Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man was an immediate sensation in the literary world. White critics were enthusiastic, but black critics accused Ellison of unfairly stereotyping African Americans. Until the publication of Invisible Man, the leading black writers of the mid-twentieth century were Richard Wright, author of Native Son (1940), and poet Langston Hughes. While both Wright and Hughes mentored young Ellison and helped launch his writing career, Ellison eventually moved beyond their influence to discover his unique fictional voice. Invisible Man, employing myth, fantasy, and symbolism, was recognized as a breakthrough that changed the face of African American literature in the twentieth century.
Ellison and his wife Fanny saved the voluminous correspondence, journals, and notes that record the details of his life and placed them in the Library of Congress. Arnold Rampersad, author of biographies of Jackie Robinson and Langston Hughes and editor of several African American literary anthologies, made extensive use of the Ellisons’ collected papers. He also conducted numerous interviews with Ellison’s contemporaries. Rampersad’s scholarly interpretation of this material has been frequently cited as the definitive treatment of Ellison’s life and work.
The question that has intrigued Ellison’s readerswhy was he unable to complete the lengthy manuscript of his second novel?is not Rampersad’s main concern. He presents a portrait of a complex man, the foremost black intellectual of his generation, whose gentlemanly bearing and charm gave him entry into the exclusive world of white society. Ellison also drank heavily, behaved cruelly to his two wives, and ignored younger black writers who sought his support. Rampersad also offers keen critical insight into Ellison’s creative process and the demons that plagued him as he struggled to write a second novel.
Ralph Waldo Ellison was born on March 1, 1913, in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, to Ida and Lewis Ellison, whose ancestors had accepted the government’s offer of one hundred acres in the Oklahoma Territory after the Civil War. Ellison often expressed pride in his mixed Indian, white, and black heritage. This racial history of the territory profoundly influenced his lifelong view of America as a land of hope and opportunity. Ellison, named for the New England Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson, was initially embarrassed by his name but later acknowledged his debt to this distinguished heritage.
Lewis Ellison’s death after an injury incurred while delivering ice was a disaster for Ida, three-year-old Ralph, and his younger brother Herbert. Dependent on the charity of friends and relatives, the family lived in abject poverty, humiliated and outcast by the respectable black community. Rampersad believes that Ellison, a proud and angry man throughout his life, never recovered from this childhood emotional damage. However, in later years, Ellison romanticized the experience of growing up on the Oklahoma frontier and returned several timesbut only after he had become famous.
Young Ellison began work before he was twelve as a shoeshine boy and later as a waiter and as a drugstore clerk. He showed an early talent for music, excelling as a trumpet player and pianist, absorbing the jazz and blues of Oklahoma City dance halls. He enrolled as a music major at Tuskegee Institute, the conservative, all-black school founded by Booker T. Washington. These were unhappy years during which he constantly begged his mother for money for the barest essentials. Moreover, a dean of the school whom he trusted as a father figure made unwelcome sexual advances. However, it was a Tuskegee English professor who first inspired his interest in literature.
Ellison left Tuskegee without finishing his degree and moved to New York City in 1936. He supported himself as a server at the Harlem YMCA, and later as a clerk for a psychiatrist and a laboratory assistant at a paint company. At the YMCA, he met Langston Hughes, the generous poet who encouraged him to write. Both Hughes and Richard Wright, to whom Hughes introduced Ellison, were members of the Communist Party and wrote for socialist publications. Although Ellison was never a party member, he was initially in sympathy with socialist politics.
Ellison went to Ohio in 1937 after the death of his mother and was reunited with his younger brother Herbert. They spent several homeless months subsisting on their hunting skills. This hand-to-mouth existence, coupled with the discovery that an incompetent black doctor had caused his mother’s...
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