ESSAY Daniel G Williams

NWR Issue 104

'The White Negro'?

The presence of poet John Berryman at St Vincent’s Hospital, New York, when Dylan Thomas passed away on 9 November, 1953, has been considered an appropriate emblem of the Welsh poet’s notable importance for a diverse and innovative generation of postwar American poets. Berryman had been at a party earlier that night and was driven to the hospital by the African American novelist Ralph Ellison whose seminal (and only completed) novel Invisible Man had just won the National Book Award for fiction. Ellison dropped Berryman and the literary editor Pearl Kazin (who had been engaged in an affair with Thomas) off at the hospital, choosing not to go in with them ‘because their grief was so intensely private’. However, the African American author may have known more about Thomas’ background than either Berryman or Kazin, for a decade earlier, Ellison was stationed in Swansea. Indeed, in tracing the gestation of his seminal Invisible Man, Ellison recalled that:

I had published yet another story in which a young Afro-American seaman, ashore in Swansea, south Wales, was forced to grapple with the troublesome ‘American’ aspects of his identity after white Americans had blacked his eye during a wartime blackout on the Swansea street called Straight.

Ellison served in the Merchant Marine as second cook and baker from 1943 to 1945, seeing this as a means of contributing to the war effort without serving in the segregated American army. In addition to the published story, ‘In a Strange Country’, referred to in his introduction, Ellison also wrote two other unpublished stories based on his experiences in Wales which exist in several drafts, at various stages of completion, in the Ellison Papers at the Library of Congress: ‘A Storm of Blizzard Proportions’ and ‘The Red Cross at Morriston, Swansea, SW’. In these stories, Ellison evokes Swansea after the Blitz, and his sensitivity to the diverse cultural strands that constitute Welsh culture in the 1940s is striking. Upon arriving at an American Red Cross Club ‘held in Lebannon [sic] Church Hall’, Morriston, a ‘structure erected in the early eighteenth Century’, the narrator comments on both the palpably familiar aspects of Welsh culture, such as the Count Basie music to which inter-racial Lindy hoppers are dancing, and the distinctiveness of a Welsh dramatic tradition that ‘had developed out of the nonconformist religious movement, which instituted amature [sic] dramatics; thus the stage; thus, at longer range, such contemporary Welsh dramatists as Dylan Thomas, Alun Lewis, Emlyn Williams and Richard Llewellyn’.

In addition to being a celebrated novelist, Ralph Ellison became a leading essayist on African American music, dance and culture. In an essay on Charlie Parker, Ellison noted the ways in which the great bebop alto saxophonist (known by his pseudonym ‘Bird’) was transformed into a ‘primitive’ in the minds of American audiences:

a sacrificial figure whose struggles against personal chaos, on stage and off, served as entertainment for a ravenous, sensation-starved, culturally disoriented public which had but the slightest notion of its real significance.

Given that he had spent time in Swansea and was clearly aware of the remarkable generation of writers that had emerged in 1930s Wales, it is perhaps appropriate that much of what Ellison says here about Parker could also, as this article aims to demonstrate, have been said about Dylan Thomas...

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