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.
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.
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."