Sounds of the Land of Promise: Listening to Ralph Ellison’s Metaphors of Memory in Invisible Man
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This project studies Ralph Ellison’s incorporation of sonic memory, soundscapes (sonic environments), and music into his novel Invisible Man (1952). The central focus of this dissertation is the influence of the sonic on Ellison’s work, beyond his interest in jazz. This project argues that Ellison’s work incorporates his memories of sound and music as well as the sonic imagery and philosophies of the sonic he draws from his literary influences, namely T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, and Fyodor Dostoevsky. I approach Invisible Man as a semi-autobiographical text, which I argue transfigures Ellison’s own sonic experiences into fiction. I draw on Ellison’s essays, interviews, and letters, as well as the two major biographies on Ellison, Lawrence Jackson’s Ralph Ellison: Emergence of Genius (2002) and Arnold Rampersad’s Ralph Ellison: A Biography (2007), in order to contextualize the sonic elements and metaphors of memory that Ellison integrates into the soundscapes of Invisible Man. This project argues that Ellison is an “earwitness” who draws on the sonic in his work in order to emphasize the significance of listening as well as draw attention to overlooked African-American soundscapes. Carolyn Birdsall elaborates on the term “earwitness” as follows: “In 1977, Raymond Murray Schafer defined the earwitness as an author who lived in the historical past, and who can be trusted ‘when writing about sounds directly experienced and intimately known’ (1994 , p. 6). Schafer’s understanding of the earwitness endorses the authority of literary texts for conveying an authentic experience of historical sounds” (169). Essentially, Ellison and his novel’s narrator are concerned with both the intimacy of listening and the critical consideration of the psychological and personal impact of diverse and unique sound memories and soundscapes. I employ a variety of approaches in my study of Ellison’s use of the sonic in his work – including history, autobiography, analysis, and compositional method – in order to contextualize the nuances of sonic experience that inform Ellison’s writing. I begin this project with a study of the historical context that informs Ellison’s work, and then I gradually introduce analytical perspectives of the sonic as the dissertation progresses. I scaffold this project in this way in order to foreground the historical, contextual, and subjective uniqueness of listening before I apply scholarly approaches and analysis of the sonic to Ellison’s work later in the dissertation. Chapters One and Two are history-based, as I provide historical context on Harlem’s soundscapes and Ellison’s education at the Tuskegee Institute. Chapters Three and Four are analytical approaches to Ellison’s use of the sonic which build on the background information I provide in Chapters One and Two. Chapter Five blends sonic analysis, autobiographical and historical context, and compositional method in order to demonstrate the breadth of Ellison’s nuanced integration of the sonic into his writing.
Cite this version of the work
Samuel Rowland (2023). Sounds of the Land of Promise: Listening to Ralph Ellison’s Metaphors of Memory in Invisible Man. UWSpace. http://hdl.handle.net/10012/20034