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.
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 the river flow.
Ralph Ellison turned eighty on March 1st, and his peculiarly modern burden, the burden of a second act, grows heavier with age. The man is far too composed, too regal, to betray the weight of it, but the soul must weary of its persistence. So great was the celebration in 1952 for his first (and only) novel, Invisible Man, that the sound of critical applause, rattling medals, and whispered expectations took years to fade. Few novels have ever entered the canon so quickly. Ellison won the National Book Award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Chevalier de l'Ordre des Artes et Lettres, a place in the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and a position at New York University as Albert Schweitzer Professor of Humanities. Here and there, critics' and readers' polls would declare Invisible Man the greatest American novel of the postwar period or of the century. Ellison's rite-of-passage novel absorbed everything from black folklore to Dostoyevski's Notes from Underground, creating something entirely new, lasting, and American. It was translated into seventeen languages, and the Modern Library produced an edition. But at the end of all this lingered the nervous, American question: What's next?
Ellison did not intend to distinguish his career with such an austerity of publication. By 1955, he had begun a novel set mainly in the South and in Washington, D.C. At the center of the story—as far as we know it from a few published extracts—are the community and the language of the black church and the relationship between a black preacher and a friend who eventually becomes a senator and a notorious racist. After a few years of writing, Ellison was not shy about showing excerpts to friends like Saul Bellow and the novelist and cultural historian Albert Murray. He was not reluctant to publish a piece here and there in literary quarterlies.
For a while, expectations for the book soared. "I shared a house with Ralph in the late fifties in Tivoli, New York, along the Hudson in Dutchess County," Bellow says. "At that time, he was hard at work on the book, and he let me read a considerable portion of it—a couple of hundred pages, at least, as I remember. We were running a magazine at the time called The Noble Savage, and we published an excerpt of Ralph's manuscript called 'Cadillac Flambé.' But all of it was marvellous stuff, easily on a level with Invisible Man."
A couple of weeks before his birthday, I called on Ellison at his home. The apartment is lined and stacked with books. Here and there are African sculptures and piles of papers, mostly correspondence. As he and his wife, Fanny, showed me around, a small cloud of cigar smoke still hovered over his computer in the study. Slender and graceful, with the courtly elegance of his friend Duke Ellington, Ellison looks fifteen years younger than he is; a man of old-fashioned Southern grace, he is polite in the high style, careful in conversation almost to the point of deliberate, if ironic, dullness. I said that his friends have often remarked on the gap in style between the turbulence of Invisible Man and the reserve of its author.
"Well, one inherits a style from the people one grows up with," Ellison said, referring to his childhood in Oklahoma, which was segregated at the time but had never been a slave state. He studied composition at Booker T. Washington's Tuskegee Institute, in Macon County, Alabama—and was the intellectual star of his class—before coming to New York, in 1937. "I am rather passionate about some of the inequities that are part of the country," he went on. "But why should a writer be different? No one asks a surgeon to be different. He has to be a surgeon first. He has to know the techniques and traditions of surgery. That's how I approach writing. I would do the same thing if I were an opera singer. Black opera singers have to master the tradition. We all have at least double identities."
For a while, Ellison skated amiably, and elliptically, around various questions of the day, but when the subject turned to his work in progress, the book that Bellow had remembered so vividly, the one that Albert Murray used to hear Ellison read aloud from, he seemed, at first, a little startled. Then, as he described a fire two decades ago at his old summer house, in Plainfield, Massachusetts, he slumped back in his chair, resigned, his voice lowering into a growly whisper. "There was, of course, a traumatic event involved with the book," he began. "We lost a summer house and, with it, a good part of the novel. It wasn't the entire manuscript, but it was over three hundred and sixty pages. There was no copy. We had stayed up in the country into November, in the Berkshires. We went to do some shopping and came back and the house was burning. An electrical failure. And, being in the country with a little volunteer fire department—well, they were off fighting another fire and didn't make it. They never got it put out. It all burned down. They came and tried, but in the country it's difficult to get water, especially there."
Ellison's friends say that it was years before he went back to work on the novel; some say three or four, others five or six. Albert Murray, who lives across town, off Lenox Avenue, and has known Ellison since they were students together at Tuskegee, had told me, "Ralph was just devastated. He just closed in on himself for a long time. He didn't see anyone or go anywhere. At a certain point, you knew not to say much about it. A wall, Ralph's reserve, went up all around him." Ellison was reduced to trying to summon up his novel from memory or from the memories of those who had read it or heard him read it.
When I asked Ellison how much time he lost, he was quiet for a while, and then he said, in a tone that suggested we were talking about someone else and the question was merely interesting, "You know, I'm not sure. It's kind of blurred for me. But the novel has got my attention now. I work every day, so there will be something very soon. After the fire, I had certain notes here in the city and a pretty good idea of where I wanted to go. Snatches of it had been published. And I did a lot of teaching after that. Let's say I was disoriented, but I worked on it. I don't know how long the interruption was. Maybe four or five years. It wasn't as if I weren't working. I was trying to reimagine the situation. The characters are the same and the mixture of language is the same. But nuances are different. After all, when I write I am discovering things. One development suggests another, a phrase will reveal things. You just try to get through it.
"Letting go of the book is difficult, because I'm so uncertain. I want it to be of quality. With Invisible Man, I wasn't all that certain, but I had friends like Stanley Edgar Hyman, who worked on The New Yorker, and who was invaluable to me. There's a photograph of Stanley reading Invisible Man in Francis Steegmuller's office. I'll always remember: he looked up at me and said, 'Say, this thing is funny!' When you are younger, you are so eager to be published. I am eager to publish this book. That's why I stay here, and not in the country. I'm eager to finish it and see how it turns out."
Ellison's readers can be greedy and hope for more novels and essays—come to think of it, a memoir would be nice, too—but what's done is done and, in a sense, is more than enough. On the occasion of his eightieth birthday, it becomes clearer than ever that Invisible Man and his two collections of essays, Shadow and Act (1964) and Going to the Territory (1986), are the urtexts for a loose coalition of black American intellectuals who represent an integrationist vision of the country's history and culture. Ellison's books are a foundation for talents as various as the novelists Charles Johnson, John Edgar Wideman, Leon Forrest, and James Alan McPherson; the critics Shelby Steele, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Stanley Crouch; the poet Michael S. Harper. When Johnson, for instance, received the National Book Award, in 1990, for his novel Middle Passage, he devoted his entire acceptance speech to a celebration of Ellison. Johnson said he hoped that the nineteen-nineties would see the emergence of a "black American fiction" that takes Ellison as its inspiration, "one that enables us as a people—as a culture—to move from narrow complaint to broad celebration."
The publication of Invisible Man predates the civil-rights movement of the nineteen-sixties, the drama of Malcolm X, and the rise of Afrocentrism, and yet it anticipates, or answers, all of these. The demagogic figure of Ras the Destroyer in the novel is based, no doubt, on Marcus Garvey, but it turns out to be a prescient depiction of the Farrakhans to come. The lancing portrait of the Brotherhood was modelled on the Communist Party of the nineteen-thirties, but it stands for all the doctrinaire utopianism and fakery to come. The metaphor of the paint factory and the mixing of black paint into white anticipates a sane multiculturalism, a vision of American culture as an inextricable blend. Unlike so much fiction labelled somehow as ethnic, Invisible Man is a universal novel. From the first lines to the very last ("Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?"), it insists on the widest possible audience.
In Ellison's view, America is not made up of separate, free-floating cultures but, rather, of a constant interplay and exchange. In the essays, he describes slaves on a Southern plantation watching white people dance and then transforming those European steps into something that is American; he speaks of what Ella Fitzgerald has done with the songs of Rodgers and Hart, what white rock bands did with the blues; he watches the black kids in Harlem in their baggy hip-hop gear walking down Broadway, and on the same day he sees white suburban kids on television affecting the same style. What Ellison has called the "interchange, appropriation, and integration" of American culture is evident in the music we hear, the games we play, the books we read, the clothes we wear, the food we eat. For him, integration is not merely an aspiration but a given, a fact of cultural and political life. Without pity or excessive pride, Ellison also sketches the facts of his own life—especially his self-discovery, first through music, then literature—to describe the American phenomenon. Invisible Man itself looks not only to the experience of Ralph Ellison at Tuskegee Institute or in Harlem but to Ralph Ellison in the library, the young reader that Albert Murray remembers as "always looking to the top shelf." When Ellison finally came to New York, Richard Wright and Langston Hughes became literary mentors and friends, but their influence was secondary, following a youthful tear through Eliot, Pound, Faulkner, Hemingway, Stein, and Dostoyevski. Out of many, one.
Ellison's vision of American life and culture has not always sat well with critics, black or white. For the Black Arts Movement of the nineteen-sixties and seventies, Invisible Man and its author lacked the necessary rage. Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) and other nationalists denounced Ellison from platform after platform. And that had its wounding effect, especially in the academy.
In 1969, Charles Johnson dropped by the library at Southern Illinois University's new black-studies program. "Where can I find a copy of Invisible Man?" he asked the librarian.
"We don't carry it," came the answer.
"Really? Why not?"
"Because Ralph Ellison is not a black writer," the librarian said.
An extreme example, no doubt, but it suggests the climate of the time. "When Ellison got an award in 1965 for the best novel since the Second World War, people were still under the sway of the vision that came from Martin Luther King," Stanley Crouch, the author of Notes of a Hanging Judge, told me. "Once the black-power separatist agenda came along, and once white people showed that they preferred some kind of sadomasochistic rhetorical ritual to anything serious, Ellison's position began to lose ground. That's been the central problem in Afro-American affairs since the black-power-cum-Marxist vision took over the discussion. We have had to deal with one or another intellectual fast-food version of that these last twenty-five years or so. What it comes down to is that Ellison perceives Afro-American history in terms of the grand sweep of American life, not in terms of sheer victimhood. And that has been very difficult in the wake of the whole Malcolm X, 'You didn't land at Plymouth Rock, Plymouth Rock landed on you' thing."
"Let's face it," Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the chairman of the Afro-American studies program at Harvard, said. "Ellison was shut out, and Richard Wright was elected godfather of the Black Arts Movement of the nineteen-sixties, because, Wright's hero in Native Son, Bigger Thomas, cuts off a white girl's head and stuffs her in a furnace. For Ellison, the revolutionary political act was not separation; it was the staking of a claim for the Negro in the construction of an honestly public American culture. Wright's real message was not that different, but no one wanted to see that."
The resistance to Ellison's vision was by no means limited to black critics. In "Black Boys and Native Sons," an essay published in Dissent, Irving Howe adopted a strangely patronizing tone to celebrate Richard Wright's authenticity and to reprimand James Baldwin and Ellison for failing to possess a similar sense of rage. Howe declared himself astonished by "the apparent freedom [Invisible Man] displays from the ideological and emotional penalties suffered by Negroes in this country."
Ellison's passionate reply, "The World and the Jug," was published in The New Leader, and can be read as a manifesto, a defense of his vision and art, and of the life that created them:
Evidently Howe feels that unrelieved suffering is the only "real" Negro experience, and that the true Negro writer must be ferocious. But there is also an American Negro tradition which teaches one to deflect racial provocation and to master and contain pain. It is a tradition which abhors as obscene any trading on one's own anguish for gain and sympathy; which springs not from a desire to deny the harshness of existence but from a will to deal with it as men at their best have always done…. It would seem to me, therefore, that the question of how the "sociology of his existence" presses upon a Negro writer's work depends upon how much of his life the individual writer is able to transform into art. What moves a writer to eloquence is less meaningful than what he makes of it…. One unfamiliar with what Howe stands for would get the impression that when he looks at a Negro he sees not a human being but an abstract embodiment of living hell. He seems never to have considered that American Negro life (and here he is encouraged by certain Negro "spokesmen") is, for the Negro who must live it, not only a burden (and not always that) but also a discipline.
Ellison's answer to Howe was, in a sense, an elaboration of the first paragraph of Invisible Man, with the hero's demand to be seen as himself, as "flesh and bone, fiber and liquids—and I might even be said to possess a mind." The mind of Ellison has been deeply influential. Even if Leonard Jeffries and Molefi Kete Asante have been successful in imposing dubious Afrocentric programs on the City College of New York and Temple University, even if such ideas have trickled into school systems as far-flung as Portland's and Atlanta's, Ellison's godchildren have been at least as influential in stating their case. His integrationist position has shaped black-studies programs at Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Stanford, and many other leading universities.
"Ellison grants blacks their uniqueness without separating us from the larger culture," Shelby Steele, the author of The Content of Our Character, said. "After reading Ellison, you realize that talk of a 'white culture' or 'black culture' is simplification. In the academy, identity politics is often the thing, and people would prefer to deal with finite categories: 'black culture,' 'white culture,' 'Hispanic culture,' and so on. Nationalist politics gets more attention, because it's more flamboyant, more glamorous, more controversial. It's better press. But the vast majority of black people in this country are not nationalist. My sense of the problem has to do with the nature of black politics, an oppression-based politics since the nineteen-sixties. People like me, who believe that there are some difficulties of black life that are not the result of oppression, are just branded conservatives, no matter what the range of opinion."
Stanley Crouch sees the ambivalence toward Ellison as a symptom of the separatist drift represented by Ras the Destroyer. "Ellison knew a long time ago what the dangers were," Crouch said. "All the dangers are in Invisible Man. The dangers of demagoguery. The dangers of trying to hold up a rational position in a country that can become hysterical about race, from either side. You see, the race hysteria that was dominated by white people for the bulk of time Afro-Americans have been in America was overtaken by the black-power-, Malcolm X-derived, pro-Louis Farrakhan, anti-American, romantic Third World stuff that came up in the sixties. You had thugs, like Huey Newton, who were celebrated as great revolutionaries. You had West Indians, like Stokely Carmichael, who were calling for the violent overthrow of the country. You had LeRoi Jones ranting anti-Semitism from one coast to the other, and black students on campus cheering and howling. And that's going on now. If people had paid more attention to what Ellison had to say in 1952, we might have got beyond some of the stuff we're in."
Leon Forrest, a black novelist Ellison took time to praise in our meeting, told me, "Ralph goes back to a fundamental tradition in African-American life. He's what we used to call a race man. Areas that seem conservative, supporting businesses in the community, respecting the workingman, the family—that's part of it. A race man means you're in a barbershop conversation, and there might be a nationalist, an N.A.A.C.P. man, whatever, but they're all concerned with getting African-Americans ahead in the community. I know Ralph had a lot of respect for many of the things Adam Clayton Powell stood for at first, the way Powell broke the back of Tammany Hall, though not the shrill things he said at the end of his life. Ralph is for a robust onslaught against racism but, at the same time, for building within the race. What's happened is that there hasn't been enough building within the race: our families, our businesses, the inner strength of the people.
"What disappoints him today is that not enough black Americans are learning from the possibilities of the book. We don't read enough. His own literature is informed by a vast library, and yet we are cutting ourselves off from that. You've got a problem in Afro-American society these days: if a woman has a niece and a nephew, she'll give the niece a copy of a Toni Morrison book and take the nephew to the Bulls game. We don't do nearly enough to enrich our kids in the middle class in our body of literature—the body that fashioned Ralph Ellison's imagination and scholarship."
Sixteen friends and associates gathered on March 1st at Le Périgord, on the East Side, to celebrate Ralph Waldo Ellison's birth. Once the food and not a little wine had been consumed, Albert Murray, by way of toasting his friend, recalled his youthful admiration for Ellison as the smartest, and smartest-dressed, upperclassman at Tuskegee. It was, of course, impressive to Murray that Ellison always seemed to check out the best books in the library, but it was at least as daunting for him to set eyes on the nascent elegance of Ellison, a slender concertmaster in his two-tone shoes, bow tie, contrasting slacks, and whatever else the best haberdasher in Oklahoma had to offer. "I even remember the poetry Ralph wrote," Murray said. "'Death is nothing, / Life is nothing, / How beautiful these two nothings!'"
"Thanks for remembering so much," Ellison said, smiling and rising to his feet. All evening long, he had been reminiscing at the table, about his friends in jazz, his ill-advised attempt to play the trumpet not long ago in the presence of Wynton Marsalis, his pleasure in everything from the poems of Robinson Jeffers to the liturgy of the black Episcopal church. And then, turning to Murray, he said, "Isn't it interesting and worth a bit of thought that from Booker T. Washington's school, which was supposed to instruct youngsters in a vocation, two reasonably literate writers emerged? Isn't that just part of the unexpectedness of the American experience? It behooves us to keep a close eye on this process of Americanness. My grandparents were slaves. See how short a time it's been? I grew up reading Twain and then, after all those Aunt Jemima roles, those Stepin Fetchit roles, roles with their own subtleties, here comes this voice from Mississippi, William Faulkner. It just goes to show that you can't be Southern without being black, and you can't be a black Southerner without being white. Think of L.B.J. Think of Hugo Black. There are a lot of subtleties based on race that we will ourselves not to perceive, but at our peril. The truth is that the quality of Americanness, that thing the kids invariably give voice to, will always come out." And to that everyone raised a glass.
Burt A. Folkart (obituary date 17 April 1994)
SOURCE: An obituary in Los Angeles Times, April 17, 1994, pp. A1, A22.
[In the following, Folkart offers praise for Invisible Man and provides an overview of Ellison's life.]
Ralph Ellison, whose only novel, Invisible Man, became not only a dramatic cry for racial understanding but a work cherished over four decades for its complex yet poignant literary style, died Saturday [April 16, 1994].
He was 80.
Ellison, whose essays and novel propelled him into the front ranks of 20th-Century American fiction, died of pancreatic cancer at his home in Harlem, said Joe Fox, his editor at Random House, Ellison's publisher.
Fox said Ellison had been ill for only a short time. Random House had a party for him on March 1 to celebrate his 80th birthday and "he was perfectly fine," Fox said.
When Invisible Man was published in 1952, its author was a virtually unknown history and music student whose influences ranged from Langston Hughes to Mark Twain....
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