Ellison, Ralph March
Ralph Ellison March 1, 1914–April 16, 1994
(Full name Ralph Waldo Ellison) American novelist, essayist, short story writer, critic, and editor.
For further information on Ellison's life and works, see CLC, Volumes 1, 3, 11, and 54.
One of the most influential and accomplished American authors of the twentieth century, Ellison is best known for his highly acclaimed novel Invisible Man (1952). Honored with a National Book Award for Fiction, Invisible Man is regarded as a masterpiece for its complex treatment of individuality, self-awareness, and the repression and betrayal associated with race relations in America. Employing naturalistic, expressionistic, and surrealistic elements, Ellison combined concerns of European and African-American literature in Invisible Man to chronicle 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. Although some critics have faulted Ellison's style in this work as occasionally excessive, Invisible Man has consistently been praised for its poetic, ambiguous form, its sustained blend of tragedy and comedy, and its complex symbolism and characterizations. A meticulous craftsman, Ellison was working on his long-awaited second novel at the time of his death. 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. Although Ellison has historically been recognized as a seminal figure in contemporary literature, critical reception of his work has been largely influenced by the changing political milieu of American society in the latter half of the twentieth century. Nevertheless, commentators have continued to stress the universal themes and sophisticated nature of his oeuvre. Richard Corliss observed: "Ellison's writing was too refined, elaborate, to be spray painted on a tenement wall. He was a celebrator as much as a denouncer of the nation that bred him. In his multicolored vision, America was not just a violent jungle but a vibrant jumble of many cultures and temperaments; it mingled melody, harmony, dissonance and ad-lib genius, like the jazz that Ellison played, wrote about and loved."
∗"Flying Home" (short story) 1944; published in journal Cross Section
∗"King of the Bingo Game" (short story) 1944; published in journal Tomorrow
Invisible Man (novel) 1952
"Out of the Hospital and under the Bar" (short story) 1963; published in Soon, One Morning: New Writing by American Negroes, 1940–1962
Shadow and Act (essays and interviews) 1964
Going to the Territory (essays, lectures, and interviews) 1986
∗These works were also published in Dark Symphony: Negro Literature in America in 1968.
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Obituaries And Tributes
David Remnick (essay date 14 March 1994)
SOURCE: "Visible Man," in The New Yorker, Vol. LXX, No. 14, March 14, 1994, pp. 34-8.
[In the essay below, written on the occasion of Ellison's eightieth birthday, Remnick provides an overview of Ellison's career, discussing the writer's unfinished second novel, his critical reputation, his contributions to American society, and the value of Invisible Man.]
In a modest apartment overlooking the Hudson, at the weld of northern Harlem and southern Washington Heights, Ralph Ellison confronts his "work in progress." He has been at this for nearly forty years, and rare is the day that he does not doubt his progress. He wakes early, goes out to buy a paper on Broadway, returns, and, when he has exhausted the possibilities of the Times and the Today show, when the coffee and the toast are gone, he flicks on the computer in his study and reads the passage he finished the day before. "The hardest part of the morning is that first hour, just getting the rhythm," Ellison says. "So much depends on continuity. I'll go back to get a sense of its rhythm and see what it will suggest, and go on from there. But very often I'll start in the morning by looking back at the work from the day before and it ain't worth a damn." When that happens, as it does more frequently than he would like, Ellison will turn away and stare out the window, watching...
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