wind,” offensive.

“You have to read it in the context of time and place; otherwise you’ll wince every couple pages,” she said.

Presumably some of the handwringing over the Southern-ness of Invisible Man is because it’s largely set in New York. It also probably has something to do the novel’s allegorical nature; as Charles Johnson pointed out in his recent appreciation of the novel on the National Book Foundation’s site, the novel is more about themes of alienation than place. “His central, famous trope of “invisibility” remains universally applicable for any group that is socially marginalized,” Johnson writes. Neither he nor the three other commenters talk at all about the novel’s physical settings; it’s simply not what we remember about about it, or think is most important.

At any rate, the discussion reminded me of Edward P. Jones‘ fine introduction to the 2007 edition of New Stories From the South, which he edited. His essay addresses the question of whether he, as a Washingtonian, feels qualified to discuss the South; his comments artfully make a case for positioning him, and I think Ralph Ellison too, in the Southern canon:

[S]o much is about the heart, wherein the soul dwells, and so maybe my heart, when all the standing in the corner is done, doesn’t care if Washington is north or south of the Mason-Dixon line…. The heart knows that just about every adult—starting with my mother—who had an important part in my life before I turned eighteen was born and raised in the South. They—the great majority of them black and the descendants of slaves—came to Washington with a culture unappreciated until you go out into the world and look back to see what went into making you a full human being….

Black people passed this culture on to me, but once I discovered Southern literature I learned that much of it was shared by whites, whether they wanted to admit it or not. I read Richard Wright and Truman Capote and Wendell Berry and Erskine Caldwell and a whole mess of other writers and came up on white people who, in their way, were just trying to make it to the next day. Dear Lord, reach down and gimme a hand here. Those fictional white people lived in a world that was not alien to me. As I read, I felt I knew far more about that world of people than I did about those people who lived in cities in the North, who lived, as I did in D.C., with concrete and noisy neighbors above and below and a sense that the horizon stopped at the top of the tallest building. It does not matter where Washington fits on the map; I was of the South because that was what I inherited.

Nelson Algren’s Food Writing

WPA guides have enjoyed a profile boost lately—last week, for instance, the New York Times had a fun article and interactive feature about a road trip based on the 1941 Washington state guide. A little more off the radar was Michael Nagrant‘s nice piece in New City Chicago about Nelson Algren‘s work as a food historian for the WPA; in the late ’30s the novelist traveled throughout the Midwest gathering recipes and interviewing cooks. Nagrant writes:

Algren may have derided it as government work, but the book is a fascinating examination of Midwestern ethnic foodways. It features interesting etymology, including the story of how getting “stewed” became a term for getting drunk. There are sections about the box social, an event whereby the young women of East St. Louis cooked up box lunches for an auction whereby male homesteaders who bid the most for the box also acquired the company of its cook for the evening. Such events led to particular mythologies including the idea that a fancy box was usually made by a homely girl.

Algren’s book is out of print, but as it happens a collection of WPA food writing by the likes of Algren, Eudora Welty, Saul Bellow, Ralph Ellison, and more is out now.

Your Guide to the Depression

As somebody who cherishes his Illinois and California WPA guides, it’s hard to argue with David Kipen‘s plea to revive them online:

I’m calling for the creation of a free, route-based, readily searchable online repository of all the text and photography from every last American Guide, with the Center for the Book’s literary maps to all 50 states thrown in for good measure. Copyright law here should prove less of a headache than usual, considering that the American taxpayer already paid for this priceless treasure house a lifetime ago.

The WPA guides, somewhat famously, helped support many writers during the Great Depression, including Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston, Nelson Algren, Eudora Welty, and more. (A 2003 New York Times piece captures the breadth of the contributions.)