Because most of Ralph Ellison’s (March 1, 1913 – April 16, 1994) short fiction was written before his career as a novelist began, his short stories are often analyzed biographically, as the training ground for the novelist he was to become. This is not entirely unjustified because a biographical overview of his literary output reveals that he tried out the voices, techniques, and ideas that he was to present so boldly in Invisible Man and almost completely abandoned the form after his success as a novelist, devoting himself to his essays and to his never-to-be-completed second novel.
It is true that in his two most accomplished stories, “The King of the Bingo Game” and “Flying Home,” he develops themes of the chaos of the modern world and the affliction of racial conflict that would later be combined and expanded in his famous novel. On the other hand, his earlier stories show him working out many of the same ideas from different perspectives. Although the voice that informs his most accomplished work is a mature voice that is uniquely Ellison’s own, the voices in his other stories show more clearly the influences of Ernest Hemingway, Richard Wright, and James Joyce.
In relating his short fiction to his overall work, Edith Schor in Visible Ellison: A Study of Ralph Ellison’s Fiction (1993) aptly observed that Ellison’s short stories provided experimental laboratories for testing the translation of the forms and experiences of African American life into literature. In evaluating the stories themselves, however, Robert Bone best summarized their lasting value when he observed in “Ralph Ellison and the Uses of Imagination” (1966) that Ellison’s short stories are about “adventurers” testing “the fixed boundaries of southern life.”
Flying Home, and Other Stories
Flying Home, and Other Stories is a posthumous collection of stories edited by Ralph Ellison’s literary executor, John F. Callahan, which brings together in one volume all of the principal short fiction Ellison wrote (excepting pieces that were published as excerpts of his novels). Callahan arranged the stories according to the age of the main characters, thereby highlighting the stories’ thematic unity regarding the growth of young persons’ ideologies, which might not otherwise be evident.
The collection opens with “A Party Down by the Square,” a story told in an intentionally flat style by a young man from Cincinnati who visits his uncle in Alabama and witnesses a lynching on a stormy night. Confused by the cyclone that moves through the town, an airplane pilot mistakes the fire of the lynching for an airport flare and flies too low through the town, knocking loose a wire and electrocuting a white woman. Undaunted, the crowd continues with the lynching and the anonymous narrator watches a nameless black man being burned, marveling at the victim’s resiliency but showing no moral awareness of the horror of the act.
Four of the stories in the collection focus on two young friends, Buster and Riley, as they explore their world and their friendship. The first story, “Mister Toussan,” finds them making up imaginary exploits for Haitian liberator Toussaint L’Ouverture, a name they have heard but with which they have only vague associations and upon which they hang various fantasies. Similarly, “Afternoon” and “That I Had Wings” find the boys involved in imaginative games to stave off boredom. “A Coupla Scalped Indians” focuses on Riley, who has just been “scalped” (circumcised) at the age of eleven, having a sexually charged encounter with old Aunt Mack, an eccentric healer Riley sees naked in her shack as he is making his way home from a carnival. “All was real,” Riley tells the reader after leaving her shack, in wonderment about his discovery of the encroaching adult reality.
“Hymie’s Bull” and “I Did Not Learn Their Names” are stories about riding freight trains, and together with “The Black Ball” and “A Hard Time Keeping Up,” they are about young men finding their way in a world that can be violent and harsh but that can also contain friendship and tenderness in unexpected places. The importance of learning to discern the tenderness amid the harshness of the world becomes the central theme of two of the most important stories in the collection, “In a Strange Land” and “Flying Home.” “King of the Bingo Game,” by contrast, is a story about a young man trying to make his way in a world that offers little in the way of tenderness and much in the way of danger. Though “Flying Home” and “King of the Bingo Game” are the most significant stories in this collection, the collection offers a startling group of works, each of which is a semiprecious jewel and which, when taken together, mark the growth of the author’s artistry.
King of the Bingo Game
One of Ellison’s most durable statements about the harsh chaos of the modern world can be found in “King of the Bingo Game.” The main character is an unnamed black North Carolina man living in Harlem, who has wandered into a cinema in the hope of winning the door prize that might pay for a doctor for his wife. By playing his own and several discarded Bingo cards simultaneously, he manages to win the bingo portion of the game, which gives him the opportunity to spin the bingo wheel. While on stage, he spins the bingo wheel by pressing a button but is then unable to take the chance of letting the button go. Only double zero will win the jackpot of $36.90, and he realizes that so long as he keeps the wheel spinning, he has not lost, so he refuses to let the wheel stop. The wheel takes on the symbolic importance of a mandala, a wheel of life, something the main character realizes when he exclaims, “This is God!” Because he has taken much too long to let go of the button, security guards try to take it from him and knock him out in an altercation. The wheel stops at double zero, but as he fades into unconsciousness, he realizes that he will not get the prize he sought. Though this story is among Ellison’s harsher fictions, it is also one of his most poetic presentations of the unfeeling chaos of the modern world.
In a Strange Country
Though not as artistically satisfying as the longer “Flying Home,” “In a Strange Country” tells a similar tale of self-discovery through the acceptance of a previously despised group identity. Parker is an intelligent black merchant seaman who lands in Wales during World War II only to be promptly attacked by a group of American soldiers simply for being a black man. A group of Welshmen, led by Mr. Catti, rescues him but not before his eye is injured and begins to swell. Over several drafts of ale, Catti learns that Parker is a music enthusiast and takes him to a singing club. There, Parker is swept up in the emotions of the songs about Welsh national pride but reminds himself that he is from Harlem, not Wales. He feels at first alienated and then deeply connected to the men around him, who, he believes, see his humanity much more clearly than do his fellow Americans who are white. As the evening is ending, the band begins to play “The Star-Spangled Banner” in his honor, and he finds himself singing along with deep feeling.
On one hand, the “strange country” of the title isWales, but on a deeper level, it is the part of himself that is opened up by the bonding of common humanity he shares with these Welshmen and which, for the first time in his life, disallows any easy cynicism.
Ralph Ellison’s longest short story, “Flying Home,” is also his most richly satisfying accomplishment in the form. At the center of the story is Todd, a young black man whose lifelong dream of becoming a pilot crashes along with his plane when he flies into a buzzard on a training flight. Jefferson, an old black man who comes to Todd’s rescue after the crash, tells him the buzzards are called “jim crows” locally, setting up an important level of symbolism about what has really caused Todd’s crash. In fact, Todd has been training with the Tuskegee Airmen, a group of black World War II pilots who trained at the famed Tuskegee Institute but were only reluctantly deployed for combat missions. For Todd, this crash landing on a routine flight almost certainly means he will never get another chance to fly and, in his mind, will become the common black man he considers Jefferson to be, the worst fate he can imagine for himself.
Despite the younger man’s hostility, Jefferson distracts the injured Todd by telling him a story about dying, going to heaven, and flying around so fast as to cause “a storm and a couple of lynchings down here in Macon County.” In his storywithin- a-story, Jefferson is stripped of his wings for flying too fast and is sent down to earth with a parachute and a map of Alabama. Todd, seeing only that this story has been twisted to mirror his own situation, snaps, “Why are you making fun of me?”— which, in fact, the old man is not doing. A feverish dream into which Todd drifts reveals not only the depth of his lifelong desire to fly but also the power of his grandmother’s admonition:
Young man, young man
Yo arm’s too short
To box with God.
To Todd, becoming a pilot means taking a position higher than the majority white culture wants to allow black men of his time to occupy; it is the equivalent of boxing with God in his mind. To have failed as a pilot means not only to have made a mistake but also to have let his entire race down, something he cannot allow to happen.
So when Dabney Graves, the racist landowner on whose property Todd has crashed, arrives at the site, Todd snaps at the man and places his own life in danger. Jefferson, though, saves him by intervening and telling Graves that the Army told Todd never to abandon his ship. Graves’s temper is assuaged, and Jefferson and a young boy are allowed to take Todd to safety in a stretcher. The final image is of Todd watching a buzzard flying against the sun, glowing like a bird of flaming gold. This image suggests that though Todd will never fly again, his spirit will rise up like a phoenix from the ashes of his defeat, a victory made possible by the current of goodwill he can now allow himself to feel for Jefferson. Todd will begin to learn to love himself for who he is by loving others for who they are.
Short fiction: Flying Home, and Other Stories, 1996.
Novels: Invisible Man, 1952; Juneteenth, 1999 (John F. Callahan, editor).
Nonfiction: Shadow and Act, 1964; The Writer’s Experience, 1964 (with Karl Shapiro); Going to the Territory, 1986; Conversations with Ralph Ellison, 1995 (Maryemma Graham and Amritjit Singh, editors); The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison, 1995 (John F. Callahan, editor); Trading Twelves: The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray, 2000; Living with Music: Ralph Ellison’s Jazz Writings, 2001 (Robert
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