Ralph Ellison | Critical Essay by C. W. E. Bigsby

This literature criticism consists of approximately 18 pages of analysis & critique of Ralph Ellison.
This section contains 5,354 words
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Critical Essay by C. W. E. Bigsby

SOURCE: "Improvising America: Ralph Ellison and the Paradox of Form," in Speaking for You: The Vision of Ralph Ellison, edited by Kimberly W. Benston, Howard University Press, 1987, pp. 173-83.

In the following essay, Bigsby examines Ellison's paradoxical treatment of chaos and form.

Writing in 1937, Richard Wright insisted that "black writers are being called upon to do no less than create values by which the race is to struggle, live and die" ["Blueprint for Negro Literature," Amistad, Vol. 2, 1971]. In 1941 Ellison echoed this sentiment. His responsibility, he felt, was "to create the consciousness of his oppressed nation" ["Recent Negro Fiction," New Masses, August 5, 1941]. It was a stance he was later to be accused of abandoning by those who, in the 1960s and 1970s, proposed their own prescriptions for cultural and political responsibility and who found his determined pluralism unacceptable. For although he undeniably concentrated on the black experience in America, he tended to see this experience in relation to the problem of identity, the anxieties associated with the struggle for cultural autonomy, and the need to define the contours of experience. His central concern was with the relationship between raw experience and the shaping power of the imagination. And, for him, the "imagination itself is integrative," in that it is essentially involved in the process of "making symbolic wholes out of parts" ["Study and Experience: An Interview with Ralph Ellison," Massachusetts Review, Autumn, 1977]. Such a stance plainly has implications on a moral and social level no less than on an artistic one.

He has, indeed, always been fascinated, politically, ethically, and aesthetically, with the struggle to discover form in diversity. To his mind this was equally the problem of the Negro in America, of the individual in a democracy, and of the artist confronted with the sheer contingency and flux of events. The imaginative linking of these experiences, indeed the metaphoric yoking of the processes of invention in life and art, is a characteristic of Ellison's artistic strategy and of his moral assumptions. But it is a process which, from the beginning, he acknowledged to be fraught with ambiguity, for he was not unaware that form could imply entrapment as well as release. Thus, he argued that "for the novelist, of any cultural or racial identity, his form is his greatest freedom and his insights are where he finds them" [Shadow and Act], while acknowledging that that form potentially defines the limits of his freedom. To use story or myth to control experience is also, potentially, to imprison oneself in the prison house of myth. Archetype too easily becomes stereotype. To deploy language as a means of inducing coherencies is to subordinate oneself to the constraints of that language, which is, at the very least, historically stained. Thus for the writer, as for the American pioneer, "the English language and traditional cultural forms served both as guides and as restraints, anchoring Americans in the wisdom and processes of the past, while making it difficult for them to perceive with any clarity the nuances of their new identity" ["Study and Experience: An Interview with Ralph Ellison"]. It is a paradox that lies at the heart of all of his work. For Ellison, the act of writing is an act of shaping inchoate experience into moral meaning no less than aesthetic form. But it is an act that implies its own coercions. It implicates the imagination in the process of control.

This tension between chaos and form, this recognition of a profound ambivalence, is a fundamental trope of Ellison's work. He seems captivated by paradox, fascinated by apparent contradictions, drawn to the polarities of American experience, simultaneously attracted and repelled by the nervous energy of the unformed and the compelling grace of coalescence. Even his prose style seems often to turn around sets of dualities that are fused together by the writer, contained by the imagination, and exemplified in the linguistic structure, as he believes they can be so fused in the world beyond the page.

Thus, while he readily identified the metonymic reductivism implied in white attempts to mythologize Negro life, insisting that "the Negro stereotype is really an image of the unorganized, irrational forces of American life, forces through which, by projecting them in forms of images of an easily dominated minority, the white individual seeks to be at home in the vast unknown world of America," he nonetheless asserted that without myths, "chaos descends, faith vanishes and superstitions prowl in the mind" [Shadow and Act]. The same process contains a generative and a destructive potential.

So, too, with language. We are, Ellison insists, "language using, language misusing animals—beings who are by nature vulnerable to both the negative and the positive promptings of language as symbolic action" ["The Little Man at Chehaw Station," American Scholar, Winter, 1977–78]. He addresses this ambivalence directly in an essay called, "Twentieth-Century Fiction and the Black Mask of Humanity," where he suggests, "Perhaps the most insidious and least understood form of segregation is that of the word. And by this I mean the word in all its complex formulations, from the proverb to the novel and stage play, the word with all its subtle power to suggest and foreshadow overt action while magically disguising the moral consequences of that action and providing it with symbolic and psychological justification. For if the word has the potency to revive and make us free, it also has the power to blind, imprison and destroy." Indeed, to him "the essence of the word is its ambivalence" [Shadow and Act], more especially in a society in which the nature of the real is problematic for reasons of racial ideology. This suspicion marks all of his work, from the nonfunctional articulateness of his protagonist in the early short story "Flying Home," through the deceptive speeches and documents of Invisible Man, to the uncontrolled rhetoric of the narrator of his later short story, "A Song of Innocence," who observes, "They say that folks misuse words but I see it the other way around, words misuse people. Usually when you think you're saying what you mean you're really saying what the words want you to say…. Words are tricky…. No matter what you try to do, words can never mean meaning."

Melville had made much the same point and addressed the same ambivalence with respect to the urge to subordinate chaos to form. He, too, was aware that language itself constitutes the primary mechanism of the shaping imagination and it was not for nothing that Ellison chose to quote from Benito Cereno as an epigraph to his own novel. For Captain Delano, in that story, uses language as an agent of power and control, albeit a language rendered ironic by his moral and intellectual blindness; while Benito Cereno, imprisoned by a cunning and dominant black crew, who for the most part remain potently silent, deploys a language which is willfully opaque, hinting at truths that language cannot be entrusted to reveal. And yet language is the only medium through which the novelist can attempt to communicate his own truths. It was a familiar conundrum of nineteenth-century American writing and one to which Ellison was compulsively drawn.

The strict discipline and carefully sustained order of Delano's ship is an expression of his fear of an anarchy that he dare not imagine and cannot confront. And the image of that anarchy, for Delano and Cereno alike, is the Negro, whose shadow they see as falling across American history. But Melville suggests that just as their own ordered world contains its virus of moral anarchy, so what Delano takes for anarchy is perhaps a coherence he is afraid to acknowledge; the hieroglyphs of action that he chooses to translate as pure chaos can be decoded in a wholly different way. Indeed, Melville's story turns precisely on this ambiguity. So does much of Ellison's work.

Chaos and order constitute the twin poles of experience, promising, simultaneously, vital energy and destructive flux, necessary from but threatening stasis. Indeed, he is quite capable, in a single paragraph, of presenting both order and chaos as promise and threat. Speaking of the process where by national identity coalesces from its constituent elements, he asserted, in 1953, "Our task then is always to challenge the apparent forms of reality—that is, the fixed manners and values of the few, and to struggle with it until it reveals its insights, its truth…. We are fortunate as American writers in that with our variety of racial and national traditions, idioms and manners we are yet one. On its profoundest level, American experience is of a whole. Its truth lies in its diversity and swiftness of change" [Shadow and Act]. The task for the writer would seem to be to inhabit these ambiguities and thereby to cast light not merely on processes endemic to art but also on the struggle that the individual and the race wage with contingency. Irresistibly drawn to the primal energy of flux, the writer, nonetheless, is inevitably committed to the creation of coherent form, thereby offering hintself as a paradigm of the processes of self-invention and the distillation of cultural identity.

It is a theme that echoes throughout Ellison's work. Thus, he quotes approvingly André Malraux's observation that "the organized significance of art … is stronger than all the multiplicity of the world … that significance alone enables many to conquer chaos and to master destiny" [Shadow and Act], while in an introduction to Stephen Crane's Red Badge of Courage he chose to stress "the shaping grace of Crane's imagination," whereby "the actual event is reduced to significant form … each wave and gust of wind, each intonation of voice and gesture of limb combining to a single effect of meaning … the raging sea of life" [Shadow and Act] thereby being contained by an act of imaginative economy. He even insists that "in the very act of trying to create something there is implicit a protest against the way things are—a protest against man's vulnerability before the larger forces of society and the universe … a protest against that which is, against the raw and unformed way that we come into the world … to provide some sense of transcendence over the given" ["On Initiation Rites and Power: Ralph Ellison Speaks at West Point," Commentary, Spring, 1974]. And yet he equally acknowledges that it is precisely the fear of anarchy that leads to the creation of coercive models that express nothing more than a fear of the uncontrolled and the unknown. Thus, when Leslie Fiedler identifies a homoeroticism in the relationship between Twain's Huck Finn and the Negro slave Jim, he is, according to Ellison, in reality simply shouting out "his most terrifying name for chaos. Other things being equal he might have called it 'rape,' 'incest,' 'patricide' or 'miscegenation'" [Shadow and Act]. Order has no preemptive rights. It requires a moral as well as an aesthetic elegance.

The history of Ellison's creative life, from his early days as a putative musician throughout his career as a novelist and essayist, has in effect been concerned with exploring this paradox and identifying a way, at least on a metaphoric level, in which it could be resolved. To some degree he found it in music. He began his career as a would-be composer, and music has always provided a central source of imagery for him. Thus, in describing the reaction of the reader of fiction, he suggests that "his sensibilities are made responsive to artistic structuring of symbolic form" through "the rhetorical 'stops'" of his own "pieties—filial, sacred, racial" ["The Little Man at Chehaw Station"]. The writer, meanwhile, is described as playing upon these sensibilities "as a pianist upon a piano" ["The Little Man at Chehaw Station"]. But, what is more significant, he found in jazz and the blues a powerful image of the struggle to imprint meaning on experience, to reconcile the apparently contradictory demands of order and freedom. Like Richard Wright, he saw the blues as an attempt to "possess the meaning of his life" [Shadow and Act], while jazz offered a model for the act of improvisation that lies at the heart of personal experience. Indeed the key word becomes "improvisation," which is made to stand for the act of self-invention that is the essence of a private and a public drive for meaning and identity. It is an integrative metaphor that links his sense of racial distinctiveness to what is essentially a pluralist position: "The delicate balance struck between strong individual personality and the group during those early jam sessions was a marvel of social organization. I had learned too that the end of all this discipline and technical mastery was the desire to express an affirmative way of life through its musical tradition and that this tradition insisted that each artist achieve his creativity within its frame … and when they expressed their attitude toward the world it was with a fluid style that reduced the chaos of living to form" [Shadow and Act].

Thus, it is characteristic that in his account of growing up in the Southwest he chose to stress what he calls "the chaos of Oklahoma," as he elsewhere spoke of "the chaos of American society" ["On Becoming a Writer," Commentary, October, 1964], but set this against his own growing fascination with the ordered world of music and literature. It is characteristic, too, that through an extension of this logic he should identify that same tension first with the nature of the American frontier experience (still recent history for the Oklahoma of his birth), then with the jazz which emerged from that same region, and then with the nature of artistic creativity itself. The move is one from the real to the metaphoric, from the pure tone to its significant resonances. Thus, he insists, "ours was a chaotic community, still characterized by frontier attitudes and by that strange mixture of the naive and sophisticated, the benign and the malignant, which makes the past and present so confusing" ["On Becoming a Writer"], only to go on to suggest that it is possible to "hear the effects of this in the Southwestern jazz of the 30s, that joint creation of artistically free and exuberantly creative adventurers, of artists who had stumbled upon the freedom lying within the restrictions of their musical tradition as within the limitations of their social background, and who in their own unconscious way set an example for any Americans, Negro or white, who would find themselves in the arts" ["On Becoming a Writer"].

And this was a key to Ellison's attempts to square the circle, to resolve the paradox. The problem for the jazz musician, as for any artist, was how to celebrate versatility and possibility in a form that seemingly denied both. The key is seen by Ellison as lying precisely in improvisation, the exercise of a personal freedom within the framework of the group, an act of invention that builds on but is not limited by inherited forms. This becomes both his metaphor for the process of artistic invention and the means whereby individual and group identity coalesce. In terms of writing this tended to be translated into an instinctive existentialism, at the level of theme, a picaresque narrative drive, and a prose style that could prove as fluid and flexible, and yet as controlled and subject to the harmonies of character and story, as the jazz musician is free and yet responsive to the necessities of rhythm and mood. In terms of social process it became a description of the means whereby diverse elements are harmonized. Thus, speaking of the origins of American national identity, Ellison remarked, "Out of the democratic principles set down on paper in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights they were improvising themselves into a nation, scraping together a conscious culture out of the various dialects, idioms, lingos, and mythologies of America's diverse peoples and regions." Similarly, in describing the relationship between black and white cultural forms, he observed that "the slaves … having no past in the art of Europe … could use its elements and their inherited sense of style to improvise forms through which they could express their own unique sense of African experience … and white artists often found the slaves' improvisations a clue to their own improvisations" ["Study and Experience: An Interview with Ralph Ellison"].

As a boy he had been taught the rudiments of orchestration, the blending, the integration, of different instruments to form an harmonic whole. It was offered to him as a lesson in the deconstruction of a score which was to enable him to "attack those things I desired so that I could pierce the mystery and possess them"; but in retrospect it becomes a lesson in civics. True jazz, he insists, "is an act of individual assertion within and against the group. Each true jazz moment … springs from a contest in which each artist challenges all the rest; each solo flight, or improvisation, represents … a definition of his identity; as individual, as member of the collectivity and as a link in the chain of tradition. Thus, because jazz finds its very life in an endless improvisation upon traditional materials, the jazzman must lose his identity even as he finds it" [Shadow and Act]. And, beyond this, jazz becomes an image of America itself, "fecund in its inventiveness, swift and traumatic in its resources" [Shadow and Act].

The parallel between jazz and his own social circumstances, growing up in postfrontier Oklahoma, seems clear to Ellison in retrospect. "It is an important circumstance for me as a writer to remember," he wrote in 1964, "because while these musicians and their fellows were busy creating out of tradition, imagination, and the sounds and emotions around them, a freer, more complex, and driving form of jazz, my friends and I were exploring an idea of human versatility and possibility which went against the barbs and over the palings [pickets] of almost every fence which those who controlled social and political power had erected to restrict our roles in the life of the country" ["On Becoming a Writer"].

And as a boy, he and his friends had constructed their heroes from fragments of myth and legend, from the movies ("improvising their rather tawdry and opportunistic version of a national mythology" ["The Little Man at Chehaw Station"]), from music and religion, from anything "which violated all ideas of social hierarchy and order" and "which evolved from our wildly improvisatory projections" ["On Becoming a Writer"]. In a sense this can stand as a model of Ellison's fictive and moral strategy, as of his conception of cultural identity and American pluralism. A complex eclecticism is presented as a moral necessity as much as a natural product of American circumstances. And "complexity" is a favorite word—sometimes "a stubborn complexity." For his is a sensibility that reaches out to absorb the variegated realities of American life, rejecting those who see the process of self-invention as necessitating a denial of that complexity.

The problem is to discover a means of rendering that complexity without reducing it through the sheer process of transmuting experience into art. Pure energy has no shape. The challenge confronting the artist, no less than that confronting the uncodified, free-floating sensibility of the American individual, is to sustain some kind of creative tension between a liberated and liberating imagination and the aesthetic and moral demands of an art and a life which require the subordination of random energy and an anarchic imagination to the constraints of order. For just as the artist operates "within the historical frame of his given art" ["The Little Man at Chehaw Station"], so the individual is located within the triangulation of time, space, and cultural inheritance. Thus the writer's responsibility in America is to define the diversity of American experience in such a way as to bring to bear the "unifying force of its vision and its power to give meaningful focus to apparently unrelated emotions and experience" ["The Little Man at Chehaw Station"].

The problem is that the democratic ideal of "unity-in-diversity and oneness-in-manyness" ["The Little Man at Chehaw Station"] creates a vertigo which he sees as sending too many plunging into the reassurance of simplified cultural models, preferring fragment to complexly formulated whole. There is a clearly positive and negative model of chaos in his mind. On the one hand, there is a fructifying interaction of differing cultural traditions, "always in cacophonic motion. Constantly changing its mode … a vortex of discordant ways of living and tastes, values and traditions, a whirlpool of odds and ends" ["The Little Man at Chehaw Station"] which inspires a profound unease but which is the source of a creative flux. On the other hand, there is a negative chaos, a fearful splintering into component elements. And this is how he saw the black aestheticians of the 1960s. "In many ways," he insisted, "the call for a new social order based upon the glorification of ancestral blood and ethnic background acts as a call to cultural and aesthetic chaos." Yet, "while this latest farcical phase in the drama of American social hierarchy unfolds, the irrepressible movement of American culture toward the integration of its diverse elements continues, confounding the circumlocutions of its staunchest opponents" ["The Little Man at Chehaw Station"].

For Ellison, strength lies precisely in diversity, in the sustained tension between chaos and form, the Apollonian and the Dionysian, and this is no less true of a racial identity which he refuses to grant the simple self-evident contours demanded by some of his contemporaries. To his mind, that identity can only express itself multivocally. And so in his essay "The Little Man at Chehaw Station," which is a crucial statement of his artistic and social principles, he recalls seeing a black American who seemed to combine a whole kaleidoscope of cultural influences: and whatever sheerly ethnic identity was communicated by his costume depended upon the observer's ability to see order in an apparent cultural chaos. The essence of the man, his complex identity, existed less in the apparent clashing of styles than in the eclectic imagination, the unabashed assertion of will, which lay behind it—"not in the somewhat comic clashing of styles, but in the mixture, the improvised form, the willful juxtaposition of modes" ["The Little Man at Chehaw Station"]. But, as ever, Ellison is not content to leave it there for, he insists, "his clashing of styles … sounded an integrative, vernacular note—an American compulsion to improvise upon the given," and the freedom he exercised was "an American freedom" ["The Little Man at Chehaw Station"].

It is not hard to see what infuriated the cultural nationalists of the 1960s. Ellison seems to be appropriating supposedly unique and definitional aspects of black life to an American cultural norm. Since America was diverse, loose-limbed, disparate, self-displaying, free-wheeling and concerned with the question of identity, with delineating its own cultural boundaries, with negotiating a relationship with its own past which would give it space for its own critical act of self-invention, the black American was apparently simply an expression of this process, one component of the American diorama. But such an assumption ignored Ellison's central conviction—the basis, indeed, of his whole aesthetic and social theory—namely, that the American identity he described was as it was precisely because of the presence of the Negro. While rigidly subordinating and segregating the black American, the whites had been shaped by what they had tried so hard to exclude. Their imagination had been penetrated, their sensibility infiltrated, by those whose experience of adjusting to a strange land and whose necessary cultural improvisations were more intensely, more deeply scarring, more profoundly disturbing than their own. As the victims of violence, as the evidence of a failure of American idealism, as an extreme case of adjustment to a hostile environment, they represented not merely a constant reminder of the poles of American moral experience but a model of possibility, a paradigm of those acts of desperate self-creation that were at the heart of the American myth. The shadow of the Negro does indeed fall across American history but not merely as promise and threat. His existence defines the nature of the American experience.

Ellison was less inclined than many to abandon the notion of the "melting pot," though he saw the image less as a promise of homogeneity than as a metaphor of "the mystery of American identity (our unity-within-diversity)," and as a symbol of those who "improvised their culture as they did their politics and institutions" ["The Little Man at Chehaw Station"]. The potency of the image lay in its acknowledgment of the fact that, in America, cultural traditions were brought into violent contact, that past and future were made to interact, that ideals, and the evidence of the failure of those ideals, were placed in intimate and ironic counterpoint. And, as a consequence, a series of adjustments were enforced, a process of action and reaction which, to his mind, was the very essence of Americanness. It was precisely on the level of culture that such interactions operated. Cultural appropriation and misappropriation were, to Ellison, the essence of an American development that would scarcely stand still long enough for confident definition. Indeed, since America was to him more a process than an isolable set of characteristics, such definitions carry the threat of a menacing stasis. The essence of improvisation lies in the energy released by the pure act of invention in process. In Invisible Man the protagonist is at his most vulnerable when he allows himself to be contained and defined by simple racial or political models. He radiates the energy of pure possibility (like the light bulbs with which he illuminates his darkness) when he abandons these restrictive definitions for the sheer flux of being—a state controlled only by the imagination, and those moral commitments that lead him out of his isolation and into the dangerous interactions of the outside world and the complex symbols of the novel, with which he seeks to address that "variegated audience" for whom the little man at Chehaw Station was Ellison's image. As he himself insists, "it is the very spirit of art to be defiant of categories and obstacles…. They [the images of art or the sound of music] are, as transcendent forms of symbolic expression, agencies of human freedom" ["The Little Man at Chehaw Station"]. For Ellison, "the work of art" itself "is … an act of faith in our ability to communicate symbolically" ["The Little Man at Chehaw Station"].

Invisible Man opens and concludes with references to jazz. At the beginning the protagonist sits in his cellar and "feels" rather than listens to the music of Louis Armstrong who has "made poetry out of being invisible." High on drugs, he responds to the off-beats, seeing meaning in the unheard sounds, the resistances to simple rhythmic structure. Music becomes a clue to his past and future. The music pulls him back to his origins, conjuring up an image of his slave past; but it also offers him a clue to his future, outside the determined structures of social life. The music, like the novel the protagonist writes, emerges from "an urge to make music of invisibility," to set it down. It is a paradoxical enterprise. But, then, as we are told at the end of the novel, the music, too, is characterized by "diversity." It, too, contains an essential conflict. And that conflict mirrors the conflict of the protagonist who reminds himself that "the mind that has conceived a plan of living must never lose sight of the chaos against which that pattern was conceived." And this, he assures us, "goes for societies as for individuals" [Invisible Man]. It is the virtue of jazz that its improvisations remind us of precisely this. Improvisation has its risks. In the form of Rinehart, a protean figure (whose first name is actually Proteus) who refuses all content and all commitment, it becomes pure chaos; but for the protagonist, willing, finally, to chance his own dangerous act of self-creation in the public world outside his cellar, it becomes a commitment to sustaining the tension between the twin compulsions of freedom and order.

Jazz operates in Ellison's work as image and fact. The thematic uses he makes of it have been usefully traced by Robert G. O'Meally in The Craft of Ralph Ellison. Jazz exists as a constant source of reference, an ironic counterpoint to the protagonist's earnest struggles, a celebration of his growing understanding. Ellison himself has spoken of his desire to capture the "music and idiom" of American Negro speech, but in fact his concern with musical structures goes much further than this. In "A Song of Innocence" the prose owes less to idiomatic speech than to jazz rhythms, the words being of less significance than the free flow of sound. Indeed the inadequacy of language, which is in part the subject of that story, implies the need to turn to other models, other symbols as a means of explaining the conflicting demands of pattern and chaos, form and experience, tradition and innovation. And throughout his career, Ellison turned to the improvisational thrust of jazz for that symbol, finding there a clue to the commitments required of the artist, the race, and the individual concerned with developing their own identities in the face of inherited forms: "I had learned from the jazz musicians I had known as a boy in Oklahoma City something of the discipline and devotion to his art required of the artist … the give and take, the subtle rhythmical sharpening and blending of idea, tone and imagination demanded of group improvisations" [Shadow and Act]. And "after the jazzman has learned the fundamentals of his instrument and the traditional techniques of jazz—the intonations, the mute work, manipulation of timbre, the body of traditional styles—he must 'find himself,' must be reborn, must find, as it were, his soul. All this through achieving that subtle identification between his instrument and his deepest drives which will allow him to express his own unique ideas and his own unique voice. He must achieve, in short, his self-determined identity" [Shadow and Act]. Like Charlie Parker, he is involved in a struggle "against personal chaos" [Shadow and Act]. To Ellison, much the same could be said of the writer in America, as of the individual struggling to make sense of his racial and cultural inheritance while defining a self strong enough to stand against the centripetal pull of the chaos that could manifest itself equally as pure contingency or deceptive consonance.

In an essay titled "Society, Morality, and the Novel" [in The Living Novel: A Symposium, edited by Granville Hicks, Macmillan, 1957], Ellison observed that "the writer has an obsessive need to play with the fires of chaos and to rearrange reality to the patterns of his imagination," while the novel achieves its "universality" precisely through "accumulating images of reality and arranging them in patterns of universal significance." Indeed, it seemed to him possible that the novel, as a form, had evolved in order "to deal with man's growing awareness that behind the facade of social organization, manners, customs, myths, rituals, religions of the post-Christian era, lies chaos." But since we can live neither "in the contemplation of chaos" nor "without awareness of chaos," the novel simultaneously acknowledges and seeks to transcend the fact that "the treasure of possibility is always to be found in the cave of chaos, guarded by the demons of destruction." The writer's responsibility, in Ellison's eyes, is to improvise a response that denies nothing of the force and power of disorder but will "strengthen man's will to say No to chaos and affirm him in his task of humanizing himself and the world" ["Society, Morality, and the Novel"], without submitting to stasis. Change and diversity are, to him, the essence of the American experience. The challenge is to bring to "the turbulence of change" an "imaginative integration and moral continuity" ["Society, Morality, and the Novel"]—to improvise America, as the individual creates the uncreated features of his face, and as the black American had struggled to "create the consciousness of his oppressed nation."

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