Harlan Jay Ellison is considered one of the most interesting and important writers to come out of the science-fiction genre. He has accumulated accolades both in and out of that genre, including multiple awards from both the Writers Guild of America for Best Dramatic Screenplay and from the Mystery Writers of America. Much of Ellison’s reputation and career has been built upon works that are only tangentially fantastic.
Ellison grew up in Painesville, Ohio, the only child of the sole Jewish family in the city. This, possibly combined with his father’s career change after being convicted of dealing in moonshine liquor, left Ellison feeling ostracized and alone. He claims to have run away from home several times and has cited science fiction as having saved him “from a life of crime.”
Among Ellison’s early works the 1960 story “Final Shtick” seems closest to autobiography. Here a Jewish comedian named Marty Field (né Morrie Feldman), returning to his hometown to accept an award, reflects on the hypocrisy of the people who now bask in his celebrity (in his youth Ellison edited the Ohio State humor magazine briefly and worked as a stand-up comic).
With the 1970 story “One Life, Furnished in Early Poverty” the mature Ellison encapsulates the essence of his early life. The story’s early sense of polemic is rapidly transformed into a heartfelt examination of the man he had become and the boy he had been. The final exchanges between Gus and “Mr. Rosenthal” effect a sense of rapprochement and humanity that is the keynote in the mature Ellison’s work.
When he was expelled from Ohio State University in 1955 Ellison moved to New York City. Here he took an apartment in the same building as the science-fiction writer Robert Silverberg. Silverberg has provided an unflattering picture of Ellison’s behavior during that time, describing the enfant terrible persona that Ellison promulgated throughout the 1960’s.
In New York Ellison spent ten weeks with a gang in Brooklyn, an experience he used in his novel Rumble (also known as The Web of the City) and the first half of the nonfiction collection Memos from Purgatory. In that collection Ellison defines his distaste for the “Common Man,” one of the constant themes of his work. He often returns to that theme, especially in The Glass Teat, a book of television criticism. It is this stance that led the writer and critic John Gardner, in his On Becoming a Novelist, to cite Ellison’s...
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