Ellison, Ralph 1914–1994

views updated Jun 11 2018

Ralph Ellison 19141994

Author, social commentator, lecturer

At a Glance

Oklahoma Renaissance Man

Alabama Bound

From the Deep South to Harlem

Literature and World War

Selected writings


Lauded for his brilliance as a writer of modern fiction, Ralph Ellison has produced works that continue to have a profound impact on the understanding of race and social thought in the United States. His often surrealistic images reveal how peopledespite their diverse geographic, racial, or social backgroundsshare a universal common humanity. Ellisons early years as a classically trained musician and jazz trumpeter taught him to approach the arts analytically.

When he sidelined music to take up writing in the late 1930s, he embarked upon a career that took him from obscurity to national fame. His 1952 novel Invisible Man is considered a masterpiece of modern literature and has been translated into fourteen languages around the world. A fiction writer, essayist, and educator, Ellison spent the last decades of his life at conferences and college campuses lecturing on the value of art and its ability to explore the complex relationships of the human experience.

Ralph Waldo Ellison was born to Lewis and Ida Millsap Ellison on March 1, 1914, in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Although his home state practiced segregation, Ellison grew up without the oppressive conditions confronted by African Americans in the Deep South. Years later in his work Shadow and Act, Ellison recalled how he felt no innate sense of inferiority regarding his life goals and creative ambitions.

In Oklahoma City he was exposed to various elements within the black and white cultural worlds. While working as a domestic, Ellisons mother brought home popular magazines and recordings of opera that had been discarded by her employers. And in the public school system, Ellison learned the foundations of musical harmony and symphonic forms as well as the songs, stories, and dances of European folk culture. A great admirer of Oklahoma Citys legendary jazz orchestra the Blue Devils, led by bassist Walter Page, Ellison befriended many of its members, including vocalist Jimmy Rushing, who would later become the singing great of Count Basies Band. Ellison also attended Douglas School with legendary guitarist Charlie Christian, who astounded him with sophisticated chords and progressions played on a self-made instrument made from a cigar box.

At a Glance

Born Ralph Waldo Ellison, March 1, 1914, in Oklahoma City, OK; died of pancreatic cancer, April 16, 1994; son of Lewis (a construction laborer and entrepreneur) and Ida (maiden name, Millsap; a domestic and political activist) Ellison; married Fanny McConnell, 1946. education: Attended Tuskegee Institute, 1934-36.

Wrote first book review for New Challenge in 1937; worked for Federal Writers Project and wrote for various publications, 1938-42; managing editor, Negro Quarterly, 1942; continued contributing book reviews and short stories to periodicals through mid 1940s; began work on novel, Invisible Man, 1945; Invisible Man published, 1952; lectured in Europe, 1954; resided in Rome, 1955-57; taught Russian and American literature at Bard College, 1958-61; visiting professor at University of Chicago and at Rutgers and Yale universities, early 1960s; Gertrude Whittall Lecturer, Library of Congress, and Ewing Lecturer, University of California, Los Angeles, both 1964; fire at summer home in Plainsfield, MA, destroyed 350 text pages of unfinished novel, 1967; served as Albert Schweitzer Professor of Humanities at New York University, 1970-80. Military service: Cook in U.S. Merchant Marines, WWII.

Selected awards: National Book Award and Russwurm Award, both 1953, for Invisible Man; Rockefeller Foundation Award, 1954; American Academy of Arts and Letters fellow, 1955-57; Medal of Freedom from President Lyndon B. Johnson, 1969; named chevalier de IOrdre des Arts et Lettres (France), 1969; National Medal of Arts, 1985; more than a dozen honorary degrees.

Addresses: c/o Joe Fox, Random House, 201 E. 50th St., New York, NY 10022.

Oklahoma Renaissance Man

Ellisons broad cultural experience inspired him to join several schoolmates in proclaiming themselves Renaissance Menindividuals dedicated to transcending racial barriers through the study of art and thought. To fulfill this commitment, Ellison aspired to become a composer of symphonic music. In high school he took trumpet lessons from Dr. Ludwig Hebestreit, the founder and conductor of the Oklahoma Symphony Orchestra. Hebestreits instruction contributed to Ellisons understanding of the complex structure of high artistic forms.

Though music emerged as his primary means of expression, Ellison also enjoyed reading literature. In grade school, one of his teachers, Mrs. L. C. McFarland, introduced him to the writers of the Harlem Renaissance, including Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Claude McKay, and James Weldon Johnson. At home, Ellison read fairy tales, westerns, detective stories, and Harvard Classics. Outside on the streets and in the barber shops of Oklahoma City, African Americans introduced him to rural folk tales and legends of black cowboys, outlaws, and black Indian chiefs.

Alabama Bound

After graduating from high school, Ellison won a state sponsored scholarship to study music at Tuskegee Institute in Macon County, Alabama. In 1933, without funds for transportation, he hoboed by freight car to Tuskegee. Ellisons studies there included music appreciation, modern languages, physical education, and psychology. His three-hour-a-day trumpet practice sessions were heavily influenced by his music tutor, Hazel Harrison, one of Italian pianist and composer Ferruccio Busonis prize pupils and a friend of Russian composer Sergey Prokofiev.

Through Harrison, Ellison met famous Howard University professor, philosopher, and anthologist Alain Locke, who visited the Tuskegee campus in the mid-1930s. Meanwhile, Ellisons employment at the college library was affording him the chance to broaden his literary horizons; he read T. S. Eliots Waste Land a piece of poetry that, as he later explained in his book Going to the Territory, utilized endless patterns of sounds that resembled the improvisational approach of the jazz experience. From the references of The Waste Land, Ellison learned of other great modernist writers. Soon he was reading the works of Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, Sherwood Anderson, and Ernest Hemingway.

From the Deep South to Harlem

To earn money to finish his senior year of college, Ellison traveled to New York in the summer of 1936. On the day after his arrival, having taken a room at the Harlem Annex of the YMCA, he met up with Locke, who was accompanied by Langston Hughes. Locke introduced Ellison to Hughes; later Hughes asked Ellison to deliver two books Andre Malrauxs Mans Fate and Days of Wrath to a friend. Following a suggestion by Hughes to read Mal-rauxs works before returning them, Ellison found the writings an important source of inspiration that drew him closer to the world of literature.

Unable to raise the money to return to school, Ellison decided to remain in New York. He had originally intended to study sculpture during his stay in the city; unable to find an opening with Harlem artist Augusta Savage, he studied for one year with Richmond Barthé. Because the economic impact of the Great Depression limited his chance of finding work as a trumpeter, Ellison supported himself by taking jobs as a waiter, free-lance photographer, and file clerk. As his interest in sculpture waned, he returned to the study of music composition.

In the office of the Daily Worker on 135th Street in Harlem, Ellison met writer Richard Wright in 1937. After becoming engaged in a discussion about literature, Wright asked Ellison to write a book review of Walter Turpins These Low Grounds for the first edition of the short-lived periodical New Challenge. To one who had never attempted to write anything, stated Ellison in Going to the Territory, this was the wildest of ideas. He penned his first short story, Heines Bull, for the 1937 winter issue of New Challenge. Not long afterward, Ellison became a regular contributor to the left-wing cultural periodical New Masses and to the Negro Quarterly.

Ellisons first works as a writer were influenced by Wrights harsh vision. The short stories Slick Gonna Learn (1939) and The Birthmark (1940) are examples of Ellisons use of brutal themes and violence. But Ellison soon broke from the literary naturalism of Wright and the Hemingway school. Instead of focusing entirely upon environmental forces, Ellison upheld faith in the inner strength of the individual to overcome the barriers and oppressive elements of his surroundings.

From 1938 to 1942 Ellison worked for the Federal WritersProject. During this time he focused his literary themes on African American folklore and ethnic identity. In 1941 he published Mister Toussan for New Masses. After serving as managing editor for the Negro Quarterly, Ellison wrote two short stories in 1944, Flying Home and King of the Bingo Game, which dealt with a young black mans attempt to control his destiny within the impersonal surroundings of a northern city. Within his early stories like King of the Bingo Game, Ellison employed techniques of irony, gothicism, and macabre humor to describe realities hidden behind the surface of the black and white worlds.

Literature and World War

Unable to join the U.S. Navy, Ellison enlisted in the Merchant Marine during World War II. He served as a cook and sailed with a naval convoy that supplied troops at the Battle of the Bulge. Around the same time, having secured a $1,500 grant from the Rosenwald Foundation, he wrote the story In a Strange Country. Set in a Nazi prisoner-of-war camp, the tale describes a black fighter pilots struggle as the highest-ranking officer among his fellow Allied prisoners.

Upon his return to New York, Ellison accepted an invitation to spend time on a friends farm in Waitsfield, Vermont, where he conceived the idea for his novel Invisible Man. Ellison recalled in his book Going to the Territory how, one afternoon during his stay, he wrote some words while sitting in an old bam looking out on the mountain. Im an Invisible Man. I didnt quite know what it meant, or where the idea came from. But the moment I started to abandon it, I thought:Well maybe I should try to discover what lay behind the statement. After a long period of contemplation, Ellison built upon the meaning of the phrase and its relationship to the theme of alienation and self-definition.

Part autobiography and part surrealistic odyssey, Invisible Man incorporates numerous themes of the African American experience. Condemned to search for both acceptance and identity, the books nameless protagonist crosses mysterious boundaries until he is awakened to the reality of his invisibility. As S. P. Fullinwider explained in his book The Mind and Mood of Black America, Ellisons novel not only describes what it is like to be a Negro in America, but what it is like to be a modern man living in a society which fears mans inhumanity. Its use of blues, jazz, and African American folk culturewith political themes of so-called Uncle Tom conservatism, communism, and black nationalism in the tradition of Marcus Garveyserve to, as Ellison stated in Going to the Territory, take one below the level of racial structuring, and down into those areas where we are simply human beings.

Invisible Man is indebted to the literary contributions of poet-critic T. S. Eliot and American novelist William Faulkner. It was Eliot, wrote Robert Bone, who taught [Ellison] the value of the past which was both painful and precious, flinching neither from slavery nor incest nor prostitution nor chaos itself, to assimilate even his negative heritage, conquering it, transforming it into an asset, a weapon. From Faulkner, Ellison learned to draw upon grotesque scenes of southern rural life to illuminate the dark reality underneath American society.

But the two most profound influences on Ellisons work are Richard Wrights 1944 short story The Man Who Lived Underground and its predecessor, Notes from Underground, by nineteenth-century Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky. William Walling wrote in the literary journal Phylon that, by utilizing these two sources, Ellison combined elements from Dostoevskys classic dramatization of alienation in the west with the specifically American plight of Wrights black protagonist. The hero in Ellisons novel, driven underground by society, celebrates his anonymity by breaking from the conformity that made him invisible.

In 1953, a year following its publication, Invisible Man received the National Book Award for fiction, the Russ-wurm Award, and the Certificate of Award from the Chicago Defender. Upon winning the Rockefeller Foundation award in 1954, Ellison went on a lecture tour of Germany and appeared at a seminar in Salzburg, Austria. He then toured with the U.S. Information Service. And after receiving American Academy of Arts and Letters fellowships, he resided in Rome for two years.

Though Ellison never completed a second novel, he continued to work on a manuscript that he first began in 1955. Aside from publishing various essays and short stories, he concentrated primarily on lecturing about literature in universities throughout the country. Having returned from Rome in 1957, he taught Russian and American literature at Bard College from 1958 to 1961. In 1964 the Tuskegee Institute awarded him an honorary doctorate. That same year, he published Shadow and Act, a collection of sixteen essays, speeches, and interviews dealing with African American culture, literature, and music criticism. Written mainly for publication in magazines, the books articles cover a time span from the late forties to the early sixties.

In 1965 the New York Herald Tribunes poll of 200 prominent authors, editors, and critics selected Invisible Man as the most distinguishable single work published in the last twenty years. Shortly afterward, a fire at Ellisons summer home in Plainsfield, Massachusetts, destroyed almost 350 pages of the manuscript of his unfinished novel. Along with this serious setback, he faced increasing criticism from militant black writers and students who dismissed his commitment to civil rights issues and to the ongoing struggles of people of color in the United States.

But Ellisons determination and passion for literature kept him in the forefront of intellectual and academic circles. In 1969 President Lyndon B. Johnson awarded him the Medal of Freedom, Americas highest civilian honor.

From 1970 to 1980 Ellison served as the Albert Schweitzer Professor of Humanities at New York University. His second collection of essays and lectures, Going to the Territory, was published in 1986.

Few novels of postwar American fiction have been as celebrated, written about, and analyzed as Ellisons Invisible Man. Many critics contend that this authors ability to delve deeply into the chaotic and complex character of American society has rendered him a lasting figure in modern literature. Rooted in the great musical and literary traditions of African American and European cultures, Ellisons prose breaks from the earlier styles of the Harlem Renaissance and the literary naturalism of Richard Wright; his writings are filled with surrealistic, dream-like scenes that provide a view of the dark recesses of the human experience. Art is the celebration of life, stated Ellison in Shadow and Act; it is, as he explained, a means of understanding the value of diversity within unity, allowing us to explore the full range of humanity.

Ellison died of pancreatic cancer on April 16, 1994. Joe Fox, his editor at Random House, was quoted as saying in Time that the authors novel-in-progress was virtually finished, but the books title and subject were never divulged during their meetings. Still, with the praise and critical attention already bestowed upon his published work, there is little doubt that his universalist message will endure long after the close of the twentieth century.

Selected writings


Invisible Man (novel), Signet, 1952.

Shadow and Act (essays, interviews, and lectures), Random House, 1964.

Going to the Territory (essays, interviews, and lectures), Vintage Books, 1986.

Short stories

Heines Bull, 1937.

Slick Gonna Learn, 1939.

The Birthmark, New Masses, 1940.

Mister Toussan, New Masses, 1941.

Hying Home, Cross-section, 1944.

King of the Bingo Game, Tomorrow, 1944.

In a Strange Country, Tomorrow, 1944.

Did You Ever Dream Lucky?, New World Writing, 1954.

A Coupla Scalped Indians, New World Writing, 1956.

And Hickman Arrives, 1960.

The Roof, the Steeple, and the People, 1960.

Out of the Hospital and Under the Bar, 1963.

Tell It Like It Is Baby, 1965.

Cadillac Flambé, 1973.



Bishop, Jack, Ralph Ellison, Chelsea House, 1988.

Black Literature Criticism, Gale, 1992.

Bone, Robert, The Negro Novel in America, Yale University Press, 1968.

Busby, Mark, Ralph Ellison, Twayne, 1991.

Dark Symphony: Negro Literature in America, edited by James A. Emanuel and Theodore L. Gross, New York Free Press, 1958.

Fullinwider, S. P., The Mind and Mood of Black America: Twentieth-Century Thought, Dorsey, 1969.

McSweeney, Kerry, Invisible Man: Race and Identity, Twayne, 1988.

Nadel, Alan, Invisible Criticism: Ralph Ellison and the American Canon, University of Iowa Press, 1988.

OMeally, Robert G., The Craft of Ellison, Harvard University Press, 1980.

Ralph Ellison: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by John Hersey, Prentice Hall, 1974.


Chicago Tribune, June 18, 1992, p. 1.

Commentary, June 1952.

Esquire, July 1986, p. 98.

Iowa Review, Fall 1989, pp. 1-10.

Jet, May 2, 1994, pp. 54-55.

New York Times Book Review, April 13, 1952, p. 5.

Phylon, June 1973, pp. 120-34.

Time, April 25, 1994, p. 90.


Associated Press release, April 16, 1994.

John Cohassey

Ellison, Ralph 1914–1994

views updated May 29 2018

Ralph Ellison 1914-1994

(Full name Ralph Waldo Ellison) American novelist, essayist, short story writer, critic, and editor.

For additional information on Ellison's career, see BLC, Ed. 1


Ellison's reputation as one of the most influential and respected American writers of the twentieth century rests almost exclusively on his novel Invisible Man (1952). The work is an exploration of the quest for self-awareness and many reviewers feel that it offers a masterful and complex analysis of racial repression and betrayal. Ellison skillfully employs a range of styles, including expressionism, naturalism, and surrealism in the novel; the work is also informed by both European and African American literary influences. Following the success of Invisible Man, which won the prestigious National Book Award for fiction, Ellison wrote short stories, essays, and literary criticism, but he struggled for the rest of his life with the production of a second novel. His copious notes and discarded efforts were culled together by his literary executors after his death and published as the novel Juneteenth (1999). Ellison's seeming inability to produce a successor to Invisible Man has generated much speculation and critical debate, particularly in the aftermath of Ellison's death and the publication of the posthumous, unauthorized Juneteenth, deemed by many critics as being disappointing.


Named after the American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson, Ellison was born in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, in 1914. His father was a small-business owner and a construction foreman. The lives of Ellison, his brother, and his mother were changed forever when Ellison's father, Lewis Ellison, died as a result of injuries sustained in a bizarre accident (Lewis Ellison drove a horse-drawn truck, delivering ice and coal; his stomach was punctured by a shard of ice). Ralph was three at the time and his brother was just weeks old. It fell to their mother to support the family through work as a hotel maid and janitor. The boys grew up poor, but Ellison helped the family by securing a position shining shoes before he was even twelve years old. He later worked as a waiter, a drugstore delivery person, and as a newspaper delivery person. Having developed a love of music, Ellison was given free trumpet lessons by a friend of the family and his affinity for jazz, blues, and classical music would influence him creatively for years to come. From 1933 to 1936, Ellison studied music at the Tuskegee Institute, having won admittance due to the college's lack of a trumpeter for their orchestra. Although he paid a reduced admission fee to attend college, Ellison worked full-time in a bakery to help pay his way, in addition to finding time for his studies and orchestra rehearsals and performances. Following his years at Tuskegee, Ellison traveled to New York City and became a part of the Federal Writers' Project. Befriended by author Richard Wright, Ellison wrote a book review for a publication Wright edited, New Challenge. Like Wright, he became involved with the Communist Party headquartered in Harlem. Inspired by the Communists' acceptance of blacks as the social and intellectual equals of whites, Ellison began writing essays and stories that centered on racial pride and the strength of the human spirit. Some of these stories foreshadowed Invisible Man in that they focus on young, alienated protagonists seeking social recognition. Ellison began working on Invisible Man in 1945, after receiving an honorable discharge from the United States Merchant Marines. The novel was published in 1952. Ellison continued his career as an author, publishing essays and short stories. He died of cancer on April 16, 1994.


Ellison is best known for Invisible Man, which he originally conceived as a war novel. Intending to depict the irony of black soldiers who fight for freedom, only to return to civilian life rife with oppression, Ellison transformed the concept into a broader psychological examination of the individual in society. Throughout the novel, the protagonist remains anonymous, and narrates his story from an underground cell, explaining that he is involuntarily invisible due to society's refusal to look beyond stereotypes and see instead his true self. The narrator describes the racism he experiences in college, an institution resembling Tuskegee, from which he is later expelled. After the narrator is hospitalized and given a form of electroshock therapy, he emerges desensitized but imbued with a sense of racial pride, the superficiality of his previous experience having been erased. The narrator becomes involved with the Brotherhood, an organization that critics generally agree represents the American Communist associations with which Ellison had been affiliated for a time. Having grown disillusioned with the Brotherhood, the narrator then recounts in a hallucinatory manner the Harlem race riots of the 1940s. Affirming his rejection of false identities, the protagonist conveys his acceptance of social responsibility and his willingness to once again face the world.

An accomplished essayist, Ellison collected two decades' worth of reviews, criticism, and interviews on such topics as art, music, literature, and the influence of the black experience on American culture. Published in 1964 as Shadow and Act, the collection was acclaimed for its social insights. His short stories have been widely anthologized but were not collected until after his death. They were finally published in the collection Flying Home and Other Stories in 1997.


Invisible Man was an immediate critical and popular success, although it was harshly criticized by black nationalists for its lack of militancy on civil rights issues. The highly symbolic book is viewed as a rich mine of layered meaning and social commentary. This symbolism and the book's often surrealist narrative structure yield an intricate plot worthy of the scholarly dissection it has received. Critics have observed that Ellison's language and stylistic approach are ambiguous, producing an effect that is both hopeful and despairing. Since Ellison's death in 1994, the novel, as well as his essays and short stories, continue to be analyzed. Since Ellison died without ever producing a much-anticipated second novel, criticism has largely attempted to reveal why Ellison was unable to complete this project. It is known that he worked on such an effort for years. Critics such as Brooke Allen suggest a number of possible reasons, including the idea that Ellison's expectation of exceeding the accomplishment of Invisible Man was simply too high. Allen surveys the biographical facts concerning Ellison's life, seeking clues, and discusses the posthumously published Juneteenth, observing that Ellison was unable to shape his work into a form that satisfied him. According to Allen, the work is disappointing because Ellison did not complete it, and did not intend the fragments he left behind to be published as they were. William H. Rice likewise confronts the issue of form, arguing that Ellison struggled with the very idea of the American novel. Rice explores the ways in which political issues affected Ellison's views during the course of writing a second novel; according to the critic, Ellison's evolving political views had a deep impact on his continual re-envisioning of that novel's structure and content. For example, Ellison maintained an anti-separatist stance at a time when the Civil Rights movement was becoming an increasingly violent one, possibly forcing Ellison to reevaluate his own views; Ellison presumably would have wished to express those altered views in the second novel. Rice also offers the notion that to Ellison, the art of novel writing was akin to composing music, a creative act that helps the artist create order amidst the chaos of life, or of the mind. Rice suggests that, after Invisible Man, the novel form failed Ellison.


"Flying Home" (short story) 1944; published in Dark Symphony: Negro Literature in America, 1968

"King of the Bingo Game" (short story) 1944; published in periodical Tomorrow; also published in Dark Symphony: Negro Literature in America, 1968

Invisible Man (novel) 1952

"Out of the Hospital and under the Bar" (prose) 1963; published in Soon, One Morning: New Writing by American Negroes, 1940-62

Shadow and Act (essays) 1964

Going to the Territory (essays, lectures, and interviews) 1986

The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison (essays) 1995

Flying Home and Other Stories (short stories) 1997

*Juneteenth (novel) 1999

*Unauthorized and published posthumously.


H. William Rice (essay date 2003)

SOURCE: Rice, H. William. "Conclusion." In Ralph Ellison and the Politics of the Novel, pp. 133-42. Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2003.

[In the essay that follows, Rice examines Ellison's views on writing and on the novel form, contending that the author viewed the art of novel writing in the same way that a musician approaches the composition and performance of a piece of music—that is, with religious fervor and as a means of protection against the chaos of life.]

This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.

This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.

This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.

This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.

This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.

This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.

J. D. Thomas (essay date fall 2006)

SOURCE: Thomas, J. D. "Ellison's Invisible Man." Explicator 65, no. 1 (fall 2006): 42-4.

[In this essay, Thomas reviews Ellison's use of pictorial images as symbols possessing political and racial significance in Invisible Man.]

An analysis of pictorial representations in Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man exposes the narrative's subtle iconographic framework, the symbolic schema that functions alongside the actual events of the text. In his essay "The Symbolism of Vision," the critic Charles I. Glicksberg examines the images of sight and blindness in Ellison's novel and suggests that the midcentury African American writer

resorts to the use of symbolism […] because only in that way, by employing that expressive and infinitely resourceful medium, can he hope to convey some notion of the life that [African Americans] are forced to lead in the United States. […] The symbols he uses as well as the way in which he presents them will indicate the depth of his sensibility, the complexity and richness of his talent, the range and power of his vision.


Thus, symbolism became increasingly important for the progressive writer who attempted to avoid the politically and racially charged criticism that Richard Wright encountered after the publication of Native Son. Ellison, therefore, in "a struggle to stare down the deadly and hypnotic temptation to interpret the world and all its devices in terms of race" ("Shadow" xix), employs images that carry political and racial connotations but avoid the obvious correlation between fiction and reality.1

After his dismissal from school, the Invisible Man (hereafter referred to as "IM") moves to New York, anticipating a warm acceptance by those acquainted with Dr. Bledsoe. Although a series of deceptive reference letters frustrate IM's initial plans, he eventually delivers a poignant speech after witnessing an eviction and subsequently attracts the attention of Brother Jack. Invited to a rally for the Brotherhood, he awaits his opportunity to speak before the crowd, but prior to doing so, he notices a faded picture on the wall depicting a former champion boxer who was blinded during a fight. As IM examines the picture, he reminisces over "his father's story of how [the boxer] had been beaten blind in a crooked fight, of the scandal that had been suppressed, and how the fighter had died in a home for the blind" (Ellison 334). Although called a "good man" by IM, the boxer's inability to perceive the dishonest arrangement of the fight led to his own physical blinding and eventual death. Soon thereafter, as IM steps into the ring to deliver his speech, he, too, is initially blinded, albeit by a spotlight. Although he regains his composure while on stage, he misconstrues the reception of his speech. Quickly forgetting the hostile remarks directed toward him afterward, IM joins the Brotherhood, never once considering that he, too, could possibly be blinded by the actions of those around him. Whereas the physical beating of the prizefight champion erases a distinction of his nationality, the political beatings of the Brotherhood eventually efface the humanity of IM, prompting his embrace of invisibility and his descent into the dark basement, his own personal "home for the blind."

After acceptance into the Brotherhood and four months of studious preparation under the tutelage of Brother Hambro, IM travels with Brother Jack to El Toro Bar. Frustrated at this apparent waste of valuable time, IM orders a drink, and while waiting for the bartender, he notices a picture of a bullfight hanging on the wall, which he perceives as an almost poetic confrontation between a matador and bull. As he continues to examine his surroundings, IM also observes an advertisement for beer, a smiling girl appearing above a calendar turned to "April One." Although the reference to April Fool's Day may seem obvious, the juxtaposition of these two seemingly unrelated images necessitates a critical analysis. Although Brother Jack quickly denigrates these pictures as representative of "cold steel civilization" and "sheer barbarism" (358), the connotative elements of each support another interpretation. There appears to be a correlation between the April Fool's Day calendar and the colloquial phrase "being fed the bull," implying the duplicitous nature of the Brotherhood's mission. Furthermore, the "pure grace" of the bullfight belies the fact that the scene suggests the eventual death or injury of either the matador or the bull.2

Although IM sees a certain beauty in the "sculptured folds" of the matador's red cape (358), he notices a second picture further down the wall, another representation of the bullfight; however, the red of the matador's cape is now replaced by the black of the bull's horns, and the matador, originally in control of the contest, is seen gored and swept into the air by the bull. At this point in the narrative, Brother Jack announces IM's election to the position of spokesman for Harlem, and although he has only spoken before a few crowds, he is now the district's center of attention, navigating between the horns of rival factions within the community. However, while figuratively waving the red flag by promoting the Brotherhood's mission, IM, like the matador, soon finds himself tossed about during the violent upheaval of Harlem. Thus, the pictorial images that he observes—the boxer, bullfight, and calendar—foreshadow the political disappointments that he will experience while working for the Brotherhood.


1. In Robert Stepto's From Behind the Veil, he discusses the "portrait gallery" motif in Invisible Man, and for the reader interested in the iconographic structure of the novel, his is a most compelling analysis.

2. The picture of the bullfight calls to mind Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, but I am unaware of any critical comparisons between Ellison and Hemingway. However, Hemingway's work could have negatively influenced Ellison's style, for as Robert Bone notes, "In accepting the National Book Award, Ellison states his reasons for avoiding the ‘hard-boiled’ Hemingway idiom" (198). Bone's reference is to Ellison's critique of the "narrow naturalism" of modernist American fiction. According to Ellison, "Except for the work of William Faulkner, something vital had gone out of American prose after Mark Twain" ("Light" 158).

Works Cited

Bone, Robert. The Negro Novel in America. New Haven: Yale UP, 1976.

Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. New York: Vintage International, 1980.

———. "Light on Invisible Man." Crisis 60.3 (March 1953): 157-58.

———. Shadow and Act. New York: Random House, 1964.

Glicksberg, Charles I. "The Symbolism of Vision." Twentieth Century Interpretations of Invisible Man. Ed. John M. Reilly. Upper Saddle River: Prentice-Hall, 1970.

Stepto, Robert. From Behind the Veil. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1991.

Brooke Allen (essay date May 2007)

SOURCE: Allen, Brooke. "The Visible Ralph Ellison." New Criterion (May 2007): 24-9.

[In the following overview of Ellison's life, Allen highlights the biographical factors that influenced Ellison's writing of the novel Invisible Man and suggests that some of these same factors contributed to his inability to complete a second novel.]

In the late 1940s, Ralph Ellison set out to write the Great American Novel about race. What he finally produced was more than that; it might just possibly be the Great American Novel, period. The appearance in 1952 of his first book, Invisible Man, struck the American literary scene like an earthquake. Its relatively unknown author was compared with Defoe, Céline, Dostoyevsky, Gogol, Melville, and Faulkner; even now, half-a-century later, the kudos do not seem extravagant. This one novel netted Ellison the National Book Award, two presidential medals of honor (from L.B.J. and Reagan), the Prix de Rome, the French rank of Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters, and an honorary degree from Harvard.

Still in his thirties and apparently with a great career ahead of him, Ellison applied himself to writing a second novel that would live up to his own high expectations and those of his public. For the next forty years he carried on, hard at it, producing hundreds upon hundreds of manuscript pages. But he never published another novel; nor was there a publishable novel to be culled by his literary executors from the disorganized reams of paper he left after his death in 1994 (though they had a try anyway, cobbling together a slim, ill-advised, and deeply unsatisfactory "novel," Juneteenth (1999), out of the fragments of what was to have been a major work).

Ellison's four-decade-long dry spell is now legendary, perhaps the most famous writer's block in history. Not many writers produce only one novel—certainly not many major writers, as Ellison must be accounted. Plenty, though, have produced only one really good novel, and might have done better to quit while they were ahead. It is possible that there are simply people who only have one book in them. That is no shame, after all; the pity is that such people tend to be emotionally incapable of moving on to some other line of work. At times Ellison himself feared that he was not a natural fiction writer, suspecting that his real métier might be nonfiction prose (his 1964 essay collection, Shadow and Act, is almost as highly thought of as Invisible Man ).

The problem might simply have been the magnitude of his own expectations. Stanley Crouch found that

the tragedy lies in the weight Ralph put on himself. He created this grand tower in his mind, with a priceless penthouse at the top, which was virtually impossible to climb. There were stairs, but he hadn't built them well…. Well, the greater the ambition, the greater the failure.

Perhaps, too, Ellison had special editorial help in organizing the raw material that made up Invisible Man. His friend Ted Weiss made an intriguing suggestion. "I thought [the critic] Stanley [Edgar] Hyman was instrumental in helping Ralph pull the material together for Invisible Man, " Weiss said. "Hyman helped him find the shape of the book, trimmed it, and gave it form and order. On the second novel, he had no one to help him in the same way."

This is a rather disturbing idea—that Invisible Man might have remained as rough and inchoate as the ill-fated Juneteenth without the help of a brilliant editor. It is only an idea, though. It is just as likely that Ellison's inability to complete (or rather to stop writing and start to edit) a second novel was due to his personal devils. The tragic early death of his father; his poverty; his natural hypersensitivity coupled with the slights and insults which were a daily part of black experience during his Oklahoma youth: all these combined to make his life, as he described it, "a lacerating experience."

Ellison was not the nicest man in the world, to put it mildly: proud, cold, snobbish, and supercilious, he insulted countless people during his long life and made his wife's existence a misery. Arnold Rampersad has performed a difficult feat in his new biography of the prickly writer: while sparing his subject nothing and making no excuses for him, he manages to see the man with real sympathy, and to convey that sympathy to his readers.1 Throughout the book he mixes really heart-wrenching material with refreshingly sardonic comments to produce a rich portrait of an exceedingly complex character.

In his 1959 book of essays, Advertisements for Myself, the ever-provocative Norman Mailer summed up Ellison as he read him:

He is essentially a hateful writer. When the line of his satire is pure, he writes so perfectly that one can never forget the experience of reading him—it is like holding a live electric wire in one's hand. But Ralph's mind, fine and icy, tuned to the pitch of a major novelist's madness, is not always adequate to mastering the forms of rage, horror, and disgust which his eyes have presented to his experience, and so he is forever tumbling from the heights of pure satire into the nets of a murderously depressed clown.

Rampersad comments dryly that "Perhaps it took one ‘mad’ major novelist, obsessed by violence … to know another." But he admits that Mailer's analysis contained a good deal of accuracy. Ellison had always been driven by rage. In boyhood, the writer later related, "I was constantly fighting until I reached the age when I realized that I was strong enough and violent enough to kill somebody in a fit of anger." Later, in Rampersad's words, "Along with a rigid, self-righteous desire for correctness and order he also harbored a temptation toward violence, subversion, and dissimulation, which his fierce price and force of will held in check." The impulse toward violence is palpable in Invisible Man ; it is what gives the novel's prose that very sense of being electrically alive, and dangerous.

There were plenty of circumstances in Ellison's early life that might have contributed to his ferocious personality, but nature, his genetic make-up, probably had more to do with it than nurture, for his brother, Herbert, who had suffered along with him, was a genial character with few worldly ambitions. The boys' early childhood was traumatic: their kind father, who delivered ice and coal in a horse-drawn wagon, fell victim to a freak accident when a shard of ice punctured his stomach. The wound did not heal, Lewis Ellison became increasingly unwell, and finally, after an unsuccessful operation, died. Ralph was three, Herbert only a few weeks old. Lewis had been an educated, upwardly mobile man; without him his widow, Ida, slipped down the social scale and spent most of the rest of her life as a hotel maid or janitor. To Ellison, who would grow up to be a fiercely proud man, the family's status was a humiliation.

Before he turned twelve, Ralph was working as a shoeshine boy; later he was a waiter at the Oklahoma Club and a drugstore delivery boy. When he began delivering newspapers for Oklahoma City's Black Dispatch, Ellison came into contact for the first time with a black leader in the person of its editor, who financed the first legal challenge to Jim Crow laws in Oklahoma City. It was the beginning of a look into a larger world, continued by Ellison's growing interest in music. Given free trumpet lessons by a family friend, he started out, as he said, "with an effect like that of a jackass hiccupping off a big meal of briars," but with practice he began making real progress, even dreaming of a career in music. Thus he became "an insider both in the core artistic passion of black Oklahoma City—music—and in the roiling if often unspoken debates about three competing traditions: religious music; jazz and the blues; and Western classical music."

These debates have never been resolved; they continue in the black community today. Ellison, applying them to literature and culture in general, would come down on the side against separation. He wanted, he said, to build a bridge between Western culture and black vernacular. Jazz and the blues were in his bloodstream; he memorably defined the blues in racial terms, as "an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one's aching consciousness, to finger its jagged grain, and to transcend it, not by the consolation of philosophy but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic, lyricism." Yet he aspired to a career in classical music, perhaps as an important composer or conductor. Culture was universal, a gift for everyone; to reject any art, or music, or literature because it did not speak specifically to black people was sheer idiocy. "Where on earth did the notion come from that the world, and all its art, has to be reinvented, recreated, every time a Black individual seeks to express himself?" he asked. "The world is here and art is here, and they've been here for a long, long time." After the war, witnessing what he considered the sorry spectacle of expatriate black life in Paris, he complained that "So many of them talk and act like sulking children and all they can say about France with its great culture is that it's a place where they can walk in any restaurant and be served. It seems rather obscene to reduce life to such terms."

His sense of kinship with black America, confused as it was, was strong; so was his wish to break free from its cultural parochialism and take possession of the great world of thought, language, and art. The Tuskegee Institute, which sought to instill the values of hard work and race pride personified by its founder, Booker T. Washington, was not exactly that great world. Still, it was a step up and away from the dead-end future offered to an uneducated black man in Oklahoma City. Ellison could not afford to go there—or to any college—but the Tuskegee orchestra needed a skilled first trumpeter and he was given a place, provided he paid a small tuition fee and worked eight hours a day in the bakery as well as rehearsing and performing with the orchestra. It was a chance for a higher education and a possible career in music, and Ellison grabbed it.

He came quickly to dislike the place. "If I get away from here I am through with Negro schools," he railed. His unforgettable, thinly disguised portrait of Tuskegee in Invisible Man brutally lampoons what he saw as the quackery and philosophical nullity of the Institute, its pious "vision," as opposed to the reality of life there. But in his years at the school Ellison gained more than just material for his novel, benefiting from the attention of several fine teachers who eventually turned his interests toward literature. The books which most obsessed him were Crime and Punishment, Wuthering Heights, and Jude the Obscure. Rampersad points out that "Each had at its center a misunderstood young man, ambitious, tormented, transgressive; each thus held up a mirror to his nature." Predictably, Ellison identified with Thomas Mann's Tonio Kröger and Hardy's Jude: reading the latter, he remembered, "Oh Lord, I suffered."

In 1936, with about $100 in his pocket, he suddenly decided to go to New York, though he had no job lined up and no particular plans. He took a room at the 135th Street YMCA and made the acquaintance of the distinguished Langston Hughes on his second day in the city, having spotted him in the YMCA lobby with one of Ellison's cronies from Tuskegee. Hughes gave him good advice ("Be nice to people, and let them pay for meals") and books (André Malraux's would make a particular impression) and introduced him around. Ellison's vision of Harlem in the 1930s as a surreal and bizarre world unto itself would make its way into Invisible Man, with its thinly disguised Garveyites and Communists. Ellison immediately rejected the Garveyites, and by extension black separatism and Harlem provincialism in general. "I did not come to New York to live in Harlem. I was not exchanging Southern segregation for Northern segregation," he said. But the Communists were not so easily dismissed.

In 1933 the Communist Party had designated Harlem a "national concentration point." This was an intelligent choice; as Rampersad reminds us, of all the major institutions in America life at that time, "only the Communist Party officially defined blacks as socially and intellectually equal to whites," and when Ellison arrived in Harlem some seventy-five percent of its artists and intellectuals had ties with the Party. Ellison himself became a dues-paying member, and soon embarked on what might have been the most influential friendship of his life. Richard Wright, slightly older than Ellison and already launched on his groundbreaking career, was then the chief reporter on black affairs for The Daily Worker. With his encouragement Ellison entered the world of journalism, working specifically for Party organs like New Masses. For New Masses, Ellison recalled, "I wrote what might be called propaganda having to do with the Negro struggle—but my fiction was always trying to do something else…. I never accepted the ideology which the New Masses attempted to impose on writers. They hated Dostoyevsky, but I was studying Dostoyevsky. They felt that Henry James was a decadent, some sort of snob who had nothing to teach a writer from the lower classes—I was studying James."

Nevertheless, Ellison remained a Stalinist for some years and stayed at New Masses until 1942, acting as an enforcer of political correctness (although in later life he would be cagey about his past ties to the Party). It was not until the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, when the Party dropped black rights as an important issue in order to concentrate all their forces on the "international struggle against Fascism," that Ellison was no longer needed at New Masses.

He had indeed been writing fiction: a traumatic trip to Dayton, Ohio—where he attended his mother's last illness and death and then spent a period of penury and homelessness while settling up Ida's affairs and trying to collect her life insurance—proved strangely fruitful for his imaginative work, and he wrote several short stories at this time. (His collected short fiction was published posthumously under the title Flying Home and Other Stories ). Here he worked very much under the influence of Wright, whose dark appreciation of the grotesque side of black life would profoundly affect Ellison's vision. The two men also shared a refusal, rare among black intellectuals, to automatically condemn white culture and aesthetic values. Writing of Ellison, Rampersad suggests that "That critical instinct freed him to ascend, without inhibition, the heights of the Euro-American artistic and intellectual tradition (but it may well have been a decisive factor in his eventual decline as an artist, because it took a toll on his imagination and morals)." This is a question that Rampersad, in his biography, never answers; perhaps it is unanswerable.

Ellison's artistic philosophy was further developed during the four years he spent working at the New York Writers' Project, an organization formed to develop material about African-Americans in New York. He was assigned to the "Living Lore" unit, and the work he did for it confirmed him in his longtime interest in folklore, myth, and ritual. It was an interest that would later become almost obsessive under the influence of Stanley Edgar Hyman and Kenneth Burke. Some, such as Ellison's sometimes exasperated friend Saul Bellow, even blamed it for clogging and overpowering what was to have been his second novel, but Rampersad disagrees. "Burke and Hyman encouraged in Ralph a reverence for the literary power of myth, symbol, and allusion. Unfortunately, that reverence seems to have become dogmatic. That this development was Hyman's fault is highly questionable. Ralph was becoming rigid on his own."

Whatever problems Ellison's intellectual fixations might have caused him later on, they were triumphantly vindicated in Invisible Man. The novel began to take form in his mind after World War II, during which he had served in the Merchant Marine. His marriage to the attractive Fanny McConnell Buford provided not only a new emotional stability but a financial one as well, for Fanny, successful in whatever job she undertook, proved a reliable breadwinner. Now he was able to devote more time to his allegorical mock epic with its nameless hero. "The invisible man will move upward through Negro life," he planned, "coming into contact with its various forms and personality types; will operate in the Negro middle class in the left-wing movement and descend again into the disorganized atmosphere of the Harlem underworld. He will move upward in society through opportunism and submissiveness. Psychologically he is a traitor, to himself, to his people and to democracy and his treachery lies in his submissiveness and opportunism." Literary predecessors, exercises in the surreal like Dostoyevsky's Notes from the Underground and Melville's The Confidence Man, were evident.

The impact made by Invisible Man upon publication is by now legendary: Ellison was catapulted into the highest ranks of literary New York. Black critics and readers, interestingly enough, were less ecstatic, perhaps because of the novel's extremely dark, indeed death-centered take on so many black institutions: Negro colleges, black separatism, the Communist Party (fictionalized in Invisible Man as "the Brotherhood"). A number of readers believed that Ellison purposely stressed his critique of the Brotherhood for political reasons, but Rampersad rejects the theory. "Did Ralph … intensify his denunciation of the Brotherhood out of fear of the political right, which had already begun to destroy careers in the name of freedom? The answer is almost certainly no. Ralph was not a coward. He created out of his core beliefs, and he did so with a personal integrity of which he was proud." This is true, I think; it is what makes Rampersad continue to respect Ellison, and what makes the perusal of this biography so worthwhile.

Rampersad's tolerance extends to Ellison's personal as well as professional life; he exhibits a commendable and humane unwillingness to take his snobbery and coldness at face value. He does not ignore them, however. Ellison had always been hypersensitive about social status, and this criterion now ruled his and Fanny's social life. "Race, class, and money all played major roles in the decisions about who should be welcomed, encouraged, solicited—and who should not."

"Given the warped dynamics of American racism," Rampersad continues, "the Ellisons' friendship with whites was crucial to their sense of success and that of the national ideals in which they believed. Unlike many other blacks, who refused to pay the psychological toll of trying to associate with whites, they sought to cement their place in the tiny part of white society that would receive them. In New York, most of these people were leftist Jews." Over the years, as social codes loosened and the Ellisons continued to move up—Ralph accepted positions as the "token black" on various boards—they began to slough off the leftist Jews in favor of socially secure WASPS. As William Styron noted, "Ralph had a deep-seated need to be a member of the establishment. He was trapped in needing to belong." The divided social lives led by the Ellisons might have led, Rampersad posits, to an uncertainty over his place in the black world, a "growing sense of his own relative social amorphousness," and ultimately to an inability to function as an artist.

As he developed into a literary elder statesman, Ellison made himself completely unavailable to younger black writers. "While black youths hungered for leadership, the most honored living black American novelist had no young black disciples, students, or friends," Rampersad notes. When he took teaching posts (he taught at Bard, the University of Chicago, Rutgers, and New York University), his classes had few black students, an uncomfortable anomaly that became more pronounced as the 1960s, the counterculture, and the Black Power movement progressed. As an anti-separationist, Ellison deplored Malcolm X (a character who could have stepped right out of the pages of Invisible Man, as many people noticed), and felt that the Black Power rhetoric led into a cultural cul de sac.

He deeply disliked the peace sloganeering of the 1960s and the hipster philosophy promulgated by Mailer, among others: "He [Mailer] thinks all hipsters are cocksmen possessed of great euphoric orgasms and are out to fuck the world into peace, [prosperity] and creativity," he said dismissively. "It makes you hesitant to say more than the slightest greetings to their wives lest they think you're out to give them a hot fat injection. What a bore." That this unhip position took a certain courage did not go unnoticed and unappreciated. Styron felt that Ellison fell into a "trap" in becoming a Vietnam hawk, but remembered that "among intellectuals it was perversely brave to be for the war. It was both an act of heresy and a mark of extreme independence."

If Ellison had kept producing the kind of work of which he was capable, he would have been forgiven all of this offensiveness. But the years went by, and still nothing appeared. He spent more than two years at the American Academy in Rome, cutting himself off from his literary sources just as he had accused Richard Wright of doing with his move to France. When a 1968 fire in his Massachusetts farmhouse destroyed part of his manuscript he exaggerated the scale of the loss, according to Rampersad, and used it as an excuse for his lack of results for many years to come. His apparent arrogance grew, nevertheless.

Ellison died in 1994. As a novelist he had lost his way, according to Rampersad, "in proportion to his distancing of himself from his fellow blacks." Bellow thought the explanation was simpler: it amounted to a lack of the artistic discipline necessary to shape his material. "He took a sort of jazz musician's attitude to writing. He was always very happy when he was blowing a riff on the typewriter." The evidence provided by the unformed work Ellison left behind bears this out: he wrote compulsively, almost manically, and did not edit at all. Was Invisible Man the only novel he had in him? Was it a fluke, given form by Stanley Edgar Hyman's editorial skills? Or might it have been the first of several fine novels, had Ellison's personal devils not intervened?

Whatever the answer, one conclusion seems to be that Ellison was very much not a man at ease in his own time—always a difficult position for an artist. As Rampersad points out, while Ellison was isolating himself with his unfinishable manuscript, a generation of younger black writers were transforming the quantity and quality of black American writing behind his back, as it were. His own work, or what we can judge of it by Juneteenth, seemed stuck, fixated on problems and issues that the new generation had moved beyond.

Not an easy man or even a likeable one, then; Rampersad is particularly amusing in describing the uncomfortable visit paid to the Ellisons by a young academic—clearly Rampersad himself—who was doing research for a biography of Langston Hughes, and the chilly, stingy reception they gave him. Yet clearly Rampersad finds it all more poignant, sometimes more funny, than blameworthy. In the end—to his credit—he cares less about the bad Ellison than about the good one. This is the Ellison he shows us: the challenging thinker with his "brave refusal of coarse, destructive forms of militancy, his eloquent embrace of a studied moderation, and his complex patriotism."


1.Ralph Ellison: A Biography, by Arnold Rampersad; Knopf, 672 pages, s35.


Johnson, Loretta. "History in Ralph Ellison's Juneteenth." In Studies in American Fiction, 32, no. 1 (spring 2004): 81-99.

Explores Ellison's treatment of the theme of history in Juneteenth, maintaining that in this work, he stresses the importance of celebration and art in keeping the past a part of the present.

Morel, Lucas E., editor. Ralph Ellison and the Raft of Hope: A Political Companion to Invisible Man. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2004, 249 p.

A collection of essays by various scholars on the political content within and the political effects of Ellison's Invisible Man.

Additional coverage of Ellison's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale: African-American Writers, Eds. 1, 2; American Writers: The Classics, Vol. 2; American Writers Retrospective Supplement, Vol. 2; Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 19; Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography and Resources, Vol. 1; Black Literature Criticism, Ed. 1:2; Black Writers, Eds. 1, 3; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, Vol. 1941-1968; Concise Major 21st-Century Writers, Ed. 1; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12R; Contemporary Authors—Obituary, Vol. 145; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 24, 53; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 1, 3, 11, 54, 86, 114; Contemporary Novelists, Eds. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5; Contemporary Southern Writers; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 2, 76, 227; Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook, Ed. 1994; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British Edition; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-Studied Authors, Multicultural Authors, and Novelists; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; Exploring Novels Exploring Short Stories; Literature and Its Times, Vol. 4; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Major 21st-Century Writers (eBook), Ed. 2005; Modern American Literature, Ed. 5; Nonfiction Classics for Students, Vol. 3; Novels for Students, Vols. 2, 21; Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4; Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Ed. 2; St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers, Short Stories for Students, Vols. 1, 11; Short Story Criticism, Vols. 26, 79; and World Literature Criticism, Vol. 2.

Ellison, Ralph 1914–1994

views updated May 14 2018

Ellison, Ralph 1914–1994

(Ralph Waldo Ellison)

PERSONAL: Born March 1, 1914, in Oklahoma City, OK; died of cancer April 16, 1994, in New York, NY; son of Lewis Alfred (a construction worker and tradesman) and Ida (Millsap) Ellison; married Fanny McConnell, July, 1946. Education: Attended Tuskegee Institute, 1933–36. Hobbies and other interests: Jazz and classical music, photography, electronics, furniture-making, bird-watching, gardening.

CAREER: Writer, 1937–94. Researcher and writer for Federal Writers' Project, New York, NY, 1938–42; Negro Quarterly, editor, 1942; U.S. Information Agency, tour of Italian cities, 1956; Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY, instructor in Russian and American literature, 1958–61; New York University, New York, NY, Albert Schweitzer Professor in Humanities, 1970–79, professor emeritus, 1979–94. Alexander White Visiting Professor, University of Chicago, 1961; visiting professor of writing, Rutgers University, 1962–64; visiting fellow in American studies, Yale University, 1966. Lecturer at Salzburg Seminar, Austria, 1954; Gertrude Whittall Lecturer, Library of Congress, 1964; Ewing Lecturer, University of CaliforniaLos Angeles, 1964; lecturer at colleges and universities throughout the United States, including Columbia University, Fisk University, Princeton University, Antioch University, and Bennington College. Member of Carnegie Commission on Educational Television, 1966–67; honorary consultant in American letters, Library of Congress, 1966–72. Trustee, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 1967–77, Educational Broadcasting Corp., 1968–69, New School for Social Research (now New School University), 1969–83, Bennington College, 1970–75, and Museum of the City of New York, 1970–86. Charter member of Na-tional Council of the Arts, 1965–67, and National Advisory Council, Hampshire College. Military service: U.S. Merchant Marine, World War II.

MEMBER: PEN (vice president, 1964), Authors Guild, Authors League of America, American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, Institute of Jazz Studies (member of board of advisors), Century Association (resident member).

AWARDS, HONORS: Rosenwald grant, 1945; National Book Award and National Newspaper Publishers' Russ-wurm Award, both 1953, both for Invisible Man; Certificate of Award, Chicago Defender, 1953; Rockefeller Foundation award, 1954; Prix de Rome fellowships, American Academy of Arts and Letters, 1955 and 1956; Invisible Man selected as the most distinguished postwar American novel and Ellison as the sixth most influential novelist by New York Herald Tribune Book Week poll, 1965; award honoring Oklahomans in the arts from governor of Oklahoma, 1966; Medal of Freedom, 1969; made Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et Lettres (France), 1970; Ralph Ellison Public Library, Oklahoma City, OK, named in his honor, 1975; National Medal of Arts, 1985, for Invisible Man and teaching at numerous universities. Honorary doctorates from Tuskegee Institute, 1963, Rutgers University, 1966, Grinnell College, 1967, University of Michigan, 1967, Williams College, 1970, Long Island University, 1971, Adelphi University, 1971, College of William and Mary, 1972, Harvard University, 1974, Wake Forest College, 1974, University of Maryland, 1974, Bard College, 1978, Wesleyan University, 1980, and Brown University, 1980.


Invisible Man (novel), Random House (New York, NY), 1952, with illustrations by Steven H. Stroud, Franklin Library, 1980, thirtieth-anniversary edition with new introduction by author, Random House, 1982, edited and with an introduction by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House (New York, NY), 1996.

(Author of introduction) Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage and Four Great Stories, Dell (New York, NY), 1960.

Shadow and Act (essays), Random House (New York, NY), 1964.

(With Karl Shapiro) The Writer's Experience (lectures; includes "Hidden Names and Complex Fate: A Writer's Experience in the U.S.," by Ellison, and "American Poet?," by Shapiro), Gertrude Clarke Whittall Poetry and Literature Fund for Library of Congress (Washington, DC), 1964.

(With Whitney M. Young and Herbert Gans) The City in Crisis, introduction by Bayard Rustin, A. Philip Randolph Education Fund (Washington, DC), 1968.

(Author of introduction) Romare Bearden, Paintings and Projections (catalogue of exhibition), State University of New York at Albany (Albany, NY), 1968.

(Author of foreword) Leon Forrest, There Is a Tree More Ancient than Eden, Random House (New York, NY), 1973.

Going to the Territory (essays), Random House (New York, NY), 1986.

The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison, Modern Library (New York, NY), 1995.

Flying Home and Other Stories, edited by John F. Callahan, preface by Saul Bellow, Random House (New York, NY), 1996.

Juneteenth (novel), edited by John F. Callahan, Random House (New York, NY), 1999.

Living with Music: Ralph Ellison's Jazz Writings, edited by Robert G. O'Meally, Modern Library (New York, NY), 2001.


Ralph Ellison: An Interview with the Author of Invisible Man (sound recording), Center for Cassette Studies (Hollywood, CA), 1974.

(With William Styron and James Baldwin) Is the Novel Dead?: Ellison, Styron, and Baldwin on Contemporary Fiction (sound recording), Center for Cassette Studies (Hollywood, CA), 1974.

Ralph Ellison Reading from a Novel in Progress, Gertrude Clarke Whittall Poetry and Literature Fund for Library of Congress (Washington, DC), 1983.

Conversations with Ralph Ellison, edited by Maryemma Graham and Amritjit Singh, University Press of Mississippi (Jackson, MS), 1995.

Trading Twelves: The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray, edited by Albert Murray and John F. Callahan, Modern Library (New York, NY), 2000.

Contributor to books, including The Living Novel: A Symposium, edited by Granville Hicks, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1957; Education of the Deprived and Segregated (report), Bank Street College of Education (New York, NY), 1965; Who Speaks for the Negro?, by Robert Penn Warren, Random House (New York, NY), 1965; To Heal and to Build: The Programs of Lyndon B. Johnson, edited by James MacGregor Burns, prologue by Howard K. Smith, epilogue by Eric Hoffer, McGraw Hill (New York, NY), 1968; and American Law: The Third Century, the Law Bicentennial Volume, edited by Bernard Schwartz, New York University School of Law (New York, NY), 1976. Work represented in numerous anthologies, including American Writing, edited by Hans Otto Storm and others, J.A. Decker (Prairie City, IL), 1940; Best Short Stories of World War II, edited by Charles A. Fenton, Viking Press (New York, NY), 1957; The Angry Black, edited by John Alfred Williams, Lancer Books (New York, NY), 1962, 2nd edition published as Beyond the Angry Black, Cooper Square (Totowa, NJ), 1966; Soon, One Morning: New Writing by American Negroes, 1940–1962 (includes previously unpublished section from original manuscript of Invisible Man), edited by Herbert Hill, Alfred A. Knopf (New York, NY), 1963, published as Black Voices, Elek Books (London, England), 1964; Experience and Expression: Reading and Responding to Short Fiction, edited by John L. Kimmey, Scott, Foresman (Glenview, IL), 1976; and The Treasury of American Short Stories, compiled by Nancy Sullivan, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1981.

ADAPTATIONS: Avon Kirkland directed the documentary Ralph Ellison: An American Journey, 2002. Living with Music, Invisible Man, and Juneteenth were adapted as audiobooks.

SIDELIGHTS: Growing up in Oklahoma, a "frontier" state that "had no tradition of slavery" and where "relationships between the races were more fluid and thus more human than in the old slave states," American author and educator Ralph Ellison became conscious of his obligation "to explore the full range of American Negro humanity and to affirm those qualities which are of value beyond any question of segregation, economics or previous condition of servitude." This sense of obligation, articulated in his 1964 collection of critical and biographical essays, Shadow and Act, led to Ellison's staunch refusal to limit his artistic vision to the "uneasy sanctuary of race" and commit instead to a literature that explores and affirms the complex, often contradictory frontier of an identity at once black and American and universally human. For Ellison, whom John F. Callahan in a Chant of Saints: A Gathering of Afro-American Literature, Art, and Scholarship essay called a "moral historian," the act of writing was fraught with both great possibility and grave responsibility. As Ellison once asserted, writing "offers me the possibility of contributing not only to the growth of the literature but to the shaping of the culture as I should like it to be. The American novel is in this sense a conquest of the frontier; as it describes our experience, it creates it."

For Ellison, then, the task of the novelist was a moral and political one. In his preface to the thirtieth anniversary edition of his best-known work, Invisible Man, Ellison argued that the serious novel, like the best politics, "is a thrust toward a human ideal." Even when the ideal is not realized in the actual, he declared, "there is still available that fictional vision of an ideal democracy in which the actual combines with the ideal and gives us representations of a state of things in which the highly placed and the lowly, the black and the white, the Northerner and the Southerner, the native-born and the immigrant are combined to tell us of transcendent truths and possibilities such as those discovered when Mark Twain set Huck and Jim afloat on the raft." Ellison saw the novel as a "raft of hope" that may help readers stay above water as they try "to negotiate the snags and whirlpools that mark our nation's vacillating course toward and away from the democratic ideal."

Early in his career, Ellison conceived of his vocation as a composer of symphonies. When he entered Alabama's Tuskegee Institute in 1933 he enrolled as a music major; he wonders in Shadow and Act if he did so because, given his background, it was the only art "that seemed to offer some possibility for self-definition." The act of writing soon presented itself as an art through which the young student could link the disparate worlds he cherished, could verbally record and create the "affirmation of Negro life" he knew was so intrinsic a part of the universally human. To move beyond the old definitions that separated jazz from classical music, vernacular from literary language, the folk from the mythic, he would have to discover a prose style that could equal the integrative imagination of the "Renaissance Man."

Because Ellison did not get a job that paid him enough to save money for tuition, he stayed in New York, working and studying composition until his mother died. After his return to the family home in Dayton, Ohio, Ellison and his brother supported themselves by hunting. Though Ellison had hunted for years, he did not know how to wing-shoot; it was from Hemingway's fiction that he learned this process. Ellison also studied Hemingway to learn writing techniques; from the older writer he also learned a lesson in descriptive accuracy and power, in the close relationship between fiction and reality. Like his narrator in Invisible Man, Ellison did not return to college; instead he began his long apprenticeship as a writer, his long and often difficult journey toward self-definition.

Ellison's early days in New York, before his return to Dayton, provided him with experiences that would later translate themselves into his theory of fiction. Two days after his arrival in "deceptively 'free' Harlem," he met black poet Langston Hughes who introduced him to the works of Andre Malraux, a French writer defined as Marxist. Though attracted to Marxism, Ellison sensed in Malraux something beyond a simplistic political sense of the human condition. Ellison began to form his definition of the artist as a revolutionary concerned less with local injustice than with the timelessly tragic.

Ellison's view of art was furthered after he met black novelist Richard Wright. Wright urged him to read Joseph Conrad, Henry James, James Joyce, and Feodor Dostoevsky and invited Ellison to contribute a review essay and then a short story to the magazine he was editing. Wright was then in the process of writing Native Son, much of which Ellison read, he declared in Shadow and Act, "as it came out of the typewriter." Though awed by the process of writing and aware of the achievement of the novel, Ellison, who had just read works by Malraux, began to form his objections to the "sociological," deterministic ideology which informed the portrait of the work's protagonist, Bigger Thomas. In Shadow and Act, which Arthur P. Davis in From the Dark Tower: Afro-American Writers, 1900 to 1960 described as partly an apologia provita sua (a defense of his life), Ellison articulated the basis of his objection: "I … found it disturbing that Bigger Thomas had none of the finer qualities of Richard Wright, none of the imagination, none of the sense of poetry, none of the gaiety." Ellison thus refuted the depiction of the black individual as an inarticulate victim whose life is one only of despair, anger, and pain. He insisted that art must capture instead the complex reality, the pain and the pleasure of black existence, thereby challenging the definition of the black person as something less than fully human.

From 1938 to 1944 Ellison published a number of short stories and contributed essays to journals such as New Masses. As with other examples of Ellison's work, these stories have provoked disparate readings. In an essay in Black World, Ernest Kaiser called the earliest stories and the essays in New Masses "the healthiest" of Ellison's career. The critic praised the economic theories that inform the early fiction, and he found Ellison's language pure, emotional, and effective. Lamenting a change he attributed to Ellison's concern with literary technique, Kaiser charged the later stories, essays, and novels with being no longer concerned with people's problems and with being "unemotional." Other critics, like Marcus Klein in After Alienation: American Novels in Mid-Century, saw the early work as a progressive preparation for Ellison's mature fiction and theory. In the earliest of these stories, "Slick Gonna Learn," Ellison draws a character shaped largely by an ideological, naturalistic conception of existence, the very type of character he later repudiated. From this imitation of proletarian fiction, Ellison's work moved towards psychological and finally metaphysical explorations of the human condition. His characters thus were freed from restrictive definitions as Ellison developed a voice that was his own, Klein maintained.

In the two latest stories of the 1938–1944 period, "Flying Home" and "King of the Bingo Game," Ellison creates characters congruent with his sense of pluralism and possibility and does so in a narrative style that begins to approach the complexity of Invisible Man. As Arthur P. Davis noted, in "Flying Home" Ellison combines realism, folk story, symbolism, and a touch of surrealism to present his protagonist, Todd. In a fictional world composed of myriad levels of the mythic and the folk, the classical and the modern, Todd fights to free himself of imposed definitions. In "King of the Bingo Game," Ellison experiments with integrating sources and techniques. As in all of Ellison's early stories, the protagonist is a young black man fighting for his freedom against forces and people that attempt to deny it. In "King of the Bingo Game," Robert G. O'Meally argued in The Craft of Ralph Ellison, "the struggle is seen in its most abstracted form." This abstraction results from the "dreamlike shifts of time and levels of consciousness" that dominate the surrealistic story and also from the fact that "the King is Ellison's first character to sense the frightening absurdity of everyday American life." In an epiphany that frees him from illusion and which places him, even if for only a moment, in control, the King realizes "that his battle for freedom and identity must be waged not against individuals or even groups, but against no less than history and fate," O'Meally declared. Ellison saw his black hero as one who wages the oldest battle in human history: the fight for freedom to be timelessly human, to engage in the "tragic struggle of humanity," as the writer asserted in Shadow and Act.

Whereas the King achieves awareness for a moment, the Invisible Man not only becomes aware but is able to articulate fully the struggle. As Ellison noted in his preface to the anniversary edition of the novel, too often characters have been "figures caught up in the most intense forms of social struggle, subject to the most extreme forms of the human predicament but yet seldom able to articulate the issues which tortured them." The Invisible Man is endowed with eloquence; he is Ellison's radical experiment with a fiction that insists upon the full range and humanity of the black character.

Ellison began Invisible Man in 1945. Although he was at work on a never-completed war novel at the time, he recalled in his 1982 preface that he could not ignore the "taunting, disembodied voice" he heard beckoning him to write Invisible Man. Published in 1952 after a seven-year creative struggle on the part of its author, and awarded the National Book Award in 1953, Invisible Man received critical acclaim. Although some early reviewers were puzzled or disappointed by the experimental narrative techniques, many now agree that these techniques give the work its lasting force and account for Ellison's influence on modern fiction. The novel is a fugue of cultural fragments—echoes of Homer, Joyce, Eliot, and Hemingway join forces with the sounds of spirituals, blues, jazz, and nursery rhymes. The Invisible Man is as haunted by Louis Armstrong's "What did I do/ To be so black/ And blue?" as he is by Hemingway's bullfight scenes and his matadors' grace under pressure. The linking together of these disparate cultural elements allows the Invisible Man to draw the portrait of his inner face that is the way out of his wasteland.

In the novel, Ellison clearly employed the traditional motif of the bildungsroman, or novel of education: the Invisible Man moves from innocence to experience, darkness to light, from blindness to sight. Complicating this linear journey, however, is the narrative frame provided by the prologue and epilogue which the narrator composes after the completion of his above-ground educational journey. Yet readers begin with the prologue, written in his underground chamber on the "border area" of Harlem where he is waging a guerrilla war against the Monopolated Light & Power Company by invisibly draining their power. At first denied the story of his discovery, readers must be initiated through the act of re-experiencing the events that led them and the narrator to this hole. Armed with some suggestive hints and symbols, readers then start the journey toward a re-visioning of the Invisible Man, America, and themselves.

The act of writing, of ordering and defining the self, is what gives the Invisible Man freedom and what allows him to manage the absurdity and chaos of everyday life. Writing frees the self from imposed definitions, from the straitjacket of all that would limit the productive possibilities of the self. Echoing the pluralism of the novel's form, the Invisible Man insists on the freedom to be ambivalent, to love and to hate, to denounce and to defend the America he inherits. Ellison himself was well acquainted with the ambivalence of his American heritage; nowhere is it more evident than in his name. Named after the nineteenth-century essayist and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, whom Ellison's father admired, the name created for Ellison embarrassment, confusion, and a desire to be the American writer his namesake called for. And Ellison placed such emphasis on his unnamed yet self-named narrator's breaking the shackles of restrictive definitions, of what others call reality or right, he also freed himself, as Robert B. Stepto argued in From behind the Veil: A Study of Afro-American Narrative, from the strictures of the traditional slave narratives of Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. Du Bois. By consciously invoking this form but then not bringing the motif of "ascent and immersion" to its traditional completion, Ellison revoiced the form, made it his own, and stepped outside it.

In a PMLA essay, Susan Blake argued that Ellison's insistence that black experience be ritualized as part of the larger human experience results in a denial of the unique social reality of black life. Because Ellison so thoroughly adapted black folklore into the Western tradition, Blake found that the definition of black life becomes "not black but white"; it "exchanges the self-definition of the folk for the definition of the masters." Thorpe Butler, in a College Language Association Journal essay, defended Ellison against Blake's criticism. He declared that Ellison's depiction of specific black experience as part of the universal does not "diminish the unique richness and anguish" of that experience and does not "diminish the force of Ellison's protest against the blind, cruel dehumanization of black Americans by white society." This debate extends arguments that have appeared since the publication of the novel. Underlying these controversies is the old, uneasy argument about the relationship of art and politics, of literary practice and social commitment.

Although the search for identity is the major theme of Invisible Man, other aspects of the novel have also received critical attention. Among them, as Joanne Giza noted in Black American Writers: Bibliographical Essays, are literary debts and analogies, comic elements, the metaphor of vision, use of the blues, and folkloric elements. Although all of these concerns are part of the larger issue of identity, Ellison's use of blues and folklore has been singled out as a major contribution to contemporary literature and culture. Since the publication of Invisible Man, scores of articles have appeared on these two topics, a fact which in turn has led to a rediscovery and revisioning of the importance of blues and folklore to American literature and culture in general.

Much of Ellison's groundbreaking work is presented in Shadow and Act. Published in 1964, this collection of essays, said Ellison, is "concerned with three general themes: with literature and folklore, with Negro musical expression—especially jazz and the blues—and with the complex relationship between the Negro American subculture and North American culture as a whole." This volume has been hailed as one of the more prominent examples of cultural criticism to appear in the twentieth century. Writing in Commentary, Robert Penn Warren praised the astuteness of Ellison's perceptions; in New Leader, Stanley Edgar Hyman proclaimed Ellison "the profoundest cultural critic we have." In the New York Review of Books, R.W.B. Lewis explored Ellison's study of black music as a form of power and found that "Ellison is not only a self-identifier but the source of self-definition in others."

Published in 1986, Going to the Territory is a second collection of essays reprising many of the subjects and concerns treated in Shadow and Act: literature, art, music, the relationships of black and white cultures, fragments of autobiography, tributes to such noted black Americans as Richard Wright, Duke Ellington, and painter Romare Beardon. With the exception of "An Extravagance of Laughter," a lengthy examination of Ellison's response to Jack Kirkland's dramatization of Erskine Caldwell's novel Tobacco Road, the essays in Going to the Territory are reprints of previously published articles or speeches, most of them dating from the 1960s.

Ellison's influence as both novelist and critic, as artist and cultural historian, has been enormous. In special issues of Black World and College Language Association Journal devoted to Ellison, strident attacks appear alongside equally spirited accolades. Perhaps another measure of Ellison's stature and achievement was his readers' vigil for his long-awaited second novel. Although Ellison often refused to answer questions about the work-in-progress, there was enough evidence during the author's lifetime to suggest that the manuscript was very large, that all or part of it had been destroyed in a fire and was being rewritten, and that its creation was a long and painful task. Most readers waited expectantly, believing that Ellison, who writes in Shadow and Act that he "failed of eloquence" in Invisible Man, intended to wait until his second novel equaled his imaginative vision of the American novel as conqueror of the frontier, equaled the Emersonian call for a literature to release all people from the bonds of oppression.

Eight excerpts from this novel-in-progress were originally published in journals such as Quarterly Review of Literature, Massachusetts Review, and Noble Savage. Set in the South in the years spanning the Jazz Age and the civil rights movement, these fragments seem an attempt to recreate modern American history and identity. The major characters are the Reverend Hickman, a onetime jazz musician, and Bliss, the light-skinned boy whom Hickman adopts and who later passes into white society and becomes Senator Sunraider, an advocate of white supremacy. As O'Meally noted in The Craft of Ralph Ellison, the major difference between Bliss and Ellison's earlier young protagonists is that despite some harsh collisions with reality, Bliss refuses to divest himself of his illusions and accept his personal history. Said O'Meally: "Moreover, it is a renunciation of the blackness of American experience and culture, a refusal to accept the American past in all its complexity."

After Ellison's death on April 16, 1994, speculation about the existence of the second novel reignited, and it was eventually announced that Ellison had left a manuscript of over 1,000 pages. In 1999, five years after the writer's death, rumors surrounding this second novel were finally answered—at least in part—with the publication of Juneteenth. The novel was culled from Ellison's voluminous manuscript by John F. Callahan, who became Ellison's literary executor. According to Callahan, the published form of Juneteenth consists of several distinct elements: a 1959 published story titled "And Hickman Arrives"; one of three long narratives—referred to as "Book Two" in Ellison's notes—in the novel that Ellison had been working on for years before he died; a thirty-eight page draft titled "Bliss's Birth"; and a single paragraph from a short fictional piece titled "Cadillac Flambe." The chief characters remain the same as those from the earlier published excerpts: the white, race-baiting Senator Sunraider (also called "Bliss") and the black minister Alonzo Hickman, who raised Bliss as a child.

The action of Juneteenth is set in motion via a visit by Hickman to the Senate chambers to hear Bliss speak. During the speech, Bliss is mortally wounded by a gunman, and the remainder of the novel features a dying Bliss and a watchful Hickman—the only person Bliss allows to see him—reminiscing about their earlier relationship. Much like Invisible Man, the novel addresses such themes as the black-white divide in America, the nature of identity, and the interaction between politics and religion. The novel's title, in fact, comes from a combined religious/political holiday celebrated by African Americans to commemorate a day in June 1865, when black slaves in Texas finally discovered that they were free—more than two years after Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.

Given the unusual circumstances of the book's publication, reviewers perhaps inevitably focused as much on these circumstances as on the merits of the work itself. Specifically, critics focused on Callahan's role in shaping a single narrative out of Ellison's sprawling manuscript despite the lack of any instructions from the author himself about what he intended the novel to be. Lamenting that Callahan had excised two of the three narratives that made up Ellison's manuscript, New York Times Book Review contributor Louis Menand noted, "It seems unfair to Ellison to review a novel he did not write…. A three-part work implies counterpoint: whatever appears in a Book 2 must be designed to derive its novelistic significance from whatever would have appeared in a Book One and a Book Three." According to Gerald Early in Chicago's Tribune Books, the new work "reads very much like the pastiche it is, with uneven characterization, clashing styles of writing and shifting points of view, and a jumbled narrative. The reader should be warned that this is a very unfinished product." Some reviewers reserved praise for certain prose sections that reflect Ellison's dazzling technical ability; Early, for instance, remarked on the "passages of affecting, sometimes tour-de-force writing and some deft wordplay," while a Publishers Weekly reviewer commented that the book's "flashbacks showcase Ellison's stylized set pieces, among the best scenes he has written." In the end, though, critics expressed reservations that the book should ever have been released. Menand concluded forcefully, "This is not Ralph Ellison's second novel," while Early stated that "I wonder if the world and Ralph Ellison have been best served by the publication of this work."

Despite concerns over Juneteenth, critics noted that Ellison's literary reputation—relying heavily on the landmark Invisible Man—remains secure. In 2003, a fifteen-foot-high bronze tribute honoring Ellison and Invisible Man was unveiled in New York's Riverside Park in West Harlem, facing the apartment building in which Ellison lived for more than thirty years.



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Lynch, Michael F., Creative Revolt: A Study of Wright, Ellison, and Dostoevsky, P. Lang (New York, NY), 1990.

McSweeney, Kerry, Invisible Man: Race and Identity, Twayne (Boston, MA), 1988.

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Sundquist, Eric J., editor, Cultural Contexts for Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, Bedford Books (Boston, MA), 1995.

Watts, Jerry Gafio, Heroism and the Black Intellectual: Ralph Ellison, Politics, and Afro-American Intellectual Life, University of North Carolina Press (Chapel Hill, NC), 1994.


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Time, April 25, 1994.

Ellison, Ralph Waldo

views updated May 18 2018

Ellison, Ralph Waldo

(b. 1 March 1914 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; d. 16 April 1994 in New York City), novelist, essayist, and man of letters best known for Invisible Man (1952), the first novel by an African American to win the National Book Award.

Ellison was the elder of two sons born to Lewis Alfred Ellison, the owner of a small ice and coal business who died when the older boy was three years old, and Ida Mill-sap, a domestic who canvassed for the Socialist Party and was later jailed several times for breaking the segregated housing ordinance in Oklahoma City during the early 1930s. After remarrying in the early 1920s, Ellison’s mother and her husband, John Bell, raised Ralph and his brother in Oklahoma City.

Ellison attended the Frederick Douglass School for twelve years, graduating in 1931. As a boy he was drawn to music; his mother bought him a used cornet, and by the age of eight he was a member of the school band. Encouraged by his mother, who often brought home Vanity Fair,Literary Digest, and other magazines from the houses she cleaned, Ellison became an insatiable reader at a young age. In 1933 the state of Oklahoma awarded him a scholarship (a means of keeping black students out of state colleges), and Ellison used it to study music at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. A music major, Ellison worked part-time in the library, where he discovered modern writers such as James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) especially intrigued him; he found similarities between the literary techniques of Eliot and the jazz techniques of Louis Armstrong, which he later pursued in his fiction.

In July 1936, after his junior year at Tuskegee, Ellison went to New York City to earn money for his senior year and to study sculpture, and he stayed. Once in New York, he met and was befriended by the poet Langston Hughes. A meeting with the author Richard Wright in June of 1937 and subsequent friendship led Ellison toward becoming a writer. Wright encouraged him to review a novel for the radical journal New Challenge, which Wright edited, and to try his hand at writing a short story. During this period Ellison agitated on behalf of Republican Spain and was involved in the campaign for the release of the Scottsboro boys, nine young black men convicted and sentenced to death on trumped-up charges of raping two white women in a boxcar in Alabama.

In October 1937 Ellison was called to his mother’s bedside in Dayton, Ohio, where she had moved in 1935 or 1936 after John Bell’s death. She passed away the morning after he arrived, and penniless, he stayed in Dayton with his brother for almost seven months. There Ellison earned his living by shooting wild game and selling it to General Motors executives. These months proved a turning point for Ellison, as he began seriously to write fiction after hours in the law offices of W. O. Stokes, one of the first black attorneys in Dayton. Until April 1938 when a Works Progress Administration (WPA) job allowed him to return to New York, Ellison wrote drafts or partial drafts of several stories, two or three sketches, and a novel referred to as “Slick,” which he later abandoned.

From 1938 until World War II, Ellison worked on the New York Federal Writers Project of the WPA. Starting in the late 1930s, he contributed reviews, essays, and short fiction to New Masses, Tomorrow, The Negro Quarterly (of which for a time he was managing editor), The New Republic, Saturday Review, The Antioch Review, The Reporter, and other periodicals. Ellison married Rose Poindexter on 16 September 1938. They were divorced in 1945, and a year later he married Fanny McConnell with whom he lived until his death in 1994. They had no children.

From 1943 until 1945, Ellison, preferring not to serve in the segregated U.S. Army, served in the merchant marine. He worked as a cook on ships transporting arms across the Atlantic to the Allies in Great Britain and the Soviet Union. On sick leave back in the United States, he began Invisible Man in July 1945 at a friend’s place in Waitsfield, Vermont. While working on what he called his “prison camp novel,” Ellison found his fingers typing a strange, apparently unrelated sentence: “I am an invisible man.” Intrigued, he resisted the impulse to destroy the page, and his mind began to fill in the lineaments of the character who would say such a thing. Soon he had a novel going, and Ellison wrote Invisible Man over the next seven years. During these years Ellison lived and worked in New York City, except for occasional forays to Bennington College in Vermont, where he met and discussed literature and literary form with Kenneth Burke, Stanley Edgar Hyman, Shirley Jackson, and R. W. B. Lewis.

Upon its publication in 1952, Invisible Man was recognized as one of the most important works of fiction of its time. In the journal Commentary, Saul Bellow called it a “book of the very first order, a superb book … a brilliant individual victory.” Foreshadowing trouble to come for Ellison in the 1960s, defenders of Black Nationalism and the Communist Party were harshly critical. But negative responses were few; more typical was the verdict of the National Book Award jury. Noting that “Mr. Ellison has the courage to take many literary risks,” the jury awarded Invisible Man its prize for fiction in 1953. In years to come the stature of Ellison’s novel only increased. A 1965 Book, Week Pool of 200 authors, critics, and editors named Invisible Man “the most distinguished single work” published in the previous twenty years.

The acclaim given to Invisible Man opened up new horizons and opportunities for Ellison. In 1954 he was invited to lecture in Germany and at the Salzburg Seminar in Austria. In 1955 the American Academy of Arts and Letters awarded him the Prix de Rome, enabling him to spend two years in residence at the American Academy from 1955 to 1957. During this time he was earnestly at work on the novel that he hoped would soon follow Invisible Man. But first in Rome and later in New York, he found himself torn between fiction and a critical prose that explored themes similar to those he pursued in fiction: “the word and the contradiction of the word” of the American ideal as well as the discovery and “the evasion of identity.” Important essays from this period include “Society, Morality and the Novel,” written for The Living Novel (1957), a book of critical essays edited by Granville Hicks, and “Change the Joke and Slip the Yoke,” published as an exchange with Stanley Edgar Hyman in Partisan Review in 1958. While he was at the American Academy in Rome, Ellison also served as American representative at literary conferences in London, Mexico City, and Tokyo.

Returning to the United States, Ellison taught Russian and American literature at Bard College in New York from 1958 to 1961; for most of that time he lived in Saul Bellow’s house in Tivoli not far from the Hudson River, where he hunted with his black Labrador retriever, Tucka Tarby. In 1960 the first and longest excerpt from his novel-in-progress to be published in his lifetime appeared in print in Noble Savage, a new journal edited by Bellow. Additional selections from the work were published in 1960 and 1963. However, the next book of Ellison’s to appear was not the novel but Shadow and Act, a collection of essays published in 1964. This volume established Ellison as an essayist and an American man of letters to be reckoned with, as well as a formidable novelist.

In the middle to late 1960s, as he continued to struggle with his second novel, Ellison began to feel the heat of criticism from black militants and exponents of the Black Arts movement, who resented his continued stance in favor of racial integration. At the same time he fell into conflict with some of his literary colleagues, both black and white, because of his support for President Lyndon B. Johnson’s policy in Vietnam. Ellison defended the Vietnam War “less out of patriotic enthusiasm than tragic necessity.” The United States, he felt, had “certain responsibilities to the Vietnamese and the structure of power in the world.”

Meanwhile, the rewritten contract for Ellison’s long-awaited second novel was signed on 17 August 1965, stipulating delivery by 1 September 1967. In his mind Ellison was moving toward completion in the summer or fall of 1967. Then, on 29 November, a fire at Ellison’s summer home in the Berkshires destroyed what Ellison described as both “a section of my work-in-progress” and “a year’s worth of revisions.” Although Ellison may have reimagined and reconstructed the lost material, arguably he never attained a full, sure-handed grasp of the totality of his ambitious saga of racial complexity and American identity. Between 1969 and 1977 he published four more excerpts from the work in literary quarterlies. On and off for the rest of his life, he stayed at work on his ever expanding novel-in-progress, but he never finished. In one of the paradoxes of Ellison’s literary life, during each year and each of the four decades in which his second novel failed to appear, his first novel, Invisible Man, continued to grow in critical reputation and popularity.

Despite only one novel and a single book of essays to his credit, the influence and importance of Ellison’s work was such that he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1969; the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 1970 by the French minister of culture, André Malraux, whose novel La condition humaine (Man’s Fate, 1933) had inspired Ellison in the 1930s; the Langston Hughes Medallion for contributions in arts and letters by City College of New York in 1984; and the National Medal of Arts in 1985. Ellison was a charter member of the National Council on the Arts and Humanities, and he received honorary degrees from Tuskegee, Rutgers University, the University of Michigan, Williams College, Harvard University, and Wesleyan University.

From 1970 to 1979 Ellison held the Albert Schweitzer Chair in the Humanities at New York University. After his retirement he published Going to the Territory (1986), a second collection of essays. Although he worked steadily on the second novel, Ellison published no further excerpts in his lifetime. Close to his eightieth birthday, he told an interviewer that “there will be something very soon.” But within a month he was stricken with a virulent, rapidly accelerating case of pancreatic cancer. When Ellison died on 16 April 1994, at his home on Riverside Drive in Manhattan, the novel and other literary projects were left unfinished. He is buried in Trinity Cemetery in New York City.

Ellison left behind a remarkable array of rich manuscripts, correspondence, and papers. Between 1995 and 2000 four volumes were posthumously published, including The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison (1995); Flying Home and Other Stories (1996); Juneteenth (1999), the central narrative of his unfinished novel; and Trading Twelves: The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray (2000). Yet to be published were a scholarly edition of the fragments of the unfinished second novel, a volume of letters, and memoirs of Ellison’s early life in Oklahoma and his experience in New York in the 1930s. Since Ellison’s death, interest in his work and his life has accelerated in the United States and abroad, where foreign language editions of his fiction and, to a lesser extent his essays, sprout like dragon’s teeth. The publication of the posthumous Juneteenth, edited by his literary executor, John F. Callahan, prompted reconsideration of Ellison’s place in literary history. By virtue of Invisible Man and the rest of his oeuvre, a consensus is forming that he occupies a place of preeminence not only in American and African American literature but also in twentieth-century world literature.

Ralph Ellison’s papers and correspondence are in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress. There is also Ellison material in the James Weldon Johnson Collection of the Beinecke Library at Yale University and in the archives of New York University. Maryemma Graham and Amritjit Singh, eds., Conversations with Ralph Ellison (1995), is a collection of his interviews. Collections of critical essays by Ellison and others, and interviews with Ellison, include John Hersey, ed., Ralph Ellison: A Collection of Critical Essays (1970); Michael S. Harper and John Wright, eds., the Carleton Miscellany (winter 1980); Kimberly W. Benston, ed., Speaking for You: The Vision of Ralph Ellison (1987); and Robert J. Butler, ed., The Critical Response to Ralph Ellison (2000). Among several noteworthy books about Ellison and his work are Robert G. O’Meally, The Craft of Ralph Ellison (1980), and Mark Busby, Ralph Ellison (1991). Eric J. Sundquist, Cultural Contexts for Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1995), is a useful casebook on that novel. There is an obituary in the New York Times (17 Apr. 1994).

John F. Callahan

Ellison, Ralph

views updated May 17 2018

Ellison, Ralph

March 1, 1914
April 16, 1994

Author Ralph Ellison was born to Lewis and Ida Millsap Ellison in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, a frontier town with a rich vernacular culture. As a child he worked at Randolph's Pharmacy, where he heard animal tales and ghost stories. The local all-black high school provided rigorous training in music, and the Aldridge Theatre featured many of the leading blues, ragtime, and jazz musicians of the day. Ellison played in high school jazz bands and in 1933 enrolled as a music major at Tuskegee Institute, Alabama. He involved himself in the other arts as well and on his own discovered T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land, where he found a range of allusions "as mixed and varied as that of Louis Armstrong."

At the end of his third college year, Ellison went to New York to earn money. He never returned to Tuskegee. He met Langston Hughes, whose poetry he had read in high school, and Richard Wright, who urged him to write for New Challenge, which Wright was editing. Ellison wrote a review for the magazine in 1937, his first published work. In 1938 he took a Works Progress Administration job with the New York Writer's Project and worked at night on his own fiction. He read Hemingway to learn style.

Ellison wrote book reviews for the radical periodicals Direction, Negro Quarterly, and New Masses, which in 1940 printed at least one review by him every month. His first short stories were realistic in the manner of Richard Wright and presented fairly explicit political solutions to the dilemmas of Jim Crow. By 1940 he had begun to find his own direction with a series of stories in the Huck Finn/Tom Sawyer moldtales of black youngsters who were not so much victims as playmakers in a land of possibility. "Flying Home" (1944) offers wise old Jefferson as a storyteller whose verbal art helps lessen the greenhorn Todd's isolation and teaches him a healthier attitude toward the divided world he must confront. That story set the stage for Ellison's monumental 1952 novel Invisible Man, which received the National Book Award the following year.

Set between 1930 and 1950, Invisible Man tells of the development of an ambitious young black man from the South, a naïf who goes to college and then to New York in search of advancement. At first Invisible Man, unnamed throughout the novel, wants to walk the narrow way of Booker T. Washington, whose words he speaks at his high school graduation as well as at a smoker for the town's leading white male citizens. At the smoker he is required to fight blindfolded in a free-for-all against the other black youths. In this key chapter, all the boys are turned blindly against one another in a danger-filled ritual staged for the amusement of their white patrons. That night the young man dreams of his grandfather, the novel's cryptic ancestor/wise man, who presents him with "an engraved document" that seems an ironic comment on his high school diploma and its costs. "Read it," the old man tells him. "'To Whom It May Concern,' I intoned. 'Keep This Nigger Boy Running.'"

Whether a student in the southern college or a spokesman in New York for the radical political movement called the Brotherhood (modeled on the Communist Party of the 1930s or some other American political organization that exploited blacks and then sold them out), Invisible Man is kept running. Quintessentially American in his confusion about who he is, he maddashes from scene to scene, letting others tell him what his experience means, who he is, what his name is. And he is not only blind, he is invisiblehe is racially stereotyped and otherwise denied his individuality. "I am invisible," he discovers, "simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imaginationindeed, everything and anything except me."

After encounters with remarkable adultssome wisely parental, some insane but brilliant, some sly con menhe learns to accept with equipoise the full ambiguity of his history and to see the world by his own lights. "It took me

a long time," he says, "and much painful boomeranging of my expectations to achieve a realization everyone else appears to have been born with: That I am nobody but myself. But first I had to discover that I am an invisible man!" He had to find out that very few people would bother to understand his real motives and values; perhaps not all of these mysteries were knowable, even by himself. And yet in this novel of education and epiphany, Invisible Man decides he can nonetheless remain hopeful: "I was my experiences and my experiences were me," he says. "And no blind men, no matter how powerful they became, even if they conquered the world, could take that, or change one single itch, taunt, laugh, cry, scar, ache, rage or pain of it."

Rich in historical and literary allusionsfrom Columbus to World War II, from Oedipus and Br'er Rabbit to T. S. Eliot and Richard WrightInvisible Man stands both as a novel about the history of the novel and as a meditation on the history of the United States. In doing so, it presents a metaphor for black American life in the twentieth century that transcends its particular focus. It names not only the modern American but the citizen of the contemporary world as tragicomically centerless (but somehow surviving and getting smarter): Homo invisibilis. It is Ellison's masterwork.

Shadow and Act (1964) and Going to the Territory (1987) are collections of Ellison's nonfiction prose. With these books he established himself as a preeminent man of lettersone whose driving purpose was to define African-American life and culture with precision and affirmation. The essays on African-American music are insider's reports that reflect Ellison's deep experience and long memory. Whether discussing literature, music, painting, psychology, or history, Ellison places strong emphases on vernacular cultureits art, rituals, and meaningsand on the power of the visionary individual, particularly the artist, to prevail. These books offer a strong challenge to social scientists and historians to consider African-American life in terms not just of its ills and pathologies but of its tested capacity to reinvent itself and to influence the nation and the world.

See also Hughes, Langston; Literature of the United States; Wright, Richard


Benston, Kimberly, ed. Speaking for You: The Vision of Ralph Ellison. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1985.

Burke, Bob, and Denyvetta Davis. Ralph Ellison: A Biography. Oklahoma City: Oklahoma Heritage Association, 2003.

Jackson, Lawrence. Ralph Ellison: Emergence of Genius. New York: Wiley, 2002.

O'Meally, Robert G. The Craft of Ralph Ellison. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1980.

robert g. o'meally (1996)
Updated bibliography

Ralph Waldo Ellison

views updated Jun 08 2018

Ralph Waldo Ellison

American author Ralph Waldo Ellison (1914-1994) wrote "Invisible Man," a classic 20th-century American novel. He was an early spokesman among African-Americans for the need for racial identity.

Ralph Ellison was born in Oklahoma City on March 1, 1914. His father, a construction worker, died when Ellison was 3, and his mother stretched a meager income as a domestic worker to support her son. He studied music at Tuskegee Institute from 1933 to 1936. He worked on the New York City Federal Writers Project, contributed stories, reviews, and essays to New Masses, the Antioch Review, and other journals (these writings have not yet been collected); and in 1942 became editor of the Negro Quarterly. He met Richard Wright and Langston Hughes during these years; both had a major influence on his work, along with T.S. Eliot, Ernest Hemingway, and the Russian novelists.

After brief duty in the U.S. Merchant Marine during World War II, Ellison won a Rosenwald fellowship to work on the novel which brought him instant recognition and the National Book Award, Invisible Man (1952). The story of a young man's growing up, first in the South and then in Harlem, it is sensational, brutally honest, and graphic in the humiliating, often violent treatment the nameless hero suffers at the hands of the Southern white men who "educate" him and the Northern black men who "use" him. But Ellison reminds the reader that he "didn't select the surrealism, the distortion, the intensity as an experimental technique but because reality is surreal." When, at the end of the novel, the hero creeps into an empty Harlem cellar to escape from the world, it is only the last of his many bouts with "invisibility." The life of a African-American has always been relentlessly unreal, and his search for identity endless. But what Ellison's novel illuminates is the common plight of all human beings in the confrontations between dream and reality, light against darkness, idealism smothered by disillusion, injured psyche, adopted personae. In 1965, in a poll of 200 writers and critics, they voted Invisible Man the most distinguished novel published between 1945 and 1965 in America.

Ellison's Shadow and Act (1964) is a collection of 20 essays and 2 interviews. He contributed to The Living Novel (Granville Hicks, ed., 1957), The Angry Black (John A. Williams, ed., 1963), and Soon One Morning (Herbert Hill, ed., 1963) and to numerous literary journals. He lectured at the Salzburg Seminar in 1954; taught Russian and American literature at Bard College from 1958 to 1961; was visiting professor at the University of Chicago in 1961 and visiting professor of writing at Rutgers University from 1962 to 1964; and in 1964, became visiting fellow in American studies at Yale University.

Ellison died on April 16, 1994, in New York City, leaving his second novel unfinished. His influence on American literature has been tremendous, and the loss of this second work is a bitter pill. According to Ellison himself, it was to be a work which would "[equal] his imaginative vision of the American novel as conqueror of the frontier and [answer] the Emersonian call for a literature to release all people from the bonds of oppression."

Further Reading

Perceptive critical comment on Ellison is available in Robert Bone, The Negro Novel in America (1958; rev. ed. 1965); Ihab Hassan, Radical Innocence: Studies in the Contemporary American Novel (1961); Marcus Klein, After Alienation: American Novels in Mid-century (1964); Jonathan Baumbach, The Landscape of Nightmare (1965); and Seymour L. Gross and John Edward Hardy, eds., Images of the Negro in American Literature (1966).

Ralph Ellsion, Invisible Man, Random House, 1982.

Ralph Ellison, Shadow and Act, Random House, 1964.

Ralph Ellison, Going to the Territory, Random House, 1986.

Kimberly W. Benston, editor, The Black American Writer, Everett Edwards, 1969. □

Ellison, Ralph Waldo

views updated Jun 08 2018

Ellison, Ralph Waldo (1914–94) US writer. Encouraged by Richard Wright, he wrote Invisible Man (1952), a semi-autobiographical novel about a young man's struggle for identity in a hostile society. The narrator becomes aware that to be black in US society is to be “invisible”.