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Invisible Man is tough, brutal, and sensational.

It is uneven in quality. But it blazes with authentic talent.



Books by Ralph Ellison

Invisible Man: A Novel  / The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison  / Juneteenth: A Novel  /  Shadow and Act  /

Flying Home and Others Stories  / Going to The Territory / Trading Twelves; The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray

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Arnold Rampersad. Ralph Ellison: A Biography (2007)

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Ralph Waldo Ellison

Biographical Sketch (1914-1968)


When Ralph Ellison’s impassioned, compelling novel Invisible Man was published in 1952, it won the National Book Award for fiction. Although Ellison himself was modest in his estimate of the novel’s durability, the book has shown every indication that it is on its way to becoming an American classic. In a poll of 200 writers, editors, and critics conducted by the New York Herald Tribune’s Book Week magazine in 1965, Invisible Man was voted the most distinguished novel published in the twenty years since 1945.

In Invisible Man Ellison constructed, from the fabric of his own background as a Negro, a nightmarish story of the brutal experience endured by a young American black man and their effect on his once naively idealistic psyche. Despite its theme, the book transcends the bounds of a traditional Negro novel. “This is not another journey to the end of the night,” Wright Morris once wrote of Invisible Man. “With this book the author maps a course from the underground world into the light. The Invisible Man belongs on the shelf with the classical efforts man has made to chart the river Lethe from its mouth to its source.” Ellison has also published Shadow and Act (1964)

Ralph Waldo Ellison was born in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma on March 1, 1914 to Lewis Alfred and Ida (Millsap) Ellison. His father, a construction worker and tradesman, died when Ellison was three, and his mother supported herself and her son by working as a domestic. From an early age Ellison was interested in music and books, and his mother brought home for him from the households where she labored discarded phonograph records and magazines. Growing up in Oklahoma City, Ellison knew Hot Lips page, the jazz musician, and he was a friend . . . of Jimmy Rushing, the blues singer. In high school, he played trumpet in the band.

Ellison began reading Hemingway in adolescence, and later he became interested in the poetry of T.S. Eliot. “At first I was puzzled when I began to read Ernest Hemingway . . . as to just why his stories could move me but I couldn’t reduce them to a logical system. . . .” Ellison told Mike McGrady of Newsday (October 28, 1967). “Then I began to look at my own life through the lives of fictional characters. When I read Stendhal, I would search within the Negro communities in which I grew up. I began, in other words, quite early to connect the worlds projected in literature and poetry and drama and novels with the life in which I found myself.”

Ellison studied music at Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama for three years, beginning in 1933. In 1936 he went to New York City Federal Writers Project, and met Langston Hughes and Richard Wright. The latter encouraged him to write and introduced him to the novels of Joseph Conrad, the prefaces of Henry James, and the letters of Dostoevsky. Wright also, according to John Corry, who interviewed Ellison for the New York Times (November 20, 1966), taught Ellison that, in Corry’s words, “writing must be done consciously.” In 1939 Ellison began contributing short stories, book reviews, and essays to the New Masses, the Antioch Review, and other publications. For a brief time he edited the Negro Quarterly. During World War II Ellison served with the United States Merchant Marine. After the war a Rosenwald fellowship enabled him to concentrate on writing Invisible Man, which was published by Random House in 1952.

The novel is the story of an idealistic young Negro and the frustrating, humiliating, and often shocking experiences, in the South and in Harlem, that disillusion him. Hurt and bewildered, he retreats into “invisibility,” holing himself up in an unused Harlem basement and hibernating there until, he hopes, he will be able to reemerge into society with an alternative view of his, and the Negro people’s, identity. The story is told by the hero in surrealistic flashbacks in which wry humor provides the only relief from grim despair, grotesque brutality, and savage violence.

Upon its publication, Invisible Man was greeted on all sides with praise for the poetic intensity of the narrative and only an occasional faulting of Ellison for overwriting and fuzzy symbolism. “Mr. Ellison obviously knows what he is talking about,” Orville Prescott wrote in the New York Times (April 16, 1952), “and it is not pleasant. . . . Invisible Man is tough, brutal, and sensational. It is uneven in quality. But it blazes with authentic talent.”

George Mayberry in the New Republic (April 21, 1952) noted that the book was “shorn of the racial and political clichés that have encumbered the ‘Negro novel’,” and in a similar vein H.C. Webster in the Saturday Review (April 12, 1952) observed that “Invisible Man is not a great Negro novel. It is a work of art any contemporary writer could point to with pride.” Other critics characterized the novel as “dynamic” and “remarkably vivid and compelling.”

When Invisible Man was awarded the National Book award for fiction in January 1953 the judges for the award made the following statement: “In Invisible Man Ralph Ellison shows us how invisible we all are to each other. With a positive exuberance of narrative gifts, he has broken away from the conventions and patterns of the tight ‘well-made’ novel. Mr. Ellison has had succeeded with the.” In accepting the award, Ellison expressed the fear that the judges were “rewarding my efforts rather than my not quite fully achieved attempt at a major novel,” and years later, in an interview for the Paris Review (Number 8), the author again expressed the fear that the novel was “not an important one,” explaining: “I failed of eloquence.”

In 1965, thirteen years after the publication of Invisible Man, when the New York Herald Tribune’s Book Week poll singled out Ellison’s book as the most distinguished novel published between 1945 and 1965, W.E. Dupree wrote in Book Week (September 26, 1965): “Ellison was a man of comparative youth and small literary experiences when he embarked on the writing of Invisible Man. . . . yet the book he worked at for years and finally brought out in 1952 could scarcely have been more ambitious if he had been writing novels for half a lifetime. Invisible man was a veritable Moby Dick of the racial crisis, with the terrors and exaltations of Negro-White existence replacing those of a whaling voyage, and the hero’s search for a real identity and human function (‘a place in history,’ as he puts it) supplanting the pursuit of the white whale.”

Shadow and Act (Random house, 19640, Ellison’s second book, is a collection of twenty essays, most of them personal pieces in which he reflects on his life and his art, and two interviews. In his introduction to the book Ellison said of the short pieces: “The very least I can say about their value is that they performed the grateful function of making it unnecessary to clutter up my fiction with half-formed or outrageously wrong-headed ideas. At best they are in embodiment of a conscious attempt to confront, to peer into the shadow of my past and to remind myself of the complex resources for imaginative creation which are my heritage.”

He went on to explain: “Good fiction is made of that which is real, and reality ifs difficult to come by. So much of it depends upon the individual’s willingness to discover his true self, upon his defining himself . . . against his background.” He implied that what enabled him to rise above racial bitterness was his dedication to his art: “When I say that the novelist is created by the novel, I mean to remind you that fictional techniques are not a mere set of objective tools, but something more intimate: a way of feeling, of seeing, and of expressing one’s sense of life. And the process of acquiring technique is a process of modifying one’s responses, of learning to see and feel, to hear and observe, to evoke and evaluate . . . of learning to conceive of human values in the ways which have been established by the great writers who have developed and extended the art.”

“This collection of essays, interviews, and reviews, diverse though its impact necessarily is, has a curiously original ring at this moment,” Philip Larkin wrote in reviewing Shadow and Act in the Manchester Guardian (January 13, 1967). “It is the chippings and shavings from the work of a writer who happens—and here the cliché is really applicable—to be an American Negro. The originality lies in the fact that although he recognizes the singular role his race has at present (‘I propose that we view the whole of American life as a drama acted out upon the body of a Negro giant, who, lying trussed up like Gulliver, forms the stage and the scene upon which and within which the action unfolds’) he is not really interested in his Negro characteristics compared with his heritage as a man and an artist. Ellison was freed not by the Negro Freedom Movement but by Marx, Freud, T.S. Eliot, Pound, Gertrude Stein, and Hemingway.”

“I am a novelist, not an activist,” Ellison told John Corry in the New York Yimes interview. “But I think that no one who reads what I write or who listens to my lectures can doubt that I am enlisted in the freedom movement. As an individual, I am primarily responsible for the health of American literature and culture. When I write, I am trying to make sense out of chaos. To think that a writer must think about his Negroness is to fall into a trap.

Ellison is represented in the following collections: Cross Section (Fischer, 1944), edited by E. Seaver; Best Short Stories of World War II (Viking, 1957), edited by Charles A. Fenton; I Have Seen War (Hill and Wang, 1960), edited by Dorothy Sterling; The Living Novel (MacMillan, 1957), edited by Granville Hicks; A New Southern Harvest (Bantam, 1957), edited by Robert Penn Warren and Robert Erskine; The Angry Black (Lancer, 1962), edited by John A. Williams; and Soon One Morning (Knopf, 1963), edited by Herbert Hill. Among the publications to which he has contributed are Tomorrow, the Reporter, the Noble Savage, the Quarterly Review of Literature, the Partisan Review, the Saturday Review, Horizon, and the book review section of the New York Herald Tribune.

Ellison has been visiting professor of writing at Yale University since 1964. he was an instructor in Russian and American literature at Bard College from 1958 to 1961, Alexander White Visiting Professor at the University of Chicago in 1961, and visiting professor of writing at Rutgers University from 1962 to 1964. Other institutions at which he has lectured include the Library of Congress, the Salzburg (Austria) seminar, the University of California, New York University, Bennington College, Fisk University, Princeton University, Columbia University, and Antioch College.

Ralph Ellison and fanny McConnell were married in July 1946. They live in an apparent on Riverside Drive in the Washington heights section of Manhattan with their dog, Tucka. “Ellison likes the things of the earth,” John Corry wrote in his New York Times article, “and he worries about the fungus on the African violets that he raises in his study. He likes to fish and he likes to bird-watch on Riverside Drive. . . .” Ellison leads a quiet life, according to Corry. “He rises by 7, pads out to the hallway to pick up the paper and, if his wife, fanny, is not up, he makes coffee. Then he reads the paper or watches the news on television. By 9 he is at his desk.”

Ellison, who works slowly and patiently, has been working on a second novel for the past decade. His hobbies are color photography, tinkering with his hi-fi equipment, and playing the recorder. He drives his own car largely to avoid the inconvenience of being snubbed by white cab drivers. But he told John Corry that he did not allow instances of prejudice and discrimination to disturb him. “I consider it part of the environment. . . ,” he said. “I don’t allow anonymous people to give me a sense of my worth.”

Source: Current Biography 1968

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On Craftmanship

Ishmael Reed: And you made other remarks about the younger Black writers lacking craftsmanship …

Ralph Ellison: Not really—I hope I didn’t generalize to the extent. But, there are those who have no respect for craftsmanship. If they were posing as jazz musicians, dedicated jazzmen would chase them off the bandstand—and keep them off until they’d come up to standard. They’d be told to go pay their dues. For instance, Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis was thrown off the bandstand at Minton’s a number of times before he was accepted by the jazzmen, whose company he wished to join. They knew that the major responsibility for the quality of art doesn’t belong to the critic or to the public, but to the artist.

IR: Of course, but some jazz musicians can’t read music.

RE: True, but literature is a different medium. Such jazz musicians know their instrument well enough to release their creative ideas, and they’ve steeped themselves in the traditional jazz idioms, much of which they can learn simply by listening to other musicians and to recordings. Once they’ve achieved a certain competence on the instruments, and being gifted musically, they can bypass the formal knowledge which is indispensable for the writer. Music is a more natural art form, by which I mean that unlike the art of literature, wherein literacy, syntax, grammar and a knowledge of literary form must be acquired before emotions and ideas can be communicated successfully, musical skill can be acquired and expressed by ear. In improvised jazz, performance and creation can consist of single complex act.

Incidentally, as a small child I heard Blind Boone perform an intricate repertory of piano classics. Many fine jazzmen have been illiterate, but for comparable figures in the field of literature you don’t go to the ignorant writer, but to the gifted oral story teller. Anyway, if you want me to say explicitly that I didn’t include you …

Source: The Essential Ellison (Interview)—Ishmael Reed, Quincy Troupe, Steve Cannon. Ishmael Reed’s and Al Young’s Y’Bird • Copyright © 1977, 1978 Y’Bird Magazine

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On Critics

What I learned from [Kenneth] Burke was not so much the technique of fiction but the nature of literature and the way ideas and language operate in literary form. I first became interested in Burke after hearing him read his essay, “The Rhetoric of Hitler’s Battle.” It was a critique of Mein Kampf, and the time was 1937. I was absolutely delighted because in the essay, he made a meaningful fusion of Marx and Freud, and I had been asking myself how the insights of the two could be put together. On that occasion, Burke was hooted at by some of the left-wing intellectuals, but not too many years later, the discovery of the gas ovens revealed that Burke knew what he was doing.

I was just starting out as a writer, and as I went on struggling to understand his criticism, I began to learn something of the nature of literature, society, social class, and psychology as they related to literary form. I began to grasp how language operates, both in literature and as an agency of oral communication. In college and on my own, I had studied a little psychology, a little sociology, you know, dribs and drabs, but Burke provided a Gestalt through which I could apply intellectual insights back into my own materials and into my own life.

Critics are all over the place, and there’s always been something that I could learn from a few of them. Sometimes, you get a man who is very good with comparative literature, so you go to him. Joe Frank, for instance, who’s over at Princeton, is a very good Dostoyevsky man, but, in order to be a good Dostoyevsky man, he had to know a hell of a lot about literature generally. John McCormick, who teaches at Rutgers, is very good on American literature, in the comparative context. And R. W. B. Lewis, the expert on Edith Wharton, is a very good on American literature generally. But, I don’t go to any of these people expecting the whole thing. I learn what I can and use what I’m prepared to use.

During the late 1940s when I was walking around with holes in my shoes, I was spending twenty-five dollars a volume for Malraux’s The Psychology of Art. Why? Because trying to grasp his blending of art history, philosophy, and politics was more important than having dry feet. So that’s the way it continues to go: anywhere I find a critic who has an idea or concept that seems useful, I grab it. Eclecticism is the word. Like a jazz musician who creates his own style out of the styles around him, I play it by ear.

Source: The Essential Ellison (Interview)—Ishmael Reed, Quincy Troupe, Steve Cannon. Ishmael Reed’s and Al Young’s Y’Bird • Copyright © 1977, 1978 Y’Bird Magazine

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The Arts as a Common Heritage

Beyond all question of race, class, nation, and geography, the arts are the possession of all humanity—and especially of the artists. They are a common heritage. Once a work of creative art has been placed before the public, it becomes the possession of anyone who has the sensibility and interest to grasp its method and message. Whatever elements of the new it embodies, whether its content, technique, form or vision, will be taken over by any artist who finds it a meaningful aid in getting his own work done.

Where on earth did the notion come from that the word and all its art has to be re-invented, recreated, every time a Black individual seeks to express himself? The world is here and art is here, and they’ve been here for a long, long time. After all, a few of the contributions to culture, to civilization, were made by people who possessed African genes—if that means a damn thing, which I doubt …

Source: The Essential Ellison (Interview)—Ishmael Reed, Quincy Troupe, Steve Cannon. Ishmael Reed’s and Al Young’s Y’Bird • Copyright © 1977, 1978 Y’Bird Magazine

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Slave Narrative as Influence on Invisible Man

No, that’s coincidental. And, frankly, I think too much has been made of the slave narrative as an influence on contemporary writing. Experience tends to mold itself into certain repetitive patterns, and one of the reasons we exchange experiences is in order to discover the repetitions and coincidences which amount to a common group experience. We tell ourselves our individual stories so as to become aware of our general story. I wouldn’t have had to read a single slave narrative in order to create the narrative pattern of Invisible Man.

It emerges from experience and from my own sense of literary form, out of my sense of experience as shaped by history and my familiarity with literature. However, one’s sense of group experience comes first because one communicates with the reader in terms of what he identifies as a viable description of experience. You project your vision of what can happen in terms of what he accepts as the way things have happened in the past, his sense of “the way things are.” Historically, we were trying to escape from slavery in a scene consisting of geographical space. First, to the North and then to the West, going to the Nation (meaning the Indian Nation and later the Oklahoma Territory), just as Huckleberry Finn decided to do, and as Bessie Smith states in one of her blues.

Of course, some of us escaped south and joined the Seminoles and fought with them against the U.S. Geography forms the scene in which we and our forefathers acted and continue to act out the drama of Afro-American freedom. This movement from region to region involved all of the motives, political, sociological, and personal, that come to focus in the struggle. So, the movement from the South to the North became a basic pattern for my novel. The pattern of movement and the obstacles encountered are so basic to Afro-American experience (and to my own, since my mother took me North briefly during the Twenties, and I came North again in ’36), that I had no need of slave narratives to grasp either its significance or its potential for organizing a fictional narrative. I would have used the same device if I had been writing an autobiography.

Then, there is the imagery and the incidents of conflict. These come from all kinds of sources. From literature, from the spirituals and the blues, from other novels and from poetry, as well as from my observations of socio-psychological conflicts and processes. It comes from mythology, fool’s errands, children’s games, sermons, the dozens, and the Bible. All this is not to put down the slave narrative, but, to say that it did not influence my novel as a conscious functional form. And, don’t forget, the main source of any novel is other novels; these constitute the culture of the form, and my loyalty to our group does nothing to change that; it’s a cultural, literary reality.

Source: The Essential Ellison (Interview)—Ishmael Reed, Quincy Troupe, Steve Cannon. Ishmael Reed’s and Al Young’s Y’Bird • Copyright © 1977, 1978 Y’Bird Magazine

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Ralph Ellison: A Biography

Video with Arnold Rampersad Reviewing the life of Ralph Ellison

Ralph Ellison—Work in Progress

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Bill Moyers and James Cone (Interview)  / A Conversation with James Cone

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John Coltrane, "Alabama"  /  Kalamu ya Salaam, "Alabama"  / A Love Supreme

A Blues for the Birmingham Four  /  Eulogy for the Young Victims   / Six Dead After Church Bombing 

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Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America

By Melissa V. Harris-Perry

According to the author, this society has historically exerted considerable pressure on black females to fit into one of a handful of stereotypes, primarily, the Mammy, the Matriarch or the Jezebel.  The selfless Mammy’s behavior is marked by a slavish devotion to white folks’ domestic concerns, often at the expense of those of her own family’s needs. By contrast, the relatively-hedonistic Jezebel is a sexually-insatiable temptress. And the Matriarch is generally thought of as an emasculating figure who denigrates black men, ala the characters Sapphire and Aunt Esther on the television shows Amos and Andy and Sanford and Son, respectively.     

Professor Perry points out how the propagation of these harmful myths have served the mainstream culture well. For instance, the Mammy suggests that it is almost second nature for black females to feel a maternal instinct towards Caucasian babies.

As for the source of the Jezebel, black women had no control over their own bodies during slavery given that they were being auctioned off and bred to maximize profits. Nonetheless, it was in the interest of plantation owners to propagate the lie that sisters were sluts inclined to mate indiscriminately.

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Salvage the Bones

A Novel by Jesmyn Ward

On one level, Salvage the Bones is a simple story about a poor black family that’s about to be trashed by one of the most deadly hurricanes in U.S. history. What makes the novel so powerful, though, is the way Ward winds private passions with that menace gathering force out in the Gulf of Mexico. Without a hint of pretension, in the simple lives of these poor people living among chickens and abandoned cars, she evokes the tenacious love and desperation of classical tragedy. The force that pushes back against Katrina’s inexorable winds is the voice of Ward’s narrator, a 14-year-old girl named Esch, the only daughter among four siblings. Precocious, passionate and sensitive, she speaks almost entirely in phrases soaked in her family’s raw land. Everything here is gritty, loamy and alive, as though the very soil were animated. Her brother’s “blood smells like wet hot earth after summer rain. . . . His scalp looks like fresh turned dirt.” Her father’s hands “are like gravel,” while her own hand “slides through his grip like a wet fish,” and a handsome boy’s “muscles jabbered like chickens.”

Admittedly, Ward can push so hard on this simile-obsessed style that her paragraphs risk sounding like a compost heap, but this isn’t usually just metaphor for metaphor’s sake. She conveys something fundamental about Esch’s fluid state of mind: her figurative sense of the world in which all things correspond and connect. She and her brothers live in a ramshackle house steeped in grief since their mother died giving birth to her last child. . . . What remains, what’s salvaged, is something indomitable in these tough siblings, the strength of their love, the permanence of their devotion.WashingtonPost

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The Warmth of Other Suns

The Epic Story of America's Great Migration

By Isabel Wilkerson

Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, a sharecropper's wife, left Mississippi for Milwaukee in 1937, after her cousin was falsely accused of stealing a white man's turkeys and was almost beaten to death. In 1945, George Swanson Starling, a citrus picker, fled Florida for Harlem after learning of the grove owners' plans to give him a "necktie party" (a lynching). Robert Joseph Pershing Foster made his trek from Louisiana to California in 1953, embittered by "the absurdity that he was doing surgery for the United States Army and couldn't operate in his own home town." Anchored to these three stories is Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Wilkerson's magnificent, extensively researched study of the "great migration," the exodus of six million black Southerners out of the terror of Jim Crow to an "uncertain existence" in the North and Midwest.

Wilkerson deftly incorporates sociological and historical studies into the novelistic narratives of Gladney, Starling, and Pershing settling in new lands, building anew, and often finding that they have not left racism behind. The drama, poignancy, and romance of a classic immigrant saga pervade this book, hold the reader in its grasp, and resonate long after the reading is done.

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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update 17 August 2012




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