Ralph Ellison: Poet of Democratic Excellence

James Seaton

June 1, 1996

The publication of The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison (with a preface by Saul Bellow, Modern Library) recalls the author of Invisible Man as one of the pre-eminent essayists of our time, and, furthermore, as author of some of the most searching reflections available on the implications of political democracy for culture. Today many argue that true democracy requires the leveling of hierarchies in culture as well as in society. The very notion of “literature” is rejected as inherently undemocratic and probably phallocentric. In his two earlier collections, Shadow and Act and Going to the Territory, (both included in The Collected Essays) as well as in the other essays and addresses, some previously unpublished and collected in this volume for the first time, Ellison makes the case that high standards of artistic excellence are central to a truly democratic culture.

The themes of the current debate about democracy and culture are not new. Walt Whitman asserted that the great poetry of the past would be “poisonous” for the democratic culture of the future. Many nineteenth century conservatives agreed; unlike Whitman, however, they preferred to save high culture and jettison democracy. Today the debate has proceeded a step further. Though Whitman worried about the social effects of the great works, he never doubted their greatness. He called for poets “possess’d of the religious fire and abandon of Isaiah, luxuriant in the epic talent of Homer, or for proud characters as in Shakspere [sic.], but consistent with the Hegelian formulas and consistent with modern science.” Understandably giving up hope that Whitman’s dubious amalgam would appear, contemporary ideologues have decided that the very notion of artistic excellence is elitist and undemocratic. In contrast, Ellison, over a lifetime of reflection on the connections be
tween democracy and culture, reaffirmed and deepened his conviction that one of the glories of democracy is its willingness to recognize excellence wherever it appears.

For Ellison, however, “democracy” never meant simply the rule of the majority; like Lincoln against Stephen Douglas, he repeatedly links democracy to the freedom of individuals promised in the Declaration of Independence and guaranteed in the Bill of Rights. Over and over again, Ellison affirms the continuing significance of the great documents of the American Founding. In his 1972 commencement address at the College of William and Mary he refers to “the ’sacred documents’ of this nation–the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights” and affirms their significance not only for citizens but for writers in particular. Ellison does not use “sacred” as a merely conventional term of respect; he explains to the graduates that “I say sacred’ because no matter what his ideology, no matter what his racial or religious background happens to be, the writer recognizes that the underlying motives of American literature were first
expressed here by those rash and dissenting young men who bore such illustrious names as Washington and Jefferson and Madison.” Even if one considers the principles embodied in the Constitution nothing but “man-made legal fictions,” Ellison insists that “this doesn’t stop them from being precious or sacred.”

Ellison’s affirmation of the importance of the “sacred documents” for writers in particular responds to Henry James’s famous lament about the difficulties that the lack of traditions and social hierarchies in American life presents for the novelist. Ellison argues that if life in the United States lacks the continuity and social coherence dramatized in European fiction, we have something else: “The moral imperatives of American life that are implicit in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights…form the ground of assumptions upon which our social values rest…they provide the broadest frame of reference for our most private dramas.”

Ellison’s emphasis on the centrality of our “sacred principles” in no way ignores the failure to live up to those ideals. For Ellison, indeed, both the comedy and the tragedy of American life spring from the gap between our ideals and our actions: “I see Americans as motivated, even in their failures, by the virtues embodied in the American creed.”

Ellison’s assertion of the centrality of the “American creed” does not prevent him from also asserting the specificity and permanent value of African American culture. In a 1944 review of Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma, Ellison chides Myrdal for implying that “American Negroes” are “simply the creation of white men,” insisting that there is “much of great value and richness” in African American culture that “Negroes will not willingly disregard.” More than a decade later, Ellison had to remind Irving Howe that there is more to African American life than “unrelieved suffering.”

Democracy for Ellison promises a liberating willingness to recognize artistic excellence without regard to race, class, or anything else. Hazel Harrison, his piano teacher at Tuskegee and a world-class pianist in her own right, taught him that an American artist must always play his or her best, no matter how unpretentious the setting, since “the chances are that any American audience will conceal at least one individual whose knowledge and taste will complement, or surpass” the artist’s own. Democracy thus demands not mediocrity but excellence. Ellison notes that “jazz musicians are…unreconstructed elitists when it comes to maintaining the highest standards of the music which expresses their sense of the American experience.” The Collected Essays demonstrate that he was also an “unreconstructed elitist” in demanding the best from himself whatever the occasion. In remaining true to the code he learned at Tuskegee, Ralph Ellison honored bot
h his heritage and himself and provided an object lesson for the rest of us on what democratic culture is all about.

James Seaton, Professor of English at Michigan State University, is author of Cultural Conservatism, Political Liberalism: From Criticism to Cultural Studies.