In “The Little Man at Chehaw Station,” Ralph Ellison recounts the formative influence the time he spent with Hazel Harrison had on both his musical and literary future. In this essay, he is concerned primarily with the metaphor of the little man behind the stove, which Harrison uses partly to sooth the young Ellison after some harsh criticism of his musical performance, but more importantly as an extremely important lesson about the diversity of America. Ellison looks back upon what was to him as a young man an enigma, and tries to chart the development and influence of this metaphor on his thinking about American audience and artistic drive and responsibility. The most interesting aspect of the discussion comes when he puzzles over this idea of a little man behind the stove in connection with the diversity of America, and the role of an author in accommodating, or at least being aware of, the uniquely American audience (both of music and literature). One of Ellison’s key points is that the abundance, freedom, and availability of cultural materials problematizes an artist’s audience in America. The refinement of taste previously only available and present in high cultural/social spheres (in say, Europe, or early America) is now appearing at lower social spheres, and is ultimately unidentifiable based on stereotyping. The little man behind the stove symbolizes the ‘any man’ who might now, in American culture, have a refined cultural pallet, but perhaps an appearance that betrays this skill. For Ellison, this further problematizes even the audience of literature, not just music—it bleeds over into a rhetorical concern of the author. The little man is also one who has an awareness of and fulfills the function of a subjective element—a beautiful and American problem.
Ellison makes clear the uniquely American responsibility of the author to his audience, and refers throughout this essay to what he comes to define as a floating sensibility. Such a responsibility and sensibility includes an understanding of the diverse and potential-filled qualities of audience: “thus, the ideal level of sensibility to which the American artist [literary or musical, sculptor, author, or pianist] would address himself tends to transcend the lines of class, religion, region, and race—floating, as it were, free in the crowd” (495). Ellison spends a large portion of the rest of the essay fleshing out his idea of the American audience, and thinking deeply about the American consumer of artistic-cultural artifacts. He comes to several important determinations about the role of the audience, and the artist, and delves deep into the spirit of America. For example, he explains that “Americans tend to focus on the diverse parts of their culture (with which they can more easily identify), rather than on its complex and pluralistic wholeness” (500). To Ellison, an ignoring of the “wholeness” mentioned above problematizes American identity, because by tending to focus on the parts instead of the whole we create all sorts of problems, including cultural-isolation.
Ellison does not limit himself to a purely objective observation and examination of American identity, audience, and the role of the artist—indeed, on page 505 we find Ellison venting, when he seems himself to be a little man behind the stove critiquing members of a younger generation of jazz musicians. He refers to the characteristic behavior of such a generation as a “bizarre bebopish stridency,” and one cannot help but detect that animosity toward Charlie Parker about which Ellison and Murray were so vocal in their letters (505). But these moments are few and far between, and they do not do much to dampen the overall message of the essay, which hits us on the head quite strongly when Ellison enters the story-telling mode in the last few pages of the essay. In a final reflective moment toward the end of the essay, Ellison recalls a realization of the existence of the little man behind the stove when he was forced to confront his notions of the symbolic meaning of raised voices and the discourse of anger with which he claims to have been very familiar. It was when he realized that the two African American men, whose angry discourse he associated wrongly with a stereotype, were actually arguing over opera. He refers to this moment as a “distortion of perspective,” a rationally disorienting experience that ‘clicked’ and sent the ball rolling on his growth as an American artist and individual through cultural introspection. And to cement the realization even further, in this story, Ellison realizes that it goes both ways—the four big black men in the room arguing about opera were in disbelief to hear that Ellison was with the writer’s project and a musician.
Above all, Ellison seems to be calling for cultural introspection in America. “The Little Man at Chehaw Station” is an example of such introspection. Such self-scrutiny can take the form of a young man’s defiance, or a reflection on a perplexing statement after years of thought. For Ellison, the unique problem facing the American artist is the lack of an awareness of the chaotic order that composes the American audience. It is the responsibility of that artist to understand something of the chaos of America, including the idea that Americans “have an on-going quarrel” with their lives and the condition in which they live” (527).