For a man who is generally, and properly, regarded as one of the major American writers of the postwar era, Ralph Ellison has published remarkably little. His first and only novel, "The Invisible Man," appeared in 1952, and "Shadow and Act," a collection of essays and miscellaneous pieces, in 1964. Now comes "Going to the Territory," another collection of fugitive nonfiction, a thoroughly satisfying book in many respects but minor by contrast with the great novel upon which Ellison's reputation rests.
Still, we must be grateful for what we have. "Going to the Territory" may be a mixed bag of essays, lectures, journalism and interviews, but it is the work of one of the most formidable figures in American intellectual life. Many of the 16 pieces it contains are concerned with the nature and quality of the lives black Americans lead, and invariably Ellison's comments are mercifully free of bitterness or judgmentalism. More generally, though, "Going to the Territory" is a book about being American, and the conclusions it reaches are applicable to all Americans.
Of the several themes that run through these pieces, two are especially noteworthy, as well as interconnected: Ellison's fascination with the diversity of American life, and his belief that the melting-pot theory has been too hastily and casually tossed aside by the intellectual community. "American democracy," he writes, "is not only a political collectivity of individuals but, culturally, a collectivity of styles, tastes and traditions," and continues:
"In relationship to the cultural whole, we are, all of us -- white or black, native-born or immigrant -- members of minority groups. Beset by feelings of isolation because of the fluid, pluralistic turbulence of the democratic process, we cling desperately to our own familiar fragment of the democratic rock, and from such fragments we confront our fellow Americans in that combat of civility, piety and tradition which is the drama of American social hierarchy. Holding desperately to our familiar turf, we engage in that ceaseless contention whose uneasily accepted but unrejectable purpose is the projection of an ever more encompassing and acceptable definition of our corporate identity as Americans."
We are at once separated into the distinct groups to which we belong, and united by our common identity as Americans. The former, Ellison believes, too often blinds us to the latter; we tend, for example, to see black culture as a distinct entity rather than as part of a larger whole to which it has made invaluable contributions. As he observes, "Whether in the arts, in education, in athletics, or in certain conceptions and misconceptions of democratic justice, interchange, appropriation and integration -- not segregation -- have been the constants of our developing nation." Or as he says elsewhere: "In America culture is always cutting across racial characteristics and social designations."
Society and culture steadily evolve into a more coherent whole to which all groups contribute, yet the diversity of these groups remains; this provides, in Ellison's highly persuasive view, the conflict and conciliation that give American life its energy and distinctiveness. In the sense that these cultures blend into each other, producing a popular culture that draws upon all of them to the point that it is almost impossible to trace all of its sources, "the melting pot did indeed melt, creating such deceptive metamorphoses and blending of identities, values and life-styles that most American whites are culturally part Negro American without even realizing it."
In the deepest sense of the word, Ellison is an integrationist: Though he readily and happily celebrates the diversity of America's minority cultures, he returns over and again to "our common humanity." He remarks upon "what a damnably marvellous human being, what a confounding human type the Negro American is," but he has no patience with black writers who cannot see beyond their blackness to the universal human questions that serious literature must confront. Asked by interviewers what he considers "the Negro writer's responsibility to American literature as a whole," he replies:
"The writer, any American writer, becomes basically responsible for the health of American literature the moment he starts writing seriously. And this regardless of his race or religious background. This is no arbitrary matter. Just as there is implicit in the act of voting the responsibility of helping to govern, there is implicit in the act of writing a responsibility for the quality of the American language -- its accuracy, its vividness, its simplicity, its expressiveness -- and responsibility for preserving and extending the quality of the literature."
That Ellison himself has fulfilled this responsibility is beyond question; in only three books, he has accomplished more than most writers can hope to do in dozens. "Going to the Territory" may not be the second novel for which we have waited nearly three and a half decades, but it will do very nicely for now