Ralph Ellison Ellison, Ralph (Vol. 26) - Essay


(Short Story Criticism)

Ellison, Ralph 1914-1994

American short story writer, novelist, essayist, and editor. See also Ralph Ellison Literary Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 3, 11, 26, 79, 114.

Although Ellison's short stories have garnered relatively little notice in comparison with the critical attention accorded his widely acclaimed novel Invisible Man (1952), which won the National Book Award for fiction in 1953, they do provide valuable insight into his overall artistic development. The predominant themes of Ellison's best-known stories, "Flying Home" and "King of the Bingo Game," both published in 1944, anticipate those of Invisible Man. In these works Ellison uses folklore, myth, and an often complex pattern of symbolism and allusion to illuminate important issues in the lives of black Americans, including racial repression, alienation, and betrayal. While Ellison's more recent short fiction is likewise replete with cultural history and rich symbolism, it does not contain the same sense of racial pride prominent in his more popular works.

Biographical Information

Ellison was born March 1, 1914, in Oklahoma City to Ida and Lewis Alfred Ellison. In 1933 he entered the Tuskegee Institute where he obtained a scholarship to study music, but he also pursued his interests in literature, history, folklore, and sociology. At the end of his junior year, Ellison was refused further financial aid, and he traveled to New York City, where he hoped to earn enough money to pay for his last year at Tuskegee. Soon after arriving in New York, however, Ellison met the author Richard Wright, who encouraged his literary aspirations. Ellison never returned to Tuskegee. Between 1938 and 1944 he was involved with the Federal Writers Project and contributed essays and short stories to various journals and anthologies. Awarded a Rosenwald grant in 1945, Ellison began work on Invisible Man, which was hailed as a masterpiece upon its publication and garnered its author numerous honorary degrees and literary awards. He published two more stories, "Did You Ever Dream Lucky?" and "A Coupla Scalped Indians," before he began work on a second novel, which he never finished. Excerpts from this novel, which comprise the last original fiction Ellison published, appeared sporadically as short stories in several journals during the 1960s and 1970s. Meanwhile, Ellison taught at Bard College (1958-61), Rutgers University (1962-69), and New York University (1970-79), and he lectured widely on African American culture, folklore, and writing. Throughout his career Ellison also wrote many influential essays on the subjects of literature, music, sociology, and culture, which are collected in two volumes, Shadow and Act (1964) and Going to the Territory (1986). He died April 16, 1994, in New York.

Major Works of Short Fiction

All of Ellison's short fiction recognizes the prejudice suffered by blacks. "Slick Gonna Learn" and "The Birthmark," Ellison's earliest stories, deal with police brutality and racial injustice. In the former, a black man named Slick Williams is harassed and beaten after he inadvertently punches a white police officer. In the latter, a lynching is explained away by white patrolmen as an automobile accident. Ellison's better fiction emphasizes the positive aspects of African American life and often features individuals who attain a deeper sense of selfhood. His next three stories, "Afternoon," "Mister Toussan," and "That I Had the Wings," feature two black adolescent boys, Buster and Riley, who resist the restrictions placed upon them by whites and find positive role models within their own folk heritage. "Flying Home" and "King of the Bingo Game" are Ellison's most anthologized stories. "Flying Home" concerns a young black pilot, at first contemptuous of his own race, whose self-esteem is restored by an elderly black sharecropper and his son, who nurse him back to health after his airplane crashes on an Alabama farm owned by a white racist. In "King of the Bingo Game" an anonymous black man desperately enters a bingo tournament with the hope of winning enough money to pay for his dying wife's medical expenses. As the game continues, however, the bingo wheel becomes symbolic of the man's inability to control his destiny. "Out of the Hospital and under the Bar" and "Did You Ever Dream Lucky?" showcase the character Mary Rambo, who had earlier appeared in Invisible Man. The nine excerpts published from Ellison's incomplete second novel trace the events just prior to and following the assassination of Senator Sunraider, also known as Bliss, a light-skinned black who earlier had renounced his adoptive black father, Reverend Hickman, and became a white supremacist. Ellison's stories were collected for the first time in Flying Home, and Other Stories (1996), over fifty years after many of them were published originally.

Critical Reception

Ellison's short stories are often treated in relation to Invisible Man. A Publishers Weekly reviewer observed of his early short fiction, "His stories display, individually, the commitment to craft and, collectively, the acquired range that later enabled him to assemble, block by block, one of the great monuments of American literature." As is true of Invisible Man, Ellison's short stories generally focus on the strength of the human spirit and affirm the importance of racial pride and self-awareness. Reviewers have found that "Flying Home" and "King of the Bingo Game," with their complex portrayal of alienated young black men who seek social recognition, bear the greatest similarity to Invisible Man. Like the hero of the novel, the protagonists of these two stories undergo identity crises and fight for their freedom against forces that attempt to deny it. Ellison's use of folklore in his stories has also been a frequent topic of discussion. In the late 1960s and 1970s some writers charged Ellison with perpetuating derogatory stereotypes of blacks. As Bernhard Ostendorf noted in 1976, "Ellison has explored the richness of the oral tradition of black folklore. Ironically this makes him a forerunner of the very cultural nationalism whose militant fringe now rejects him as an Uncle Tom." Nonetheless, most critics of Ellison's short stories agree with Robert G. O'Meally, who concluded, "The folkloric ingredient in Ellison's fiction is a major source of his work's enduring popularity and power."

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

Short Fiction

"Slick Gonna Learn" 1939; published in journal Direction

"The Birthmark" 1940; published in journal New Masses

"Afternoon" 1940; published in anthology American Writing

"Mister Toussan" 1941; published in New Masses

"That I Had the Wings" 1943; published in journal Common Ground

"In a Strange Country" 1944; published in periodical Tomorrow

"Flying Home" 1944; published in anthology Cross Section

"King of the Bingo Game" 1944; published in Tomorrow

"Did You Ever Dream Lucky?" 1954; published in anthology New World Writing #5

"A Coupla Scalped Indians" 1956; published in New World Writing #9

"And Hickman Arrives" 1960; published in anthology The Noble Savage I

"The Roof, the Steeple and the People" 1960; published in journal Quarterly Review of Literature

"It Always Breaks Out" 1963; published in journal Partisan Review

*"Out of the Hospital and under the Bar" 1963; published in anthology Soon, One Morning

"Juneteenth" 1965; published in Quarterly Review of Literature

"Tell It Like It Is, Baby" 1965; published in journal Nation

"Night-Talk" 1969; published in Quarterly Review of Literature

"A Song of Innocence" 1970; published in journal Iowa Review

"Cadillac Flambé" 1973; published in journal American Review

"Backwacking: A Plea to the Senator" 1977; published in journal Massachusetts Review

Flying Home, and Other Stories 1996

Other Major Works

Invisible Man (novel) 1952

Shadow and Act (essays and interviews) 1964

Going to the Territory (essays, interviews, and speeches) 1986

*This story is an excerpt deleted from Invisible Man.

Edward Guereschi (essay date 1972)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Anticipations of Invisible Man: Ralph Ellison's 'King of the Bingo Game,'" in Negro American Literature Forum, Vol. 6, No. 4, Winter, 1972, pp. 122-24.

[In the following essay, Guereschi reveals stylistic and thematic parallels between "King of the Bingo Game" and Invisible Man.]

Many sources have been discovered for Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, ranging from Negro folk-tale to absurdist thought. What has not been sufficiently reparded is the writer's earlier short fiction. "King of the Bingo Game," in particular, provides a revealing comparison. It is his last work (published in 1944) before the appearance of the novel in 1952, and, like it, is...

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Joseph F. Trimmer (essay date 1972)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Ralph Ellison's 'Flying Home,'" in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. IX, No. 2, Spring, 1972, pp. 175-82.

[In the essay below, Trimmer explores symbolic patterns of race and myth in "Flying Home, " discussing the narrative in terms of the black protagonist's identity within his racial community, the myths of Daedalus and the Phoenix, the Christian doctrine of the fortunate fall, and the story of the prodigal son.]

Ralph Ellison is known chiefly for his single novel, Invisible Man, for which he won the National Book Award for Fiction in 1952, and for his collection of essays, Shadow and Act, published in 1964. It is not widely acknowledged, however,...

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Leonard J. Deutsch (essay date 1973)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Ellison's Early Fiction," in Negro American Literature Forum, Vol. 7, No. 2, Summer, 1973, pp. 53-9.

[In the following essay, Deutsch examines Ellison 's early short stories in relation to Invisible Man to show that his primary fictional themes remained constant throughout the course of his career.]

Although Invisible Man is his most famous and most important work, Ralph Ellison had done a great deal of writing before the appearance of the novel. In fact, before the publication of Invisible Man, in 1952, Ellison had already earned a small reputation as a literary figure. In the spring 1942 issue of Negro Quarterly, for example, he...

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Mary Ellen Doyle (essay date 1975)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "In Need of Folk: The Alienated Protagonists of Ralph Ellison's Short Fiction," in CLA Journal, Vol. XIX, No. 2, December, 1975, pp. 165-72.

[In the essay below, Doyle examines several of Ellison 's short stories, demonstrating that his alienated protagonists usually reconnect with their racial heritage by embracing a folk person or some type of folk practice.]

In an interview, Ralph Ellison stated that a man must both find and create his identity, starting with those given elements he did not pick: "His problem is to recognize himself through recognizing where he comes from, recognizing his parents and his inherited values. . . . The way to create a false...

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Bernhard Ostendorf (essay date 1976)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Ralph Ellison's 'Flying Home': From Folk Tale to Short Story," in Journal of the Folklore Institute, Vol. XIII, No. 2, 1976, pp. 185-99.

[Below, Ostendorf illustrates Ellison 's understanding of the aesthetic, social, and historical functions of black folklore through a detailed analysis of "Flying Home. "]

"All music gotta be folk music; I ain't never heard no horse sing a song." Louis Armstrong's reply to a critic, who expected him to draw a line between popular folk music and high jazz, could have been Ellison's. His notorious irritation with critics who explained away the "low" comedy of folk forms in order to get at the deeper anthropological, political,...

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Pearl I. Saunders (essay date 1976)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Symbolism in Ralph Ellison's 'King of the Bingo Game,'" in CLA Journal, Vol. XX, No. 1, September, 1976, pp. 35-9.

[In the following essay, Saunders suggests that the symbolism used by Ellison in "King of the Bingo Game "—particularly the symbolism of the bingo game, the anonymity of the protagonist, and the bingo wheelreflects the racial oppression of blacks in American society.]

Ralph Ellison's short story, "King of the Bingo Game," recounts the experiences of an unnamed black man who struggles to survive to be recognized in an environment that insists on entering to his invisibility. This nameless man lashes out against the restrictive...

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Willi Real (essay date 1977)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Ralph Ellison: 'King of the Bingo Game' (1944)," in The Black American Short Story in the 20th Century: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Peter Bruck, B. R. Grüner Publishing Co., 1977, pp. 111-27.

[In the essay below, Real analyzes the structure and social context of "King of the Bingo Game " in terms of the protagonist's quest for self-identity.]

It is not uncommon to regard short stories as precursors of more comprehensive fictional works or even merely as by-products of a novelist's career. This view seems to be confirmed by some of Ralph Ellison's pieces of short fiction. His first story, "Slick Gonna Learn," is an excerpt from an unpublished...

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Joseph T. Skerrett, Jr. (essay date 1978)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Ralph Ellison and the Example of Richard Wright," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 15, No. 2, Spring, 1978, pp. 145-53.

[In the following essay, Skerrett traces the influence of Richard Wright's works on the style and themes of Ellison's earliest short stories.]

Richard Wright played an important part in the process by which Ralph Ellison came to see the composition of works of literature as the means of imaginative expression that would be his. Though he had studied a great deal of modern literature in the period of the middle 'thirties, while he was an undergraduate at Tuskegee Institute, and was thus familiar with many of the writers under discussion in...

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Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)

Bone, Robert. "Ralph Ellison and the Uses of Imagination." Triquarterly, No. 6 (1966): 39-54.

Discusses the influence of jazz, the transcendental and civil rights movements, and black culture on Ellison's literary imagination.

Chaffee, Patricia. "Slippery Ground: Ralph Ellison's Bingo Player." Negro American Literature Forum 10, No. 1 (Spring 1976): 23-4.

Focuses on the repeated use and symbolic importance of the word slippery in "King of the Bingo Game."

Ogunyemi, Chikwenye Okonjo. "The Old Order Shall Pass': The Examples of 'Flying Home' and 'Barbados.'" Studies in Short Fiction (Winter 1983): 23-32.


(The entire section is 293 words.)