Though he was the author of two highly regarded collections of essays, Ralph Ellison's fame rests on his prize-winning novel Invisible Man
. For years, he labored on another novel, but he died in 1994 with it still unpublished. Here, Ellison's literary executor, John F. Callahan, collects 13 stories, many of which are published for the first time. The stories give us an intriguing look at Ralph Ellison's development as a writer (some early ones, for example, clearly show the influence of Hemingway), and his early attempts to articulate his concerns about the nature of blackness and the American identity.
Callahan reveals in the introduction that Ellison toyed with the idea of collecting his short stories in 1994, and he alluded to early unpublished stories that might be included. Before the year ended, he died. Although Ellison's short fiction has never been collected, Callahan recounts that he hesitated to finish the project because there was nothing new. Then, in February 1996, while looking for a piece of Ellison's novel-in-progress amongst his papers, Callahan stumbled upon a file marked "Early Stories," and this collection of 13 stories became viable. From the cache of unpublished material, six stories were selected, two of which, "I Did Not Learn Their Names" and "Boy on a Train," appeared in the New Yorker earlier this year. Some critics will promote the idea that this collection shows an untutored black writer finding his voice and then rising above it to become the artist-writer of Invisible Man. The collection begins with the early story "A Party down at the Square," about a lynching narrated by a Cincinnati white boy visiting his uncle in Alabama, and ends with the poignant "Flying Home," whose narrator, indeed, foreshadows the invisible man. Yet one wonders what more Ellison could have added to any one of these stories. One thing is certain: with this work, it becomes clear how Richard Wright's worldview clung to the frightening nature of the black experience and Ellison's embraced the horrors of the human condition. Bonnie Smothers