The Good: Excellent essays, well-supported views, wonderful language!
The Bad: Many obscure references that are overly dated.
The Basics: Buy Shadow And Act for academic opinions or for interest in jazz and literature. Not recommended as light reading or for anything other than reference.
My initial reaction as I began to write a review for Shadow and Act was to declare one of the negative aspects of the book "largely academic." What a shame it would be to put such a noble aspect into the drawback category! Ralph Ellison, author of Invisible Man and Juneteenth, had some of his best essays on sociology and literature compiled in Shadow And Act.
However, Shadow and Act is a largely academic work. With Ralph Ellison's trademark brilliance, he presents essays on music, literature and society. He does it all quite well, too. He has a wealth of education and references and his insights are often impressive and original. For example, his correlations between society and the fiction of Stephen Crane in "Stephen Crane and the Mainstream of American Fiction" present groundbreaking insights into American literature and illustrate a deep appreciation for what it is to be American.
Ellison is obviously educated and his essays are a pleasure to read on a lot of levels because he has something to say about everything and he says it well.
The drawback is that a lot of what he is writing about (jazz musician Charlie Parker, the obscure jazz guitarist Charlie Christian and a hard-to-find essay by Irving Howe whose writing Ellison presents a rebuttal to here) is out of print, obscure or otherwise unavailable. So while, through his essays, we may learn about many of these people or opinions or cultural facets, they become impossible or difficult to explore further. Moreover, if you have no interest in jazz, literature or sociology, there's nothing here that is going to get you into it.
Ralph Ellison's genius novels prove that he was a master of fiction and his essays illustrate with no lack of distinction that he could write outside fiction with consistent grace. Shadow and Act ultimately presents a wonderful collection of opinions on a sect of our history and culture that would otherwise be lost.
In the final analysis I'm recommending Shadow And Act, but solely on the basis as a reference work. It stands out as such but is not recommended for casual reading unless one already possesses a strong knowledge and interest in his subject matters.
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© 2010, 2001 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.