A Week to Remember: Ralph Ellison

Keith Chaffee, Librarian, Collection Development,
Ralph Ellison, American writer

Ralph Ellison was born on March 1, 1914. Ellison was an important writer of the early civil rights movement, remembered today principally for his novel Invisible Man.

Ellison was born in Oklahoma City and named after Ralph Waldo Emerson. His father died when he was three, and a few years later, his mother moved the family to Gary, Indiana, where her brother lived. She thought that her children had, as Ellison later put it, “a better chance of reaching manhood” living in the north.

Ellison played the trumpet and the saxophone as a child, and eventually became his high school’s bandmaster. After high school, he applied twice to the Tuskegee Institute before finally being admitted in 1933, mostly because the Tuskegee school orchestra needed a trumpet player. Ellison got from Indiana to Alabama by hopping freight trains, and was surprised to learn on his arrival that elite all-black institutions were no less class-conscious, and looked down on the working class no less, than white institutions.

At Tuskegee, Ellison studied under the head of the music department, William L. Dawson, a renowned choral director whose arrangements of spirituals are standards of American choral music. Ellison worked as a desk clerk in the university library, where he discovered modern literature by such writers as James Joyce, T. S. Eliot, and Gertrude Stein.

Ellison left Tuskegee in 1936 without completing his degree and moved to New York, where he hoped to study sculpture. There he met Langston Hughes, who introduced him to other major figures of Harlem’s thriving artistic and literary community. Novelist Richard Wright encouraged Ellison to write fiction, and he began to have stories published in literary magazines in the late 1930s.

In the years before World War II, Ellison and Wright were both associated with the Communist Party, and Ellison wrote some articles for Party publications. Both men lost faith in the Party during the war when they believed it had betrayed its commitments to African-Americans.

After the war, Ellison began working on the novel that would become Invisible Man. He earned some money writing book reviews, but his wife provided most of the financial support for the family during these years.

3 book cover of Invisible Man

Invisible Man (e-book | e-audio | print | audio) was published in 1952, and was received with glowing reviews. The novel’s unnamed narrator was a black man living in New York in the 1930s; through his story, Ellison explored the problem of racism and its different manifestations in the north and the south. He wrote about the difficulty of living in a world that “refused to see him.”

But Ellison insisted that Invisible Man was not meant to be a protest novel; early in the book, his narrator says, “I am not complaining, nor am I protesting either.” In his lectures and writings about the novel, Ellison expressed his frustration that the book was almost always evaluated and critiqued as black literature, rather than just as literature. He wondered why white critics seemed to struggle so much with a book that didn’t meet their preconceptions of what a book by a black author should be.

And throughout his life, Ellison fought against being pigeonholed as a black writer. He made a distinction between his literary “relatives”—other black writers—and his literary “ancestors”—the writers, most of them not black, who had most strongly influenced him; he included among those ancestors Ernest Hemingway, Herman Melville, and William Faulkner.

Invisible Man received the National Book Award for Fiction in 1953, and Ellison became an international literary celebrity. He moved to Europe in 1955, lecturing throughout the continent, traveling from his home in Rome. In 1958, he returned to the United States, taking a job as a professor of American and Russian literature at Bard College.

He began work on a second novel, but never finished it. He said that more than 300 pages of the manuscript were destroyed in a 1967 fire at his summer home, but friends later said he’d told them that he hadn’t lost any significant writing in that fire.

Ellison published only two more books during his life, a pair of essay collections, Shadow and Act (e-book | print) in 1964 and Going to the Territory (e-book | print) in 1986. He died of pancreatic cancer on April 16, 1994.

He seems to have never stopped working on that second novel, and it remains a mystery why he was unable to finish it. After his death, his executor found more than 2000 pages of manuscript. A stand-alone passage from that writing was published in 1999 under the title Juneteenth (e-book | print | audio); and the complete manuscript—1,100 print pages—was published in 2010 as Three Days Before the Shooting (e-book | e-audio | print).

Also published after Ellison’s death were his collected essays (print), a volume of short stories (e-book | e-audio | print), his selected letters (e-book | print), and a collection of his writing on jazz (print). Arnold Rampersad’s biography, Ralph Ellison (print), was published in 2007.

Also This Week

March 1, 1873

E. Remington & Sons began producing the first commercially successful typewriter. At the time, Remington was known primarily as a manufacturer of guns and sewing machines. Today, the typewriter may seem obsolete, but it still has loyal users. The documentary California Typewriter (streaming | DVD) interviews some of them (including Tom Hanks, John Mayer, and Sam Shepard) about their devotion to the old technology

February 25, 1890

Myra Hess was born. Hess was an English concert pianist who became a national hero during World War II. Concert halls were blacked out at night for fear of German bombs. Hess organized daily lunchtime concerts at the National Gallery, presenting a concert every weekday for more than six years. She presented about 2,000 concerts and performed in about 150 of them. Among the highlights of her repertoire was the music of Robert Schumann; his Carnaval is the featured work in this Hess recital.

February 27, 1930

Joanne Woodward was born. Woodward’s acting career began in live television, and for more than thirty years she was one of Hollywood’s most successful film actresses. She has been in semi-retirement since the mid-1990s, working only occasionally. Several of her movies are available for streaming at Hoopla, including the mystery/comedy They Might Be Giants; the Tennessee Williams classic The Glass Menagerie; and Mr. and Mrs. Bridge, for which she received one of her four Academy Award nominations.

February 28, 1970

Daniel Handler was born. Handler is the author of several comic novels for adults, including The Basic Eight (e-book | print) and All the Dirty Parts (e-book | print). He is better known, though, as Lemony Snicket, author of A Series of Unfortunate Events, a series of 13 children’s novels which follow the dangerous lives of the Baudelaire orphans, whose wicked cousin Count Olaf plots to steal their inheritance. The series begins with The Bad Beginning (e-book | e-audio | print).