Ralph Ellison 1914–1994
(Full name Ralph Waldo Ellison) American novelist, essayist, short story writer, critic, and editor.
The following entry presents criticism on Ellison's works through 1997. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 1, 3, 11, 54, and 86.
Ellison is considered among the most influential and accomplished contemporary American authors for his highly acclaimed novel Invisible Man (1952). Honored with the National Book Award for fiction, Invisible Man is regarded as a masterpiece of twentieth-century American fiction for its complex treatment of racial repression and betrayal. Shifting between naturalism, expressionism, and surrealism, Ellison combines concerns of European and African-American literature to chronicle the quest of an unnamed black youth to discover his identity within a deluding, hostile world. Although critics have faulted Ellison's style as occasionally excessive, Invisible Man has consistently garnered accolades for its poetic, ambiguous form, sustained blend of tragedy and comedy, and complex symbolism and characterizations.
Born in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, Ellison was raised in a cultural atmosphere that encouraged self-fulfillment. 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 Richard Wright and became involved in the Federal Writers' Project. Encouraged to write a book review for 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. Two of his most celebrated early short stories, "Flying Home" and "King of the Bingo Game," foreshadow Invisible Man in their portrayal of alienated young protagonists who seek social recognition. Although he originally envisioned writing a war novel, Ellison instead began work on Invisible Man following his honorable discharge from the United States Merchant Marines in 1945. A meticulous craftsman, Ellison was working on his long-awaited second novel at the time of his death in 1994.
Invisible Man chronicles 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. 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. Two collections of Ellison's works have been published posthumously, The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison (1996) and Flying Home and Other Stories (1997). The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison contains twenty previously unpublished essays, as well as all of the essays published in Going to the Territory and Shadow and Act. Flying Home and Other Stories is comprised of thirteen short stories written between 1937 and 1954, and includes such stories as "A Party Down at the Square," which relates the story of the lynching and burning of a black man from a young white boy's perspective. "Out of the Hospital and Under the Bar" (1963), a short story published in the anthology Soon, One Morning: New Writing by American Negroes, 1940–1962, was originally intended to be a chapter of Invisible Man.
Although attacked by black nationalists for lacking stringent militancy toward civil rights issues, Invisible Man garnered laudatory reviews immediately following its publication and has continued to generate scholarly exegeses. Many critics have commented on how the book's dexterous style, dense symbolism, and narrative structure lend intricacy to its plot. The narrator, who reflects on his past experiences, is observed as both an idealistic, gullible youth and as an enlightened, responsible man who actively addresses problems that may result from social inequality. The foremost controversial issue of Invisible Man involves its classification as either a work particularly for blacks or a novel with universal import. Critics who insist the book strictly concerns black culture maintain that the experiences, emotions, and lifestyles described could not possibly be simulated by white authors, while supporters of the more prevalent view that Invisible Man transcends racial concerns contend that the protagonist's problems of illusion, betrayal, and self-awareness are experienced by every segment of society. Ellison is also highly regarded for his accomplishments as an essayist. Shadow and Act is often considered autobiographical in intent and has been acclaimed for its lucidity and insights into Invisible Man. Although Ellison's collected short stories and essays are often viewed by critics as valuable only in terms of their capacity to illuminate aspects of Invisible Man, these works also have been lauded by critics who have noted particularly Ellison's ability to convey the universality of his characters' concerns and experiences, irrespective of race.
SOURCE: An interview in Paris Review, Spring, 1955, pp. 53-55; reprinted as "The Art of Fiction: An Interview," in Conversations with Ralph Ellison, edited by Maryemma Graham and Amritjit Singh, University Press of Mississippi, 1995, pp. 6-19.
[In the following interview, Ellison discusses his life and his views on writing and literature, specifically addressing his own works, so-called "protest literature," and contemporary African-American writers and literature.]
When Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison's first novel, received the National Book Award for 1952, the author in his acceptance speech noted with dismay and gratification the conferring of the award to what he called "an attempt at a major novel." His gratification was understandable, so too his dismay when one considers the amount of objectivity Mr. Ellison can display toward his own work. He felt the state of U.S. fiction to be so unhappy that it was an "attempt" rather than an achievement which received the important award.
Many of us will disagree with Mr. Ellison's evaluation of his own work. Its crackling, brilliant, sometimes wild, but always controlled prose warrants this; so does the care and logic with which its form is revealed, and not least its theme: that of a young Negro who emerges from the South and—in the tradition of James' Hyacinth Robinson and Stendhal's Julien Sorel—moves into the adventure of life at large.
In the summer of 1954, Mr. Ellison came abroad to travel and lecture. His visit ended with Paris where for a very few weeks he mingled with the American expatriate group to whom his work was known and of much interest. The day before he left he talked to us in the Café de la Mairie du VI about art and the novel.
Ralph Ellison takes both art and the novel seriously. And the Café de la Mairie has a tradition of seriousness behind it, for here was written Djuna Barnes' spectacular novel, Nightwood. There is a tradition, too, of speech and eloquence, for Miss Barnes' hero, Dr. O'Connor, often drew a crowd of listeners to his mighty rhetoric. So here gravity is in the air and rhetoric too. While Mr. Ellison speaks, he rarely pauses, and although the strain of organizing his thought is sometimes evident, his phraseology and the quiet steady flow and development of ideas are overwhelming. To listen to him is rather like sitting in the back of a huge hall and feeling the lecturer's faraway eyes staring directly into your own. The highly emphatic, almost professorial intonations, started with their distance, self-confidence, and warm undertones of humor.
[Ellison:] Let me say right now that my book is not an autobiographical work.
[Chester and Howard:] You weren't thrown out of school like the boy in your novel?
No. Though, like him, I went from one job to another.
Why did you give up music and begin writing?
I didn't give up music, but I became interested in writing through incessant reading. In 1935 I discovered Eliot's The Waste Land which moved and intrigued me but defied my powers of analysis—such as they were—and I wondered why I had never read anything of equal intensity and sensibility by an American Negro writer. Later on, in New York, I read a poem by Richard Wright, who, as luck would have it, came to town the next week. He was editing a magazine called New Challenge and asked me to try a book review of E. Waters Turpin's These Low Grounds. On the basis of this review Wright suggested that I try a short story, which I did. I tried to use my knowledge of riding freight trains. He liked the story well enough to accept it and it got as far as the galley proofs when it was bumped from the issue because there was too much material. Just after that the magazine failed.
But you went on writing—
With difficulty, because this was the Recession of 1937. I went to Dayton, Ohio, where my brother and I hunted and sold game to earn a living. At night I practiced writing and studied Joyce, Dostoevski, Stein and Hemingway. Especially Hemingway; I read him to learn his sentence structure and how to organize a story. I guess many young writers were doing this, but I also used his description of hunting when I went into the fields the next day. I had been hunting since I was eleven but no one had broken down the process of wing-shooting for me and it was from reading Hemingway that I learned to lead a bird. When he describes something in print, believe him; believe him even when he describes the process of art in terms of baseball or boxing; he's been there.
Were you affected by the Social Realism of the period?
I was seeking to learn and Social Realism was a highly regarded theory, though I didn't think too much of the so-called proletarian fiction even when I was most impressed by Marxism. I was intrigued by Malraux, who at that time was being claimed by the Communists. I noticed, however, that whenever the heroes of Man's Fate regarded their condition during moments of heightened self-consciousness, their thinking was something other than Marxist. Actually they were more profoundly intellectual than their real-life counterparts. Of course, Malraux was more of a humanist than most of the Marxist writers of that period—and also much more of an artist. He was the artist-revolutionary rather than a politician when he wrote Man's Fate, and the book lives not because of a political position embraced at the time, but because of its larger concern with the tragic struggle of humanity. Most of the social realists of the period were concerned more with tragedy than with injustice. I wasn't, and am not, concerned with injustice, but with art.
Then you consider your novel a purely literary work as opposed to one in the tradition of social protest.
Now mind! I recognize no dichotomy between art and protest. Dostoyevsky's Notes from the Underground is, among other things, a protest against the limitations of 19th century rationalism; Don Quixote, Man's Fate, Oedipus Rex, The Trial—all these embody protest, even against the limitation of human life itself. If social protest is antithetical to art, what then shall we make of Goya, Dickens and Twain? One hears a lot of complaints about the so-called "protest novel," especially when written by Negroes; but it seems to me that the critics could more accurately complain about their lack of craftsmanship and their provincialism.
But isn't it going to be difficult for the Negro writer to escape provincialism when his literature is concerned with a minority?
All novels are about certain minorities: the individual is a minority. The universal in the novel—and isn't that what we're all clamoring for these days?—is reached only through the depiction of the specific man in a specific circumstance.
But still, how is the Negro writer, in terms of what is expected of him by critics and readers, going to escape his particular need for social protest and reach the "universal" you speak of?
If the Negro, or any other writer, is going to do what is expected of him, he's lost the battle before he takes the field. I suspect that all the agony that goes into writing is borne precisely because the writer longs for acceptance—but it must be acceptance on his own terms. Perhaps, though, this thing cuts both ways: the Negro novelist draws his blackness too tightly around him when he sits down to write—that's what the anti-protest critics believe—but perhaps the white reader draws his whiteness around himself when he sits down to read. He doesn't want to identify himself with Negro characters in terms of our immediate racial and social situation, though on the deeper human level identification can become compelling when the situation is revealed artistically. The white reader doesn't want to get too close, not even in an imaginary recreation of society. Negro writers have felt this and it has led to much of our failure.
Too many books by Negro writers are addressed to a white audience. By doing this the authors run the risk of limiting themselves to the audience's presumptions of what a Negro is or should be; the tendency is to become involved in polemics, to plead the Negro's humanity. You know, many white people question that humanity but I don't think that Negroes can afford to indulge in such a false issue. For us the question should be, what are the specific forms of that humanity, and what in our background is worth preserving or abandoning. The clue to this can be found in folklore which offers the first drawings of any group's character. It preserves mainly those situations which have repeated themselves again and again in the history of any given group. It describes those rites, manners, customs, and so forth, which insure the good life, or destroy it; and it describes those boundaries of feeling, thought and action which that particular group has found to be the limitation of the human condition. It projects this wisdom in symbols which express the group's will to survive; it embodies those values by which the group lives and dies. These drawings may be crude but they are nonetheless profound in that they represent the group's attempt to humanize the world. It's no accident that great literature, the products of individual artists, is erected upon this humble base. The hero of Dostoyevsky's Notes from the Underground and the hero of Gogol's The Overcoat appear in their rudimentary forms far back in Russian folklore. French literature has never ceased exploring the nature of the Frenchman … Or take Picasso—
How does Picasso fit into all this?
Why, he's the greatest wrestler with forms and techniques of them all. Just the same he's never abandoned the old symbolic forms of Spanish art: the guitar, the bull, daggers, women, shawls, veils, mirrors. Such symbols serve a dual function: they allow the artist to speak of complex experiences and to annihilate time with simple lines and curves; and they allow the viewer an orientation, both emotional and associative, which goes so deep that a total culture may resound in a simple rhythm, an image. It has been said that Escudero could recapitulate the history and spirit of the Spanish dance with a simple arabesque of his fingers.
But these are examples from homogeneous cultures. How representative of the American nation would you say Negro folklore is?
The history of the American Negro is a most intimate part of American history. Through the very process of slavery came the building of the United States. Negro folklore, evolving within a larger culture which regarded it as inferior, was an especially courageous expression. It announced the Negro's willingness to trust his own experience, his own sensibilities as to the definition of reality, rather than allow his masters to define these crucial matters for him. His experience is that of America and the West, and is as rich a body of experience as one would find anywhere. We can view it narrowly as something exotic, folksy, or "low-down," or we may identify ourselves with it and recognize it as an important segment of the larger American experience—not lying at the bottom of it, but intertwined, diffused in its very texture. I can't take this lightly or be impressed by those who cannot see its importance; it is important to me. One ironic witness to the beauty and the universality of this art is the fact that the descendants of the very men who enslaved us can now sing the spirituals and find in the singing an exaltation of their own humanity. Just take a look at some of the slave songs, blues, folk ballads; their possibilities for the writer are infinitely suggestive. Some of them have named human situations so well that a whole corps of writers could not exhaust their universality. For instance, here's an old slave verse:
Ole Aunt Dinah, she's just like me
She work so hard she want to be free
But ole Aunt Dinah's gittin' kinda ole
She's afraid to go to Canada on account of the cold.
Ole Uncle Jack, now he's a mighty "good nigger"
You tell him that you want to be free for a fac'
Next thing you know they done stripped the skin off your back.
Now ole Uncle Ned, he want to be free
He found his way north by the moss on the tree
He cross that river floating in a tub
The pataleroller give him a mighty close rub.
It's crude, but in it you have three universal attitudes toward the problem of freedom. You can refine it and sketch in the psychological subtleties and historical and philosophical allusions, action and what not, but I don't think its basic definition can...
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SOURCE: "Invisible Man, As Vivid Today as in 1952," in Conversations with Ralph Ellison, University Press of Mississippi, 1995, pp. 378-82.
[In the following essay, which originally appeared in The New York Times, March 1, 1982, Mitgang uses the occasion of the thirtieth anniversary of the publication of Invisible Man to reflect on Ellison's life and career.]
Ralph Ellison is 68 years old today. Relaxing in his art-and-book lined apartment on Riverside Drive above the Hudson the other day, he took a little time away from his electric typewriter to talk about his working life.
"My approach is that I'm an American writer," he said....
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SOURCE: "Invisible Man: Ralph Ellison's Wasteland," in CLA Journal, Vol. XXVIII, No. 2, December, 1984, pp. 150-58.
[In the following essay, Walsh delineates the relationship between Invisible Man and T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land.]
In Shadow and Act, Ralph Ellison credits an early reading of The Waste Land as the impetus for his "real transition to writing." Invisible Man reveals the profundity of this experience. Important scenes, characters, and events in Invisible Man recreate prototypes from The Waste Land. Identifying his avatars by strong patterns of allusion, Ellison creates a dry, devastated land of the human...
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SOURCE: "Improvising America: Ralph Ellison and the Paradox of Form," in Speaking for You: The Vision of Ralph Ellison, edited by Kimberly W. Benston, Howard University Press, 1987, pp. 173-83.
[In the following essay, Bigsby examines Ellison's paradoxical treatment of chaos and form.]
Writing in 1937, Richard Wright insisted that "black writers are being called upon to do no less than create values by which the race is to struggle, live and die" ["Blueprint for Negro Literature," Amistad, Vol. 2, 1971]. In 1941 Ellison echoed this sentiment. His responsibility, he felt, was "to create the consciousness of his oppressed nation" ["Recent Negro Fiction," New...
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SOURCE: "Ellison's 'King of the Bingo Game': Finding Naturalism's Trapdoor," in English Language Notes, Vol. XXIX, No. 1, September, 1991, pp. 71-74.
[In the following essay, Herman explains how Ellison both follows and deviates from the conventions of literary naturalism in "King of the Bingo Game."]
Prima facie, Ralph Ellison's "King of the Bingo Game" fits squarely into the tradition of literary naturalism. 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...
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SOURCE: "The Big E(llison)'s Texts and Intertexts: Eliot, Burke, and the Underground Man," in CLA Journal, Vol. XXXVII, No. 4, June, 1994, pp. 377-401.
[In the following essay, Adell examines Invisible Man according to the theory of intertextuality expressed by Roland Barthes, noting the connections between Ellison's novel and such works as T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land and Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Notes from Underground.]
Mallarmé might well have been, as Michael Gresset and Noel Polk claim, the first of the moderns to point to intertextuality as a key operation in literary activity when he wrote that
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SOURCE: A review of The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison, in Washington Post Book World, Vol. XXVI, No. 5, February 4, 1996, p. 7.
[In the following review, Nicholson examines The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison and two works by Albert Murray, providing a laudatory assessment of all three works and characterizing the two authors as "giants" in terms of their talent and achievements as writers.]
The critic Stanley Crouch, himself no mean chronicler of the American scene, has dubbed Albert Murray and Ralph Ellison "the twin towers" of our national literature. The appellation is apt, invoking as it does both basketball (a game to which black athletes have...
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SOURCE: A review of Flying Home and Other Stories, in The New York Times Book Review, January 19, 1997, p. 13.
[In the following review, Giddins offers a laudatory assessment of Flying Home and Other Stories.]
The one-novel career, while hardly unique to the United States (Europe offers Canetti, Rilke and Lampedusa, among others), has produced a peculiar frisson of suspense in this country in the postwar era. I'm thinking not of writers who died young, like James Agee, or who consummated extended literary callings with one big fictional work, like Katherine Anne Porter, but of those who made an indelible assault on the consciousness of several generations with a...
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SOURCE: "Dark Memories in the Early Voice of Novelist Ralph Ellison," in Christian Science Monitor, February 10, 1997, p. 14.
[In the following review, Holmstrom provides a favorable assessment of Flying Home and Other Stories.]
For Buster and Riley, two fictional African-American boys created by Ralph Ellison, ebonies is the only language they speak. In [Flying Home and Other Stories], this collection of short stories, including three about Buster and Riley, Ellison at least establishes that the speech patterns and clipped grammar of ebonies flourished in the 1930s and '40s between two boys.
Today black children in Oakland, Calif., speak...
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SOURCE: "The Drama of Ralph Ellison," in The New York Review of Books, May 15, 1997, pp. 52-9.
[In the following essay, Pinckney surveys Ellison's life and career.]
Invisible Man holds such an honored place in African-American literature that Ralph Ellison didn't have to write anything else to break bread with the remembered dead. But he did try to go on, because if a writer has done one great thing then the pressures to do another are intense. A few of Ellison's short stories from the 1940s and 1950s were widely anthologized over the years. After a while it became generally known that he was at work on another novel. Though he...
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SOURCE: "Notes of a Native Son," in Times Literary Supplement, July 25, 1997, p. 22.
[In the following review, Miller provides a positive assessment of Flying Home and Other Stories.]
Ralph Ellison's celebrated novel Invisible Man, seven years in the making, appeared in 1952. It is an American Gothic delirium. Writing about it in such terms, a few years later, in his great book of the 1960s, Love and Death in the American Novel, Leslie Fiedler saw a method in the "madness" he took it to contain. The reason why this madness carried conviction was that "the Negro problem in the United States" was "a gothic horror of our daily lives".
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Nadel, Alan. Invisible Criticism: Ralph Ellison and the American Canon. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1988, 181 p.
Callahan, John F. "Frequencies of Memory: A Eulogy for Ralph Waldo Ellison (March 1, 1914–April 16, 1994)." Callaloo 18, No. 2 (Spring 1995): 298-309.
An expanded version of a eulogy delivered at Ellison's funeral on April 19, 1994.
Cannon, Steve. "Reminiscin' in C: Remembering Ralph Waldo Ellison." Callaloo 18, No. 2 (Spring 1995):...
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