Ellison, Ralph (Waldo)
ELLISON, Ralph (Waldo)
Nationality: American. Born: Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, 1 March 1914. Education: A high school in Oklahoma City, and at Tuskegee Institute, Alabama, 1933-36. Military Service: Served in the United States Merchant Marine, 1943-45. Family: Married Fanny McConnell in 1946. Career: Writer from 1936; lecturer, Salzburg Seminar in American Studies, 1954; instructor in Russian and American Literature, Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, 1958-61; Alexander White Visiting Professor, University of Chicago, 1961; visiting professor of writing, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey, 1962-64; Whittall Lecturer, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., 1964; Ewing Lecturer, University of California, Los Angeles, 1964; visiting fellow in American studies, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, 1966; Albert Schweitzer Professor in the Humanities, New York University, 1970-79, became emeritus. On the editorial board, American Scholar, Washington, D.C., 1966-69. Awards: Rosenwald fellowship, 1945; National Book award, 1953; National Newspaper Publishers Association Russwarm award, 1953; American Academy Rome prize, 1955, 1956; United States Medal of Freedom, 1969; National Medal of Arts, 1985; Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines-General Electric Foundation award, 1988. Ph.D. in Humane Letters: Tuskegee Institute, 1963; Litt.D.: Rutgers University, 1966; University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, 1967; Williams College, Williamstown, Massachusetts, 1970; Long Island University, New York, 1971; College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, Virginia, 1972; Wake Forest College, Winston-Salem, North Carolina, 1974; Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1974; L.H.D.: Grinnell College, Iowa, 1967; Adelphi University, Garden City, New York, 1971; University of Maryland, College Park, 1974. Commandant, Order of Arts and Letters (France), 1970. Member: National Council on the Arts, 1965-67; American Academy, 1975; Carnegie Commission on Educational Television, 1966-67; honorary consultant in American Letters, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., 1966-72; trustee, John F. Kennedy Center of the Performing Arts, Washington, D.C.; trustee, New School for Social Research, New York; trustee, Bennington College, Vermont; trustee, Educational Broadcasting Corporation, and Colonial Williamsburg Foundation; chairman, Literary Grants Committee, American Academy, 1964-67. Died: 1994.
Invisible Man. 1952.
Excerpts from novel-in-progress: "The Roof, the Steeple and the People," in Quarterly Review of Literature, 1960; "And Hickman Arrives," in Noble Savage, March 1960; "It Always Breaks Out," in Partisan Review, Spring 1963; "Juneteenth," in Quarterly Review of Literature 13, 1965; "Night-Talk," in Quarterly Review of Literature 16, 1969; "Song of Innocence," in Iowa Review, Spring 1970; "Cadillac Flambe," in American Review 16, edited by Theodore Solotaroff, 1973.
The Writer's Experience, with Karl Shapiro. 1964.
Shadow and Act (essays). 1964.
The City in Crisis, with Whitney M. Young and Herbert Gnas. 1968.
Going to the Territory (essays). 1986.*
"A Bibliography of Ellison's Published Writings" by Bernard Benoit and Michel Fabre, in Studies in Black Literature, Autumn 1971; The Blinking Eye: Ellison and His American, French, German and Italian Critics 1952-1971 by Jacqueline Covo, 1974.
The Negro Novel in America, revised edition, by Robert A. Bone, 1958; "The Blues as a Literary Theme" by Gene Bluestein, in Massachusetts Review, Autumn 1967; Five Black Writers: Essays by Donald B. Gibson, 1970; Twentieth-Century Interpretations of Invisible Man edited by John M. Reilly, 1970; "Ellison Issue" of CLA Journal, March 1970; interview in Atlantic, December 1970; The Merrill Studies in Invisible Man edited by Ronald Gottesman, 1971; Ellison: A Collection of Critical Essays edited by John Hersey, 1973; article by Leonard J. Deutsch, in American Novelists since World War II edited by Jeffrey Heltermann and Richard Layman, 1978; Folklore and Myth in Ellison's Early Works by Dorothea Fischer-Hornung, 1979; The Craft of Ellison, 1980, and "The Rules of Magic: Hemingway as Ellison's 'Ancestor,"' in Southern Review, Summer 1985, both by Robert G. O'Meally, and New Essays on Invisible Man edited by O'Meally, 1988; Ellison: The Genesis of an Artist by Rudolf F. Dietze, 1982; introduction by the author to 30th anniversary edition of Invisible Man, 1982; "Ellison and Dostoevsky" by Joseph Frank, in New Criterion, September 1983; Speaking for You: The Vision ofEllison edited by Kimberly W. Benston, 1987; Invisible Criticism: Ellison and the American Canon by Alan Nadel, 1988; Creative Revolt: A Study of Wright, Ellison, and Dostoevsky by Michael F. Lynch, 1990; Visible Ellison: A Study of Ralph Ellison's Fiction by Edith Schor, 1993; Deprogramming through Cultural Nationalism: Achebe and Ellison by Prema Kumari Dheram, 1994; Commitment as a Theme in African American Literature: A Study of James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison by R. Jothiprakash, 1994; "On Burke and the Vernacular: Ralph Ellison's Boomerang of History" by Robert G. O'Meally, in History and Memory in African-American Culture edited by Genevieve Fabre and Robert O'Meally, 1994; "The Politics of Carnival and Heteroglossia in Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon and Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man " by Elliott Butler-Evans, in The Ethnic Canon: Histories, Institutions, and Interventions edited by David Palumbo Liu, 1995; Conversations with Ralph Ellison edited by Maryemma Graham, 1995.* * *
Ralph Ellison's single novel, Invisible Man, has become a classic and landmark of American literature, a fiction that summarizes, analyzes, and encompasses a large portion of the African American experience. He also wrote distinguished social and literary essays and published a variety of short fiction. In addition to short stories, he published a number of self-contained episodes from a long-projected second novel, while several segments from Invisible Man were printed as discrete stories—notably the opening section ("Battle Royal") and an alternative draft of the surreal hospital interlude ("Out of the Hospital and under the Bar").
Even in Invisible Man, which is a densely complex and unified vision, Ellison tended to work in episodes and short narrative segments. His short fiction reiterates and develops many themes of the novel: the perils of growing up black in a society radically self-divided, the contrasts between northern and southern and urban and rural cultures, the power of dreams, and wishes and fantasies in the lives of dispossessed and powerless people.
Ellison often remarked on the diversity of experience he had as a young man—as a college student, an itinerant laborer, a traveling musician, an educator, and a writer. His stories reflect the breadth of experiences available to African Americans but also comment incisively on the limitations imposed by disfranchisement and marginality on people who struggle to define and control their own destinies.
The early story "King of the Bingo Game," published in Tomorrow in 1944, describes a character much like the nameless narrator of Invisible Man. He has moved from the familiar, familial South—Rocky Mount, North Carolina—to the cold, alienating urban North and, sitting in a movie theater on bingo night, feels isolated and helpless. Driven by anxiety and needing money, he pins all of his hopes on the bingo game and the turn of the wheel that awards prizes. But the uncertainty of the turning wheel of fortune and his single chance for redemption overwhelm him. He awaits the jackpot of $36.90 (lucky numbers from the numbers game, also echoed in the 1, 369 lightbulbs illuminating the invisible man's underground hideout). The strain crushes him, he becomes irrational, and two policemen, who look "like a tap-dance team" on the stage, beat him and drag him away as he sees the spinning wheel stop at double zero, the winning position.
Another story about luck, superstition, and futile dreams is "Did You Ever Dream Lucky?" that was published in New World Writing in 1954. It is a long lie told by Mary Rambo to Portwood, a neighbor, at a Thanksgiving dinner. Mary's rambling anecdote describes an auto accident in which she discovers a bag full of clinking metal she assumes to be money. She smuggles it home and hides it in her toilet tank, and then she is consumed by guilt, curiosity, and anxiety. She finally opens the bag to find tire chains. The ironic treasure is like a dream deferred—useless tire chains for a generation without cars, slim hope for the next generation to "go to heaven in a Cadillac."
Another story reflecting the theme of growing into experience, the movement from innocence to the tragedies, mysteries, and ambiguities of adulthood, is "A Coupla Scalped Indians," published in New World Writing in 1956. It chronicles a night when two 11-year-old boys are initiated into a series of mysteries. They have been circumcised by the family doctor, and the symbolism of the rite is rich: "The doctor had said it would make us men and Buster had said, hell, he was a man already—what he wanted was to be an Indian. We hadn't thought about it making us scalped ones." They go to a carnival, argue about the propriety of playing the dozens, and dream of being free spirits—noble savages, either Boy Scouts or Indians. Thrashing through the woods with their Boy Scout hatchets, they find the shack of Aunt Mackie, the town's ancient conjure woman, and the narrator sees her through the window, naked, with the ripe body of a young woman. Like Circe, she captures him, saying, "You peeped … now you got to do the rest. I said kiss me, or I'll fix you…." But Aunt Mackie, after inspecting his circumcision, finds that he is only a child and rejects him. But he has learned about "being a man" and about the profound mysteries of female sexuality.
Ellison's stories revolve around the themes of fate and luck, dreams and powerlessness, and the contrast between comforting family life in small, close communities and the harsh loneliness of big, dense cities. They extend and enlarge the basic thematic material of Invisible Man and give varied examples of the scale and breadth of African American life in modern times.
—Williamy J. Schafer
See the essay on "King of the Bingo Game."