Race And Identity In Ellison And Poe


Both Ralph Ellison and Edgar Allen Poe are key writers in the American tradition and both can be seen to concern themselves with the intersection of race and identity. In particular, it is possible to put them into dialogue with each other in order to investigate ways in which their work actively reflects a wider politics and race and recognition. This paper will investigate the shot stories The Cask of Amontillado and Battle Royal in order to demonstrate how both authors make demonstrate this. In particular it will show that Ellison deliberately enacts a structure of racial identity that can be seen to be actively at work in Poe. Both these writers can therefore be used in order to understand the ontological nature of contemporary race relations in America. In order to do this, the paper will pay attention to both literary sources and also to contemporary understandings of racial identity.

The Cask of Amontillado follows two character who travel to an underground tomb in order to find cask. The story is perhaps intended to set in Italy, although the exact situation is never made completely explicit. According to the narrator of the story then the purpose of their trip is vengeance and is to allow him to exact revenge on his neighbour, known as Fortunato, who has previously done him wrong. The two go down into the tomb and Fortunato is given something to drink that makes him weak, allowing the narrator to then fasten him to a wall. The story ends as he seals him inside the cavern and leaves him for dead, making sure that no one will ever be able to fully find him. Throughout Poe's tale, there are many mentions of bones that are described as littering the floors of the cavern in which the two companions find themselves, but which are note described as having any particular fixed or specific origin.

The story follows two white men, one of whom seeks to avenge a sense of wronged honour, something specific to a certain kind of wealthy gentleman at the turn of the 19th century. One thing that these men confront in their travels is the fact of the deaths of countless, and ultimately faceless people around them who cannot hope to be fully understood. I would argue that this layout in the story and the way that it actively juxtaposes the concerns of particular citizens with the fact of unreconcilable death can be taken to be a metaphor for the development of a certain kind of society.

Frank B. Wilderson has written that the African American individual is one who can ever be fully assimilated into liberal society as this society, through the history of slavery that gave birth to it, is one that is predicated on their death. In this process they are made commodities and fungible, the opposite of the democratic citizen.

With regard to the same process, it is clear that such society cannot actively recognise the fact that it is based on death and exclusion. As such, continuing social life means not recognising 'that civil society is held together by a structural prohibition against recognizing and incorporating a being that is dead, despite the fact that this being is sentient and so appears to be very much alive'. The bones present in The Cask of Amontillado can be seen therefore to provide a metaphor for all that lies behind the supposedly free and equal actively of men as democratic citizens. In this way they can serve as an active metaphor of the conditions for the kind of social experience that story describes.

This can be made clearer if one considers Edgar Allen Poe's relationship to the development of capitalism in general. According to Gruener then it is possible to Poe as a writer who should be positioned at the heart of burgeoning capitalist and social concerns and developments. He writes that Poe effectively combined elements of his world and made sure that he positioned himself firmly 'in the age of high capitalism' and that he 'coagulates the histories of plantation America alongside the opportunities and booming economy of the East Coast cities' (1904, 23). To understand how such social ontology found full expression in the 20th century, it is possible to consider the work of an other writer who actively considered the intersections between race, work and identity as they exist in the modern world.

Ralph Ellison is known as a modernist writer who is able to combine traditions and to ensure that different elements are mixed in his work. It is from these different elements that he is able to construct his various understandings of identity and art in the modern world. For example, Harold Bloom writes that Ellison is primarily concerned with reconciling African American traditions in particular folk-music, with the aesthetic concerns of modernism and also with the potential that this may hold for an African American art. While he is often considered to primarily an African American artist, Ellison can be seen as almost unique in that canon as he refused to accept to dismiss either the canon of white or of non-white literature and instead attempted throughout his writing life to position himself between both of them.

According to Bloom, therefore, Ellison is a writer who positions himself both inside and outside of the tradition at all times and who seeks to tamper with the western canon while at the same being necessarily excluded from it. In this way, he can be seen provide and aesthetic mimesis of the structure of race relations as they are conducted throughout American society. Indeed, it is precisely these relations that can be seen to generate the competing traditions that Ellison attempts to reconcile throughout his work. The story Battle Royal is narrated by a successful African American high school graduate who appears to have accepted to current state of society and therefore to be able to progress along the traditional American road towards the pursuit of individual happiness. Although at the start of the story he appears content, it is also made clear that the narrator is completely that if he is ever able to achieve such happiness then this will come about as the result of the actions of white society, or at least because his happiness is allowed and approved by such society. Ellison expresses this with the words; 'When I was praised for my conduct I felt a guilt that in some way I was doing something that was really against the wishes of the white folks...It made me afraid that some day they would look upon me as a traitor and I would be lost'. The desires of white people are inaccessible, however they will continue to dominate the life of the speaker and to demarcate all that he may be allowed to achieve. He is put in the position of being both beholden to them and having them made completely mysterious to him at the same time.

According to Wilderson's writing as discussed in relation to Poe, the non-white individual can never be fully integrated into a society that is predicated on their oppression. In this sense, the African American subject is defined according to their incapacity to be fully assimilated into the social world. This is precisely the situation that Ellison's narrator finds himself in as the story progresses and his is forced to perform for an audience who no longer see him as anything other than a racial object, rather than as an academic or any form of actually recognised citizen. At several points in the story, the intelligence of the narrator is actively juxtaposed to the violence that he is forced to undergo. Indeed, the story can therefore be seen to aggressively and violent dramatise the situation of simultaneous inclusion and exclusion demanded of the narrator. The point at which this is made most painfully clear occurs when the narrator speaks to his audience despite the fact that his mouth is almost completely overflowing with blood.

In this sense it is clear that the narrator is forced to perform as if he were a singular and free democratic citizen, but at the same time he is forced to remain excluded from any active participation in the social world. He remains simultaneously unique, and as fungible as the bones that scatter Poe's crypt. In this sense both of the stories can be seen to actively manifest the violence and contradiction that can be seen to lie at the heart of American society, although one of them doe this unintentionally and the other is perfectly self-conscious in its narrative. Ultimately, however, both stories should be seen as playing their part in the expression of a continuing social contradiction at the heart of life in America and in other capitalist countries.

In conclusion, this paper has compared Poe and Eillison's understand of race and the way that it is manifested within their work. It has argued that the portrayal of race in both cases can be seen to hinge around the simultaneous inclusion and exclusion that has been argued to be able to define race relations and African American subjectivity in contemporary America. While Poe manifests this idea unintentionally by refusing to grant his non-white full autonomy or agency, Ellison actively demonstrates the impossibility of finding a fully recognised subjectivity within contemporary America. Both should be seen as expressing a similar reality, although with grossly different methods and over-arching concerns.

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