Invisible Men and Women: A Critique of the Critiques of Particularity in African American Literature
Donald Mayfield Brown
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Ralph Ellison's ascension into the American literary canon is a product of the rise of formalist aesthetics during Cold War consensus. Ellison, once a young man committed to Marxist ideology and friends with the Communist Party USA, muted his political beliefs and began to espouse American exceptionalism during the height of the Cold War. I examine Ellison's revisions of Invisible Man that were designed to make him more artistically respected. I argue that Ellison's process of revision provides us with a striking account of American and African-American canon formation post-World War II that sought to define universality as that which transcended historical and political particularity. However, the only universal in literature is radical contingency based upon one's race, gender, and political and historical moment. In this thesis, I show that arguments for "transcendent universality" in American literature have wrongly positioned African Americans on the margin of the American literary canon.