Ralph Ellison Ellison, Ralph (Vol. 79)

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(Short Story Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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...

(The entire section is 69,241 words.)