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Ralph Ellison, Chester Himes, and the Persistence of Urban Forms

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  23 October 2020


This essay investigates the treatment of what I call infrastructural racism in fiction by Ralph Ellison and Chester Himes. Ellison's Invisible Man (1952) and Himes's Harlem Cycle novels (1957–69) chronicle vanishing urban objects and changing infrastructure to show that even as Harlem modernizes, the racist structures that undergird society do not. Ellison and Himes use ephemeral objects like signs, newspapers, and blueprints to encapsulate Harlem's transience and to suggest to readers that the neighborhood itself is a dynamic archive, continually changing yet resistant to overarching narratives of cultural loss or social progress. Himes and Ellison write about permanence and loss in mid-century Harlem in terms that disrupt the social realism associated with the novel of detection and the psychological realism associated with the novel of consciousness. Such a reading prompts a reconsideration of the critical categories–genre fiction and literary fiction–that have, until now, kept these two writers apart.

Research Article
Copyright © 2020 Sarah Wasserman

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