Ralph Ellison 1914-1994
American short story writer, novelist, essayist, and editor.
The following entry provides an overview of Ellison's life and works of short fiction. See also Ralph Ellison Literary Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 3, 11, 26, 114.
Ellison is regarded as one of the most accomplished and influential authors of the twentieth century. Although he is best known for his widely acclaimed novel Invisible Man (1952), critics praise his short stories and assert that they provide valuable insight into his overall artistic development. In these works Ellison uses folklore, myth, and complex patterns of symbolism and allusion to illuminate important issues in the lives of African Americans, including racial repression, alienation, and betrayal.
Born in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, on March 1, 1914, Ellison was raised in an atmosphere that encouraged self-fulfillment and cultural enrichment. 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 author Richard Wright and became involved in the Federal Writers' Project. Encouraged to contribute to 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. Awarded a Rosenwald grant in 1945, Ellison began work on Invisible Man, which was hailed as a masterpiece upon its publication and garnered Ellison numerous honorary degrees and literary awards. He began work on a second novel, which he never finished. Excerpts from this novel, including “And Hickman Arrives,” comprise the last original fiction Ellison published, appearing sporadically as short stories in several journals during the 1960s and 1970s. During this time he also taught at Bard College (1958-61), Rutgers University (1962-69), and New York University (1970-79). Ellison died of cancer on April 16, 1994, in New York City. In 1999, a very abridged version of Ellison's second novel—a kaleidoscopic work exceeding 2,000 pages—was published as Juneteenth.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Thirteen of Ellison's short stories were collected posthumously in Flying Home and Other Stories (1996); commentators note that these stories recognize the prejudice suffered by African Americans and explore themes of racial and class identity. Ellison wrote numerous short stories that have been published individually, among them his earliest stories, “Slick Gonna Learn” and “The Birthmark,” which 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. Some critics maintain that 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 African American who earlier had renounced his adoptive Black father, Reverend Hickman, and espoused white supremacy by passing as white.
Many of Ellison's short stories are discussed in relationship to Ellison's masterpiece, Invisible Man. One parallel found between the short stories and the novel is Ellison's complex portrayal of alienated young Black men who seek social recognition, a theme found in his stories “Flying Home” and “King of the Bingo Game.” Moreover, 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 cultural identity. Critics have traced his political and literary development through his short stories, and contend that these pieces focus on themes that he later incorporated into Invisible Man. Others have underscored the importance of the stories as an appropriate genre for Ellison to express the complexity of the African American experience and to explore the meaning of it for himself and his work. His 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 African Americans. Others disagreed, arguing that his exploration of the richness and oral tradition of Black folklore is a major reason for the enduring popularity and power of his fiction. In recent years commentators have also examined the role of psychology in his work, including his short fiction. Commentators assert that the growing body of criticism on Ellison's short fiction attests to the insights these stories provide into his political awakening and literary development.