Ralph Ellison Analysis

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Consider the role of racial stereotypes in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. How does the border between the narrator’s self-perception and how others view him relate to the theme of blindness and invisibility within the text?

What does the narrator’s briefcase in Invisible Man symbolize within the text?

Some critics argue that Juneteenth can be viewed as a continuation of the themes outlined in Invisible Man. Where do you see the two novels merging and diverging in how one searches and views his or her identity?

What is the relationship between individual and community identity? How do the two conflict in Juneteenth and merge in Invisible Man?

Ellison was born and raised in Oklahoma. What is the role of this space, this community, in telling the stories of Senator Bliss and Reverend Hickman in Juneteenth? How might the moments of the character’s stories that take place in Oklahoma relate to Ellison’s childhood and adulthood?

Why is it significant that the senator in Juneteenth calls out for Reverend Hickman when he is on his deathbed? What sort of literary devices is Ellison utilizing within this scene in the senate meeting?

Other Literary Forms

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

ph_0111201208-Ellison.jpg Ralph Ellison Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel, is one of the most important American novels of the twentieth century. He also published two well-received collections of essays, Shadow and Act (1964) and Going to the Territory (1986), which were combined into one volume in The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison (1995). In 1999, a posthumous edition of his long-awaited second novel was published as Juneteenth: A Novel.


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Though he won a Rosenwald grant in 1945 on the strength of his short fiction, and though two of his short stories, “Flying Home” and “King of the Bingo Game,” are among the most commonly anthologized short stories in twentieth century American literature, Ralph Ellison is best known for his 1952 novel Invisible Man, which won the National Book Award and the Russwurm Award. In 1975 he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, which in 1955 awarded him a Prix de Rome Fellowship. He received the French Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 1970 and the National Medal of Arts in 1985. In 1984 he was awarded the Langston Hughes medallion by City College in New York for his contributions to arts and letters.

Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Ralph Ellison’s reputation rests primarily on Invisible Man, but Shadow and Act (1964), a collection of nonfiction prose, established Ellison as a major force in the critical theory of pluralism and in African American aesthetics. Arranged in three thematically unified sections, the essays, most of which appeared originally in journals such as Antioch Review, Partisan Review, and The New Republic, emphasize the importance of folk and popular (especially musical) contributions to the mainstream of American culture. Several of the essays from Shadow and Act are recognized as classics, notably “Richard Wright’s Blues,” “Change the Joke and Slip the Yoke,” and “The World and the Jug.” In addition, Ellison published several excellent short stories, including “Flying Home” and “Did You Ever Dream Lucky?” Collections of his essays include Going to the Territory (1986), The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison (1995), and Living with Music: Ralph Ellison’s Jazz Writings (2001).


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Ralph Ellison occupies a central position in the development of African American literature and of contemporary American fiction. Equally comfortable with the influences of Fyodor Dostoevski, Mark Twain, Louis Armstrong, Igor Stravinsky, James Joyce, and Richard Wright, Ellison was the first African American writer to attain recognition as a full-fledged artist rather than as an intriguing exotic. Whereas Caucasian critics had previously, and unjustly, condescended to African American writers such as Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Wright, most granted Ellison the respect given Euro-American contemporaries such as Norman Mailer and Saul Bellow. A 1965 Book World poll identifying Invisible Man as the most distinguished postwar American novel simply verified a consensus already reflected in the recurrence of the metaphor of invisibility in countless works by both Caucasians and African Americans during the 1950’s and 1960’s.

Within the African American tradition itself, Ellison occupies a similarly prominent position, although his mainstream acceptance generates occasional reservations among some African American critics, particularly those committed to cultural nationalism. A Black World poll, reflecting these reservations, identified Wright rather than Ellison as the most important black writer. The discrepancy stems in part from the critical image in the late 1960’s of Ellison and James Baldwin as leading figures in an anti-Wright “universalist” movement in African American culture, a movement that some critics viewed as a sellout to Euro-American aesthetics. In the late twentieth century, however, both Euro-American and African American critics recognized Ellison’s synthesis of the oral traditions of black culture and the literary traditions of both his black and his white predecessors. The consensus of that time viewed Ellison as clearly more sympathetic than Wright to the African American tradition. As a result, Ellison seems to have joined Wright as a major influence on younger black fiction writers such as James Alan McPherson, Leon Forrest, Toni Morrison, and David Bradley.

Ellison’s most profound achievement, his synthesis of modernist aesthetics, American romanticism, and African American folk culture, embodies the aspirations of democratic pluralists such as Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, and Langston Hughes. His vernacular modernism earned Ellison an international reputation while exerting a major influence on the contemporary mainstream. With a reputation resting almost entirely on his first novel, Ellison’s career is among the most intriguing in American literary history.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Applebome, Peter. “From Ellison, a Posthumous Novel, with Additions Still to Come.” The New York Times, February 11, 1999. This article gives information on the origins of Juneteenth, both historical and personal to Ellison.

Benston, Kimberly, ed. Speaking for You: The Vision of Ralph Ellison. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1987. A useful resource of responses to Ellison’s fiction and essays. Also includes an extensive bibliography of his writings.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Modern Critical Views: Ralph Ellison. New York: Chelsea House, 1986. Though this widely available collection of essays focuses mainly on Invisible Man, it provides insights from which any reader of Ralph Ellison may profit, and Berndt Ostendor’s essay, “Anthropology, Modernism, and Jazz,” offers much to the reader of “Flying Home.”

Bone, Robert. “Ralph Ellison and the Uses of Imagination.” Triquarterly 6 (1966): 39-54. An important essay on the uses of transcendentalism and jazz in Ellison’s fiction and of his writing’s importance to the Civil Rights movement and black culture in general.

Busby, Mark. Ralph Ellison. Boston: Twayne, 1991. An excellent introduction to Ellison’s life and work.

Callahan, John F. Introduction to...

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