armstrong or parker? a re-evaluation of jazz in the work of ralph ellison

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University of Cambridge Faculty of English Armstrong or Parker? A Re-evaluation of Jazz in the Work of Ralph Ellison Robert James Carroll Pembroke A dissertation submitted in part-fulfilment of the regulations for the Degree of Master of Philosophy 2005 Abstract................................................................................................................... iv Introduction ............................................................................................................. 1 I ................................................................................................................................ 4 Exit Bolden, enter Armstrong ................................................................................ 4 “Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker.” ....................................................................... 4 Music is the Weapon.............................................................................................. 8 The “music of invisibility”................................................................................... 12 Fingering the “jagged grain” ................................................................................ 15 II ............................................................................................................................. 20 Ellison, Improvisation and the “Culture of Spontaneity” ...................................... 20 “Literary jazz” ..................................................................................................... 23 “[O]ur concept is Gestalt” .................................................................................... 25

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I explore the relationship of jazz to Invisible Man using Ellison’s own references, definitions and attitudes to music within the text and in his essays. After discussing Ellison’s views on different generations of jazz musicians, symbolized by the contrasting figures of Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker, I go on to develop the implications of Ellison’s decision to include Armstrong in Invisible Man. I suggest that by giving Armstrong a central role, Ellison sought to reclaim jazz as an important art form, without recourse to the damaging racial and commercial separatism of bebop.Having established the importance of Armstrong and his generation of musicians, I probe whether jazz was a formative, as well as subjective, influence on Invisible Man. I suggest that what has been called the novel’s “bebop aesthetic” has little grounding in the text and owes as much to cultural developments, such as spontaneity and Gestalt, as it does to this style of music.


  • University of Cambridge

    Faculty of English

    Armstrong or Parker?

    A Re-evaluation of Jazz

    in the Work


    Ralph Ellison

    Robert James Carroll


    A dissertation submitted in part-fulfilment of the regulations for the

    Degree of Master of Philosophy 2005

    Abstract................................................................................................................... iv

    Introduction............................................................................................................. 1

    I ................................................................................................................................ 4

    Exit Bolden, enter Armstrong ................................................................................ 4

    Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker. ....................................................................... 4

    Music is the Weapon.............................................................................................. 8

    The music of invisibility................................................................................... 12

    Fingering the jagged grain................................................................................ 15

    II ............................................................................................................................. 20

    Ellison, Improvisation and the Culture of Spontaneity ...................................... 20

    Literary jazz ..................................................................................................... 23

    [O]ur concept is Gestalt.................................................................................... 25

  • Rinehart Improvising in the bop apocalypse .................................................. 28

    Conclusion.............................................................................................................. 31

    Bibliography .......................................................................................................... 33

  • I declare that this dissertation contains ___________ words including footnotes, but

    excluding bibliography.

    I have written at the foot of each page the total number of words on that page,

    together with a running total of words so far.

    I declare that this dissertation is my own work, and that it has not previously been

    submitted for any degree, either at the University of Cambridge or at any other

    University. Where reference is made to the works of others the extent to which that

    work has been used is indicated and duly acknowledged in the text and bibliography.

    Style sheet used: MLA Handbook


  • ivCarroll


    Jazz permeates the work of Ralph Ellison. His instinctive approach to writing

    is through sound.1 This approach manifests itself in his representations of jazz in his

    essays and in Invisible Man, as well as in the style and structure of the novel.

    Previous approaches to this subject have stumbled over definitions of jazz.

    Examining Ellisons work for a jazz aesthetic is too vague, while applying a more

    specific term, such as a bebop aesthetic, ignores clear signals and references in the

    text. I argue that earlier, pre-bebop performers and styles of jazz have the most

    resonance in Invisible Man. For bebop musicians and their followers, swing, the

    dominant form of jazz in the first half of the twentieth century, carried the stigma of

    white appropriation and seemed to dilute the essential elements of jazz into

    inconsequential pop music. Bebop created a racial and generational schism in the

    jazz world. But I argue that Ellisons novel offers a more subtle reading of performers

    such as Louis Armstrong, which could suggest more fluidity and possibility in his

    music than his bebop critics permit.

    I explore the relationship of jazz to Invisible Man using Ellisons own

    references, definitions and attitudes to music within the text and in his essays. After

    discussing Ellisons views on different generations of jazz musicians, symbolized by

    the contrasting figures of Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker, I go on to develop the

    implications of Ellisons decision to include Armstrong in Invisible Man. I suggest

    that by giving Armstrong a central role, Ellison sought to reclaim jazz as an important

    art form, without recourse to the damaging racial and commercial separatism of


    Having established the importance of Armstrong and his generation of

    musicians, I probe whether jazz was a formative, as well as subjective, influence on

    Invisible Man. I suggest that what has been called the novels bebop aesthetic has

    little grounding in the text and owes as much to cultural developments, such as

    spontaneity and Gestalt, as it does to this style of music.

    Identifying and examining specific jazz references and influences in Invisible

    Man not only reveals Ellisons views on the music, it also has important implications

    for Ellisons attitudes to race and identity in American society. For Ellison, jazz

    demonstrates antagonistic co-operation2 in action. It shows how an individual can

    maintain his or her identity, while still functioning effectively in a group. Jazz also

    represents a positive example of fluid cultural appropriation, which, in Ellisons view,

    is central to the successful development of a unified American society.

    Paying attention to precisely which types of jazz Ellison uses in Invisible Man

    illuminates both the novel and Armstrongs music.

    1 Ellison, Ralph. "A Completion of Personality: A Talk with Ralph Ellison." Hersey, John. Ed. Ralph

    Ellison: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1974. 11. 2 Ellison, Ralph. The World and the Jug. 1964. The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison. New York:

    Modern Library, 1995. 188.

  • v Carroll

  • Introduction

    [A]n ironic, down-home voice [] struck me as being as irreverent as a honky-tonk trumpet

    blasting through a performance [] of Brittens War Requiem.3

    I am an invisible man


    Few writers have incorporated jazz and blues elements into their work more

    successfully than Ralph Ellison. Invisible Man is often referred to as a quintessential

    jazz text5 or the ultimate blues novel

    6. Ellisons collections of essays, Shadow

    and Act and Going to the Territory, form a rich and influential body of commentary,

    which includes portraits of famous blues and jazz musicians, as well as more general

    autobiographical writing about music.

    Yet jazz and blues are notoriously protean art forms. They are difficult to pin

    down musically7. Examining their wider significance is even more complex. As Art

    Lange and Nathaniel Mackey admit in their introduction to Moment's Notice: Jazz in

    Poetry and Prose:

    3 Ellison, Ralph. Introduction to Invisible Man. 1982. The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison. New

    York: Modern Library, 1995. 481-482. 4 Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. 1952. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1974. 7.

    5 Porter, Horace A. Jazz Country: Ralph Ellison in America. Iowa City: Iowa University Press, 2001.

    74. 6 Ellison, Mary. Extensions of the Blues. London: John Calder, 1989. 177.

    7 Even theoretically equipped jazz critics tend to avoid the question, What is jazz? See Brown, Lee

    B. The Theory of Jazz Music It Don't Mean a Thing... The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism.

    (Spring, 1991): 115.

  • 2 Carroll

    Jazz is [] a music which, much more than most, is more than music. It has become a widely

    deployed symbol, a signifier freighted with a panoply of meanings, attitudes, and associations

    which are variously and sometimes conflictingly aesthetic, religious, racial, political,

    epistemic, individual, social, philosophic, visceral, idiosyncratic, collective, utopic, dyspeptic-

    -on and on. It has become, that is, iconic, its own often iconoclastic impulses


    Any attempt to examine the interaction between jazz and literature must try to

    untangle this web of possible meanings.

    Unsurprisingly, many critics have examined Ellisons writing and its

    relationship with jazz and blues. The success of Houston Bakers chapter on blues in

    Invisible Man9 partially accounts for the preponderance of jazz in my study. Many

    critics have examined the presence and influence of jazz in Invisible Man. So why

    give another version of what should be a tired and overworked tune? Well, for one

    reason, it is difficult to discuss Invisible Man without some reference to black

    vernacular forms, such as spirituals, sermons, folk tales, blues and jazz. More

    importantly, critics have tended to adopt quite general approaches to jazz in Invisible

    Man. Like sex, jazz is a very flexible term. Some critics have couched their studies in

    the fuzzy blanket of jazz aesthetics, without convincingly defining the attributes of

    this term10

    . And when critics attempt to be more specific, for example by examining

    Invisible Man through the cultural and aesthetic framework of bebop11

    , they ignore

    clear contradictory signals and references within the text.

    This study will examine the relationship of jazz (and to some extent blues) to

    Invisible Man using Ellisons own references, definitions and attitudes to music.

    Although much has changed since 200112

    , Horace Porters comment that [f]ew

    critics [] have thoroughly discussed [Ellisons] essays13

    still has some validity.

    Porter examines the essays, Invisible Man and Juneteenth, but he fails to make

    explicit connections between the jazz references in these different works. This study

    will look at specific jazz influences in Invisible Man. Previous attempts to align the

    novel with the bebop movement are a misreading. In fact, earlier performers and

    styles of jazz have the most resonance in the novel. By using Ellisons own views to

    illuminate the uses of jazz in Invisible Man, I hope to avoid becoming bogged down

    in definitions, without skipping blithely over the subtleties of Ellisons approach.

    In his seminal essay, Literature and Music, Steven Scher defines three ways

    music can be incorporated into literature:

    8 Lange, Art and Mackey, Nathaniel, eds. Moment's Notice: Jazz in Poetry and Prose. Minneapolis:

    Coffee House Press, 1993. N. pag. 9 Baker, Jr., Houston A. Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature: A Vernacular Theory.

    Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984. 10

    Rice, Alan J. "Finger-Snapping to Train-Dancing and Back Again: The Development of a Jazz Style

    in African-American Prose." Yearbook of English Studies (1994): 105. 11

    Spaulding, Timothy. Embracing Chaos in Narrative Form: The Bebop Aesthetic and Ralph Ellison's

    Invisible Man." Callaloo (2004): 481-501. 12

    For discussion of Ellisons attitudes to jazz in his essays see Powers, Christopher. Why Did Ralph

    Ellison Dislike Bebop? SAMLA Panel, Baltimore, MD, 15-17 November, 2002. Blue Notes: Jazz

    History, Fiction, and Poetics, 2002. 13

    Porter. Jazz Country. 2.

  • 3 Carroll

    1. "Verbal music" "Any literary presentation [...] of existing or

    fictitious musical compositions."

    2. "Borrowing of musical strategies for literary purposes" - Applying

    musical techniques, structures and devices in literature.

    3. Word music - An "imitation in words of the acoustic quality of


    Word music refers to a formal resemblance between music and words, which is

    more applicable to poetry. Ellison uses the other two techniques extensively in

    Invisible Man and I have structured my study accordingly.

    Part I looks at Ellisons representations of jazz and jazz musicians. In his

    essays, Ellison writes about Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker and their contrasting

    attitudes to the legacy of minstrelsy. It is easy to set up a straightforward dichotomy

    between these two jazz musicians. However, Ellisons depictions of Armstrong in

    Invisible Man demand a re-evaluation of the musician: they challenge the validity of

    accusations about Armstrongs apparent subservience to the white establishment and

    reinvigorate the relevance and vitality of his music, which bebop was beginning to


    Part II assesses the validity of arguments that Invisible Man has stylistic and

    structural affinities with jazz, in particular bebop. It places Ellison in the context of

    the culture of spontaneity15

    , which took cues in part from bebop, and examines

    whether different styles of jazz influence the style and structure of his prose. It

    considers the influential role of music in two key episodes in Invisible Man. Although

    Ellison does not equate improvisation with spontaneity (as for example Jack Kerouac

    does), he does utilize a combination of sound, music and principles of Gestalt

    psychology to effect a radical change in the perceptions and reactions of the narrator

    of Invisible Man. Finally, this study examines the role of Rinehart, who despite

    superficial affinities with bebop musicians, has more in common with Louis

    Armstrong, particularly in his adaptability and use of masks.


    Scher, Steven Paul. "Literature and Music." Interrelations of Literature. Eds. Jean- Pierre Barricelli

    and Joseph Gibaldi. New York: Modern Languages Association of America, 1982. 234. 15

    Belgrad, Daniel. The Culture of Spontaneity: Improvisation and the Arts in Postwar America.

    Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.

  • 4 Carroll


    Exit Bolden, enter Armstrong

    In June 1951, while preparing Invisible Man for publication, Ralph Ellison

    changed the jazz musician featured in the novels Prologue and Epilogue from Buddy

    Bolden to Louis Armstrong.16

    It is a surprising and important change. By replacing

    the mythic, but little-known, Bolden with Armstrong, a famous ambassador for jazz

    on the world stage17

    , Ellison was doing more than simply opening up the resonance of

    the references beyond a small group of jazz aficionados. Armstrong was a beacon of

    African American achievement, having sustained a successful career for over thirty

    years. His music and his image were firmly established in the publics consciousness.

    Yet Armstrong was still a controversial choice. Bebop emerged in the mid-forties. Its

    two principal exponents, the saxophonist Charlie Parker and the trumpeter Dizzy

    Gillespie, were critical of Armstrongs image and often explicitly defined themselves

    in contrast to the older musician. As Gillespie comments in his biography: I

    criticized Louis for [] his plantation image [] Handkerchief over his head,

    grinning in the face of white racism [] I didnt want the white man to expect me to

    allow the same things Louis Armstrong did.18

    Placed in this context, Ellisons choice

    of Armstrong potentially responds to contemporary criticisms of the musician. To

    investigate this dialogue, I will first examine images of Armstrong, Parker and other

    jazz musicians in fiction and poetry of the period. Then I will look at Ellisons essays

    for reasons why he chose Armstrong. Finally, I will develop the implications of this

    choice in the context of Invisible Man.

    Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker.19

    Louis Armstrong is conspicuous by his absence from fictional and poetic

    works in the fifties and sixties. Admittedly, part of this dearth can be explained simply

    by chronology: the persistent presence of a jazz musician whose major innovations

    took place in the twenties would be to some extent surprising and anachronistic. Yet

    he does appear occasionally. In his 1957 short story Sonnys Blues, James Baldwin

    directly exploits the gulf between Armstrong and Charlie Parker to illustrate wider

    tensions beyond the jazz milieu. The story explores the relationship between two

    brothers. The younger brother, Sonny, as a recovering heroin addict and aspiring jazz

    musician, has much in common with Parker. His older brother, the narrator, is a war

    veteran and algebra teacher, who lives within the constraints of mainstream society.

    At a key point in the story, when Sonny announces his intentions to become a


    Jackson, Lawrence. Ralph Ellison: Emergence of Genius. New York: John Wiley and Sons. 2002.

    426. 17

    Von Eschen, Penny. Satchmo Blows Up the World. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University

    Press, 2004. 18

    Gillespie, Dizzy and Fraser, Al. To Be, or Not to Bop. 1979. London: Quartet, 1982. 295. 19

    Miles Davis summarizing the history of jazz.

  • 5 Carroll

    musician, jazz plays a central role in highlighting the discords in racial attitudes and

    generational outlook: I want to play jazz, he said.

    Well, the word had never before sounded as heavy, as real, as it sounded that

    afternoon in Sonnys mouth. []

    Are you serious?

    Hell, yes, Im serious.

    He looked more helpless than ever, and annoyed, and deeply hurt.

    I suggested, helpfully: You mean - like Louis Armstrong?

    His face closed as though Id struck him. No. Im not talking about none of that old-

    time, down home crap.

    Well, look, Sonny, Im sorry, dont get mad. I dont altogether get it, thats all.

    Name somebody you know, a jazz musician you admire.



    Bird! Charlie Parker! Dont they teach you nothing in the goddamn Army? []

    Ive been out of touch, I said. Youll have to be patient with me. Now. Whos this

    Parker character?

    Hes just one of the greatest jazz musicians alive, said Sonny, sullenly, his hands in

    his pockets, his back to me. Maybe the greatest, he added bitterly, thats probably why you

    never heard of him.20

    The narrator associates jazz musicians with flimsy hedonism, what Daddy called

    good-time people21

    . The sudden impact and weight of the light and fizzy word,

    jazz, reveals the extent of his previous lack of serious or sensuous engagement

    with an important part of his heritage. As the narrator admits, he doesnt altogether

    get it. When he tries to be supportive, by suggesting Armstrong as a role model, he

    compounds the cultural distance between himself and his brother. The violent

    physicality of Sonnys rebuff makes Armstrong, and by implication the narrator, seem

    simultaneously outmoded, diluted and sterile. As Richard N Albert correctly observes,

    there is a strong Uncle Tom implication22

    in the phrase old-time, down home

    crap. The narrator repeatedly fluffs Sonnys cues to initiate him into his (musical)

    world; firstly, with an incredulous response to Bird, and then by not even

    recognizing Charlie Parker by name. Words aggravate their relationship, but music

    ultimately becomes a bridge between them, when the narrator hears Sonny playing in

    a Greenwich Village nightclub at the end of the story. Baldwins use of Armstrong

    and Parker as symbolic shorthand for old-time and progressive attitudes reinforces

    the criticisms voiced by musicians of Parkers generation, but, in the story at least,

    music has a unifying effect.

    While bebop had a strong musical relationship with earlier styles and many of

    its main innovators honed their skills in large swing bands in the thirties, Eric Lott

    stresses the radical ruptures inherent in this style of music: We forget how disruptive


    Baldwin, James. Sonnys Blues. 1957. Hot and Cool: Jazz Short Stories, ed. Marcela Breton. New

    York: Plume, 1990. 109-110. 21

    Baldwin. Sonnys Blues. 110. 22

    Albert, Richard N. The Jazz-Blues Motif in James Baldwins Sonnys Blues. College Literature

    11.2 (1984): 180.

  • 6 Carroll

    bebop actually was.23

    Bebop quickly became a social phenomenon, with fans

    mimicking the garb (beret, horn-rimmed glasses and goatee), addictions (alcohol and

    heroin) and nonchalance of the bebop musicians. Some writers claimed the music as a

    form of proto black nationalism. Amiri Baraka, the poet, critic and arguable founder

    of the Black Aesthetic of the 1960s24

    , epitomizes this attitude: When the moderns, the beboppers, showed up to restore jazz, in some sense, to its original

    separateness, to drag it outside the mainstream of American culture again, most middle-class

    Negroes (as most Americans) were stuck; they had passed, for the most part, completely into

    the Platonic citizenship. The willfully harsh, anti-assimilationist sound of bebop fell on deaf or

    horrified ears, just as it did in white America. 25

    With its fast pace and challenging harmonies, bebops sonic abrasiveness was

    inextricably connected to its surrounding environment. Often it was associated with

    violent social action. So, for example, when Louis Armstrong visited Paris in 1948, he

    needed police protection from bebop devotees and their volatile habits.26

    By the

    mid- to late sixties, this volatile energy infused the tone of depictions of jazz and jazz

    musicians in powerful ways. Particular vitriol was directed against white boys who

    were not deaf to the sound, but could never completely grasp the full range of its

    implications. Barakas 1964 play Dutchman seethes with anger at this apparent

    appropriation: Charlie Parker? Charlie Parker. All the hip white boys scream for Bird. And Bird saying,

    Up your ass, feeble-minded ofay! Up your ass! And they sit there talking about the tortured

    genius of Charlie Parker. Bird wouldve played not a note of music if he just walked up to

    East Sixty-seventh street and killed the first ten white people he saw. Not a note!27

    Anger and violence are not simply the inspiration for Parkers genius. They are

    palpable in the characteristics and tone of the music. Bebop, Baraka suggests, is a

    direct and angry reaction to racial oppression, which must be vented with notes or

    bullets. In the 1974 short story Will the circle be unbroken? by Henry Dumas, the

    saxophone becomes more than a surrogate weapon. The story describes three people

    visiting a session for Brothers and Sisters only 28

    at an underground, inner city

    nightclub. They are portrayed as stereotypical white hipsters: privileged, well

    educated, and with a dilettantish interest in jazz. The doorman stops them and warns

    them of the dangers, but they insist on going in. On stage, a musician called Probe is

    playing an afro-horn 29

    , a rare and ancient instrument. At the end of the

    performance, the three white characters are found slumped against the wall. They are


    Lott, Eric. "Double V, Double Time: Bebop's Politics of Style." Callaloo. (1988): 597. 24

    Harper, Phillip Brian, Nationalism and Social Division in the Black Arts Poetry of the 1960s.

    Identities. Eds. Appiah, Kwame Anthony and Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. Chicago: University of Chicago

    Press, 1995. 223. 25

    Baraka, Amiri (Jones, LeRoi). Blues People. 1963. Edinburgh: Payback Press, 1995. 181-182. 26

    Lott. "Double V 599. 27

    Baraka, Amiri (Jones, LeRoi). Dutchman. 1964. The Norton Anthology of African American

    Literature. New York: WW Norton & Company, 1997. 1897-1898. 28

    Dumas, Henry. Will the Circle Be Unbroken? 1974. Moment's Notice: Jazz in Poetry and Prose,

    ed. Art Lange and Nathaniel Mackey. Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 1993. 179. 29

    Dumas. Will the. 178.

  • 7 Carroll

    dead, their hearts silent in respect for truer vibrations30

    . In the forties, hipsters spoke

    of being slayed by a particularly fine or inventive solo. In a quasi-science fiction

    transformation, Dumas takes this slang term literally and stresses the racial divide in

    the music in the most fundamental way. The ending of this story echoes (with a lethal

    twist) the ending of Frank OHaras 1959 poem, The Day Lady Died, Lady being

    the jazz singer Billie Holiday: and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of

    leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT

    while she whispered a song along the keyboard

    to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing31

    In stark contrast to Dumass separatist sentiments, OHara stresses the universality of

    a musical moment. With the literal breathlessness of the final line, created by the

    insertion of and I, OHara forces the reader to mimic the experience (for him and

    the audience) in the Five Spot, the legendary jazz club in Greenwich Village. He gives

    a glimpse of the potentially unifying impact of jazz. Of course, Holidays carefully

    considered image, which encouraged audiences to thread the lyrical content of her

    songs and the violent and vulnerable grain of her voice back into the biographical

    details of her drug addiction and troubled relationships, was a key to her success.

    Nevertheless the poems final moments briefly illustrate how Holidays voice (and

    jazz music) can transcend the hardships of her life and continue to do so after her


    Many people approached Greenwich Village with optimism in the fifties.

    Hettie Jones recalls: [G]oing to the Five Spot was not like taking the A train to

    Harlem. Downtown was everyone's new place. [. . .] And all of us there black and

    white were strangers at first.32

    Her husband, Amiri Baraka (then LeRoi Jones),

    admits that he "could see the young white boys and girls in their pronouncement of

    disillusion with and 'removal' from society as being related to the black experience.

    That made us colleagues of the spirit" 33

    . Such communality has led critics such as

    W.T. Lhamon to declare: Clearly Beats and blacks were both on the same track in

    the fifties, both reaching to connect with an only apparently lost culture.34


    Parker should have been a prime candidate for transgressing the colour line. White

    hipsters claimed him as the king and founder of the bop generation35

    , praising the

    velocity and brilliance of his playing as well as his prodigious appetites and

    addictions. But the term white Negro, which incidentally had existed for several

    centuries in the West Indies to describe white men who become naturalized among


    Dumas. Will the. 182. 31

    OHara, Frank. The Day Lady Died. Lunch Poems. San Francisco: City Lights, 1964. 26. 32

    Jones, Hettie. How I Became Hettie Jones. New York: Penguin, 1990. 34. 33

    Baraka, Amiri. The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka. New York: Freundlich, 1984. 157. 34

    Lhamon, W.T. Jnr. Deliberate Speed: The Origins of a Cultural Style in the American 1950s.

    Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1990. 70. 35

    Kerouac, Jack. The Subterraneans. 1958. London: Penguin, 2001. 13.

  • 8 Carroll

    their servants and concubines36

    , smacked of appropriation rather than integration

    when Norman Mailer popularized it in his famous 1959 article37


    In his discussion of writing about jazz in the fifties, Jon Panish sets out to

    dispel the myth of racial democracy in Greenwich Village by exposing the racial

    denial inherent in a color-blind society. Adopting a strategically essentialist

    notion of blackness38

    , Panish argues that white and black writers respond to and use

    jazz in fundamentally different ways. He gives convincing close readings of

    depictions of Charlie Parker by Jack Kerouac and John Clellon Holmes. These

    writers, he argues, tended to fetishize the improvisational aspects of jazz at the

    expense of its more communal and participatory qualities. Even in the fifties, Parker

    was a polarized figure, stereotyped by Beat writers as a brilliant but pitiable victim.

    Yet Panish clearly simplifies the range of responses to jazz in the fifties. He ignores

    the dominant role of white jazz critics such Marshall Stearns, Nat Hentoff and Martin

    Williams, who helped to consolidate a deeper and more rounded image of jazz

    musicians (like Parker) as artists. Often these critics distinguished their views in direct

    contrast to the Beats. He also ignores depictions of Bird in writings by Charles

    Mingus or Hampton Hawes, which are problematically similar to those produced by

    Kerouac and Holmes. His racial dichotomy necessarily excludes mixed-race

    musicians such as Charles Mingus and ignores figures such as Bob Kaufman, the

    African American poet who was the inspiration for the term beatnik39


    Panishs most glaring omission is Ralph Ellison. He refers occasionally to

    Ellisons essays, but he conveniently overlooks the depictions of jazz in Invisible

    Man. Perhaps Ellisons representations of jazz would be troubling to any approach

    based on a Manichean fascination with the symbolism of blackness and



    Music is the Weapon

    Ralph Ellison expounds a radically revisionist view of Louis Armstrong. He

    not only challenges attitudes to the musicians role in race relations, but he also

    revives the importance of Armstrongs musical innovations and achievements. In the

    introduction to his first collection of jazz criticism, All What Jazz, Philip Larkin aligns

    the saxophonist Charlie Parker with other modern practitioners in literature and the

    visual arts: Parker was a modern jazz player just as Picasso was a modern painter

    and Pound a modern poet.41

    For the arch-traditionalist Larkin, including Parker in


    Carmichael, A.C. Domestic Manners and Social Condition of the White, Coloured, and Negro

    Population of the West Indies. London: Whittaker, Treacher and Co, 1833. I, 59. 37

    Mailer, Norman. The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster. The Portable Beat

    Reader, ed. Charters, Ann. New York: Penguin, 1992. 582. 38

    Panish, Jon. The Color of Jazz: Race and Representation in Postwar American Culture. Jackson:

    University Press of Mississippi, 1997. xv-xvi. 39

    San Francisco journalist Herb Caen coined the term beatnik to describe Kaufman. 40

    Ellison, Ralph. Change the Joke and Slip the Yoke. 1958. The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison.

    New York: Modern Library, 1995. 102. 41

    Larkin, Philip. All What Jazz: A Record Diary 1961-1971. 1970. London: Faber and Faber, 1985. 11.

  • 9 Carroll

    this alliterative trinity was the ultimate insult, an accusation of derailing natural

    artistic developments with new, radical, and unnatural, forms. Despite the gloominess

    of his judgements, Larkin usefully encapsulates the common perception of bebop as a

    rupture as profound for jazz as Cubism was for painting and Pounds -isms were for

    poetry. Yet in an essay about Charlie Parker, Ralph Ellison explicitly associates Louis

    Armstrong with modernist styles and techniques: [A]t least as early as T.S. Eliots creation of a new aesthetic for poetry through the artful

    juxtapositioning of earlier styles, Louis Armstrong, way down the river in New Orleans, was

    working out a similar technique for jazz.42

    As well as comparing the impact of these highly conscious creators of culture in

    their respective art forms, Ellison claims similarities in their technique. In doing so,

    he challenges the dominant version of jazz history (and the place of Armstrong and

    Parker in it) and advocates a fluid approach to creative endeavours in literature and

    music, which he develops in Invisible Man.

    Although Ellison consistently champions and defends Armstrong, he never

    devotes an essay to him. In a vast body of work that includes essays on important jazz

    figures such as Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Jimmy Rushing and Charlie Christian,

    this omission may seem strange. Arguably it is evidence of Armstrongs centrality: he

    is a figure to be continually referred back to and against whom all other performers

    are measured. In Change the Joke and Slip the Yoke, Ellison examines the complex

    and ambiguous legacy of minstrelsy and the centrality of the mask to American (not

    just African American) history. He sites Armstrong as a classic example of the

    trickster: Armstrongs clownish license and intoxicating powers are almost Elizabethan; he takes

    liberties with kings, queens and presidents; he emphasizes the physicality of his music with

    sweat, spittle and facial contortions; he performs the magical feat of making romantic melody

    issue from a throat of gravel; and some few years ago was recommending to all and sundry his

    personal physic, Pluto Water, as a purging way to health, happiness and international


    With reference to clownish antics, Ellison immediately keys into and subverts one

    of the principal criticisms of Armstrong, not only by subtly suggesting the freedom

    his behaviour permits (license), but also by presenting a more profound

    interpretation of his actions (intoxicating powers). The phrase almost Elizabethan

    highlights Armstrongs immediacy and universality by harking back to a period,

    imagined or otherwise, in which a broad spectrum of audience (from rabble to

    royalty) witnessed a performance in a particular setting and consequently the

    distinctions between High and Low culture were fewer. It also evokes the central

    theme of this passage: Armstrong diverting humour. He is wise enough to play the


    . His corporeal presence paradoxically permits enchanting and mystical


    Ellison, Ralph. On Bird, Bird-Watching and Jazz. 1962. The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison.

    New York: Modern Library, 1995. 259. 43

    Ellison. Change the. 106. 44

    Shakespeare, William. Twelfth Night. 1601. The Riverside Shakespeare. Boston: Houghton Mifflin,

    1997. 458.

  • 10 Carroll

    moments (magical feat). In fact, his sheer physicality is essential to the creation of

    sweet and airy music (melody). Even the heavy bathos of the optimistic suggestion

    of Pluto Water, a laxative Armstrong used to keep his weight down, as a path to

    international peace is lifted by its prophetic reference to Armstrong as a prime

    cultural export and musical ambassador in the tours sponsored by the State

    Department in the sixties and seventies45

    . Ellison casts the trickster as protean46

    and he clearly sees Armstrongs persistent adaptability as incredibly empowering. The

    musicians attitude has enabled him to flourish within existing structures, to fulfil the

    expectations of Americas diverse audiences, and survive within the merciless

    demands of the commercial entertainment industry; an admirable achievement in a

    profession with a notoriously high casualty rate. Furthermore, Ellison claims,

    Armstrongs approach is essentially American: Masking is a play upon possibility

    and ours is a society in which possibilities are many. When American life is most

    American it is apt to be most theatrical.47

    Armstrongs persona is not simply a matter of survival. It also opens up space

    for artistic expression of the highest order to develop. In a letter to Albert Murray,

    Ellison elaborates on the artistically-liberating effects created by the man and mask: Ive discovered Louis singing Mack the Knife. Shakespeare invented Caliban, or changed

    himself into him Who the hell dreamed up Louie? Some of the bop boys consider him

    Caliban but if he is hes a mask for a lyric poet who is much greater than most now writing.48

    By comparing music with literature, Ellison highlights the way jazz dissolves the

    roles of composer and performer into a single contemporaneous entity.

    Simultaneously, and more importantly, he re-establishes a claim for the artistic and

    aesthetic distance Armstrong creates in his performances. Armstrong the virtuoso

    trumpet player and Armstrong the joking and handkerchief-waving performer may

    look the same, but they are not. By referring to Shakespeares ability to invent

    Caliban, one of literatures most famous primitivist creations, Ellison highlights the

    absurdity of any criticism that ignores the gap between the creator and his work. In

    On Bird, Bird-Watching and Jazz, Ellison explicitly defends Armstrong from the

    criticisms of bebop musicians on these artistic grounds: [W]hen they fastened the

    epithet Uncle Tom upon Armstrongs music they confused artistic quality with

    questions of personal conduct, a confusion which would ultimately reduce their own

    music to the mere matter of race.49

    It is easy to overstate Ellisons criticisms of Parker in this essay and cast them

    as a rejection of bebop as a significant musical form. Indeed, he coldly comments on

    Parkers vibratoless tone and sound of amateurish ineffectuality, as though he

    could never quite make it50

    . Elsewhere, he even suggests that the different physical


    See Von Eschen. Satchmo Blows. 46

    Ellison. Change the. 101. 47

    Ellison. Change the. 108. 48

    Ralph Ellison, letter to Albert Murray, Rome, 2 June 1957, in Trading Twelves: The Selected Letters

    of Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray. Ed. Albert Murray and John F. Calhoun. New York: Modern

    Library, 2000. 166. 49

    Ellison. On Bird. 259. 50

    Ellison. On Bird. 264.

  • 11 Carroll


    of bebop musicians may account for the thinness of their sound compared to

    the richer tone of the older (and presumably larger) men. Yet Ellison does recognize

    Parker as one of the founders of postwar jazz. He praises his innovations as an

    improviser and credits him with as marked an influence upon jazz as Louis

    Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins or Johnny Hodges.52

    Ellisons criticisms are based

    largely on Parkers personal conduct, in particular his misguided attempts to cast

    off the inheritance of minstrelsy: No jazzman, not even Miles Davis, struggled

    harder to escape the entertainers role than Charlie Parker.53

    By reacting against

    Armstrongs perceived path of selling out with the surly indignation designed to

    alienate his audience, Parker ironically makes his turbulent personal life an integral

    part of his attraction. Self-consciously stripped of the performers mask, the make-

    believe role of clown54

    which afforded Armstrong such protection and freedom,

    Parker exposes his raw personal chaos to the brutal gaze of a mass audience and

    entertainment industry. He is like a man dismembering himself with a dull razor on a

    spotlighted stage.55

    Parker turns himself into a sacrificial figure conscripted to act

    out a grim comedy of racial manners.56

    This harsh spectacle is the play that Jon

    Panish analyses when he examines representations of Parker in fiction in the fifties.

    By defending Armstrong in his essays and including him in Invisible Man, Ellison

    seeks to rise above mere matters of race57


    Ellison does allude to Parkers constricted role as a white hero, supreme

    hipster and the worlds greatest junky58

    . Putting aside Jack Kerouacs somewhat

    nave and romantic projections about Parker, it is interesting to note the differences in

    Kerouacs writing about more traditional jazz figures. In a 1940 article in the Horace

    Mann Record, he presciently praises Lester Young as likely to popularize the

    neglected tenor sax as a solo instrument.59

    When he writes about Young in Jazz of

    the Beat Generation, Kerouacs comments may still be laden with characteristic

    hyperbole, but he curiously echoes Ellisons image of traditional, pre-bebop jazz, as a

    great, sweeping river: you can hear Lester blow and he is the greatness of America in a single Negro musician he

    is just like the river, the river starts near Butte, Montana, in frozen snow caps (Three Forks)

    and meanders on down across states and entire territorial areas of dun bleak land with

    hawthorn crackling in the sleet, picks up rivers at Bismarck, Omaha, and St. Louis just north,

    another at Kay-ro, another in Arkansas, Tennessee, comes deluging on New Orleans with

    muddy news from the land and a roar of subterranean excitement that is like the entire land

    sucked of its gut in mad midnight, fevered, hot, the big mudhole rank clawpole old frogular


    Ellison, Ralph. The Golden Age, Time Past. 1959. The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison. New

    York: Modern Library, 1995. 247. 52

    Ellison. On Bird. 256. 53

    Ellison. On Bird. 260. 54

    Ellison. On Bird. 261. 55

    Ellison. On Bird. 261. 56

    Ellison. On Bird. 259. 57

    Ellison. On Bird. 259. 58

    Ellison. On Bird. 261. 59

    Gifford, Barry and Lee, Lawrence, ed. Jack's Book: An Oral Biography of Jack Kerouac. 1978.

    Edinburgh: Rebel Inc, 1999. 23.

  • 12 Carroll

    pawed-soul titanic Mississippi from the North, full of wires, cold wood and horn Lester, so,

    holding, his horn high in Doctor Pepper chickenshacks, backstreet.60

    The similarity of the imagery is not coincidental. While clearly not on the same


    in many regards, Ellison and Kerouac recognize the potential and power of

    jazz to express the variousness of the vast continent of America. Like a river, jazz can

    be a paradigm of fluid inclusiveness, which maintains momentum despite individual

    diversions, and whose merging makes any attempts to trace original separateness 62

    as futile as trying to sluice off parts of a river according to its diverse sources. As

    Ellison argues in his review of Barakas Blues People, essentialist critiques of jazz are

    like attempting delicate brain surgery with a switchblade.63

    Yet in his own

    discussions and depictions of jazz, Ellison does not perpetuate muddy

    multiculturalism. Rather he argues against rigid schematics and systems, which

    smother the subtle complexities of jazz and its origins. Although Ellison was himself

    accused of being an Uncle Tom for defending Armstrongs adaptability64

    , he does

    not advocate passive acceptance. As he points out, we wear the mask for purposes of

    aggression as well as for defense.65

    Ellisons views pre-empt later assertions about

    the ambiguous political meanings of early minstrelsy by critics such as Dale


    . In Invisible Man, Ellison tests this sense of flux and investigates the extent

    to which the entertainers mask can provide a positive model for enriching cultural


    The music of invisibility67

    Many critics have acknowledged the important role Louis Armstrong plays in

    the Prologue and Epilogue of Invisible Man, but few have commented upon the mode

    of his presence. Like the Trueblood episode, which Houston Baker analyses as a

    commentary on the relationship between white hegemony and black creativity as a

    negotiable power of exchange, the Prologue and Epilogue explore the relationship

    between black and white audiences and their expectations, in particular how to

    develop black vernacular forms for popular and commercial benefit without selling



    Kerouac, Jack. "Jazz of the Beat Generation." New World Writing. 1955. In The Golden Age, Time

    Past, Ellison talks similarly about the steady flow of memory, desire and defined experience summed

    up by the traditional jazz beat and blues mood seemed swept like a great river from its old, deep bed.

    240. 61

    Lhamon. Deliberate Speed. 70. 62

    Baraka. Blues People. 182. 63

    Ellison, Ralph. Blues People. 1964. The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison. New York: Modern

    Library, 1995. 283. 64

    Yaffe, David. Ellison Unbound. The Nation. 4 March 2002. 65

    Ellison. Change the. 109. 66

    Cockrell, Dale. Demons of Disorder: Early Blackface Minstrels and Their World. Cambridge:

    Cambridge University Press, 1997. 67

    Ellison. IM. 15.

  • 13 Carroll

    Living rent free in the basement of a building rented strictly to whites68


    the border between Harlem and the rest of Manhattan, the narrator reflects upon his

    experiences over the previous twenty years. With electricity siphoned from the mains

    supply of Monopolated Light & Power, he illuminates his room with hundreds of

    light bulbs and powers a radio-phonograph on which he plays jazz records, in

    particular a song by Louis Armstrong called (What Did I Do to Be So) Black and

    Blue? While the cultural context and lyrical content of this song are significant69

    , the

    narrator emphasizes the quality of the voice and music on this particular recording:

    Id like to hear five recordings of Louis Armstrong playing and singing [] all at

    the same time.70

    He craves multiple renditions to bolster the sound and enable him to


    the vibrations of the music with his whole body.72

    In his essays Ellison

    highlights the physicality (the sweat, spittle and facial contortions73

    ) of Armstrongs

    persona, but in Invisible Man he chooses to stage Armstrongs presence via a recorded

    reproduction. This decision is important. In its unification of sound (phono) and

    writing (graph), a vinyl recording brings music closer to the realm of literary text.

    Indeed, the narrator comments that Armstrong made poetry out of being invisible.74

    Clearly, this is a pun on invisible, referring both to Armstrongs racial identity and

    his literal invisibility in the medium of recorded sound. He is a voice without a



    Armstrongs protean powers, which Ellison elaborates upon in his essays, are

    in evidence here in a variety of ways. The narrator admires Armstrongs ability to

    work within existing structures and utilize previously rigid and aggressive tools to

    create wonderful art: Louis bends that military instrument into a beam of lyrical


    Armstrongs malleable attitude echoes the haunting deathbed advice from

    the narrators grandfather to overcome em with yeses77

    and the words of the

    veteran from the Golden Day to [p]lay the game, but dont believe in it. 78

    Yet Ellison develops a complicated relationship between Armstrongs

    invisibility and defiant action, not only in the destructive glut that his masked

    illusion of passivity can create (similar in sentiment to let em swoller you till they

    vomit or bust wide open79

    ), but also in the assertive freedom it brings. So, for

    example, after listening to Armstrongs record, the narrator is startled by the depth of

    the message and the realisation that this familiar music [] demanded action.80


    Ellison. IM. 9. 69

    I will deal with this aspect in detail later. 70

    Ellison. IM. 11. 71

    Ellison. IM. 10. 72

    Ellison. IM. 11. 73

    Ellison. Change the. 106. 74

    Ellison. IM. 11. 75

    Laing, David. A Voice without a Face: Popular Music and the Phonograph in the 1890s. Popular

    Music (1991): 1-9. 76

    Ellison. IM. 11. 77

    Ellison. IM. 17 78

    Ellison. IM. 127. 79

    Ellison. IM. 17. 80

    Ellison. IM. 15.

  • 14 Carroll

    More directly the narrator compares Armstrongs ability to slip into the breaks81


    an underdog defeating a technically superior opponent in a boxing match. The

    yokel steadily absorbs punches and then suddenly lands a knockout blow by

    stepping inside of his opponents sense of time.82

    By highlighting this aggressive

    strain in the music, Ellison seeks to refute the accusations of Armstrong as an Uncle

    Tom. However, Armstrongs real trick is to pretend to be a yokel. In fact, he has

    utilized mass media technology to give his performances wide-ranging significance.

    In Living with Music, Ellison details a significant evolution in his attitude to

    recorded music. Initially he used records as a weapon83

    to combat the disturbing

    singing practice of his neighbour, but gradually this approach developed into an

    arrangement for more harmonious living: After a while a simple twirl of the volume

    control up a few decibels and down again would bring a live-and-let live reduction of

    her volume.84

    Repeatedly in interviews Ellison recalls the pleasure of building radios when

    he was younger, depicting it as a social hobby, which bridged racial differences and

    enabled him to connect with the wider community85

    . In Invisible Man, the narrator

    casts himself in the great American tradition of tinkers86

    , able to create and utilize

    new technologies through inventiveness. He has learnt to channel and control

    electricity, even though it repeatedly caused him pain in the past87

    . Similarly,

    Armstrong gains power from his ability to harness modern technologies of audio

    recording, reproduction and distribution, while maintaining his fidelity to folk and

    blues roots. Jacques Attali asserts that all music, any organization of sounds is [. . .] a

    tool for the creation and consolidation of a community, but he also criticizes the

    mass media for the disturbing, direct access it gives institutions, such as record

    companies, to the home.88

    Armstrong was founder of Hot Five, the first specifically

    recording group in the twenties. Like the narrator and his fight with Monopolated

    Light & Power, Armstrong successfully battles against the white hegemony of

    monopolizing institutions. He conducts this fight in covert and overt89

    ways, but

    he is always protected by his comic mask.

    In his essay The Grain of the Voice90

    , Roland Barthes asserts that when

    listening to a recorded vocal performance, the listener instinctively uses


    Ellison. IM. 11. 82

    Ellison. IM. 11. 83

    Ellison, Ralph. Living with Music. 1995. The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison. New York:

    Modern Library, 1995. 235. 84

    Ellison. Living with. 235. 85

    Ellison recalls how building radios helped him to make friends with a white child. See That Same

    Pain, That Same Pleasure: An Interview. 1961. The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison. New York:

    Modern Library, 1995. 63-4. 86

    Ellison. IM. 10. 87

    For example, the narrator was forced to clamber for money on an electrified rug and he received

    electric shock treatment. 88

    Attali, Jacques. Noise: The Political Economy of Music. Trans. Brian Massumi. Manchester:

    Manchester University Press, 1985. 6. 89

    Ellison. IM. 15. 90

    Barthes, Roland. The Grain of the Voice. Image-Music-Text. Trans. Stephen Heath. New York:

    Hill and Wang, 1977.

  • 15 Carroll

    characteristics of the voice to imagine the body of the performer. Wrenched from a

    performance context, with this unique rupture between sound and vision, Armstrongs

    recordings (and of course many others) create a new electronic world between the

    hi-fi record and the ear91

    . This zone can either perpetuate racial stereotypes, as in the

    case of female blues singers in the twenties, or provide space for new freedom.

    Consequently, the narrator finds affinities with Armstrongs social invisibility as an

    African American, but he also admires Armstrongs ability to represent and express

    invisibility through sound:

    Ive illuminated the blackness of my invisibility and vice versa. And so I play the invisible

    music of my isolation. The last statement doesnt seem just right, does it? But it is; you hear

    this music simply because music is heard and seldom seen, except by musicians. Could this

    compulsion to put invisibility down in black and white be thus an urge to make music of


    Taken literally, the invisible music of isolation refers to the narrator listening to

    Armstrongs records in his basement. The final question seems more ambiguous: the

    narrators black and white could refer to jazz, with its synthesis of black and

    white musical forms, or it could refer to text on the page. But the questions

    ambiguities also provide some sense of resolution: like Armstrong, the narrator needs

    an audience. Armstrongs skill lies in his ability to modify and commodify black folk

    forms for commercial benefit without destroying their essence. Unlike bebop, whose

    development during the years of the musicians recording ban in the forties arguably

    led to a dominance of technique over expression and subsequent estrangement from a

    mass audience, Armstrong has cultivated a form of universality, which the narrator

    seeks to replicate. As Lvi-Strauss writes: [M]usic is a language with some meaning at least for the immense majority of mankind []

    and since it is the only language with the contradictory attributes of being at once intelligible

    and untranslatable, [] music itself [is] the supreme mystery of the science of man, a

    mystery that all the various disciplines come up against and which holds the key to their


    Armstrongs invisible music provides the narrator with just such a key in his

    transformation from ranter to writer94


    Fingering the jagged grain

    As well as staging Armstrongs presence via a phonograph recording in the

    Prologue of Invisible Man, Ellison creates a palimpsest of jazz anecdotes, allusions

    and references, which tease out the complicated origins of jazz, highlight its role in

    cultural exchange and provide parallels for the narrators situation. For example, early


    Ellison. Living with. 231. 92

    Ellison. IM. 15. 93

    Lvi-Strauss, Claude. Overture. The Raw and the Cooked. 1964. Trans. John and Doreen London:

    Jonathon Cape, 1970. 18. 94

    Ellison. Change the. 111.

  • 16 Carroll

    in the Prologue the narrator says, Call me Jack-the-Bear95

    . This seemingly simple

    statement of identity carries multifarious literary and musical connotations, which

    reverberate with the narrators circumstances in different ways. With its echo of the

    opening line of Melvilles Moby Dick yoked to a character from African-American


    , the phrase stakes a claim for black vernacular heritage in the grand

    American literary tradition. Less obviously, in the rhyming slang of jazz argot, jack

    the bear meant nowhere, which in turn meant off the scene or out of it97

    . With

    this unfamiliar cant, the narrator jokily and slyly embodies his state of hibernation98

    in his adopted name. Jack the Bear was also an infamous exponent of stride piano, a

    distinctive artform associated with Harlem99

    in the twenties. Along with James P.

    Johnson and Fats Waller, Jack the Bear developed this unique playing style at rent

    parties and underground clubs. In The Golden Age, Time Past, Ellison refers to

    such jam sessions100

    as a place where the musician learns tradition, group

    techniques and styles101

    and must then find himself, must be reborn, must find, as

    it were, his soul.102

    Like a jazz musician honing his art, the narrator of Invisible Man

    requires time for ideas to ferment and innovations to develop at a distance from

    commercial demands. Yet significantly, the reference takes a final turn. In 1940 Duke

    Ellington released a record called Jack the Bear, which united many aspects of

    diverse swing styles (including the stride piano technique) and popularized them with

    a wider audience. Although he does not elaborate upon this trajectory until the

    Epilogue, the narrator has already mapped out his progress in his first adopted name.

    Unfolding the richness of the references in this single phrase gives a glimpse into the

    intricacies of cultural appropriation from folk inspiration to commercial jazz, which

    mimics the process the narrator must undertaken to complete his own rebirth.

    (What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue provides the soundtrack for the

    narrators ramblings in his isolated basement. Recognizing the songs complicated

    history amplifies its significance in the novel. Written by Andy Razaf and Fats Waller

    for the musical Hot Chocolates in 1929, the song came from a suggestion by Dutch

    Schulz, a notorious Jewish gangster who was backing the production, to write a piece

    for a colored girl to sing about the problems of being colored. Although Andy

    Razaf initially refused, he was persuaded by the gun-toting Schulzs ominous reply:

    Youll write it [] or youll never write anything again.103

    First recorded by


    Ellison. IM. 9. 96

    Jack the Bear is associated with Brer Bear from the Brer Rabbit folktales (Encyclopaedia

    Britannica). 97

    Leonard, Neil. The Jazzman's Verbal Usage. Black American Literature Forum. (Spring -

    Summer, 1986): 152. 98

    Ellison. IM. 9. 99

    Early, Gerald. Three Notes Toward a Cultural Definition of The Harlem Renaissance. Callaloo.

    (Winter, 1991): 138. 100

    In this essay Ellison is referring specifically to Mintons Playhouse, but his comments can be

    interpreted more generally. 101

    Ellison. The Golden. 245. 102

    Ellison. The Golden. 245. 103

    Singer, Barry. Black and Blue: The Life and Lyrics of Andy Razaf. New York: Schirmer Books,

    1992. 216-217.

  • 17 Carroll

    Armstrong in 1929104

    , the song went on to become one of the first overt instances of

    racial protest in American popular music.105

    In its inception under violent

    commercial pressures and its evolution from show tune to political statement, the

    songs history conveys some of the ironies inherent in American cultural production.

    More importantly, it debunks accusations of Armstrongs subservience to humiliating

    racial stereotypes by casting him in a less familiar, but genuinely dissenting, role.

    Clearly, the song and its performance have a range of hidden depths or lower


    , but it takes accidental exposure to Armstrongs drug of choice107


    the narrator to hear them. [U]nder the spell of the reefer108

    which he was

    deceptively given instead of a cigarette, the narrator discovers a new analytical way

    of listening to music109

    , peeling back the layers of the record to hear unheard sounds,

    not only in time, but in space as well.110

    In the depths of the record, he hears a

    succession of black vernacular forms: a spiritual, a sermon and a folk tale. The

    sermons subject, the Blackness of Blackness, echoes the songs lyrical content,

    while the preachers use of call and response reflects an integral aspect of

    Armstrongs famous style of musical phrasing. As if to emphasize the extent of the

    cultural mingling inherent in the song and rise to the challenge Armstrong presents

    through his creation of a new modern jazz language, the narrator pushes the

    boundaries of his own descriptive vocabulary. He hears an old woman singing a

    spiritual as full of Weltschmerz as flamenco111

    . With these international references,

    he points to Armstrongs operatic virtuosity and the driving dance intricacies of his

    music, but more importantly he highlights the diverse sources of the musicians


    At the heart of this underworld of sound112

    is a story by the old singer of


    , which opens up the moral and emotional ambiguities of cultural

    interactions. The woman confesses to loving her master because he fathered her

    sons, but hating him because he refused to fulfil his promise to free them. Eventually,

    she poisons him because her sons planned to kill him. This chaotic jumbling of black

    and white, love and hate, reveals the inherent confusion in tracing the delineation

    between the bridges and boundaries114

    of cultural dynamics and material relations.

    In fact, it reveals how bridges can become boundaries and vice versa. When the

    narrator emerges from this maelstrom and hears Louis Armstrong innocently asking


    Westerberg, Hans. Boy from New Orleans: Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong - On Records, Films, Radio

    and Television. Copenhagen: Jazzmedia, 1981. 37. 105

    Sundquist, Eric, ed. Cultural Contexts for Ralph Ellisons Invisible Man: A Bedford

    Documentary Companion. Boston: Bedford Books, 1995. 115. 106

    Ellison. IM. 469. 107

    Armstrong smoked marijuana almost every day. 108

    Ellison. IM. 11. 109

    Ellison. IM. 11. 110

    Ellison. IM. 11. 111

    Ellison. IM. 11. 112

    Ellison. IM. 14. 113

    Ellison. IM. 13. 114

    Salzman, Jack et al, eds. Bridges and Boundaries: African Americans and American Jews. New

    York: George Braziller, 1992.

  • 18 Carroll

    "What did I do / To be so black / And blue?" it seals the songs status as a coherent

    public expression of a web of chaotic individual stories and stresses the intricate

    threads connecting it to the many layers of vernacular expression. But when the

    narrator echoes Armstrongs question at the end of the Prologue, he carefully omits

    black, leaving one of the most resilient and adaptable cultural forms - the blues -

    to remain. In Richard Wrights Blues, Ellison writes: The blues is an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in

    one's aching consciousness, to finger its jagged grain, and to transcend it, not by the

    consolation of philosophy but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism.115

    As the narrator of Invisible Man admits in response to the old womans sad story: A

    mistake was made somewhere.116

    Yet, Ellison says, conflicts cannot be resolved

    simply by erasure. And at the heart of the ritual of remembering are the blues, an

    attitude, which can express and transcend brutal experience. Ellison makes the

    explicit connection between the blues and the narrators predicament in the

    penultimate paragraph of the novel with a quotation from Buddy Boldens Blues, a

    New Orleans blues song. In Boldens era, the song was known as Funky Butt. As

    Kenneth Warren astutely points out, Funky Butt was the name of the club in New

    Orleans where Armstrong began his education in jazz improvisation. The song

    becomes therefore a metonymic allusion to one of the birthplaces of jazz. 117

    Thinking about the polyphonic resonances of this song, the narrator decides he must

    emerge from his hibernation and confront the full range of his experience, whether it

    is good or bad: [T]here's still a conflict within me: With Louis Armstrong one half of me says, "Open the

    window and let the foul air out," while the other says, "It was good green corn before the

    harvest." Of course Louis was kidding, he wouldn't have thrown old Bad Air out, because it

    would have broken up the music and the dance, when it was the good music that came from

    the bell of old Bad Air's horn that counted.118

    Significantly, the narrator refers to Louis Armstrongs rendition of this song. Unlike

    Black and Blue, which Armstrong recorded in many versions throughout his career,

    Armstrong only recorded this song (as I Thought I Heard Buddy Bolden Say) once

    with his Hot Six in 1946119

    . With this near-contemporary reference, Ellison

    reawakens Armstrongs social and political relevance at a time when it was being

    persistently questioned and undermined. Simultaneously, he highlights the musicians

    robust adaptability. Unlike Bolden, Armstrong fingered the jagged grain and

    survived. And unlike the doomed characters of the previous generation, such as

    Fitzgeralds Jay Gatsby or Wrights Bigger Thomas, the narrator not only survives,

    but in the process of his rebirth intends to forge the uncreated conscience of his race


    Ellison, Ralph. Richard Wrights Blues. 1945. The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison. New York:

    Modern Library, 1995. 129. 116

    Ellison. IM. 13. 117

    Warren, Kenneth W. "Ralph Ellison and the Problem of Cultural Authority." Boundary 2 (Summer

    2003): 171. 118

    Ellison. IM. 468. 119

    Westerberg. Boy from. 82.

  • 19 Carroll

    120. Armstrong, the virtuoso jazz trumpeter and the masked trickster, proved to be the

    most prescient guide.


    Joyce, James. Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. 1916. Harmondsworth: Penguin: 1964. 275-76.

    The narrator refers to this passage and its relevance to his own search for individual identity. IM 286.

  • Carroll 20


    Ellison, Improvisation and the Culture of Spontaneity121

    I would have to improvise upon my materials in the manner of a jazz musician putting a

    musical theme through a wild star-burst of metamorphosis.122

    When Ellison says he would have to improvise upon his materials in the

    manner of a jazz musician, what does this mean in the context of Invisible Man?

    Horace Porter highlights Ellisons emphasis on technical excellence: [N]either Ellisons novel nor his essays appear obviously experimental or improvisational.

    Unlike writers who are relentlessly innovative, such as Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs,

    Ellison attempts to achieve a jazz-inspired rendition of Jamesian virtuosity.123

    However, Timothy Spaulding believes Invisible Man has clear stylistic affinities with

    bebop. He describes the narrator as a literary bebop improviser who draws on the

    voices and reflections of other characters, redefines and comments on their

    statements, in order to emerge with his own improvisational voice by the end of the


    Before examining the validity of these arguments, it is necessary to explore

    different concepts of improvisation when transposed from jazz into art and literature.

    The OED defines to improvise as to compose, utter, or perform verse or

    music impromptu; to speak extemporaneously; hence, to do anything on the spur of

    the moment. In the forties and fifties in America, the concept of improvisation was

    particularly potent. Impulsive action was seen as an antidote to the stifled

    homogeneity of post-war American culture. It embodied a spirit of rebellion. It

    sounded a yawp over the tranquil roofs of suburbia and sought to spark an untrancing

    of millions of individuals by millions of individual acts of will.125

    Bebop was at the

    vanguard of this "culture of spontaneity". Its informal experimentation and intense

    individualism inspired a wide range of artists and writers. Obviously, the extent of

    this influence is impossible to measure126

    , but the ghostly clothes of jazz127

    came in

    many sizes and they undoubtedly helped artists and writers to fashion their own

    performance aesthetic.

    Jackson Pollock famously established the canvas as an arena in which to act,

    which led to the creation of not a picture but an event128

    . His freeform exuberance

    and intuitive approach neatly situates his art as a visual analogue to bebop. Strong

    biographical similarities between Pollock and Charlie Parker fuel such comparisons,


    Belgrad. The Culture. 122

    Ellison. Introduction to IM. 488-489. 123

    Porter. Jazz Country. 73. 124

    Spaulding. Embracing Chaos. 482. 125

    McLuhan, Marshall. Quoted in Belgrad. The Culture. 4-5. 126

    Robert Von Halberg suggests Artaud and Italian Futurists could have contributed to the

    development of a performance aesthetic. Avant-Gardes. Cambridge History of American Literature.

    Vol. 8, 1940-1995. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996. 83-84. 127

    Ginsberg, Allen. Howl. The Portable Beat Reader, ed. Ann Charters. New York: Penguin, 1992.

    67. 128

    Rosenberg, Harold. "The American Action Painters." Art News (December 1952): 25.

  • Carroll 21

    not only in their behaviour and addictions during their lives, but also in their deaths129


    Pollock was a regular at jazz clubs on 52nd

    street where bebop musicians performed.

    According to Ellen Landau, he was inspired not just by bebops rhythm and tempo,

    but its naked presentation of honest and deeply felt emotion130

    . This emphasis on the

    jazz musicians ability to tap raw emotion set the tone for prevailing attitudes to

    bebop among other artists and writers.

    Although literature lagged behind the visual arts, Jack Kerouac explicitly

    aligned himself with jazz musicians in Essentials of Spontaneous Prose. In this brief

    document, he repeatedly resorts to jazz as a simile for his writing technique. When

    discussing imagery, he says, blowing (as per jazz musician) on subject of image;

    when discussing punctuation, he recommends, the vigorous space dash separating

    rhetorical breathing (as jazz musician drawing breath between outblown phrases);

    and when talking about scope he says, [b]low as deep as you want131

    . He stresses

    the spontaneity of bebop improvisation and seeks to mimic it in prose. His emphasis

    on a jazz musicians authenticity and avoidance of revision (as in first thought, best


    ) reveals a passionate, but limited conception of improvisation.

    Ingrid Monson writes: "improvisation has often been taken as a metaphor for

    freedom both musical and social."133

    It is not coincidental that many of the artists and

    writers who fashioned aesthetics of spontaneity were not African American.

    Unhitched from its brutal origins, its evolutionary tradition and the encumbrances of

    racism, jazz improvisation became synonymous with winging it134

    . This whitewash

    created a number of distortions. It belied the dedicated craft and honing of skill, which

    is essential to successful jazz performance. As Toni Morrison explains: The point in

    black art is to make it look as a jazz musician does, unthought out, unintellectual as it

    were. So the work doesnt show.135

    To the untrained ear, Parkers prolific originality,

    spilling out seemingly-endless new musical ideas in a torrent of notes from his

    saxophone, seemed the apotheosis of freedom of expression. But as musicologists

    have pointed out, this attitude to extemporaneous improvisation discounts the

    importance of organization to the critical aesthetic sense"136

    . A bebop jam session

    may have appeared chaotic, but it was governed by unwritten codes of performance.

    Bebops insistence on dissonance and difficult harmonies and its foregrounding of the


    Parker was addicted to heroin for most of his life. Pollock was addicted to alcohol. Parker died in

    1955. Pollock died in 1956. 130

    Quoted in O'Meally, Robert G. Ed. The Jazz Cadence of American Culture. New York: Columbia

    University Press, 1998. 180. 131

    Kerouac, Jack. Essentials of Spontaneous Prose. The Portable Beat Reader, ed. Ann Charters.

    New York: Penguin, 1992. 57. 132

    Allen Ginsberg. Quoted in Merrill, Thomas F. Allen Ginsberg. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1988.

    15. 133

    Monson, Ingrid. "Russell, Coltrane, and Modal Jazz." In the Course of Performance: Studies in the

    World of Musical Improvisation. Ed. Bruno Nettl with Melinda Russell. Chicago: University of

    Chicago Press, 1998. 149. 134

    Murray, Albert. Improvisation and the Creative Process. The Jazz Cadence of American Culture.

    Ed. OMeally, Robert. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998. 112. 135

    Morrison, Toni. Interview. Quoted in Rice. Finger-Snapping. 114. 136

    Chernoff, John Miller. African Rhythm and African Sensibility: Aesthetics and Social Action in

    African Musical Idioms. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979. 122.

  • Carroll 22

    solo also ruptured the common perception of musical collectivity established by large

    swing bands. Artists like Pollock and writers like Kerouac tended to magnify bebops

    individualism to suit the requirements of their work, which were necessarily solo

    endeavours. But as John Coltrane asserts: even when the singer says I, the audience

    hears we137

    . The rampant individualism, which was central to Pollocks and

    Kerouacs conceptions of their jazz stimulus, eclipses important aspects of jazz

    performance that continued despite the innovations of bebop.

    Like Kerouac, Ralph Ellison repeatedly compares his writing to jazz music. In

    Living with Music, he evokes his early development as a writer and describes how

    he gave up his trumpet for the typewriter138

    . In an interview, he has stated that his

    instinctive approach to writing is through sound.139

    But as an accomplished jazz

    musician, Ellison expounded a rich and sophisticated conception of jazz

    improvisation. In Living with Music, he emphasizes the group context of

    improvisation and highlights the positive aspects of the struggle for identity within

    jazz performance: the delicate balance struck between strong individual personality

    and the group during [] early jam sessions was a marvel of social organization.140

    Ellison acknowledges the pioneering role of jazz musicians, who in their own

    unconscious way have set an example for any Americans, Negro or white, who would

    find themselves in the arts.141

    But his praise is not based on the crude conception of

    spontaneity. He recognizes the constraints of extemporaneous improvisation and

    highlights the freedom lying within the restrictions of [] musical tradition142

    . He

    admires jazz musicians for their discipline and attention to craft: the will to achieve

    the most eloquent expression of idea-emotions through the technical mastery of their


    Ellison espoused conservative attitudes to bebop in his essays and his

    representations of jazz in Invisible Man focus on Louis Armstrong. If stylistic

    elements of Invisible Man can be attributed to bebop, it would create a tension within

    the novel between two generations of jazz musicians. However, I believe the

    musically-influenced structural and stylistic elements of Invisible Man can be

    explained with reference Armstrongs style of jazz and other cultural developments.

    Indeed, by placing Armstrong and his music in a contemporary context, Ellison

    attempts to modify prevailing views of the musicians style and reinvigorate his

    relevance for a new generation of listeners.


    John Coltrane. Quoted in Kohli, Amor "Saxophones and Smothered Rage: Bob Kaufman, Jazz and

    the Quest for Redemption." Callaloo. (Winter 2002): 181. 138

    Ellison. Living with. 233. 139

    Ellison, Ralph. "A Completion of Personality: A Talk with Ralph Ellison." Hersey, John. Ed. Ralph

    Ellison: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1974. 11. 140

    Ellison. Living with. 229. 141

    Ellison, Ralph. Introduction to Shadow and Act. 1964. The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison.

    New York: Modern Library, 1995. 51. 142

    Ellison. Introduction to Shadow. 51. 143

    Ellison. Living with. 229.

  • Carroll 23

    Literary jazz144

    Building on seminal work on vernacular traditions in African American

    literature by Houston Baker145

    and Henry Louis Gates146

    , various critics have tried to

    analyse the influence of jazz on prose. In Liberating Voices: Oral Tradition in African

    American Literature, Gayl Jones examines how African American authors have used

    their oral tradition to liberate their voices from the often tyrannic frame of another


    . She explores the influence of folklore, spirituals, blues and jazz on a wide

    range of works from different genres (Poetry, Short Fiction and the Novel). Her

    discussions of the influence of jazz on the style and structure of Ann Petrys Solo on

    the Drums and LeRoi Joness The Screamers reveal a number of equivalents or

    forms of expression which are common to jazz and prose fiction. But as Fritz Gysin

    points out, the choice of equivalents is wide and the terminology, such as solos,

    arrangements, antiphony, etc. is conveniently vague. Gysin suggests reducing the risk

    of imprecise or flimsy associations by only applying jazz equivalents to texts with

    strong thematic references to jazz.148

    Indeed, Joness discussions are valid and

    insightful precisely because both stories have jazz as a principal theme.

    In contrast, Alan Rice149

    and Anthony J. Berret150

    have been tempted to argue

    that prose writers, such as Toni Morrison and Ralph Ellison, employ a jazz style,

    even when there is no jazz context, theme or reference. This approach creates a

    tenuous basis for discussion. Nevertheless, Rice identifies three aesthetic strategies

    employed by jazzy prose writers151

    : antiphony, riffing, and signifying. Antiphony is

    the pattern of call-and-response, which is almost ubiquitous in African American

    vernacular forms - sermons, spirituals, blues and jazz. As well as not being particular

    to jazz, antiphony is a very malleable term. For example, Gayl Jones suggests that the

    Prologue of Invisible Man might be read as containing numerous calls to which the

    episodes are various responses.152

    Given the prominence of Louis Armstrong,

    whose trumpet style was often described as antiphonal, and the references to various

    black vernacular forms, such as spirituals and sermons, Joness observation may well

    be valid. However, even with such references, attributions of antiphony specifically

    from jazz (rather than sermons or blues) as a structural device for prose seem too

    vague to be useful.

    In his article Misreading Morrison, Mishearing Jazz: A Response to Toni

    Morrison's Jazz Critics, Alan Munton takes issue with the inaccurate use of the terms


    Berret, Anthony J. Toni Morrison's Literary Jazz. College Language Association

    Journal. (March 1989): 267. 145

    Baker. Blues, Ideology. 146

    Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism. New

    York: Oxford University Press, 1988. 147

    Jones, Gayl. Liberating Voices: Oral Tradition in African American Literature. Cambridge,

    Massachusetts: Harvard UP, 1991. 192. 148

    Gysin, Fritz. From Liberating Voices to Metathetic Ventriloquism: Boundaries in Recent

    African-American Jazz Fiction. Callaloo. (Winter 2002): 274-276. 149

    Rice. Finger-Snapping. 150

    Berret. Toni Morrison's. 151

    Rice. Finger-Snapping. 106. 152

    Jones. Liberating Voices. 197.

  • Carroll 24

    signifying and riffing when transposed from jazz music to prose. As he points

    out, language and music do not signify in the same way153

    . In fact, in the context

    of jazz, signifyin(g) is redundant, since every jazz performance is a signification

    upon, or a revision of, something already in existence, whether the melody or theme,

    or the chord sequence.154

    Signifyin(g) is an oral strategy incorporated into prose,

    which can be understood without any recourse to jazz. Munton also contends that in

    attempts to establish a relationship between jazz and prose, [t]he riff is foregrounded

    because it is the only feature of jazz that can be compared to prose (because both may

    include repetitions).155

    Such an approach leads to an emphasis on rhythm at the

    expense of other equally important elements of jazz, such as harmony or melody.

    More seriously, in the absence of specific references to jazz within the text, the

    approach becomes gratuitous. Invariably, examples cited as prose riffs simply

    because they employ repetition can be explained in purely literary terms.

    Alan Rices brief discussion of Invisible Man clearly reveals the problems of

    examining jazzy prose 156

    without jazz themes or references in the text. Although he

    acknowledges them as epochal uses of the jazz aesthetic157

    , he quickly skips over

    the passages referring to Louis Armstrong in the novels Prologue and Epilogue.

    Instead, he presses for an examination of the jazz mode158

    without any signals from

    the author in the text. He selects a passage from the riot scene near the end of the

    novel and comments that its staccato rhythms and riffing repetitions159

    mimic the

    sound of bebop. Rice even refers to a specific jazz tune - Bebop recorded by Parker

    in 1949 as the kind of musical performance Ellison is invoking160

    . Without any

    inference from the text, any correspondence between this tune and the text is arbitrary

    and delusional. When discussing the interface between jazz and fiction, the presence

    of jazz in some form must be a prerequisite. It need not be the dominant subject, but it

    must at least be mentioned or implied through obvious or subtle references. Rices

    blanket assertion that the whole text of Invisible Man is coloured by jazz


    , cheapens Ellisons uses of jazz, which are actually employed

    sparingly to achieve specific effects and imbue particular meaning.

    For a better example of jazzy prose, consider Ellisons description of bebop

    in The Golden Age, Time Past: It was itself a texture of fragments, repetitive, nervous, not fully formed; its melodic lines

    underground, secret and taunting; its riffs jeeringSalt peanuts! Salt peanuts! its timbres

    flat or shrill, with a minimum of thrilling vibrato. Its rhythms were out of stride and seemingly

    arbitrary, its drummers frozen-faced introverts dedicated to chaos.162


    Munton, Alan. Misreading Morrison, Mishearing Jazz: A Response to Toni Morrison's Jazz

    Critics. Journal of American Studies (1997): 250. 154

    Munton. Misreading Morrison. 248. 155

    Munton. Misreading Morrison. 235. 156

    Rice. Finger-Snapping. 106. 157

    Rice. Finger-Snapping. 112. 158

    Rice. Finger-Snapping. 112. 159

    Rice. Finger-Snapping. 112. 160

    Rice. Finger-Snapping. 112. 161

    Rice. Finger-Snapping. 113. 162

    Ellison. The Golden. 240.

  • Carroll 25

    The style and progress of this passage can actually be mapped onto Salt Peanuts163


    one of the defining bebop tunes of the era. It begins with jerky bursts of commentary,

    with nouns and adjectives piling up (fragments, repetitive, nervous, not fully

    formed). It employs a range of punctuation and careful ellipsis, with the omission of

    verbs evoking the pared-down phrasing and economy of the tunes melodic lines.

    The interjection - Salt Peanuts mirrors the vociferations in the tune, as does the

    pattern of the subsequent description of the piercing solos (timbres flat or shrill).

    Then the prose loosens up: verbs are reintroduced (Its rhythms were ), signalling

    a release into longer runs and embellishment. The final section of Salt Peanuts

    consists of a drum solo and the passage appropriately ends by highlighting the

    incongruity between the frenzied and apparently haphazard style of drumming and the

    icy demeanour of the drummers. In this passage, the style and subject matter meld to

    create what might be deemed literary jazz. Nevertheless, it would be wise to

    remember Fritz Gysins plea for perspective: in most cases, writers are not attempting

    to turn fiction into jazz, rather they are seeking to incorporate jazz into fiction164

    . And

    as Stephen Scher comments: "No matter how similar literature and music may appear

    on occasion, they are only analogous, never identical."165

    With these warnings in

    mind, I will examine two episodes in which jazz has a stylistic or structural influence

    in Invisible Man.

    [O]ur concept is Gestalt166

    After being injured in an explosion at the Liberty Paints factory, the narrator

    of Invisible Man wakes up sitting in a white rigid chair167

    . He is confused and

    disoriented. He feels acute pain in his head and stomach, and he has amnesia.

    Gradually he realizes the disembodied voices around him are those of doctors. He

    slips in and out of consciousness. Each time he wakes up, the situation has changed,

    intensifying his confusion. He hears the doctors callously discussing possible

    treatments, ranging from surgery to castration. Eventually, after enduring bouts of

    electric shock treatment, the narrator is told he is cured and may leave. He signs some

    papers releasing the company of any responsibility for his accident and takes