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by Bamber Gascoigne

Ralph (Waldo) Ellison (1914-1994)


African-American writer, teacher, whose novel Invisible Man (1952) gained a wide critical success. Ralph Ellison has been compared to such writers as Melville and Hawthorne. He has used racial issues to express universal dilemmas of identity and self-discovery but avoided taking a straightforward political stand. "Literature is colorblind," he once said. Many artists of the Black Arts movement rejected Ellison for his insistence that America be a land of cultural exchange and synergy. Talented in many fields, Ellison also was an accomplished jazz trumpeter and a free-lance photographer.

"I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids – and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me." (from The Invisible Man, prologue)

Ralph Waldo Ellison was born in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Lewis Ellision, his father, named his son after the famous American poet and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, telling that he was "raising this boy up to be a poet." Lewis, who had spent his youth as a soldier and as an entrepreneur, was a vendor of ice and coal. He died in 1917 from a work-related accidend  – an ice block dropped and shattered sendind shards into his abdomen. Ellison admired his father greatly, seeing him as a hero. His mother, Ida Ellison, supported herself and her children by working as a domestic. Ida belived in Socialism and was arrested several times for violating the segregation orders. Close friends called her "Brownie." Ellison earned money by shining shoes and working in an Oklahoma City hotel.

While growing up, Ellison began performing on the trumpet during high school years. He also though Among his friends were the blues singer Jimmy Rushing and trumpeter Hot Lips Page. With the help of a music scolarship, Ellision studied at the Tuskegee Institute in Macon County, Alabama (1933-1936), founded on Booker T. Washington's accommdationist philosophy. However, the atmospere in Tuskegee was conservative and jazz was considered primitive. Ellison departed for New York without receiving his degree.

In Harlem, he thought of becoming a composer and took a few lessons from Wallingford Riegger, an early American admirer of Arnold Schoenberg. The black actress and singer Rose Poindexter, whom he married in 1938, provided him an entrée to the jazz scene. They divorced in 1945; Ellison paid most of Rose's attorney fees.

Ellison had moved to New York to study sculpture, but again abandoned his plans when a change meetings with Langston Hughes and Richard Wright led him to join Federal Writers' Project. He had earlier read the works of Ernest Hemingway, George Bernard Shaw, and T.S. Eliot, which impressed him deeply. Encouraged by Wright, he wrote essays, reviews and short stories in Daily Worker, New Challenge, Negro Quaterly, New Masses and other publications. He became an editor of the Negro Quaterly and began to work on his novel.

From 1943 to 1945  Ellison served in the Merchant Marines as a third cook, mainly on the Liberty Ship S.S. Sun Yat Sen. As a reply to those who saw service in the merchant fleet as a likely sign of cowardice, Ellison said, "It is the most democratic of all the services, and though some sneered at it I am able to maintain some sense of dignity – a thing which for me would be impossible had I been taken into the army." Due to stomach ailments, he was sent to a psychiatrist, who told him to stop "thinking too much and too hard."

On vacation in Vermont during the summer of 1945, Ellison got the idea for the first line of Invisible Man.  In 1946 he married his live-in partner Fanny McConnell Buford, who was the executive director of the American Medical Center for Burma at the time.  Her steady income secured the creation of the magnus opus. Its early version started with a story about a black American pilot who is in a Nazi prisoner-of-war camp, but soon Ellison found a more complex theme. "Once the book was done, it was suggested that the title would be confused with H.G. Wells's old novel, The Invisible Man, but I fought to keep my title because that's what the book was about.'' (Ellison in The New York Times, March 1, 1982)  At the time when the book was published, Ellison had already distanced himself from Marxist political theory and called himself a "true outsider" of the left.  He frequently warned that Invisible Man was neither polical allegory nor autobiography.

Invisible Man (1952) tells a story of a nameless Afro-American man, who is losing his sense of identity in a world of prejudice and hostility. He has an underground cellar to solve his relationship with the rest of the society. In the dark there is no colors and to fill the space with light he burns 1,369 bulbs. Before becoming free from all illusions, the narrator makes a feverish, Dantesque journey through his experiences in a segregated community in South to the North. The account offers an alternative, invisible history of American life and culture. ('The Integrated Literary Tradition' by Alan Nadel, in A Historical Guide to Ralph Ellison, edited by Steven Carl Tracy, 2004, p. 161) With the prologue's theme song, '(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue,' Ellison suggests that jazz might represent a fusion of different cultural influences in American society, but it also serves as a key to the mind of the narrator. "Perhaps I like Louis Armstrong because he's made poetry out of being invisible," he says. Education and class consciousness do not help him in his despair but adds to his difficulties. Finally he is ready to enter the world and says: "Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?" Invisible Man was rewarded with National Book Award in 1953. It was considered in 1965 in an inquiry of 200 authors and critics among the most important works after World War II. Ellison insisted that he wrote the novel thinking not of its sociological insights into injustice, but strictly of the art of writing. He was deeply interested in the works of Russian authors, with the most obvious influence being Feodor Dostoevskii's Notes from the Underground, and its parallel 'The Man Who Lived Underground' by Richard Wright. The opening sentence of Invisible Man's prologue ("I am an invisible man")  purposely echoed the first words of Dostoevskii's narrator ("I am s sick man"), with whom Ellison associated his own narrator. But unlike in Dostoevskii's novella, the voice belongs to a man who is not an outsider, retired permanently from the world, his retreat is only temporary. A section about a character named Le Roy was removed entirely during the final stages of the novel's revisions. 

After Invisible Man, Ellison never published another novel or an autography, but two collections of essays, Shadow and Act  (1964) and Going to the Territory (1986). He had more and more trouble meeting deadlines for even small jobs. Drinking too much, he suffered often from hangovers. As his highly anticipated second novel failed to appear, Ellison's reputation as an American intellectual of uncommon brilliance rested increasingly on his essays and interviews. In the late 1960s, his position was challenged by young activists of the Black Power and Black Arts Movement, who  thought of him as a figure from the past.

Around 1950, Ellison discovered a new passion in his life: building sound equipment. "He was always for anything new," one of his friends recalled, "and he loved gadgets and devices and machines. He would stop his writing in a second if there was something fresh to explore in science or technology." Ellison's pieces on jazz drew on his experience as a musician and advocated the idea that in modern society musical traditions blend rapidly with each other. In a writing published in High Fidelity (1955) Ellison remarked that "The step from the spirituality of the spirituals to that of the Beethoven of the symphonies or the Bach of the chorales is not as vast as it seems."

Ellison lectured widely at various American colleges and universities, including Bard, Columbia, Rutgers, Yale, Chicago, and New York University, where he was Albert Schweitzer professor in the Humanites. Among Ellison's several awards are the Medal of Freedom (1969), Chevalier de l'Ordre des Artes et Lettres (1970). He received a fellowship to the National American Academy of Arts and Letters in Rome (1955-57), and was elected a vice-president of the American P.E.N. (1964), and a vice-president of the National Institute of Arts and Letters (1967). Ellison received in 1985 National Medal of Arts for Invisible Man and for his teaching at numerous universities.

Juneteenth (1999), Ellison's second novel, was planned as a trilogy, but was left unfinished at his death. An excerpt entitled 'Cadillac Flambé' appeared in American Review in 1973. 'Backwacking, a Plea to the Senator,' was published in Massachusetts Review in 1977.

Ellison's short stories were collected in Flying Home and Other Stories (1996). In 'A Party Down at the Square,' which did not appear during his lifetime, Ellison tells about lynching, using a young white boy as the narrator. 'Flying Home' was an Icarus story about a black aviator, whose plane has crashed in Georgia. 'King of the Bingo Game' proved wrong the claim that an unemployed black can win the jacpot if he gets the lucky number

In Shadow and Act Ellison stated that "one of the obligations I took when I committed myself to the art and form of the novel was that of striving for the broadest range, the discovery and articulation of the most exalted values." Ellison died in New York, on April 16, 1994, of pancreatic cancer.

The posthumously published Juneteenth focused on two opposite characters: Adam Sunraider, a white, bigoted New England senator, and Alonzo "Daddy" Hickman, a black Baptist minister, former jazzman. When Hickman first tries to meet Sunraider, the Senators secretary stops him: '"Knows you," she said indignantly. "I've heard Senator Sunraider state that the only colored he knows is the boy who shines shoes at his golf club."' However, the two opposites turn out to have a paternal relationship. When Sunraider is shot, he summons Hickman to his bedside, which starts an exploration of their shared past. Ellison spent years reconstructing the novel, after a large section of the original work burned in 1967. Ellison's manuscript, some 2,000 pages, was edited by John Callahan.

For further reading: Twentieth Century Interpretations of Invisible Man, ed. by J.M. Reilly (1970); Studies in "Invisible Man", edited by R. Gottesman (1971); A Casebook on Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, edited by Joseph A Trimmer (1972); A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by John Hersey (1974); The Blinking Eye by Jacqueline Covo (1974); "Invisible Man"'s Literary Heritage by V. Gray (1978); The Craft of Ralph Ellison by G.O. Meally (1980); Ralph Ellison: The Genesis of an Artist by Rudolf F. Dietze (1982); Speaking for You: The Vision of Ralph Ellison, edited by Kimberly W. Benston (1987); Invisible Criticism: Ralph Ellison and the American Canon by Alan Nadel (1988); Approaches to Teaching Ellison's Invisible Man, edited by Pancho Savery (1989); Heroism and the Black Intellectual: Ralph Ellison, Politics, and Afro-American Intellectual Life by Jerry Gafio Watts (1994); Conversations with Ralph Ellison, edited by Maryemma Graham and Amritjit Singh (1995); On Racial Frontiers: The New Culture of Frederick Douglass, Ralph Ellison, and Bob Marley by Gregory Stephens (1999); Prophets of Recognition: Ideology and the Individual in Novels by Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison, Saul Bellow, and Eudora Welty by Julia Eichelberger (1999); Ralph Ellision: Emergence of Genius by Lawrence Jackson (2002); A Historical Guide to Ralph Ellison, edited by Steven Carl Tracy (2004); Ralph Ellision: A Biography by Arnold Rampersad (2007); Wrestling with the Left: the Making of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man by Barbara Foley (2010); The New Territory: Ralph Ellison and the Twenty-first Century, edited by Marc C. Conner and Lucas E. Morel (2016); Ralph Ellison's Invisible Theology by M. Cooper Harriss (2017); Ralph Ellison, Temporal Technologist by Michael Germana (2018); Ralph Ellison in Context, edited by Paul Devlin (2021); Antagonistic Cooperation: Jazz, Collage, Fiction, and the Shaping of African American Culture by Robert G. O'Meally (2022); Theory and Practice of Reception Study: Reading Race and Gender in Twain, Faulkner, Ellison, and Morrison by Philip Goldstein (2022); In the Shadow of Invisibility: Ralph Ellison and the Promise of American Democracy by Sterling Lecater Bland Jr. (2023) 

Selected works:

  • Invisible Man, 1952
    - Näkymätön mies (suom. Jouko Linturi, 1969)
  • The Living Novel, 1957 (contributor; ed. by Granville Hicks)
  • Shadow and Act, 1964
  • The Writer's Experience, 1964 (with Karl Shapiro)
  • 'What These Children Are Like: Transcript of a Talk by Ralph Ellison,' 1965 (in Education of the Deprived and Segregated: Report of a Seminar Conducted by Bank Street College of Education at Dedham, Massachusetts, September 3 - 15, 1963)
  • Who Speaks for the Negro? / Robert Penn Warren, 1965 (contributor)
  • The City in Crisis, 1968 (with Whitney M. Young and Herbert Gans)
  • 'The Myth of the Flawed White Southerner,' 1968 (in To Heal and to Built, ed. by James MacGregor Burn)
  • 'The Perspective of Literature,' 1976 (in American Law: The Third Century, the Law Bicentennial Volume, ed. by Bernard Schwartz)
  • Going to the Territory, 1986
  • The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison, 1995 (edited, with an introduction by John F. Callahan, preface by Saul Bellow)
  • Flying Home and Other Stories, 1996 (edited and with an introduction by John F. Callahan)
  • Juneteenth: A Novel, 1999 (edited by John F. Callahan)
  • Trading Twelves: The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray, 2000 (edited by Albert Murray and John F. Callahan, introduction by John F. Callahan, preface by Albert Murray)
  • Living with Music: Ralph Ellison’s Jazz Writings, 2001 (edited by Robert G. O’Meally)
  • Three Days before the Shooting..., 2010 (edited by John F. Callahan and Adam Bradley)
  • Ralph Ellison: a Life in Letters, 2018 (edited by John Callahan and Marc Conner)
  • The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison, edited by John F. Callahan and Marc C. Conner (2019)  

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