Saturday, September 3, 2011


E. Ethelbert Miller asks: "I'm looking at a thesis outline by a student enrolled in graduate school (at Howard). The student is looking at the work of Percival Everett. One of the books she will be writing about is ERASURE. I love this book. But the student wants to connect Everett's concept of "erasure" to Ellison's idea of invisibility. My question to you is - must we always look to Ellison when we discuss invisibility and questions of identity? Are there other African American writers this person can look to? It just seems as if we keep looking in the same box and pulling out the same old clothes."

As a retired college professor, I think it would be a mistake for this student to not mention (or "erase," if you will) Ellison's contribution to literary culture if she feels it significantly relates to Percival Everett's work, especially if she believes Everett is indebted to Ellison for the presentation of a particular idea. This student isn't writing a book review. She's writing a thesis in which she will ideally offer "new knowledge" or insight about some subject. Such a reference to Ellison, then, is simply a matter of integrity in scholarship and completeness and, I might add, honesty. Furthermore, if this is a thesis, I imagine this student will (or should) make an effort to situate Mr. Everett's work within the context of American literature in general and black American literary history in particular. In other words, I can see her "connecting" him to many people, perhaps even to E. Ethelbert Miller. No literary work enters the world ex nihilo.

 For me this is a curious question. The sort of reference to Ellison's classic novel that we're talking about does not in any way reduce or diminish whatever objective, demonstrable, artistic achievements there might be in Erasure. If a writer (or a scientist) has been the first to explore an idea or certain dramatic territory, why in the world would we wish not to acknowledge that? And to do so with appreciation for the shoulders of the giants that we stand upon? (In the case of Ellison, his exploration of the trope of racial "invisibility" is so exhaustive and perfectly rendered that, to quote Tim Kreider, "there’s no point in trying to rephrase it yourself—in the future, you just allude to that work of art, as when we call someone a Don Quixote or say it was a Rashomon situation".) Can you imagine a philosopher today presenting the idea that the ever changing world of things we experience is based on another changeless world of forms that they imperfectly "participate" in and no one pointing out that Plato expressed that idea elegantly and memorably first (and possibly was inspired by the philosophical positions of Heraclitus and Parmenides)? Or can you imagine discussing the special theory of relativity and not citing or referring to Einstein?
In Wisdom of the West, Bertrand Russell wrote that, "The point of looking at the history of philosophy lies in the recognition that most questions have been asked before, and that some intelligent answers to them have been given in the past."
Why should matters be any different for literature? For example, in a recent post, I talked about H.G. Wells's The Time Machine. If memory serves, other authors wrote imaginative stories about time travel, but Wells was the first to do so using a machine. Personally, I would be disappointed if a graduate student writing about Middle Passage failed to mention its intentional references to Apollonius of Rhodes's The Argonautica, Herman Melville's Moby Dick and "Benito Cereno," and Jack London's The Sea Wolf, to mention just a couple of works that made this novel possible.
I strongly recommend that E-Channel readers watch the three entertaining short films entitled "Everything Is A Remix," which can be viewed at ; Or click on this link
Watch | Everything Is a Remix  After viewing these comparisons in the fields of music, movies and computers you will never be able to look again at George Lucas's "Star Wars" or Quentin Tarantino's "Kill Bill" without seeing the numerous quotations (images or ideas) that they, as serious film students, include from other movies. I rather suspect that we look to scholars, and especially to historians, of fiction and film to help us identify such important literary and intellectual antecedents.

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