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David J. Alworth

Print publication date: 2018

Print ISBN-13: 9780691183343

Published to Princeton Scholarship Online: January 2019

DOI: 10.23943/princeton/9780691183343.001.0001

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(p.121) 5 Asylums
Site Reading

David J. Alworth

Princeton University Press

This chapter considers Ralph Ellison's career-long interest in asylums—sites where “individuals” are, as Goffman writes, “cut off from the wider society”—suggests a new way of defining his relationship to the discipline of sociology. Ellison's treatment of asylums reveals his affinity with sociologist Erving Goffman, whose own writing on such sites still stands among the most influential. The chapter tracks the overlap in their respective approaches to this site in order to develop a new sense of Ellison's sociological imagination: his attempt to apprehend social reality through an engagement with a particular locale. It situates Ellison's writings on the asylum within an intellectual and cultural history that contains Goffman. The chapter concludes by adapting some of the sociologist's key concepts in an effort to rethink the invisible man's “hole,” his distinctive underground lair, itself an asylum and quite possibly the most beguiling site in all of American literature.

Keywords:   Ralph Ellison, asylum, sociology, Erving Goffman, sociologists, social reality, American literature

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