Ralph Ellison and Kenneth Burke: On Race, Writing, and Friendship

Ralph Ellison and Kenneth Burke on Race, Writing, and Friendship

“I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves or figments of their imagination, indeed, everything and anything except me.”

Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

In Ralph Ellison and Kenneth Burke at the Roots of the Racial Divide (2011), Bryan Crable traces the 50 year friendship between these two writers. Part of what Crable discovers by tracing this rich literary history and studying the written correspondence between Ralph Ellison (1913 – 1994) and Kenneth Burke (1897 – 1993) is the profound appreciation Ellison felt for Burke’s work. Ellison even says that writing Invisible Man (1952) is his way of saying thanks to Burke.   

Bryan Crable In Ralph Ellison and Kenneth Burke at the Roots of the Racial Divide
“I am writing a novel now and perhaps if it is worthwhile it will be my most effective means of saying thanks. Anything else seems to me inadequate and unimaginative.”

A letter from Ralph Ellison to Kenneth Burke, November 23, 1945

Despite these sentiments of gratitude and an affinity for Burke’s work, Ralph Ellison’s novel was carefully constructed to contain the deeply nuanced experiences of America race relations. Readers see these change and shift each chapter in every location in which the book is set. 

There is no single black human experience just like there is no single kind of racism. The narrator’s invisibility radically differs from the character in H.G. Wells science fiction. As Bryan Crable points out, “his invisibility is a social, not supernatural product.”  

“In my own work . . . I am aiming at something I believe to be broader, more psychological, and employing, let us say, a scale of twelve tones rather than one of five.”

A letter from Ralph Ellison to Kenneth Burke, November 23, 1945

Part of what Ralph Ellison sought in writing Invisible Man was depicting the complexity of the black American’s experience without reducing it to the simple us and them divide. We know Kenneth Burke thought of rhetoric as a means of elaborating ambiguity and it is this complicated ambiguity that Ellison tries to tease out by depicting the tragic, comic, and complex experience of the Invisible Man. 

"There is also the fact that no single person can be everywhere at once, nor can a single consciousness be aware of all the nuances of a large social action."

Ralph Ellison, The Paris Review

 When asked if he had  everything thought out before writing Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison acknowledges the influence of Kenneth Burke’s three-part division that he gleans from A Grammar of Motives (1945). Those three parts are purpose, passion, and perception. 

"The symbols and their connections were known to me. I began it with a chart of the three-part division. It was a conceptual frame with most of the ideas and some incidents indicated. The three parts represent the narrator’s movement from, using Kenneth Burke’s terms, purpose to passion to perception. These three major sections are built up of smaller units of three which mark the course of the action and which depend for their development upon what I hoped was a consistent and developing motivation. However, you’ll note that the maximum insight on the hero’s part isn’t reached until the final section. After all, it’s a novel about innocence and human error, a struggle through illusion to reality. Each section begins with a sheet of paper; each piece of paper is exchanged for another and contains a definition of his identity, or the social role he is to play as defined for him by others. But all say essentially the same thing: “Keep this nigger boy running.” Before he could have some voice in his own destiny, he had to discard these old identities and illusions; his enlightenment couldn’t come until then. Once he recognizes the hole of darkness into which these papers put him, he has to burn them. That’s the plan and the intention; whether I achieved this is something else." Ralph Ellison, The Paris Review

Through reading the correspondence between Kenneth Burke and Ralph Ellison, as well as Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright, author of Native Son (1940), Bryan Crable carefully traces the writing process of Invisible Man. While Ellison did feel inspired by Burke’s work, it would be a completely different book if Ellison took Burke’s advice.

Crable describes Ralph Ellison as a devoted Burkean who creatively manifests the ideas of a writer he deeply admires. Sometimes those manifestations take the form of criticism. An example of this is when the narrator of Invisible Man warns his reader to “beware of those who speak of the spiral of history,” a comment Crable reads as throwing shade toward Burke’s curve of history developed in Attitudes Toward History.

Even the character of Mr. Norton, the gentleman who the invisible man drives around at the beginning of the novel, is thought to resemble Kenneth Burke. The complexity of Mr. Norton comes in the form of curiosity. He is simultaneously intrigued and overwhelmed by what he learns about black culture. While driving into the country, the witness a team of oxen hitched to a broken down wagon. Crable reads this passage as a lack of vision, specifically “Burke’s inability to recognize Ellison as different from Wright.”    

While Kenneth Burke thought the success of a book like Invisible Man would be in highlighting the suffering of the protagonist while remaining hopeful of something better, Ralph Ellison hoped to write a character who evolved along with the society he was a part of. This endeavor requires a   

“I should like an esthetic which restores to man his full complexity.”

Ralph Ellison to Kenneth Burke

Part of this complexity is the recognition that a way of seeing is also a way of not seeing. Not seeing is not merely a passive consequence of unconscious prejudice, but a result of trained incapacities. Kenneth Burke describes trained incapacities as those socially accepted norms that limit our vision. 

The words or terms that we use determine our orientation – the way we see the world. These are terministic screens. Throughout the novel, the narrator grows increasingly more aware of the screen he sees the world through and the symbolic structures he accepted without question. In one particularly Burkean flavored passage, he realizes he was trained to see the world this way. 

“He had said it again and something fell away from me, and I seemed to be telling myself in a rush: You were trained to accept the foolishness of such old men as this, even when you thought them clowns and fools; you were trained to pretend that you respected them and acknowledged in them the same quality of authority and power in your world as the white before whom they bowed and scraped and feared and loved and imitated, and you were even trained to accept it when, angered or spiteful, or drunk with power, they came at you with a stick or strap or cane and you made no effort to strike back, but only to escape unmarked.”

Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

Ralph Ellison Invisible Man

What is clear is that Kenneth Burke did not expect Ralph Ellison’s work to be as successful as it was and this surprise took a toll on their relationship. Winning the National Book Award in 1953, Invisible Man beat out John Steinbeck’s East of Eden and Ernest Hemmingway’s The Old Man and the Sea.

It is difficult to know exactly how much Ralph Ellison’s success and celebrity impacted Kenneth Burke, but when Bryan Crable spends time with Burke’s letters, it becomes very apparent that for just over ten years, their friendship experienced a significant strain. 

In a letter to Stanley Edgar Hyman in the 1950s, a mutual friend of Burke’s and Ellison’s, Burke confines his friendship with Ellison to the past. He also mentions being particularly irritated at Ellison’s praise for T.S. Eliot in interviews following the publication and success of Invisible Man

These men eventually find their way back into one another’s good graces. This journey is delivered in great detail in Bryan Crable’s book and worth exploring to learn more about the way friendship is complicated by the grim political backdrop, racial tensions, and literary success.

“The world is just as concrete, ornery, vile and sublimely wonderful as before, only now I better understand my relation to it and it to me."

Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

Ralph Ellison and Kenneth Burke on Race, Writing, and Friendship