Ellison, Ralph (Vol. 79)
Ralph Ellison 1914-1994
American short story writer, novelist, essayist, and editor.
The following entry provides an overview of Ellison's life and works of short fiction. See also Ralph Ellison Literary Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 3, 11, 26, 114.
Ellison is regarded as one of the most accomplished and influential authors of the twentieth century. Although he is best known for his widely acclaimed novel Invisible Man (1952), critics praise his short stories and assert that they provide valuable insight into his overall artistic development. In these works Ellison uses folklore, myth, and complex patterns of symbolism and allusion to illuminate important issues in the lives of African Americans, including racial repression, alienation, and betrayal.
Born in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, on March 1, 1914, Ellison was raised in an atmosphere that encouraged self-fulfillment and cultural enrichment. 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 author Richard Wright and became involved in the Federal Writers' Project. Encouraged to contribute to 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. Awarded a Rosenwald grant in 1945, Ellison began work on Invisible Man, which was hailed as a masterpiece upon its publication and garnered Ellison numerous honorary degrees and literary awards. He began work on a second novel, which he never finished. Excerpts from this novel, including “And Hickman Arrives,” comprise the last original fiction Ellison published, appearing sporadically as short stories in several journals during the 1960s and 1970s. During this time he also taught at Bard College (1958-61), Rutgers University (1962-69), and New York University (1970-79). Ellison died of cancer on April 16, 1994, in New York City. In 1999, a very abridged version of Ellison's second novel—a kaleidoscopic work exceeding 2,000 pages—was published as Juneteenth.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Thirteen of Ellison's short stories were collected posthumously in Flying Home and Other Stories (1996); commentators note that these stories recognize the prejudice suffered by African Americans and explore themes of racial and class identity. Ellison wrote numerous short stories that have been published individually, among them his earliest stories, “Slick Gonna Learn” and “The Birthmark,” which deal with police brutality and racial injustice. In the former, a Black man named Slick Williams is harassed and beaten after he inadvertently punches a white police officer. In the latter, a lynching is explained away by white patrolmen as an automobile accident. Some critics maintain that Ellison's better fiction emphasizes the positive aspects of African American life and often features individuals who attain a deeper sense of selfhood. His next three stories, “Afternoon,” “Mister Toussan,” and “That I Had the Wings,” feature two Black adolescent boys, Buster and Riley, who resist the restrictions placed upon them by whites and find positive role models within their own folk heritage. “Flying Home” and “King of the Bingo Game” are Ellison's most anthologized stories. “Flying Home” concerns a young Black pilot, at first contemptuous of his own race, whose self-esteem is restored by an elderly Black sharecropper and his son, who nurse him back to health after his airplane crashes on an Alabama farm owned by a white racist. In “King of the Bingo Game” an anonymous Black man desperately enters a bingo tournament with the hope of winning enough money to pay for his dying wife's medical expenses. As the game continues, however, the bingo wheel becomes symbolic of the man's inability to control his destiny. “Out of the Hospital and Under the Bar” and “Did You Ever Dream Lucky?” showcase the character Mary Rambo, who had earlier appeared in Invisible Man. The nine excerpts published from Ellison's incomplete second novel trace the events just prior to and following the assassination of Senator Sunraider (also known as Bliss), a light-skinned African American who earlier had renounced his adoptive Black father, Reverend Hickman, and espoused white supremacy by passing as white.
Many of Ellison's short stories are discussed in relationship to Ellison's masterpiece, Invisible Man. One parallel found between the short stories and the novel is Ellison's complex portrayal of alienated young Black men who seek social recognition, a theme found in his stories “Flying Home” and “King of the Bingo Game.” Moreover, as is true of Invisible Man, Ellison's short stories generally focus on the strength of the human spirit and affirm the importance of racial pride and cultural identity. Critics have traced his political and literary development through his short stories, and contend that these pieces focus on themes that he later incorporated into Invisible Man. Others have underscored the importance of the stories as an appropriate genre for Ellison to express the complexity of the African American experience and to explore the meaning of it for himself and his work. His use of folklore in his stories has also been a frequent topic of discussion. In the late 1960s and 1970s some writers charged Ellison with perpetuating derogatory stereotypes of African Americans. Others disagreed, arguing that his exploration of the richness and oral tradition of Black folklore is a major reason for the enduring popularity and power of his fiction. In recent years commentators have also examined the role of psychology in his work, including his short fiction. Commentators assert that the growing body of criticism on Ellison's short fiction attests to the insights these stories provide into his political awakening and literary development.
*Flying Home and Other Stories 1996
Invisible Man (novel) 1952
Shadow and Act: Essays (essays and interviews) 1964
Going to the Territory: Essays (essays, lectures, and interviews) 1986
The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison (essays, lectures, and interviews) 1995
Juneteenth: A Novel (novel) 1999
Living with Music: Ralph Ellison's Jazz Writings (essays) 2001
*This volume contains stories written between 1937 and 1954, including “Afternoon,” “The Black Ball,” “Boy on a Train, “A Coupla Scalped Indians,” “In a Strange Country,” “Flying Home,” “A Hard Time Keeping Up,” “Hymie's Bull,” “I Did Not Learn Their Names,” “King of the Bingo Game,” “Mister Toussan,” “A Party Down at the Square,” and “That I Had the Wings.”
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SOURCE: Blake, Susan L. “Ritual and Rationalization: Black Folklore in the Works of Ralph Ellison.” PMLA 94, no. 1 (January 1979): 121-36.
[In the following essay, Blake considers the role of African American folklore in Ellison's short stories.]
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.”1 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 condition.
One way that Ellison bridges the gap between the...
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SOURCE: O'Meally, Robert G. “Apprenticeship.” In The Craft of Ralph Ellison, pp. 56-77. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1980.
[In the following essay, O'Meally traces Ellison's literary development through eight early short stories.]
The years 1939 to 1944 were an apprenticeship for Ellison who, in a New York Post feature story of 1943, was bylined as “a short story writer.” He published eight stories during this crucial five-year span, and his writing grew in eloquence and complexity from story to story. He wrote many more stories than he tried to publish, looking upon them as practice pieces, “five-finger exercises.” Operating in an experimental attitude, Ellison would start writing a story by jotting down a few themes and then try to develop them into plots, scenes, images, and characters.
His first short stories (“Slick Gonna Learn” and “The Birthmark”) are in the realistic and naturalistic mold and highlighted the “jagged edges” of the black American environment. And these first stories offer explicitly political resolutions to the dilemmas they pose. As early as 1940, however, as Ellison began to focus on his own Oklahoma background, his vision was not so much that of a political realist as a “regionalist”: his first Buster and Riley stories (“Afternoon,” “Mister Toussan,” and “That I Had the Wings”) explore the language,...
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SOURCE: Ogunyemi, Chikwenye Okonjo. “‘The Old Order Shall Pass’: The Examples of ‘Flying Home’ and ‘Barbados.’” Studies in Short Fiction 20, no. 1 (winter 1983): 23-32.
[In the following essay, Ogunyemi assesses Ellison's “Flying Home” and Paule Marshall's “Barbados.”]
Let a new earth rise. Let another world be born. Let a bloody peace be written in the sky. Let a second generation full of courage issue forth; let a people loving freedom come to growth. Let a beauty full of healing and a strength of final clenching be the pulsing in our spirits and our blood. Let the martial songs be written, let the dirges disappear. Let a race of men now rise and take control.
—Margaret Walker, 1942
“Flying Home” by Ralph Ellison and “Barbados” by Paule Marshall are two exceptional stories in Langston Hughes' 1967 collection, The Best Short Stories by Negro Writers: An Anthology from 1899 to the Present. The stories in the collection range widely in subject matter, and a sampling will show some of the writers' concerns: Charles W. Chesnutt examines the tragic mulatto theme in “The Sheriff's Children” and Willard Motley does the same in “The Almost White Boy”; Arna Bontemps presents the negative side of black life in the tragedy of the old, suicidal pair in “Summer Tragedy”; the aggressive...
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SOURCE: Herman, David J. “Ellison's ‘King of the Bingo Game’: Finding Naturalism's Trapdoor.” English Language Notes 29, no. 1 (September 1991): 71-4.
[In the following essay, Herman discusses aspects of “King of the Bingo Game” that undercut its apparent literary naturalism.]
Prima facie, Ralph Ellison's “King of the Bingo Game”1 fits squarely into the tradition of literary naturalism.2 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 (449) 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.3 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 (443, 444). Indeed, in accordance with the logic of the naturalistic genre, we witness the bingo-player's...
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SOURCE: Schor, Edith. “Short Stories: Early Explorations.” In Visible Ellison: A Study of Ralph Ellison's Fiction, pp. 15-36. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1993.
[In the following essay, Schor underscores the importance of Ellison's early stories as “the arena for his discovery of the appropriate forms to express the African-American experience and for working out the meaning of the experience for himself.”]
Upon publication of Invisible Man, critical comment encompassed, indeed often centered upon, Ellison's treatment of African-American experience. The general reaction can be summarized by Harvey Breit's comment: “What is exciting about it is that it hasn't really been written about except in a sociological way. That which for the sociologist presents itself as racial conflict becomes for the novelist the American form of the human drama.”1 Since then, the relationship of African-American experience to art has frequently been the focal point of critical discussion, and Ellison, in both essays and interviews, has amply clarified his views on this question.
On the specific literary responsibility of the novelist, he has stated that a writer who insists that his personal suffering is of special interest in itself reveals a sad misunderstanding of the relationship between suffering and art. “Thomas Mann and André Gide have told us much of this and...
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SOURCE: Callahan, John F. Afterword to “A Party Down at the Square.” Esquire 127, no. 1 (January 1997): 93-4.
[In the following essay, Callahan describes his discovery of Ellison's forgotten short story “A Party Down at the Square” and briefly explicates thematic and stylistic aspects of the tale.]
Ralph Ellison was no stranger to Esquire. As a college student in the thirties, he read early issues in black barbershops around Tuskegee, Alabama, and back in Oklahoma City, when he went home on vacation. In a 1958 letter to Saul Bellow, Ellison noted “the impact of the old Esquire magazine on kids in the provinces.” He singled out a Thomas Mann essay, Hemingway's “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” and Fitzgerald's blues-toned “Crack-up” pieces. To the end of his life, the author of Invisible Man was proud of “The Golden Age, Time Past,” his memoir of the jazz scene at Minton's during the forties that Esquire published in January 1959.
Despite Ellison's affinity for Esquire, “A Party Down at the Square” is his first work of fiction to appear in the magazine. My discovery of the story happened by accident. After Ellison's death in 1994, I was searching through the Ellisons' Riverside Drive apartment in Manhattan, looking for additional pages from his novel in progress. About to give up, I saw Mrs. Ellison point in the direction of a...
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SOURCE: Foley, Barbara. “Reading Redness: Politics and Audience in Ralph Ellison's Early Short Fiction.” Journal of Narrative Theory 29, no. 3 (fall 1999): 323-39.
[In the following essay, Foley contends that Ellison's early stories and journalism provide insights into his political and literary growth.]
With the death of Ralph Ellison in April 1994 and the recent publication of his posthumous—and long-awaited—second novel, Juneteenth, the curve of the career of the author of Invisible Man would now appear to be complete. Although the version of Juneteenth produced by John Callahan, Ellison's literary executor, promises to be the topic of continuing controversy—particularly when the entire Ellison archive becomes available to the public—the novelist's oeuvre now exists in its totality, ready to provide grist for many a critical mill.1 Much of the coming wave of revisionary scholarship will no doubt consider Juneteenth as the endpoint of a life-long trajectory. What should not be overlooked, however, is the new light that the opening archive sheds on the early stages of Ellison's writerly—and, I shall argue, political—experience. Most of those who have written on Ellison have assumed that the novelist's apprenticeship occurred within the seven years during which he was working on Invisible Man. Among those relatively few critics who have...
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SOURCE: Blythe, Hal, and Charlie Sweet. “Ellison's ‘King of the Bingo Game.’” Explicator 58, no. 4 (summer 2000): 218-20.
[In the following essay, Blythe and Sweet argue that Ellison's use of juxtaposition in “King of the Bingo Game” “makes more poignant the gap between white and black America in the 1930s.”]
Critics have long recognized symbolism as one of Ralph Ellison's favorite devices. However, a lesser-known technique, juxtaposition, illuminates the racism theme so prominent in his classic short story “King of the Bingo Game.” By contrasting the main character's major fantasy with his real-life situation, Ellison makes more poignant the gap between white and black America in the 1930s.
Ellison opens the story by describing his black protagonist's recurring cinematic fantasy. For the fourth time his character is in a theater watching the same stereotypic action-adventure movie. In it the hero, enshrouded by darkness within a room, probes with “the beam of a flashlight” (2267) to locate a trapdoor, then the heroine, who is tied to a bed. Freeing her, he escapes with his beloved, presumably to live happily ever after. In short, the protagonist's fantasy is one of control wherein a man by himself defeats overwhelming odds to save the woman he loves.
Ellison then juxtaposes this “reel-life” escape and escapism to the protagonist's desperate...
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SOURCE: Eversley, Shelly. “The Lunatic's Fancy and the Work of Art.” American Literary History 13, no. 3 (fall 2001): 445-68.
[In the following essay, Eversley maintains that “King of the Bingo Game” reflects Ellison's increasing interest in psychology and his support of a psychiatric clinic in Harlem.]
It was as though I had entered a haunted wood wherein every detail of scene, each thought and incipient action, sprang together and became endowed with a surreal and sinister significance. Almost everything about me seemed bent upon contributing to my growing sense of the irrational disorder of life …
—Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
Yes, sane men did misread reality. Just as he had once had fantasies, so now he was looking at men who were passionately arguing their own fantasies, trying to decide which fantasy was to be taken for reality.
—Richard Wright, The Outsider
When the Lafargue Psychiatric Clinic opened in Harlem in 1946, one newspaper responded with a headline, “They're Crazy Anyway.” The clinic was the first of its kind; it offered counseling to poor people, mostly black, but regardless of race or ability to pay. According to Richard Wright, whose essay “Phychiatry [sic] Comes to Harlem” (1946) was specifically meant...
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SOURCE: Urquhart, Troy A. “Ellison's ‘King of the Bingo Game.’” Explicator 60, no. 4 (summer 2002): 217-19.
[In the following essay, Urquhart discusses the significance of naming in “King of the Bingo Game,” which “suggests that the relationship between white and black remains a relationship between colonizer and colonized.”]
In her essay “Playing in the Dark,” Toni Morrison asserts that in a “wholly racialized society” “there is no escape from racially inflected language” (927). In a postcolonial view of American society, this assertion suggests both that the dichotomous relationship between the colonizer and the colonized is inescapable and that this relationship is reinforced or even constructed by language. The act of naming, then, enforces ideological hierarchies, including what Amritjit Singh and Peter Schmidt term “the socially constructed binary of black/white” in American culture (37). While John F. Callahan, editor of a collection of Ralph Ellison's short stories, describes Ellison's “King of the Bingo Game” as the tale of a “migrant” who “draws bingo and the right to take a turn at the wheel of fortune and the jackpot” (xxxv), Ellison's text seems to comment on the position of post-Reconstruction African Americans as defined by something more than chance. The question at the center of “King of the Bingo Game” is, perhaps, “‘Who am I?’”...
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SOURCE: Mazurek, Raymond A. “Writer on the Left: Class and Race in Ellison's Early Fiction.” College Literature 29, no. 4 (fall 2002): 109-35.
[In the following essay, Mazurek examines the key themes of class and race in Ellison's Flying Home and Other Stories and argues that these early short stories offer insight into his leftist political ideology as well as his growth as a writer.]
Eight years after his death, Ralph Ellison's work is undergoing a reassessment. Invisible Man, the only volume of fiction Ellison published during his lifetime, has long been recognized as a major novel; indeed, it has been named as the most significant post-1945 U.S. novel in three different surveys published from 1965 to 1990 (“American Fiction,” 1965; Freidman, 1978; Mazurek, 1990). However, the last five years have seen the publication of a posthumous volume of stories, Flying Home and Other Stories, along with the Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison, both containing previously unpublished material, as well as the controversial novel Juneteenth, patched together from the copious material Ellison was working on during the last four decades of his life. While Juneteenth and the controversies surrounding its editing by John F. Callahan will provide scholars with plenty to talk about for many years to come (see Feeley, 1999; Kirn, 1999; Menand, 1999), it would be unfortunate...
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Callahan, John F. Introduction to Flying Home and Other Stories, by Ralph Ellison, edited by John F. Callahan, pp. ix-xxxviii. New York: Random House, 1996.
Contends that Flying Home and Other Stories chronicles “Ellison's discovery of his American theme.”
Nadel, Alan. “Ralph Ellison and the American Canon.” American Literary History 13, no. 2 (summer 2001): 393-404.
Argues that although Flying Home and Other Stories “will be of interest to Ellison scholars because it identifies a body of concerns and images that inform Ellison's entire opus, it reveals little of the rich dynamics that characterize Ellison's mature fiction and criticism.”
Schor, Edith. “Short Stories: The Big Three.” In Visible Ellison: A Study of Ralph Ellison's Fiction, pp. 37-52. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1993.
Finds “In a Strange Country,” “Flying Home,” and “King of the Bingo Game” to be an excellent introduction to Ellison's novel Invisible Man.
Wiegman, Robyn. “The Anatomy of Lynching.” Journal of the History of Sexuality 3, no. 3 (January 1993): 445-67.
Analyzes the practice of lynching in the United States through a reading of Ellison's “The Birthmark.”
Additional coverage of...
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