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.