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Critical Review by Karl Miller
SOURCE: "Notes of a Native Son," in Times Literary Supplement, July 25, 1997, p. 22.
In the following review, Miller provides a positive assessment of Flying Home and Other Stories.
Ralph Ellison's celebrated novel Invisible Man, seven years in the making, appeared in 1952. It is an American Gothic delirium. Writing about it in such terms, a few years later, in his great book of the 1960s, Love and Death in the American Novel, Leslie Fiedler saw a method in the "madness" he took it to contain. The reason why this madness carried conviction was that "the Negro problem in the United States" was "a gothic horror of our daily lives".
The old-fashioned apartheid expression, "the Negro problem", should not prevent one from accepting that the novel's first-person narrator is an incarnation of the problem which America's Negroes have had to live with. Their very name has been a problem, and has been subject to change. What has been done to them can become the question of who they are. The narrator's identity is projected in the novel as uncertain, phantasmagoric. And his invisibility is as phantasmagoric as his identity. The vivid black people who figure in it are, in one way, far from uncertain; nor, in that way, is the narrator. But Ellison is pledged to these ideas. And if it isn't always clear, in the more discursive passages of the book, what he means by them, that can in part be construed as almost certainly part of its point.
As with other fictional accounts of the sufferings of American blacks, there is a problem here for any reader who cares about these sufferings. The historical realities that enter Invisible Man are likely to seem as grievous to such a reader as Beloved's scarred back is to the reader of Toni Morrison's novel, and there are times when the anxiety they provoke can almost appear to distract attention from what Ellison is writing. The American magazine Commentary recently praised a black American's "very American sense of right and wrong". Those compatriots who tortured and exploited their black underclass for generations may be presumed to have been deficient in that sense, and they are commemorated in the reading difficulty of a kind which some parts of Ellison's novel can present. One aspect of this difficulty, of this anxiety, is a longing for the novel to succeed. In a letter of his youth, to Richard Wright, Ellison exclaimed: "Workers of the World Must Write!!!!" Ellison wrote, and wrote well, about matters which had to be treated, which must sometimes have seemed almost impossible to treat, and which can make for hard reading of the kind referred to. All honour to him.
There is death in the novel, and love. The narrator says in due course that despite his hate and bitterness he is able to affirm, to say yes as well as no. He has been "hurt to the point of abysmal pain, hurt to the point of invisibility". But "in order to get some of it down I have to love". Ralph Waldo Ellison affirms America, at times. "American is better than both, son", better than brown or white, advises a small boy's father in one of the stories in Flying Home. The narrator's enemies and manipulators in the novel, of both colours, who include a quivering, self-pitying white liberal by the name of Emerson, are said in Existentialist style to have refused to recognize "the beautiful absurdity of their American identity and mine".
Flying Home is a selection of the early stories, some of them discovered by John F. Callahan in a drawer after Ellison's death in 1994. There are thirteen of them, written between 1937 and 1954. "Hymie's Bull", possibly his first, describes the murder of a murderous guard by a freight-hopping hobo—Ellison rode the boxcars himself on his journey south from Oklahoma to the Tuskegee Institute for black students. During the war, service in the Merchant Marine took him to Wales, and there's a story in which the narrator receives a welcome in the valleys and joins in the singing, having been beaten up by some white fellow Americans on the way. The stories are offered as the best of Ellison's published and unpublished "free-standing" short fictions; material associated with the work-in-progress towards a second novel which was to occupy him over the years until his death is excluded. While charged with interest for its admirers, they are stylistically distinguishable from Invisible Man. In the novel, there is a Melville presence. In the stories, Hemingway hovers, not least in the one that starts the book. Editorially titled "A Party Down at the Square", this is a story about a lynching.
It has in it both Hemingway and Huckleberry Finn. "I was sick, and tired, and weak, and cold." This is not the voice of the black man who is about to be burned to death, before an enthusiastic crowd of moralists, one cyclonic Southern night. It is that of the boy from Cincinnati who witnesses the incineration. The Twain irony whereby Huck helps Jim while thinking it wrong to do so is perceptible here in the narrative of someone who has yet to learn that lynching people is wrong: in one sense, an unreliable narrator, but a narrator who gets it all down with a shocking immediacy that can make it difficult to attend to the literature, so to speak, of this well-crafted story.
Flight is a dominant concern throughout. Two country boys chat about flying away from African cannibals intent on sticking spears in their behinds, and attempt to teach a chicken to fly. Elsewhere, in a story set during the Second World War, a black man learns to fly, and flies into turbulence. The pilot is a young man for whom the thought of flight has brought a lump to the throat. But there is more to this than the "lonely impulse of delight" pursued by Yeats's poetic Irish airman. Upward mobility is found to have more than one face. When he hits a buzzard in mid-air and crashes, he is looked after by an old Negro "peasant", who angers the injured pilot, but protects him from a malicious redneck. When the old man asks the pilot why he wants to fly, he thinks to himself; "Because it's the most meaningful act in the world…." Yeatsian enough, perhaps. But there's another reason which occurs to him: "because it makes me less like you". What he actually says is: "It's as good a way to fight and die as I know." But, continues the peasant, "how long you think before they gonna let you all fight?" By the end, the flyer has been brought down to earth, but is uplifted too, by feeling that he is like the old man and his boy, after all. The story belongs to a time when black pilots talked as other people did about "the enemy", as if in their case there was only the one.
"A Coupla Scalped Indians", perhaps the most memorable item, shows the narrator and a friend, two youths recently circumcised, descending through woods towards a carnival. A son du cor floats up towards them in the depths of the woods (Ellison played the cornet in his youth and went to Tuskegee to study composition). The narrator then encounters a wise woman of the neighbourhood, Aunt Mackie, a talker with spirits, who is unusual among literature's wise women in being game for a cuddle. A fierce dog barks in her yard. The woman is as young as she is old. The narrator's bandaged condition joins with Aunt Mackie's strange kiss, with her "smooth body and wrinkled face", to produce the magic appropriate to a rite of passage. Summoned by its horns, he moves off, an older man, in the direction of the fairground, wondering what can have happened to his friend.
This section contains 1,310 words
(approx. 5 pages at 300 words per page)