Getting Around To Not Reading Ralph Ellison

Slate's Culture Blog
May 5 2010 12:10 PM

Getting Around To Not Reading Ralph Ellison

Troy Patterson Troy Patterson

Troy Patterson is Slate's writer at large and writes the Gentleman Scholar column.

A completist abdicates that distinction with a peculiar mixture of sorrow and relief. The long march through Godard's hardcore Maoist period becomes too arduous to bear; the long-term relationship with James Bond is broken off on account of irreconcilable differences with


; the long-ago passion for searching out Bowie oddities has devolved into a grudge: It is time to bail, and with the bailing comes a faintly mournful sense of liberation.

Thus it is that I abandon all hope of reading everything Ralph Ellison (1914-1994) ever published. Granted, this course of reading had not been particularly arduous one classic first novel, one posthumously edited thick slice of an unfinished second novel, a handful of short stories, a couple dozen essays, a few letters and interviews: This is not at all like getting through all of Joyce Carol Oates (which I doubt Joyce herself has done). But Three Days Before the Shooting... a complete edition of that uncompleted second book, a gathering of "the various parts Ellison's planned opus in an unadorned fashion" is a book I am not going to read. Beyond being unadorned (which, at the hastiest of skims, seems to be code for roughly hewn and totally shapeless) the "novel" is quite long 1,100 pages all told. Thus, although the Modern Library published the book in January, it's taken me quite a while to get around to not reading it.

The solitary small bright gem lodged in this big dull mass is a self-sufficient story titled "Cadillac Flambé," which appeared in the American Review in 1973. But "Cadillac" also appears in Living With Music: Ralph Ellison's Jazz Writings , so you might as well read it there.

Reading "Cadillac," we look through the binocular'd eyes of a character named McIntyre, a liberal white reporter out for a stroll after brunch with friends, all of them several bloody marys down on a bluebird day. The group comes upon the estate of Senator Sunraider, who, passing for white, has made his name as a race-baiting Northern politician: "I had paused to notice how the senator's lawn rises from the street level with a gradual and imperceptible elevation that makes the mansion, set far at the top, seem to float like a dream castle." The ensuing pages extend this mood of illusion in a scorching set piece. Rumbling up from the ranks of Sunday drivers, a black bass player pulls onto the lawn, piloting his Caddy "with that engrossed, yet relaxed, almost ceremonial attention to form that was once to be observed only among the finest horsemen." Dismounting, he proceeds to mount a protest against the senator's fulminations. I will not spoil your pleasure in "Cadillac Flambé" by here disclosing the specifics where la flamme comes in, but I will say that the passage earns its place in Living With Music for reading like James Joyce doing Eric Dolphy. It is an A+ scene and having typed that, I realize that I may have to reverse myself and not not read the new book, hopeful of finding even a sentence fragment that thrills with the same sort of all-American surrealism.




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