Striking Through the Mask: Part Six (Going to the Territory)

by Ezekiel Fry

Ralph Ellison’s work as an essayist truly rivals his work as a novelist. Actually, on second thought, this sort of comparison seems arbitrary and unnecessary. Ellison is an elegant novelist and essayist, and both forms come together to produce a total body of work that is quite astounding. In addition to these fairly subjective declarations concerning Ellison’s work, there is a theme—a common thread—which definitely runs through the best, if not all, of Ellison’s work. This is the theme of “the sacred principle.” This theme, first touched upon in this series of essays in the section on Invisible Man, comes to a head in essays from his final collection Going to the Territory such as “Society, Morality, and the Novel” and “The Novel as a Function of American Democracy,” but it is within “The Little Man at Chehaw Station” that the ideas first divulged by the narrator of Invisible Man truly come to a head.
“The Little Man at Chehaw Station” is a remarkably dense and diverse essay. Within its thirty odd pages many strands of thought which Ellison has endeavored in the past to bring to a conclusion find their resting point. Each of these threads will be examined in due time, but for now we will begin with “the sacred principle.” Ellison writes concerning the little man:

As representative of the American audience writ small, the little man draws upon the uncodified Americanness of his experience—whether of life or of art—as he engages in a silent dialogue with the artist’s exposition of forms, offering or rejecting the work of art on the basis of what he feels to be its affirmation or distortion of American experience. (7)

We see here that the little man stands to judge the work of any given artist, based upon his own subjective view of the “American experience.” Because this lens is so intensely subjective, shifting from viewer to viewer, there must be some place to plant what Ellison calls “Americanness.” While there is no true definition of this essential American mask (or shifting identity), Ellison, shortly after introducing the role of the little man writes of the truthful existence of the little man:

If he were not already manifest in the flesh, he would still exist in function as an idea and ideal because—like such character traits as individualism, restlessness, self-reliance, love of the new, and so on—he is a linguistic product of the American scene and language, and a manifestation of the idealistic action of the American Word as it goads its users toward a perfection of our revolutionary ideals. (7-8)

With this hodge-podge of Americanisms in tow we can better see what the function of the little man is, as he peers out from behind the stove. Everything within our country exists in a sort of flux. There is no single point to plant this idea of “Americanness,” but in our collective tropes, as listed above, we see that, as Ellison illuminates in his final sketch concerning the coal-stoking opera enthusiasts, the most important aspect of the American identity, that constantly evolving, intensely subjective and personal, national model is to expect the unexpected. In this way the only port in the storm is what Ellison calls “the American Word” (and that is in capitals for a reason).
“[T]he American Word” can be viewed, broadly, as our language as it spills forth from its roots in English and becomes permeated, saturated, and sometimes dominated, by the myriad languages that come together within our country. This is certainly the way that Ellison introduces it in the above mentioned passage, but the final piece, concerning the “perfection of our revolutionary ideals” draws the circle closer, moving from the broad strokes of our language as a whole to the meticulous single letters of the words upon which the country was founded—“the sacred principle.” These specific words, functioning, as Ellison states, as an ideal, a source of perfection and equality, dominate “the American Word” in its broader sense. Within the development of our motley language as a whole, this “sacred principle” (or “keyword” if that fits better within this linguistically driven analysis) forms the constant. It is perhaps rarely achieved, some might say it has yet to be achieved, but like the little man, it is always there, even when we think that it is not. Just as we think the conversation has nothing to do with our democratic ideals and “the sacred principal” it steps out from behind “the American Word” and resoundingly forces us to once again—and this is a gaseous solid here—to a new orientation. This process, as eluded to by the unexpected nature of the melting pot, is always on simmer, and new words, like new ideals, always step forth to have their moment in the sun, but the sacred word, the consistent upheaval of the American experience, and the little man, always remain beneath the seemingly brand new surface to bring us back into disorienting focus. The democratic mission remains in the form of “the American Word”—broad or specific. And it is only through the peoples’ exercising of this Word that our lives remain constantly striving towards the unreachable ideal. Life and art, art and life, both these provinces function as the proving ground for each new phase of American discourse.
Ellison writes of the artist’s task in American society:

In the field of literature it presents a problem of rhetoric, a question of how to fashion strategies of communication that will bridge the many divisions of background and taste which any representative American audience embodies. To the extent that American literature is both an art of discovery and an artistic agency for creating a consciousness of cultural identity, it is of such crucial importance as to demand of the artist not only an eclectic resourcefulness of skill, but an act of democratic faith. (9)

The broadness of “the American Word” makes for a difficulty in precise communication, Ellison seems to intimate, but, as put forth above, there is an intrinsic tone beneath the surface, an intangible quality, in both art and interaction that is founded upon the backbone of “the sacred principle” of democracy. Each artist, and each member of the American nation can be considered an artist of identity in this way, must have faith in this democratic underpinning or communication will fail—be it in the traditional rhetoric of the novel, or in the form of some seemingly baser, or loftier, form of communication. We must all take leaps of faith in this way. There is no established order within “the American Word” and it is through this word, and that which lies beneath it, that we craft our current system of existence, both as a people and as individuals. Without the faith to take this most American of leaps into newness, there is nothing but the stagnation of the older worlds waiting for us as a culture. We must remain pluralistic while striving for understanding through the central arch of “the sacred principle.”

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