Ralph March Ellison

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Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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),...

(The entire section is 480 words.)