Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man

Slipping into Darkness:

Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and Beyond

Originally Published on About.com’s Classic Literature Page

There are many great writers whose reputations rest on one superlative masterpiece, whether they’ve written several works or whether they’ve produced just one unforgettable and unavoidable magnum opus. Because it’s the only book that he was able to spend any serious time on, The Great Gatsby puts F. Scott Fitzgerald in the former category, which makes readers and critics wonder what else he’d have been capable of had he not led such a chaotic life. Then there are the writers who pour everything they have into one perfect life-work and then for some reason never publish another word of fiction. A prime example of this second category of writers is Harper Lee, whose To Kill a Mockingbird is certainly a novel whose tremendous worth at once begs for further literary contributions and merits the author a well-deserved (if not particularly satisfying) retirement after changing the lives of so many readers. Perhaps more fascinating, however, is the example of Ralph Ellison and his only completed novel, Invisible Man, because unlike Lee, Ellison was a vital and vocal member of the world literary scene both before and after his one great book changed the literary landscape in 1952.

Ellison in fact published two other books in his lifetime—Shadow and Act and Going to the Territory—but they were collections of essays, and even though he was a major critical voice, readers were still eagerly waiting for a second novel when Ellison died in 1994. The main reason for Ellison’s inability to finish another novel was probably his own self-proclaimed dissatisfaction with the imperfection of his writing—even with the National Book Award-winning Invisible Man. Soon after his death, Ellison’s literary executor, John F. Callahan, collected and published Flying Home and Other Stories, and then in 1999, manuscripts found in Ellison’s home provided the material for Juneteenth, an unfinished novel that the same literary executor edited down from more than 2,000 pages, written over a period of forty years, to less than 400 pages.

Ellison’s original passion and training were for music, but he also loved literature, and when he was in college at the Tuskegee Institute he fell under the spell of literary Modernism, which eventually led to him writing his one dazzling, challenging, disturbing, and extraordinary novel. While the events of Invisible Man are rooted in very serious modern social events, Ellison himself stated that its main importance as a work was in its style and experimental nature. Ellison never abandoned music, and Invisible Man attains to the perfection of form that’s almost solely available to sonic composers.

The novel begins with the unnamed narrator describing his self-exiled habitat: a forgotten basement annex in a whites-only apartment building where he lives for free and where he’s secretly wired and illuminated a blinding 1,369 light bulbs. The narrator then flashes back to describe his young life in the American south, where after being named valedictorian of his high school class he was invited to re-deliver his valedictory speech before a group of influential white men. This leads to the novel’s infamous “Battle Royal” scene, where the narrator and several other young black men are forced to fight blindfolded while the white men watch with savage delight. I’ve met many fellow readers who have been too horrified by this episode to continue reading the novel, but this astounding overture leads into a symphonically staggering work that no serious modern reader will want to miss, whether for content or style.

Ellison cited T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land as a major influence, but it’s more likely that Invisible Man’s labyrinth of seemingly picaresque but in fact highly controlled progressions are more inspired by James Joyce’s Ulysses. While Ulysses echoed and parodied the form and music of Homer’s Odyssey, Invisible Man resounds with the forms and resonances of music itself. In a rapidly evolving literary scene, which soon introduced the endlessly innovative works of William Gaddis and Thomas Pynchon, this obsession with form and pitch-perfection clearly kept Ellison in constant revision and never again allowed him to achieve such an accomplished and sustained totality/tonality in his writing.

The Modern Library plans to publish all the manuscripts for Juneteenth in 2010 in a massive volume tentatively entitled Three Days Before the Shooting. Perhaps this publication will reveal Ellison’s last work to be his true masterpiece: a towering Virgilian epic crossed with a sprawlingly unresolved and unresolvable Kafka novel. Perhaps this work will be the next step in Modernism and Postmodernism and will open up a goldmine for readers, critics, and anyone concerned with how the mind constantly attempts to shape our world into some kind of form. Or perhaps it will simply show us a brilliant writer attempting to bring more of his struggling mind’s invisible darkness into view. In the meantime, we still, and will always, have Invisible Man to flood our darkest annexes with music and light.

—David Wiley

Saturday, September 5, 2009

William Faulkner’s New Orleans Sketches

Mirrors of Chartres Street:

William Faulkner’s New Orleans Sketches

Originally Published on About.com’s Classic Literature Page

In the 1920s, when so many of the most exciting new American writers had expatriated to Paris to make their names, New Orleans was often known as the “poor man’s Paris,” because the easily affordable Louisiana city offered writers and artists many of the French mecca’s cultural advantages while allowing them to keep their feet safely grounded on American soil, where home was often just a quick trainride away. As anyone who’s had the pleasure of living in Paris knows, there’s no substitute for the City of Lights, but even though New Orleans has nothing on the scale of the Louvre or Notre Dame or Saint Chapelle, or any of the amazing crush of the Île-de-France’s artistic and historical landmarks, it has a profoundly rich and deep-rooted cultural heritage that’s almost as Francophone as it is diversely American. And while France had the Russian Stravinsky in residence in the 1920s, along with so many other foreign pilgrims and exiles, New Orleans was the home of Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, King Oliver, and Kid Ory, who at the time were virtually inventing America’s national music.

In January of 1925, William Faulkner, a twenty-seven-year-old writer from Oxford, Mississippi who was to so mold many of his country’s motley varieties of civilization into a mythic literary universe, arrived in New Orleans, ostensibly to book passage and leave for England right away. In the six months that he ended up staying in the city before embarking for Europe—Italy at first, and then Paris—he began writing the stories that lay the foundation for the vast body of work that would eventually garner him the Nobel Prize for literature.

Faulkner had been a poet in Mississippi, and as he was planning his exodus he deliberately made the decision to begin writing fiction, and when he arrived in New Orleans he found a thriving literary community that boasted a handful of leading publications for new writers, particularly The Double Dealer, which had published a poem of Faulkner’s in 1922 and which regularly featured the work of such American literary pioneers as Hart Crane, Djuna Barnes, Robert Penn Warren, Ezra Pound, Malcolm Cowley, Thornton Wilder, Allen Tate, and Edmund Wilson. Presiding over the New Orleans literary scene was ex-Ohioan Sherwood Anderson, author of the wonderful and enormously influential story-cycle Winesburg, Ohio, and Anderson and his wife were extremely hospitable to the young Faulkner, who they allowed to stay at their house for a while in January of 1925 and who they often took out for walks and boatrides when Anderson wasn’t off on his frequent lecture tours.

After what was supposed to be a last visit home to Mississippi in February of 1925, Faulkner returned to New Orleans once again to embark for Europe, but rather than leaving immediately he took rooms at 624 Orleans Alley (now called Pirates Alley), near the rear of St. Louis Cathedral. His apartment is now a bookstore called Faulkner House Books, which is where a friend recently bought me a copy of New Orleans Sketches, the collection of Faulkner’s first published prose works, which he largely wrote in the five months that he lived at this prime French Quarter location.

Chartres Street, New Orleans, c. 1906
In January and February of that year he wrote a series of very short sketches entitled “New Orleans,” which he sold to The Double Dealer for a small fee. These sketches comprise eleven reflections on the city, written in the voices of a variety of the denizens that Faulkner observed in his nightly perambulations (and imaginings/intuitions). The most affecting of these are the last three—“The Artist,” “Magdalen,” and “The Tourist”—which delve not just into what Faulkner saw on the street, but what he saw inside the mirrors of his own growing creativity, and as the months passed he expanded upon several of these sketches’ themes and scenarios to create the rest of the pieces now collected in New Orleans Sketches. As the collection’s editor, Carvel Collins, points out with great acuity in his exceptionally useful and well-researched introduction, Faulkner would later expand even further upon many of these sketches’ themes and concerns in several of his greatest novels.

Interior shot of New Orleans’ St. Louis Cathedral
Faulkner soon found that he could support himself by selling sketches to the New Orleans newspaper the Times-Picayune, and the title of his first sketch, “Mirrors of Chartres Street,” became the subtitle of many of the other pieces for the newspaper, which began publishing one of his sketches every few weeks, from February until a few months after he’d left for Europe. What’s fascinating to watch, however, is that even though the city of New Orleans fills these mirrors with Chartres-like color, as the series progresses the reflections themselves are more often of exiles and transients and misfits whose ties, if they exist at all, are to the back-country that Faulkner was himself trying to leave behind.

Perhaps the most illuminating of these sketches is “Sunset,” a story about an inland black man who arrives in New Orleans trying to book passage to Africa in order to find a real home. The man is wholly confused about the nature of the world, and his series of mishaps ends in deep tragedy, illustrating the vast divide between both black and white and reality and dream. Even more, though, “Sunset” is a warped reflection of Faulkner’s own yearnings, colored in the darkest of hues.

Giotto’s Ecstasy of Saint Francis, 1300
One of the other most affecting stories is “The Kid Learns,” which concerns an up-and-coming pimp who decides to muscle in on a much more powerful and experienced man’s territory, knowing that he’s still years away from being able to pull off such a coup. The story seems at first to be just a hardboiled sketch of lowlife machinations, but it’s not just the kid who learns in “The Kid Learns.” It’s also Faulkner who learns, his imagination taking the story into the beyond as the kid meets “Little sister Death” at the tale’s end—a reference to Saint Francis of Assisi’s deathbed addition to his “Canticle of the Sun” that shows Faulkner expanding his creative palette to include the penetrations of mystery into his character’s lives and deaths. Cormac McCarthy was to learn a lot from this transcendent approach.

By the time Faulkner wrote “Yo Ho and Two Bottles of Rum,” the last story that the Times-Picayune was to publish, he was already in Europe, and his boat trip seems to have influenced his wide-ranging observations and given his scope a touch of the Melville and Conrad that he was already surely familiar with but that until then was beyond his personal experience. The anti-colonial sentiments of “Heart of Darkness” also seem to echo through this profound tale of the Chinese crewmembers’ collective reaction to the senseless murder of a cargo ship’s messboy by a belligerent English officer. Even beyond this broadened horizon is Faulkner’s broadened narrative and imaginative power, which by this point was becoming piercingly acute.

Not every piece in New Orleans Sketches is entirely successful, however—many are little more than character studies or explorations of particular situations, and sometimes they can be superficial or hackneyed and can often have facile endings tying their meandering episodes together—but as the work of an apprentice story writer, this collection is as fascinating in itself as it is auspicious. The greatest fascination, of course, is that these intriguing pieces sketch out a blueprint for one of the most fertile American literary careers of the twentieth century. Faulkner wrote all these sketches in 1925 while also working on his first novel, Soldiers’ Pay, and by the end of the decade he would publish two of the greatest works of American—and world—literature: The Sound and the Fury (1929) and As I Lay Dying (1930). He would be back in Mississippi by this time, unearthing in his works the native genius of the American south, but as with so many other great writers, his exodus was a necessary step in his true reflections of home. In a very short time Faulkner would develop a voice as singular and as American as that of New Orleans’ musical patron saint, Louis Armstrong, and his time teaching himself how to write in “poor man’s Paris” was surely one of the seminal experiences that afforded his work such extraordinarily deep and resonant reflectiveness.

—David Wiley

Thursday, September 3, 2009

The Collected Autobiographies of Maya Angelou

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman:

The Collected Autobiographies of Maya Angelou

Originally published on About.com’s Classic Literature Page

Of the twentieth-century American lives that have been transformed into books via the art of the memoir—and that have been transformed via the act of writing the memoir itself—perhaps none reflects us as a nation as well and as variously as that lived by Maya Angelou, whose six autobiographies (now published as the 1,167-page Collected Autobiographies of Maya Angelou) portray an ever-evolving human being who seems with every new volume to encompass ever more of the breadths and depths and heights of the spangled American experience.

Tobias Wolff’s memoirs This Boy’s Life and In Pharaoh’s Army show us the flipside of the American dream in the nuclear/post-nuclear-family age, and the Malcolm X/Alex Haley collaborative construction The Autobiography of Malcolm X composes a multifaceted portrait of a mind fashioning and refashioning itself in constant response to a profoundly uneasy home-nation, but Maya Angelou’s series of memoirs seem to do all this and more.

Born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1928, and seeming to live more lives in America and abroad than six books could possibly contain, Maya Angelou is one of our country’s true renaissance women (I find it interesting that her name so closely resembles that of the quintessential Renaissance man himself, Michelangelo). Angelou has been a singer, dancer, actor, director, songwriter, journalist, educator, lecturer, poet, playwright, memoirist, and mother; she’s also been deeply involved in civil rights activities and politics; and in her leaner years she worked as a fry cook, a streetcar conductor, and even as a prostitute and madame. Her stature reaching incredible heights when she read her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” at President Bill Clinton’s first inauguration, Angelou’s is without question one of the most diverse and remarkable lives of the past and current century. In fact, when I read her first five memoirs in my youth, I felt that in each subsequent book I was discovering an entirely new America. Her story is our story, and it’s as vast and eclectic as we are.

In 1969, partially at the suggestion of James Baldwin, Angelou wrote and published her first memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, as a way to deal with her grief over two major losses. Having become close friends with Malcolm X in Ghana just a year before his assassination in 1965, and then losing her friend Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to another assassination just after he’d asked her to organize a march in 1968, Angelou delved into her deepest self to create an unforgettable self-portrait. Rather than exploring her recent losses, however, she focused in her first volume (which wasn’t envisioned as the first in a series) on the first seventeen years of her life.

In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Angelou tells of her early unstable existence of being shuttled between her family in Stamps, Arkansas, and St. Louis. The book’s most overwhelming event occurs when at age eight Angelou was raped by her mother’s boyfriend, after which she tells her story to her brother, which then leads to the man being kicked to death, presumably by Angelou’s uncles. In response to her rapist’s death, Angelou became almost completely mute for five years, feeling that her voice had killed the man.

Regaining her voice again through the help of a friend and teacher who introduced her to classic literature—especially Shakespeare—Angelou became a precocious and engaged teenager. But then in a wholly rational and irrational decision to become initiated into real sexuality, she asks a nearly anonymous young man to sleep with her, knowing full well that the episode would lead to pregnancy, which it does. Even without the book’s surrounding and shaping events, the young man’s priceless reaction to Angelou’s proposal is reason enough to read this amazing book.

Her second memoir, Gather Together in My Name, was published in 1974 and focuses on the next two years of Angelou’s life, when she struggled to hold together an existence for herself and her son in any way possible. This memoir wasn’t as well received as her world-famous debut, but in my case, this was the book that hooked me. Watching a young Black woman go from shady jobs and relationships to even shadier jobs and relationships, including one with an Episcopalian preacher who seduces her into prostitution, I found myself entranced with Angelou’s search for meaning and purpose and solace in an (at best) indifferent world.

Her third memoir, Singin’ and Swingin’ and Getting’ Merry Like Christmas, was published in 1976 and chronicles her early life as a traveling entertainer. It covers the years between 1949 and 1955, and the main events of the volume describe her part in the international tour of the musical Porgy and Bess, but the more significant material involves her short-lived marriage to Greek sailor Tosh Angelos (who supplies the basis for her stage name) and her increasingly important relationship with her son Clyde (aka Guy). Although this memoir is fascinating to jazz aficionados such as myself, this is the volume that my friends and I unanimously agreed was our least favorite. One specific turnoff was that despite her great friendship with many gay entertainers, Angelou makes a homophobic remark about how children shouldn’t be raised around their influence. More important, though, is that her exploits in music and dance, for which she was fairly famous, aren’t nearly as interesting as her explorations of her inner life, for which her writing was making her even more justly famous.

Then with her 1981 memoir, The Heart of a Woman, Angelou returns to the heart of matters, and in a converse unanimity, this is the volume that almost all my friends and I hold most dear. Angelou still focuses on her relationships with musicians and actors, but here the relationships are more profound and profoundly drawn, whether they’re positive (James Earl Jones, Max Roach, Abbey Lincoln, etc.) or positively disturbing (Billie Holiday at her most shocking). More crucial is Angelou’s increasing involvement with the civil rights movement, which leads her to become the New York Director of Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In this capacity, she comes into contact with several African anti-colonialists, and she falls in love with the South African freedom fighter Vusumzi Make, whom she marries and follows with her son to Cairo—and whom she eventually leaves, taking her son, her heart, and the reader to Ghana to discover the heart of Africa, and perhaps of herself.

Her 1986 volume, All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes, continues her journey into herself as an American, an African, and a woman as she relates in moving, unsettling, and hilarious detail the struggles she finds in Ghana for identity and autonomy, in herself and in the people who are all attempting to come to terms with who they are as a varied and occasionally unified people. She meets Malcolm X in Ghana, and in experiences similar to those described in his Autobiography, she finds herself not fully embraced by Africa, and as a response she discovers just how much of an American she is at heart.

This will of course lead her back to America, but readers had to wait until her 2002 volume, A Song Flung Up To Heaven, for the cycle to come full circle, the series of memoirs leading Angelou right up to the time that culminated in King’s assassination and that led her to embark upon her long autobiographical journey. For some reason, I’ve waited even longer, though, always wanting to see Angelou arrive at her embarkation point but somehow not wanting to arrive there myself, and as a result, I haven’t read this final volume yet.

In the series as I’ve read it, Angelou has not yet become the author of her life, and as she’s still among the living today, perhaps this has kept the still living reader wanting to keep the still living writer in process in his mind. Another part of me simply always wants to save more of Angelou’s life for later. At eighty-one and unlikely to let her memoirs overlap into meta-memoirs, Angelou has fully drawn herself. Perhaps one day I’ll be ready to gaze at the completed portrait.

—David Wiley