Critical Assessment

“This novel is a searing and exalted record of a Negro’s journey through contemporary America in search of success, companionship, and, finally, himself; like all our fictions devoted to the idea of experience, it moves from province to city, from naive faith to disenchantment; and despite its structural incoherence and occasional pretentiousness of manner, it is one of the few remarkable first novels we have had in some years. . . .

“For Ellison has an abundance of that primary talent without which neither craft nor intelligence can save a novelist; he is richly, wildly inventive; his scenes rise and dip with tension, his people bleed, his language stings. No other writer has captured so much of the confusion and agony, the hidden gloom and surface gaiety of Negro life. His ear for Negro speech is magnificent: a share-cropper calmly describing how he seduced his own daughter, a Harlem street-vender spinning jive, a West Indian woman inciting her men to resist an eviction. The rhythm of the prose is harsh and tensed, like a beat of harried alertness. The observation is expert: Ellison knows exactly how zoot-suiters walk, making stylization their principle of life, and exactly how the antagonism between American and West Indian Negroes works itself out in speech and humor. For all his self-involvement, he is capable of extending himself toward his people, of accepting them as they are, in their blindness and hope.”

Irving Howe, “A Negro in America,” The Nation, May 10, 1952.

First Excerpt

“I had never seen so many black people against a background of brick buildings, neon signs, plate glass and roaring traffic – not even on trips I had made with the debating team to New Orleans, Dallas or Birmingham. They were everywhere. So many, and moving along with so much tension and noise that I wasn’t sure whether they were about to celebrate a holiday or join in a street fight. There were even black girls behind the counters of the Five and Ten as I passed. Then at the street intersection I had the shock of seeing a black policeman directing traffic – and there were white drivers in the traffic who obeyed his signals as though it was the most natural thing in the world. Sure I had heard of it, but this was real. My courage returned. This really was Harlem, and now all the stories which I had heard of the city-within-a-city leaped alive in my mind. The vet had been right: For me this was not a city of realities, but of dreams; perhaps because I had always thought of my life as being confined to the South. And now as I struggled through the lines of people a new world of possibility suggested itself to me faintly, like a small voice that was barely audible in the roar of city sounds. I moved wide-eyed, trying to take the bombardment of impressions.”

71U-LfrBIFLSecond Excerpt

“‘His name was Clifton and he was young and he was a leader and when he fell there was a hole in the heel of his sock and when he stretched forward he seemed not as tall as when he stood. So he died; and we who loved him are gathered here to mourn him. It’s as simple as that and as short as that. His name was Clifton and he was black and they shot him. Isn’t that enough to tell? Isn’t it all you need to know? Isn’t that enough to appease your thirst for drama and send you home to sleep it off? Go take a drink and forget it. Or read it in The Daily News. His name was Clifton and they shot him, and I was there to see him fall. So I know it as I know it.

“‘Here are the facts. He was standing and he fell. He fell and he kneeled. He kneeled and he bled. He bled and he died. He fell in a heap like any man and his blood spilled out like any blood; red as any blood, wet as any blood and reflecting the sky and the buildings and birds and trees, or your face if you’d looked into its dulling mirror – and it dried in the sun as blood dries. That’s all.'”