Ralph Ellison has often been cited by literary scholars as one of the 20th century’s most tragic examples of writer’s block: after the immense success of 1952’s Invisible Man, the author lived for more than 40 years without ever publishing a second novel. Yet, in Ralph Ellison In Progress: From Invisible Man to Three Days Before the Shooting…, literary scholar Adam Bradley challenges this portrayal, asserting that 47,000 items in the Ralph Ellison Archive at the Library of Congress alone are enough to prove that writer’s block is hardly the relevant term.
In fact, Bradley explains, Ellison’s problem was quite the reverse: he could not stop writing. Between his mania for revision and the rapidly changing landscape of American culture, the second novel—an epic work about the assassination of a U.S. senator—was doomed to be forever growing and expanding without ever being contained between the two covers of a finished work.
Bradley, who is also one of the editors of YUP’s Anthology of Rap, has been studying the work of Ralph Ellison since he fell in love with Invisible Man in a course taught by John F. Callahan at Lewis & Clark College almost two decades ago. When Ellison died the following year, Callahan was named literary executor, and Bradley became his research assistant, carrying boxes of manuscripts from the house where Callahan found thousands of pages of writing and correspondence (along with several unpublished short stories hidden in a briefcase under the dining room table). Working with Callahan, Bradley edited the fullest edition of Ellison’s unfinished second novel Three Days Before the Shooting…, published in 2010, and as a result, is one of the leading experts on the author—and the immense archive encompassing both his personal papers and endless rewritings, which are preserved on paper and the 25-pound laptop computer Ellison purchased in 1982.
Working from these manuscripts, and following Ellison backwards through his career to shed light on everything from his final months to his earliest writings, Bradley demonstrates the way in which Ellison was anything but a one-hit wonder, but rather a writer who was always truly In Progress. Indeed, Bradley writes, “The very things that make Ellison’s second novel imperfect are also what make it such a compelling metaphor for America. Protean, unfinished, grand in vision but often flawed in execution, marked by failures and triumphs, it reflects the complexities of American life in a way that a finished novel could not.”
Come Friday night, most college students put down their books and put on their favorite jeans before heading out to parties where hip-hop music blares in crowded clubs and living rooms—Kanye or Lil Wayne’s rhymes making it necessary to shout in order to be heard. The next day, the more diligent of these students will head back to the library, and the English majors among them will turn back to Pope and Keats, counting out meters and labeling rhetorical tropes, the events of the previous night faded to nothing more than a dull headache or a series of text messages. These hours spent in silent library study rooms could not be more different from the previous night’s bumping and grinding on the dance floor—or could it?
When Adam Bradley and Andrew DuBois were graduate students at Harvard, they began to wonder. Although in their English classes they talked about Shelley, on their own time, they spent hour listening to the rappers of the mid- to late-1990s, and found some of the same poetic tropes they analyzed in essays represented in Snoop Dogg’s lyrics. Fast-forward over a decade and Bradley and DuBois are editors of The Anthology of Rap, a groundbreaking presentation of rap lyrics which presents more than thirty years worth of material for scholarly study. According to Bradley, the Anthology has been controversial among those who challenge the artistic value of lyrics that are often known for their crude language and themes; however, he asserts, there is no doubt that the book has served its purpose: to get people talking about the relationship between rap and literature.
Last year, PBS Newshour ran a segment featuring both editors of the Anthology along with rappers Common and Kurtis Blow. A reposting of the video in the college poetry section of the youth-oriented site Insure Success has become quite popular—so maybe there’s hope that this Friday, a few students will stop shouting over the music and start listening to the lyrics when they’ve aside their more traditional poetry books for a night out.
If you missed it on NPR’s All Things Considered last weekend, be sure to listen to Adam Bradley‘s brief interview on lyrics as poetry: NPR.org.
NPR’s “The Record” blog also followed up with Sam Anderson after his rave review of The Anthology of Rap in New York magazine, and you can read that piece here.
Is this awesome or what? The long-awaited trailer for The Anthology of Rap, edited by Adam Bradley and Andrew DuBois, is finally here. By bringing together more than three hundred lyrics written over thirty years, from the “old school” to the “golden age” to the present day, the book doubles as both a fan’s guide and a resource for the uninitiated. The book’s website can be found at www.anthologyofrap.com.
Check out the trailer and more updates will continue to flow as the book’s November 9 publication date approaches!