Harlan Ellison Biography

At a Glance

Harlan Ellison is almost as famous for his lawsuits as he is for his writing. He has filed many legal claims, some valid and quite a few frivolous, and this has earned him the reputation of being a difficult writer to work with. He readily agrees with that assessment, referring to himself as “possibly the most contentious person on Earth.” Ellison dislikes being pigeonholed into one particular genre and refers to his work as “speculative fiction,” though most critics consider it to be an outstanding body of science fiction. Ellison has written books, plays, short stories, essays, and criticism throughout his career. He has also written extensively for television, including work on The Outer Limits and Star Trek.

Facts and Trivia

  • Ellison was expelled from Ohio State University after hitting a professor who had criticized his writing.
  • Ellison writes under the name of Cordwainer Bird when he believes that his creative contributions to a project have been undermined. Many feel that this is Ellison’s way of giving the people who ruined his vision “the bird.”
  • Ellison marched from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in the famous 1965 march led by Martin Luther King, Jr.
  • Ellison publicly criticized the movie Back to the Future in a 1985 interview but later changed his mind after liking the sequels.
  • Not only a successful writer, Ellison has also been a creative consultant for The New Twilight Zone and Babylon 5.


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Harlan Jay Ellison is considered one of the most interesting and important writers to come out of the science-fiction genre. He has accumulated accolades both in and out of that genre, including multiple awards from both the Writers Guild of America for Best Dramatic Screenplay and from the Mystery Writers of America. Much of Ellison’s reputation and career has been built upon works that are only tangentially fantastic.

Ellison grew up in Painesville, Ohio, the only child of the sole Jewish family in the city. This, possibly combined with his father’s career change after being convicted of dealing in moonshine liquor, left Ellison feeling ostracized and alone. He claims to have run away from home several times and has cited science fiction as having saved him “from a life of crime.”

Among Ellison’s early works the 1960 story “Final Shtick” seems closest to autobiography. Here a Jewish comedian named Marty Field (né Morrie Feldman), returning to his hometown to accept an award, reflects on the hypocrisy of the people who now bask in his celebrity (in his youth Ellison edited the Ohio State humor magazine briefly and worked as a stand-up comic).

With the 1970 story “One Life, Furnished in Early Poverty” the mature Ellison encapsulates the essence of his early life. The story’s early sense of polemic is rapidly transformed into a heartfelt examination of the man he had become and the boy he had been. The final exchanges between Gus and “Mr. Rosenthal” effect a sense of rapprochement and humanity that is the keynote in the mature Ellison’s work.

When he was expelled from Ohio State University in 1955 Ellison moved to New York City. Here he took an apartment in the same building as the science-fiction writer Robert Silverberg. Silverberg has provided an unflattering picture of Ellison’s behavior during that time, describing the enfant terrible persona that Ellison promulgated throughout the 1960’s.

In New York Ellison spent ten weeks with a gang in Brooklyn, an experience he used in his novel Rumble (also known as The Web of the City) and the first half of the nonfiction collection Memos from Purgatory. In that collection Ellison defines his distaste for the “Common Man,” one of the constant themes of his work. He often returns to that theme, especially in The Glass Teat, a book of television criticism. It is this stance that led the writer and critic John Gardner, in his On Becoming a Novelist, to cite Ellison’s...

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(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Harlan Jay Ellison’s fiction often seems like an extension of the author’s vibrant and dominating personality. His stories are frequently dressed up with long titles, quotations, and other paraphernalia, as if they did not stand by themselves but as the basis for platform performances. Ellison has been a much-sought-after participant at fan conventions and academic groups, where he characteristically strews insults and abuse upon audiences, who howl for more. His friends and associates nevertheless find him charming, witty, and generous.

Despite his enormous energy and productivity, Ellison developed slowly as a writer. Born in Cleveland, Ohio, on May 27, 1934, he attended Ohio State University and was soon asked to leave, one reason being his insults to a creative writing instructor who told him that he could not write. In Cleveland, he edited a science-fiction “fanzine,” showing a hero worship of writers that is still reflected in his work. In New York, he joined a street gang to get authentic material and poured out stories to establish himself, publishing his first, “Glowworm,” in 1956. After two years in the army, he supported himself for a time as an editor. His first novel, The Man with Nine Lives, appeared in 1959. In 1962, he moved to the Los Angeles area, where he continued to live.

In the 1960’s, Ellison became a successful television writer, contributing scripts to Route Sixty-Six, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, The Untouchables, The Outer Limits, Star Trek, and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. In the same period, he began writing the stories upon which his reputation is based. Hugo and Nebula awards were presented to him for “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman” in 1966, and thereafter critical acclaim flowed to him in a remarkable string of honors. His activities continued to be energetic and broad, both socially and intellectually, leaving him surrounded by many friends and thirty-seven thousand books, while observers wondered when he could possibly find time to write. In his California period, he has been a book reviewer for The Los Angeles Times (1969 to 1982), an editorial commentator for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (1972 to 1978), a columnist, a commercial spokesperson for General Electric, and a television writer, while continuing to write short fiction.