A Party Down At The Square Essay

The conflict in "A Party Down at the Square" is internal. The protagonist, a white man visiting from Cincinnati, goes along with his Uncle Ed to "a party down at the square." Little does he know that he's about to witness his first (and last, according to him) lynching. Even though he uses the n-word freely enough, burning a man to death is new to him. He watches with fascination but he doesn't seem to understand why it's happening. He doesn't know what the victim has been accused of, even, and he is ultimately unable to handle the horror that unfolds as the man almost burns to ashes. He tries to leave but is hemmed in by the crowd, and when he finally breaks free, he throws up. He observes in the last paragraph that  "Uncle Ed said they always have to kill niggers in pairs to keep the other niggers in place," but the narrator admits he doesn't think it's working, since they all come back and "look mean as hell when you pass them down at the store."

The moment of crisis occurs when a plane, its pilot confused by the brightness of the fire, starts circling overhead. The narrator realizes that the plane is about to crash, causing the assembled lynch mob to scatter. There is a period in which we think the lynch victim may get away while the mob is distracted or the narrator might (?) free him, but the victim is tied securely and beginning to roast over the growing fire. The mob then returns to their victim and throw gasoline on the fire, continuing the torture. 

A peripety is a turning point in which the protagonist--in this case, the narrator--changes in some way we don't expect. In this story, we get a hint of this at the end, after the narrator seems to be having a revelation regarding the horror and unfairness of lynchings. In the same paragraph, as though these details were just as important and thought-provoking as the lynching he witnessed, he relates how a sharecropper spit tobacco on Brinkley's floor because the store keeper wouldn't give him credit. The incident is not as important, but we realize at this point that, despite the narrator's initial horror and revulsion, the lynching he witnessed is just another cool story, and he ultimately doesn't really care.  

January 19, 1997
A Public Burning

Short stories by Ralph Ellison, some never before published, that augur a masterpiece to come

and other stories
By Ralph Ellison.
Edited by John F. Callahan.
177 pp. New York:
Random House. $23.

he one-novel career, while hardly unique to the United States (Europe offers Canetti, Rilke and Lampedusa, among others), has produced a peculiar frisson of suspense in this country in the postwar era. I'm thinking not of writers who died young, like James Agee, or who consummated extended literary callings with one big fictional work, like Katherine Anne Porter, but of those who made an indelible assault on the consciousness of several generations with a prodigiously incisive novel and left us loitering, season after season, in the vain hope of a second strike.

Three cases stand out. Henry Roth published ''Call It Sleep'' in the 1930's, but his novel belongs as much to the 60's, when it was read and celebrated. Breaking what may be the longest silence in publishing history, he persevered to write a memory novel so long we are three volumes away from the finish (the six volumes are being published individually under the collective title ''Mercy of a Rude Stream'') and lingering in a zone of cautious disappointment. J. D. Salinger would undoubtedly top best-seller lists with ''The Pitcher in the Chaff,'' but I suspect we have given up waiting or stopped caring. Ralph Ellison's death in 1994, however, was a blow -- prayers unanswered once and for all.

A deconstruction of race and identity fixed on the most reverberant metaphor since Melville's whale, ''Invisible Man'' succeeded so well in addressing what Ellison called ''human universals'' that we recall with a sad jolt the admiring condescension with which it was greeted in 1952. At a time when not a few white intellectuals presumed that Negro novels were -- or ought to be -- proletarian protest fiction (and that Negro novelists were -- or ought to be -- limited in their reach by a kind of intellectual ebonics), countless readers were encouraged to approach ''Invisible Man'' as a sociological inquiry into the Negro condition: Me Tarzan, you invisible. Not the least indication of Ellison's transfigurative powers is the chagrin engendered by that memory.

''Invisible Man'' is a reverse Bildungsroman, in which a coming of age is refracted through the prism of ripened -- indeed, nearly fatal -- experience. The hibernating protagonist speaks to us ''on the lower frequencies,'' from a coal bin illuminated by 1,369 light bulbs and the grace of Louis Armstrong, all powered by stolen electricity. If Ellison's second novel, worked on for decades, never materialized, the excerpts he infrequently let fly, as well as his essays and interviews (a forum he made artful), affirmed a comic aptitude for lighting up dark places with an ungrudging lyricism that simply could not be subverted.

John F. Callahan, who assembled a volume of Ellison's nonfiction for the Modern Library in 1995, has been entrusted with collating the books Ellison shyly or modestly or stubbornly held back. The unfinished novel is said to be an immense manuscript, so perhaps an American answer to ''The Man Without Qualities'' is still in the offing, though which of us isn't prepared to settle for less -- say, an Ellisonian clue to life after hibernation? Ellison's early reviews, written for The New Masses, have never been collected; likewise, stories reworked or cut from his published and unpublished novels. We are promised a more prolific posthumous career for Ellison than most of us had expected.

''Flying Home and Other Stories'' is a slim but shining installment, collecting 13 short stories written between 1937 and 1954, six previously unpublished. Mr. Callahan, who commands significant editorial clout (he effects ''silent'' emendations, omits a story he admits Ellison would have included, gives titles to two stories Ellison left untitled), has shrewdly organized the material to reflect a sequential growth that with two notable exceptions fuses the central characters as one: the stories spin outward, not only from early youth to early manhood, but from the South to the North and back, from horror to horror averted. They have a befitting unity, on the order of ''In Our Time'' or ''Dubliners,'' that Ellison himself could not have intended.

The least of these stories are distinctive, the best are gripping and two are genuinely terrifying. Still, it is scarcely possible to read them without noting sundry apprenticeship connections to ''Invisible Man'' and to Ellison's most accomplished nonfiction, especially the disarmingly cheerful memoir ''An Extravagance of Laughter.'' Nor is it difficult to see why Ellison dawdled over publishing them: it would have been like Beethoven making his name with his Ninth Symphony and, after 40 years' labor, proffering his First. Some books, however treasurable, are better dispensed by estates. Ellison was a master of recounting old tales from the haven of a hard-won maturity -- these tales are fresh, even raw. Many are candidly autobiographical, and even the most skillful and symbol-laden betray his search for his own voice.

Surprisingly, Ellison, an unequivocal master of the first-person narrative, appears to have been intimidated by that mode in the 1940's. Five of the six unpublished stories are in the first person (most of those persons are unnamed); six of the seven he did publish are in the third person and, excepting the three that appeared in 1944 and that conclude the book, are conspicuously flatter. All are told exclusively from the perspective of a boy or man, almost always linked through geographical and situational connections to Ellison. The exceptions are remarkable tours de force.

''A Party Down at the Square'' vividly depicts a lynching and burning from the perspective of a visiting white boy whose body rejects the horrific episode (''the gutless wonder from Cincinnati,'' his uncle calls him), but whose mind works hard to accept it, finally coming to rest in a kind of hapless admiration: ''God, but that nigger was tough. That Bacote nigger was some nigger!'' Ellison puts in the boy's mouth a few didactic asides in a futile attempt to explain or understand the inexplicable, but this is an important work in its own right because it commands a forbidden ringside view of barbarians at play. The story is also fascinating because it augurs Ellison's masterpiece. The frenzied confusion that ensues when a pilot, disconcerted by the fire, crashes his plane in the square is a foretaste of the masterly episodes of disarrangement in ''Invisible Man,'' from the battle royale to the Harlem riot. No less predictively, the blank-slate narration suggests the Invisible Man's early and equally unformed recollections. Obtuseness is a human condition, not a racial one.

The nattering violence in ''King of the Bingo Game'' occurs almost entirely in the head of the protagonist, a Southern black man in Harlem, whom the Oklahoma-born Ellison takes pains to distinguish from his fellow Southwesterners at the center of the other stories. This one, marked by a brief memory interlude as seamlessly woven as that in a Mizoguchi film, sneaks up on the reader like a cop with a blackjack. Overwrought and hysterical in its narrow focus on a man obsessed with the machinations of a bingo wheel, it closes with the revelation of fate affirmed, even as it borrows Hemingway's device of disguising one fixation with another.

Hemingway's influence is rife in early Ellison, and so, in the fastidious overlay of symbols, is T. S. Eliot's. Echoes of writers Ellison admired occasionally intrude with noticeable clarity: Hemingway (''the swift rush of water in the irrigation canals and the fish panting in the mud where the canals were dry and rotting in the sun where the mud had dried''), Eudora Welty (''the horns were blasting brighter now . . . like somebody flipping bright handfuls of new small change against the sky'') and William Faulkner (''his whole life was determined by the bingo wheel; not only that which would happen now that he was at last before it, but all that had gone before, since his birth and his mother's birth and the birth of his father''). At times Ellison will test a technique like a pilot taking out a new plane -- trying out a Faulkner-type flashback (and Hemingway-type dialogue) in ''A Hard Time Keeping Up'' or a ''Snows of Kilimanjaro'' flashback in ''Flying Home.'' At other times you can track the transition from influence to assimilation, for example in a comparison of the Faulknerian repetition of ''vomit'' in ''King of the Bingo Game'' and the Ellisonian repetition of ''humiliation'' in ''Flying Home.''

Ellison's voice ultimately prevails, from the personal metaphor (''they seem to feel just the place to kick you to make your backbone feel like it's going to fold up like the old cellophane drinking cups we used when we were kids'') to the ebullient non sequitur (''When we jam, sir, we're Jamocrats!'') to the more specific indicators of what was to come: minute descriptions rendered with cool detachment, gently pointed satire, expressionistic waking scenes, a naked woman dancing, the surreality of a boy attempting to snatch a plane from the sky, a humanizing grandfather, the kind of emotional violence that substitutes a chimera for reality and, perhaps most distinctive of all, the combination of terror and revelation that resolves itself in uncontrollable laughter.

The memoir-essay ''An Extravagance of Laughter'' winds up with the long-delayed punch line of Ellison erupting in ill-suited and unruly laughter during a performance of ''Tobacco Road,'' an outburst he associates with ''my emotional and intellectual development.'' The first incident recounted by the Invisible Man shows how violence was deflected when his own outrage turned to laughter. In Ellison, laughter is rarely unforced or natural, and nowhere is its violent yet emancipating power more hard-earned than in the story ''Flying Home'' (''Blasts of hot, hysterical laughter tore from his chest, causing his eyes to pop''). A Tuskegee airman is brought to earth by a buzzard in hellish Alabama and is caught between the possibility of casual redneck murder in the person of a plantation owner, who assumes murder is his birthright, and the shame of abiding black acquiescence, in the person of a grandfather who is sharper than the airman initially wants to admit. It is a frightening story, edgily confined to the wounded pilot's vision, and Ellison's conclusion is surprising, unsentimental and moving.

Less successful are the Buster and Riley stories, a sequence of four pastoral dialogues that take place over a period of about two years; they are filled with word games and play acting, but are undermined in their banter by touches of vaudeville and authorial intrusions, hinting none too subtly at what we ought to make of what we are invited to overhear. Yet they capture the value of imagination in quelling the insecurities of childhood. One of them, ''That I Had the Wings,'' tells of an incident Ellison related from his own past, about the time he tied parachutes to chickens. In an interview with John Hersey in 1974, he was quick to point out that none of the chickens died; in the story, one bites the dust. In ''A Coupla Scalped Indians,'' a sexual initiation story published four years after ''Invisible Man,'' Riley is transformed into the unnamed first-person narrator, in the manner of the novel.

Two slight but sharply told anecdotes about riding the rails address the narrators' suspicion regarding kindnesses proffered by whites, a theme given full-dress treatment in ''In a Strange Country,'' the account of a serviceman in Wales, brutalized by racists in his own division but brought to communal harmony by the patriotic singing of his Welsh hosts. Music is too much the essence of life in Ellison (''a gut language'') to serve a merely symbolic end, but rarely is he as ingenuous as here, bringing the dislocated American back from a reverie of forgetfulness (''I can remember no song of ours that's of love of the soil or of country'') to a restored sense of identity when the Welsh band honors him by striking up ''The Star-Spangled Banner.'' It is invariably Ellison's stubborn Americanism that his critics find so galling -- they miss even the piercing anger that gives it meaning.

A note of caution: In a long introduction, which would have served the book better as an afterword, Mr. Callahan writes, ''Ellison's readers must earn the right to be interpreters.'' You may not have that opportunity if you read Mr. Callahan's detailed summaries and exegetical comments before encountering the stories. Save the intro for last.

Gary Giddins, a staff writer at The Village Voice, is the author of ''Faces in the Crowd: Musicians, Writers, Actors and Filmmakers.'' He is working on a biography of Bing Crosby.

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