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Monday, March 27, 2006
Book: Shadow and Act by Ralph Ellison
First, some background. I don't remember where I got this particular copy, but it's an old copy. If I had to guess, I'd say that it's one that my parents picked up in a thrift store many years ago (the thrift store is a great place to pick up books, the good ones never go out of style). The copy I have is a Signet Book which I think was printed in 1966. It's retail price was 95 cents.

Ralph Waldo Ellison was born in Oklahoma City in the year 1913. He entered Tuskegee Institute on a scholarship to study music at the age of 20 with a desire to write a symphony. He stayed at Tuskegee for 3 years, until the money ran out, and he was forced to leave school. He went to New York City, where he met Richard Wright, who was just beginning his own writing career. Richard convinced Ralph to leave music and instead to write. Between 1937 and 1944 he wrote for New York publications like New Challenge and New Masses, which published his short stories, articles, and over 20 book reviews. He wrote Invisible Man in the late 1940s, which won the National Book Award in 1953.

Shadow and Act is a collection of Mr. Ellison's personal political, social and critical essays. It was first published in hardcover in 1964.

One day, a few years ago, I pulled this book off the shelf, and decided to read something written by one of the great authors of our history. I settled on Shadow and Act. Some say that the personal nature of it's essays turns the book into a sort of autobiography. I can't honestly say whether or not I agree, because I have never read the book. I never got past the Introduction.

I think that in order to truly enjoy a book, or a movie, (not sure I'm comfortable applying this to television programs), you have to open yourself to it. You have to dispell a certain amount of your cynicism, and it's best not to try to solve the case immediately after the murder. Just let the book/movie unfold, and save your questions and comments for later.

Anyway, I say that to say that I was prepared to be...touched by this book. And touched I was. Only not by the book, but it's Introduction.

What I will share with you here are a few snippets from the Introduction to Shadow and Act, written by it's author, the distinguished late Mr. Ralph Waldo Ellison. Perhaps these snippets will touch you as they did me.
"...the earliest, most agonizingly written pieces presented here (none has been retouched) were the results of a crucial conflict raging deep within me, the products of an activity, dreamlike yet intense, which was waxing on the dark side of my mind"

"At stake here, beyond the veil of consciousness, was the question of what seemed possible for me in terms of self-achievement, and linked to this was the question of what was the most desirable agency for defining myself."

"...in the beginning writing was far from a serious matter, it was playing with the secret lore of a fascinating but less glorious art to which I owed, I believed, no prior dedication."..."Rather it was a reflex of reading, an extension of a source of leisure, escape and instruction. In fact, I had become curious about writing by way of seeking to understand the aesthetic nature of literary power, the devices through which literature could command my mind and emotions. It was not, then, the process of writing which initially claimed my attention, but the finished creations was, therefore, an amusing investigation of what seemed at best a secondary talent, an exploration, like dabbling in sculpture, of one's potentialities as a 'renaissance man.' "
He goes on here to talk about this whole "renaissance man" concept, and how he may have come to be one.

More:
"...ours was a chaotic community, still characterized by frontier attitudes and by that strange mixture of the naive and sophisticated, the benign and malignant, which makes the American past so puzzling and its present so confusing..."
Still timely, methinks.

I feel like I'm typing out the whole Intro, but it's giving me an excuse to read it again:
"The act of writing requires a constant plunging back into the shadow of the past where time hovers ghostlike."
"I had undergone, not too many months before taking the path to writing, the humiliation of being taught in a class in sociology at a Negro College (from Park and Burgess, the leading textbook in the field) that Negroes represented the 'lady of the races.' This contention the Negro instructor passed blandly along to us without even bothering to wash his hands, much less his teeth."

"...I found the greatest difficult for a Negro writer as the problem of revealing what he truly felt, rather than serving up what Negroes were supposed to feel, and were encouraged to feel."
Here's a doozie:
"In this sense fiction became the agency of my efforts to answer the questions: Who am I, what am I, how did I come to be? What shall I make of the life around me, what celebrate, what reject, how confront the snarl of good and evil which is inevitable? What does American society mean when regarded out of my own eyes, when informed by my own sense of the past and viewed by my own complex sense of the present? How, in other words, should I think of myself and my pluralistic sense of the world, how express my vision of the human predicament, without reducing it to a point which would render it sterile before that necessary and tragic - though enhancing - reduction which must occur before the fictive vision can come alive?"
He kinda wraps it up after that.

- Deep Breath -

I think these words would ring true and personal to any artist. Consider this: Do any of YOUR favorite books evoke the sense that the author had these kinds of questions in mind as they wrote?

Thank you for sharing this with me. I must admit, that I have not shared this with many people. I hope that I have not..."reduced it to a point which had rendered it sterile." Rather I hope that I have managed to distilled the spirit of what the author was trying to say into a more condensed form that will inspire you to check out the full text of Introduction, if not the entire book.

As for me, I won't read the book itself just yet. I think I'm afraid that it won't live up to the hype that the Introduction has created in me. I'll continue to let the Introduction stand on its own. On its own it recharges and inspires me.

Thank You, Mr. Ralph Waldo Ellison.

Know What I'm Sayin'??
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