Ralph Ellison March 1, 1914–April 16, 1994
(Full name Ralph Waldo Ellison) American novelist, essayist, short story writer, critic, and editor.
For further information on Ellison's life and works, see CLC, Volumes 1, 3, 11, and 54.
One of the most influential and accomplished American authors of the twentieth century, Ellison is best known for his highly acclaimed novel Invisible Man (1952). Honored with a National Book Award for Fiction, Invisible Man is regarded as a masterpiece for its complex treatment of individuality, self-awareness, and the repression and betrayal associated with race relations in America. Employing naturalistic, expressionistic, and surrealistic elements, Ellison combined concerns of European and African-American literature in Invisible Man to chronicle an unnamed black youth's quest for self-identity in a hostile world. Narrating his story from an underground cell, the anonymous protagonist describes his experiences as a student in the South, his travels in Harlem following his undeserved expulsion from college, his work with a political organization named the Brotherhood, and his participation in the Harlem race riots of the 1940s; he explains in the prologue that he is involuntarily invisible—and has thus gone underground—because society sees him only in terms of racial stereotypes. Although some critics have faulted Ellison's style in this work as occasionally excessive, Invisible Man has consistently been praised for its poetic, ambiguous form, its sustained blend of tragedy and comedy, and its complex symbolism and characterizations. A meticulous craftsman, Ellison was working on his long-awaited second novel at the time of his death. Additionally known as an essayist and nonfiction writer, Ellison collected twenty-two years of reviews, criticism, and interviews concerning such subjects as art, music, literature, and the influence of the black experience on American culture in Shadow and Act (1964). This volume is often considered autobiographical in intent and is noted for its lucidity and the insights it provides into Invisible Man. Going to the Territory (1986), which contains speeches, reviews, and interviews written since 1957, echoes many of the concerns of Shadow and Act. Making use of ironic humor in the manner of Invisible Man, Ellison here reflected on and paid tribute to such personal influences and creative mentors as Richard Wright and Duke Ellington. Although Ellison has historically been recognized as a seminal figure in contemporary literature, critical reception of his work has been largely influenced by the changing political milieu of American society in the latter half of the twentieth century. Nevertheless, commentators have continued to stress the universal themes and sophisticated nature of his oeuvre. Richard Corliss observed: "Ellison's writing was too refined, elaborate, to be spray painted on a tenement wall. He was a celebrator as much as a denouncer of the nation that bred him. In his multicolored vision, America was not just a violent jungle but a vibrant jumble of many cultures and temperaments; it mingled melody, harmony, dissonance and ad-lib genius, like the jazz that Ellison played, wrote about and loved."