Harlan Ellison Biography

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.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1045

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...

(The entire section contains 1045 words.)

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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 work as an exemplar of the “disPollyanna” style.

Gardner’s description of the disPollyanna “hack-writer style,” which includes cynicism, depersonalized characters, and crude jokes and images, reflects features that often appear in Ellison’s works. Indeed, Gardner’s suggestion that the disPollyanna style is “an attempt to shock prudes” echoes Ellison’s own claims about his work.

In the late 1950’s Ellison wrote formula stories for science-fiction, detective, and men’s magazines. However, as he noted in his 1975 introduction to Gentleman Junkie, and Other Stories of the Hung-Up Generation, “Every once in a while, I’d write a piece that meant something more to me than . . . that month’s rent and groceries.” Several of those stories were collected in Gentleman Junkie. Reviewing the book for Esquire, Dorothy Parker declared that “Mr. Ellison is a good, honest, clean writer, putting down what he has seen and known, and no sensationalism about it.”

When he moved to Los Angeles in the early 1960’s Ellison was a moderately successful but undistinguished commercial writer. During his early years in Los Angeles, however, he conceived such stories as “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman” (1965), the first story to win a Hugo Award, in which a man’s increasingly absurd acts disrupt a society that is completely dependent on punctuality. This period also saw the germination of “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” (1967), a dystopia about five people “trapped” in a computer; although the unreliability of the narrator undermines any moral the tale might have, Ellison does anticipate here the spirit of “future shock.”

During the mid-1960’s Ellison conceived and began the Dangerous Visions project, with which he hoped to show the ingenuity and literary daring of science-fiction writing. The two books that appeared are considered a fine introduction to science fiction, and they played an important part in creating literary science fiction and in introducing several new writers. Ellison has always championed new writers, among them Bruce Sterling and William Gibson, whose first sale was to Unearth, a magazine Ellison founded and edited in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. The mid-1960’s also produced what many believe to be the definitive American tale of its time, Ellison’s 1967 “Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes.”

Neither the story nor its author fared well in the review of the collection Love Ain’t Nothing but Sex Misspelled in The New York Times Book Review, in which Richard Rhodes cites only one of the book’s twenty-two stories as being “competent writing about authentic people.” Many critics recognize, however, that in fantastic works the landscape may be as important as the people. “Adrift Just off the Islets of Langerhans: Latitude 38 54N, Longitude 77 0013W” (1974) is replete with cinematic references as Lawrence Talbot searches for “geographic coordinates for location of my soul,” but the story would not be as powerful without its melding of high and popular culture. Similarly, “A Boy and His Dog” (1969) depends more on the contrast between its societies than its variation of the Romeo-and-Juliet theme.

Ellison’s most explicitly autobiographical fiction, All the Lies That Are My Life, shows the strain of writing by a writer more attuned to short fiction. Yet the novella is fascinating in part because it marks a transition—one is tempted to say a purging—in Ellison’s writing.

Ellison, who was diagnosed with endogenous depression in 1975, at that time began to temper both his enfant terrible image and the explicit visceral nature of his prose. “The Man Who Rowed Christopher Columbus Ashore” was selected for inclusion in the 1993 edition of Best American Short Stories, and many of Ellison’s later works, such as “She’s a Young Thing and Cannot Leave Her Mother” (1988), “Scartaris, June 28th” (1990), and “Fever” (1993), take an evocative journey from the springboard of a myth or historic event.

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