Summary (Magill's Literary Annual 2003)
Ralph Ellison holds a unique place in American literature. His Invisible Man (1952) changed both the course of the American novel and the understanding of the African American experience, and thus the American experience. Ellison would live more than forty years after that landmark publication (he died in 1994), but he would never publish another novel. (A fragment of his fictional work-in-progress, Juneteenth, was published posthumously in 1999.) Lawrence Jackson has chosen, in this pioneering study of the artist, to focus on the first half of Ellison’s life, from his birth in Oklahoma City in 1914 through Invisible Man and the reviews and awards which followed its publication forty years later. The biography thus has a detailed focus on a life headed toward this remarkable artistic achievement, and Jackson makes several important discoveries along the way. One is that Ellison was as much critic as novelist, playing an incredibly active role in the life of his times—in socialist literary organizations such as the League of American Writers and the radical journal New Masses during the 1930’s and 1940’s and in the black civil rights movement from the late 1930’s into the 1950’s. Equally important, Jackson documents the crucial role that friendships played in Ellison’s creative life, particularly those bonds he built with other black creative writers such as Langston Hughes and Richard Wright and with other literary critics such as Kenneth Burke and Stanley Edgar Hyman. Throughout this fine biography, the focus is on the life which would finally produce Invisible Man, a work which many consider the greatest American novel written in the twentieth century.
Ellison’s early life was fraught with insecurities. His father died when he was three, and Ralph, his brother Herbert, and their mother moved a number of times in the next dozen years. Their poverty and itinerant lifestyle were important influences on him, but so too, Jackson shows, were events in Oklahoma such as the 1921 Tulsa race riot, which revealed the true nature of racial relations at the beginning of the twentieth century. Jackson is excellent at describing the cultural and historical background to Ellison’s life: his early immersion in music at the same time as the unique American musical form, jazz, was just emerging, for example, and the ingrained racism that he faced wherever he journeyed in his life.
Ellison was not particularly inspired in school, but he was a reader, and he found an outlet for his incipient genius in music. (Neighbors in Oklahoma City included the guitarist Charlie Christian, the bassist Walter Page, and the singer Jimmy Rushing, all of whom would become jazz legends.) His trumpet playing eventually freed him from Oklahoma, and in the summer of 1933 he arrived in Tuskegee, Alabama (by freight trains, because he had no money), admitted to the School of Music at the famous college founded in 1881 by Booker T. Washington. Jackson notes that “In Alabama, Ralph came face to face with what would become a lifelong intellectual grapple between the genius of authentic American black folk culture and the complex of American social institutions that drew on the same old materials to enforce the myth of black inferiority.” Ellison also found sympathetic teachers who introduced him to books and ideas beyond the limited world of Tuskegee.
In the summer of 1936, Ellison left Tuskegee without a degree, still struggling for his own identity among conflicting interests and demands on his life and time. He traveled north to New York City, ostensibly to study art and sculpture. Soon after his arrival in New York, however, his true calling became clear and his interests in music and art gave way to a dedication to writing. Through more established friends such as the poet Langston Hughes and the novelist Richard Wright, Ellison was introduced into left-wing literary circles in New York which nurtured young writers like Ellison through magazines such as New Masses and Partisan Review. It was an exciting time in New York in the second half of the 1930’s, when writers were committed to social and political activities through their writing—in support of the Republican side and against fascism in the Spanish Civil War, for example—and Ellison became active writing reviews and early short stories. He got a job working for the Federal Writers Project of New York City and “constructed a...
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