Ellison, Ralph (Vol. 114)
Ralph Ellison 1914–1994
(Full name Ralph Waldo Ellison) American novelist, essayist, short story writer, critic, and editor.
The following entry presents criticism on Ellison's works through 1997. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 1, 3, 11, 54, and 86.
Ellison is considered among the most influential and accomplished contemporary American authors for his highly acclaimed novel Invisible Man (1952). Honored with the National Book Award for fiction, Invisible Man is regarded as a masterpiece of twentieth-century American fiction for its complex treatment of racial repression and betrayal. Shifting between naturalism, expressionism, and surrealism, Ellison combines concerns of European and African-American literature to chronicle the quest of an unnamed black youth to discover his identity within a deluding, hostile world. Although critics have faulted Ellison's style as occasionally excessive, Invisible Man has consistently garnered accolades for its poetic, ambiguous form, sustained blend of tragedy and comedy, and complex symbolism and characterizations.
Born in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, Ellison was raised in a cultural atmosphere that encouraged self-fulfillment. After studying music from 1933 to 1936 at Tuskegee Institute, a college founded by Booker T. Washington to promote black scholarship, Ellison traveled to New York City, where he met Richard Wright and became involved in the Federal Writers' Project. Encouraged to write a book review for New Challenge, a publication edited by Wright, Ellison began composing essays and stories that focus on the strength of the human spirit and the necessity for racial pride. Two of his most celebrated early short stories, "Flying Home" and "King of the Bingo Game," foreshadow Invisible Man in their portrayal of alienated young protagonists who seek social recognition. Although he originally envisioned writing a war novel, Ellison instead began work on Invisible Man following his honorable discharge from the United States Merchant Marines in 1945. A meticulous craftsman, Ellison was working on his long-awaited second novel at the time of his death in 1994.
Invisible Man chronicles an unnamed black youth's quest for self-identity in a hostile world. Narrating his story from an underground cell, the anonymous protagonist describes his experiences as a student in the South, his travels in Harlem following his undeserved expulsion from college, his work with a political organization named the Brotherhood, and his participation in the Harlem race riots of the 1940s; he explains in the prologue that he is involuntarily invisible—and has thus gone underground—because society sees him only in terms of racial stereotypes. Additionally known as an essayist and nonfiction writer, Ellison collected twenty-two years of reviews, criticism, and interviews concerning such subjects as art, music, literature, and the influence of the black experience on American culture in Shadow and Act (1964). This volume is often considered autobiographical in intent and is noted for its lucidity and the insights it provides into Invisible Man. Going to the Territory (1986), which contains speeches, reviews, and interviews written since 1957, echoes many of the concerns of Shadow and Act. Making use of ironic humor in the manner of Invisible Man, Ellison here reflected on and paid tribute to such personal influences and creative mentors as Richard Wright and Duke Ellington. Two collections of Ellison's works have been published posthumously, The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison (1996) and Flying Home and Other Stories (1997). The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison contains twenty previously unpublished essays, as well as all of the essays published in Going to the Territory and Shadow and Act. Flying Home and Other Stories is comprised of thirteen short stories written between 1937 and 1954, and includes such stories as "A Party Down at the Square," which relates the story of the lynching and burning of a black man from a young white boy's perspective. "Out of the Hospital and Under the Bar" (1963), a short story published in the anthology Soon, One Morning: New Writing by American Negroes, 1940–1962, was originally intended to be a chapter of Invisible Man.
Although attacked by black nationalists for lacking stringent militancy toward civil rights issues, Invisible Man garnered laudatory reviews immediately following its publication and has continued to generate scholarly exegeses. Many critics have commented on how the book's dexterous style, dense symbolism, and narrative structure lend intricacy to its plot. The narrator, who reflects on his past experiences, is observed as both an idealistic, gullible youth and as an enlightened, responsible man who actively addresses problems that may result from social inequality. The foremost controversial issue of Invisible Man involves its classification as either a work particularly for blacks or a novel with universal import. Critics who insist the book strictly concerns black culture maintain that the experiences, emotions, and lifestyles described could not possibly be simulated by white authors, while supporters of the more prevalent view that Invisible Man transcends racial concerns contend that the protagonist's problems of illusion, betrayal, and self-awareness are experienced by every segment of society. Ellison is also highly regarded for his accomplishments as an essayist. Shadow and Act is often considered autobiographical in intent and has been acclaimed for its lucidity and insights into Invisible Man. Although Ellison's collected short stories and essays are often viewed by critics as valuable only in terms of their capacity to illuminate aspects of Invisible Man, these works also have been lauded by critics who have noted particularly Ellison's ability to convey the universality of his characters' concerns and experiences, irrespective of race.
SOURCE: An interview in Paris Review, Spring, 1955, pp. 53-55; reprinted as "The Art of Fiction: An Interview," in Conversations with Ralph Ellison, edited by Maryemma Graham and Amritjit Singh, University Press of Mississippi, 1995, pp. 6-19.
[In the following interview, Ellison discusses his life and his views on writing and literature, specifically addressing his own works, so-called "protest literature," and contemporary African-American writers and literature.]
When Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison's first novel, received the National Book Award for 1952, the author in his acceptance speech noted with dismay and gratification the conferring of the award to what he called "an attempt at a major novel." His gratification was understandable, so too his dismay when one considers the amount of objectivity Mr. Ellison can display toward his own work. He felt the state of U.S. fiction to be so unhappy that it was an "attempt" rather than an achievement which received the important award.
Many of us will disagree with Mr. Ellison's evaluation of his own work. Its crackling, brilliant, sometimes wild, but always controlled prose warrants this; so does the care and logic with which its form is revealed, and not least its theme: that of a young Negro who emerges from the South and—in the tradition of James' Hyacinth Robinson and Stendhal's Julien Sorel—moves into the adventure...
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SOURCE: "Ritual and Rationalization: Black Folklore in the Works of Ralph Ellison," in PMLA, Vol. 94, No. 1, January, 1979, pp. 121-36.
[In the following essay, Blake illustrates how Ellison's use of black folklore aids him in "bridg[ing] the gap between the uniqueness and the universality of black experience."]
The predominant theme in the works of Ralph Ellison is the quest for cultural identity. Although he does not realize this himself, the protagonist of Invisible Man seeks identity, not as an individual, but as a black man in a white society. He encounters and combats the problem Ellison identified in an interview with three young black writers in 1965: "Our lives, since slavery, have been described mainly in terms of our political, economic, and social conditions as measured by outside norms, seldom in terms of our own sense of life or our own sense of values gained from our own unique American experience" ["A Very Stern Discipline," Harper's, March, 1967, p. 78]. The invisible man searches for self-definition in terms of the sense of life and values gained from the unique black-American experience. His quest, however—like that of almost every other Ellison protagonist—ends in the conviction that the black experience is not so unique: "Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?" Cultural identity becomes indistinguishable from the human...
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SOURCE: "Invisible Man, As Vivid Today as in 1952," in Conversations with Ralph Ellison, University Press of Mississippi, 1995, pp. 378-82.
[In the following essay, which originally appeared in The New York Times, March 1, 1982, Mitgang uses the occasion of the thirtieth anniversary of the publication of Invisible Man to reflect on Ellison's life and career.]
Ralph Ellison is 68 years old today. Relaxing in his art-and-book lined apartment on Riverside Drive above the Hudson the other day, he took a little time away from his electric typewriter to talk about his working life.
"My approach is that I'm an American writer," he said. "I write out of the larger literary tradition—which, by the way, is part Negro—from Twain to Melville to Faulkner. Another element I'm aware of is American folklore. And then all of this is part of the great stream of literature.
"Americans didn't invent the novel. Negroes didn't invent poetry. Too much has been written about racial identity instead of what kind of literature is produced. Literature is color-blind, and it should be read and judged in a larger framework."
In March 1952, Mr. Ellison's first novel, Invisible Man, was published, and Random House is marking the occasion this month by bringing out a 30th-anniversary edition, which is also being distributed by the Book-of-the-Month...
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SOURCE: "Invisible Man: Ralph Ellison's Wasteland," in CLA Journal, Vol. XXVIII, No. 2, December, 1984, pp. 150-58.
[In the following essay, Walsh delineates the relationship between Invisible Man and T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land.]
In Shadow and Act, Ralph Ellison credits an early reading of The Waste Land as the impetus for his "real transition to writing." Invisible Man reveals the profundity of this experience. Important scenes, characters, and events in Invisible Man recreate prototypes from The Waste Land. Identifying his avatars by strong patterns of allusion, Ellison creates a dry, devastated land of the human spirit which reaches into the mythic past. The protagonist of Invisible Man reenacts the journey of the quester in The Waste Land. His search for the truths which will bring spiritual renewal ends with his perception of his invisibility and his corresponding acceptance of the ideal precepts of American democracy.
Ellison establishes the connection between Invisible Man and The Waste Land early in the novel in the protagonist's description of the agricultural college he attends:
For how could it have been real if now I am invisible? If real, why is it that I can recall in all that island of greenness no fountain but one that was broken, corroded and dry? And why...
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SOURCE: "Improvising America: Ralph Ellison and the Paradox of Form," in Speaking for You: The Vision of Ralph Ellison, edited by Kimberly W. Benston, Howard University Press, 1987, pp. 173-83.
[In the following essay, Bigsby examines Ellison's paradoxical treatment of chaos and form.]
Writing in 1937, Richard Wright insisted that "black writers are being called upon to do no less than create values by which the race is to struggle, live and die" ["Blueprint for Negro Literature," Amistad, Vol. 2, 1971]. In 1941 Ellison echoed this sentiment. His responsibility, he felt, was "to create the consciousness of his oppressed nation" ["Recent Negro Fiction," New Masses, August 5, 1941]. It was a stance he was later to be accused of abandoning by those who, in the 1960s and 1970s, proposed their own prescriptions for cultural and political responsibility and who found his determined pluralism unacceptable. For although he undeniably concentrated on the black experience in America, he tended to see this experience in relation to the problem of identity, the anxieties associated with the struggle for cultural autonomy, and the need to define the contours of experience. His central concern was with the relationship between raw experience and the shaping power of the imagination. And, for him, the "imagination itself is integrative," in that it is essentially involved in the process of "making...
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SOURCE: "Ellison's 'King of the Bingo Game': Finding Naturalism's Trapdoor," in English Language Notes, Vol. XXIX, No. 1, September, 1991, pp. 71-74.
[In the following essay, Herman explains how Ellison both follows and deviates from the conventions of literary naturalism in "King of the Bingo Game."]
Prima facie, Ralph Ellison's "King of the Bingo Game" fits squarely into the tradition of literary naturalism. Ellison's extended treatment of the bingo wheel, for one thing, figures the same overriding concern with the issue of fate versus chance—the issue of determinism—manifest in, say, the famous open-safe scene in Dreiser's Sister Carrie, or in the closing pages of Norris's The Octopus. If anything, Ellison's story addresses the notion of determinism even more explicitly than is customary in naturalistic works. For Ellison's (literally) nameless protagonist attempts self-consciously to eliminate chance, to control the wheel of fortune itself, by refusing to relinquish his grasp on the button whose release determines where the bingo wheel will stop. Ellison, in orthodox naturalistic fashion, also stresses the protagonist's gnawing hunger and his craving for the alcohol he hears gurgling appealingly in the bottle of his fellow movie-goers. Indeed, in accordance with the logic of the naturalistic genre, we witness the bingo-player's last-ditch effort to beat not only the odds, but...
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SOURCE: "The Big E(llison)'s Texts and Intertexts: Eliot, Burke, and the Underground Man," in CLA Journal, Vol. XXXVII, No. 4, June, 1994, pp. 377-401.
[In the following essay, Adell examines Invisible Man according to the theory of intertextuality expressed by Roland Barthes, noting the connections between Ellison's novel and such works as T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land and Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Notes from Underground.]
Mallarmé might well have been, as Michael Gresset and Noel Polk claim, the first of the moderns to point to intertextuality as a key operation in literary activity when he wrote that
all books, more or less, contain the fusion of a certain number of repetitions: even if there were but one book in the world, its law would be as a bible simulated by the heathens. The difference from one work to the next would afford as many readings as would be put forth in a boundless contest for the trustworthy text among epochs that are supposedly civilized or literate.
[Intertextuality in Faulkner]
Of course, Mallarmé did not know that he was articulating a theory of intertextuality; that word has only recently come into literary terminology. But he obviously had no doubt that this "fusion of a certain number of repetitions" is...
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SOURCE: A review of The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison, in Washington Post Book World, Vol. XXVI, No. 5, February 4, 1996, p. 7.
[In the following review, Nicholson examines The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison and two works by Albert Murray, providing a laudatory assessment of all three works and characterizing the two authors as "giants" in terms of their talent and achievements as writers.]
The critic Stanley Crouch, himself no mean chronicler of the American scene, has dubbed Albert Murray and Ralph Ellison "the twin towers" of our national literature. The appellation is apt, invoking as it does both basketball (a game to which black athletes have brought both style and breath-taking improvisation all the more remarkable because performed with grace under pressure), and the black monoliths that dominate the skyline of lower Manhattan. The essays collected in these three volumes [The Blue Devils of Nada: A Contemporary American Approach to Aesthetic Statement and The Hero and the Blues by Albert Murray, and The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison, edited by John F. Callahan] allow us to witness Albert Murray and Ralph Ellison in the full glory of their wit and style, and to marvel at their flights of intellectual synthesis, accomplished with all the nonchalant daring of a Charlie Parker solo. Time and again, we are reminded of their centrality as American...
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SOURCE: A review of Flying Home and Other Stories, in The New York Times Book Review, January 19, 1997, p. 13.
[In the following review, Giddins offers a laudatory assessment of Flying Home and Other Stories.]
The one-novel career, while hardly unique to the United States (Europe offers Canetti, Rilke and Lampedusa, among others), has produced a peculiar frisson of suspense in this country in the postwar era. I'm thinking not of writers who died young, like James Agee, or who consummated extended literary callings with one big fictional work, like Katherine Anne Porter, but of those who made an indelible assault on the consciousness of several generations with a prodigiously incisive novel and left us loitering, season after season, in the vain hope of a second strike.
Three cases stand out. Henry Roth published Call It Sleep in the 1930's, but his novel belongs as much to the 60's, when it was read and celebrated. Breaking what may be the longest silence in publishing history, he persevered to write a memory novel so long we are three volumes away from the finish (the six volumes are being published individually under the collective title Mercy of a Rude Stream) and lingering in a zone of cautious disappointment. J. D. Salinger would undoubtedly top best-seller lists with The Pitcher in the Chaff, but I suspect we have given up waiting or stopped caring....
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SOURCE: "Dark Memories in the Early Voice of Novelist Ralph Ellison," in Christian Science Monitor, February 10, 1997, p. 14.
[In the following review, Holmstrom provides a favorable assessment of Flying Home and Other Stories.]
For Buster and Riley, two fictional African-American boys created by Ralph Ellison, ebonies is the only language they speak. In [Flying Home and Other Stories], this collection of short stories, including three about Buster and Riley, Ellison at least establishes that the speech patterns and clipped grammar of ebonies flourished in the 1930s and '40s between two boys.
Today black children in Oakland, Calif., speak ebonies and create a stir when school officials recognize it as valid.
Ellison, the author of the famed novel Invisible Man, published in 1952, also establishes in these stories—written before Invisible Man—that the racial segregation and bias that limited the lives of "colored" people decades ago linger today.
So, even though Ellison writes with power and clarity about being black in a white world some 55 years ago, the issues haven't changed much, as seen through the burning of some black churches recently or a record racial-discrimination law-suit against Texaco that was settled out of court.
Today the inner cities of America, for the most part, remain ethnically and...
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SOURCE: "The Drama of Ralph Ellison," in The New York Review of Books, May 15, 1997, pp. 52-9.
[In the following essay, Pinckney surveys Ellison's life and career.]
Invisible Man holds such an honored place in African-American literature that Ralph Ellison didn't have to write anything else to break bread with the remembered dead. But he did try to go on, because if a writer has done one great thing then the pressures to do another are intense. A few of Ellison's short stories from the 1940s and 1950s were widely anthologized over the years. After a while it became generally known that he was at work on another novel. Though he remained aware ever afterward of the authority Invisible Man gave to him, no second novel followed his brilliant debut in 1952.
Ellison published essays, magisterial in tone, often on how a "specifically 'Negro' idiom" has influenced and been influenced by the larger American culture, or on the enduring predicament he saw as being at the heart of the American novel, the contradiction between the country's founding ideals and its actual, though sometimes hidden, caste and racial history. He admired nineteenth-century writers such as Melville and Twain because they believed in works of fiction as repositories of the nation's social and moral history. Before the undoing of Reconstruction, American novelists took...
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SOURCE: "Notes of a Native Son," in Times Literary Supplement, July 25, 1997, p. 22.
[In the following review, Miller provides a positive assessment of Flying Home and Other Stories.]
Ralph Ellison's celebrated novel Invisible Man, seven years in the making, appeared in 1952. It is an American Gothic delirium. Writing about it in such terms, a few years later, in his great book of the 1960s, Love and Death in the American Novel, Leslie Fiedler saw a method in the "madness" he took it to contain. The reason why this madness carried conviction was that "the Negro problem in the United States" was "a gothic horror of our daily lives".
The old-fashioned apartheid expression, "the Negro problem", should not prevent one from accepting that the novel's first-person narrator is an incarnation of the problem which America's Negroes have had to live with. Their very name has been a problem, and has been subject to change. What has been done to them can become the question of who they are. The narrator's identity is projected in the novel as uncertain, phantasmagoric. And his invisibility is as phantasmagoric as his identity. The vivid black people who figure in it are, in one way, far from uncertain; nor, in that way, is the narrator. But Ellison is pledged to these ideas. And if it isn't always clear, in the more discursive passages of the book, what he means by them, that can in...
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Nadel, Alan. Invisible Criticism: Ralph Ellison and the American Canon. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1988, 181 p.
Callahan, John F. "Frequencies of Memory: A Eulogy for Ralph Waldo Ellison (March 1, 1914–April 16, 1994)." Callaloo 18, No. 2 (Spring 1995): 298-309.
An expanded version of a eulogy delivered at Ellison's funeral on April 19, 1994.
Cannon, Steve. "Reminiscin' in C: Remembering Ralph Waldo Ellison." Callaloo 18, No. 2 (Spring 1995): 288-91.
Cannon reminisces about his experience with Ellison and his perceptions of the author's works.
Forrest, Leon. "Ralph Ellison Remembered." Callaloo 18, No. 2 (Spring 1995): 280-82.
Writer and educator Forrest remarks on various aspects of Ellison's life.
Stern, Richard. "Ralph Ellison." Callaloo 18, No. 2 (Spring 1995): 284-87.
Stern recalls his acquaintance and experience with Ellison.
O'Meally, Robert G. "On Burke and the Vernacular: Ralph Ellison's Boomerang of...
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