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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Ralph Waldo Ellison

Ralph Waldo Ellison was born in Oklahoma City of parents who migrated from South Carolina and Georgia. His father, Lewis, a construction foreman and later the owner of a small ice and coal business, named his son after Emerson, hoping he would be a poet. After losing his father when he was three, Ellison and his younger brother, Herbert, were raised by their mother, Ida, who worked as a nursemaid, janitress, and domestic and was active in politics. Ellison used to enjoy telling how she had canvassed for Eugene V. Debs and other Socialist candidates and later been jailed for defying Oklahoma City’s segregation ordinances.

Ellison was drawn to music, playing cornet and trumpet from an early age and, in 1933, going to study classical composition at Tuskegee Institute under William L. Dawson. Of his musical influences he later said, “The great emphasis in my school was upon classical music, but such great jazz musicians as Hot Lips Page, Jimmy Rushing, and Lester Young were living in Oklahoma City....As it turned out, the perfection, the artistic dedication which helped me as a writer, was not so much in the classical emphasis as in the jazz itself.”

In July 1936, after his junior year at Tuskegee, Ellison went to New York to earn money for his senior year and to study music and sculpture, and he stayed. In June 1937 his friendship with Richard Wright began and led him toward becoming a writer. Ellison also made the acquaintance of Langston Hughes and the painter Romare Bearden. In Dayton, Ohio, where he went to visit his ailing mother, and remained for six months after her unexpected death in October 1937, he began to write seriously, mostly nights in the second-story law office of Attorney William O. Stokes, using Stokes’s letterhead and typewriter.

Returning to New York, from 1938 until 1942 Ellison worked on the New York Federal Writers Project of the WPA. Starting in the late 1930s, he contributed reviews, essays, and short fiction to New Masses, Tomorrow, The Negro Quarterly (of which he was for a time managing editor), The New Republic, The Saturday Review, Antioch Review, The Reporter, and other periodicals. During World War II he served in the merchant marine as a cook and baker and afterward worked at a variety of jobs, including freelance photography and the building and installation of audio systems.

Over a period of seven years, Ellison wrote Invisible Man, which was recognized upon its publication in 1952 as one of the most important works of fiction of its time. It was on the best-seller list for sixteen weeks and won the National Book Award. Its critical reputation and popularity have only continued to grow in the more than four decades since its publication. Ellison has described his novel’s structure as that of a symphonic jazz composition with a central theme (or bass line) and harmonic variations (or riffs) often expressed in virtuoso solo performances. Invisible Man speaks for all readers and reflects the contradictions and complexities of American life through the prism of African American experience.

Although an excerpt from a second novel was published in Noble Savage in 1960, and seven other selections in literary magazines between then and 1977, no other long work of fiction has yet appeared. Shadow and Act (1964) and Going to the Territory (1986) collect essays and interviews written over more than forty years. Since Ellison’s death four posthumous works have appeared: The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison (1995), Conversations with Ralph Ellison (1995), Flying Home and Other Stories (1996), and Juneteenth (1999).

“A Party Down at the Square” (undated), unpublished in Ellison’s lifetime, is a tour de force. By narrating a lynching in the voice of a Cincinnati white boy visiting his uncle in Alabama, Ellison, while still a young writer, crosses the narrative color line and defies the “segregation of the word” he found lingering in American literature when he wrote “Twentieth-Century Fiction and the Black Mask of Humanity” (1946). Ellison’s technique in “A Party Down at the Square” compels readers to experience the human condition in extremis, mediated by a stranger whose morality is a commitment to be non-commital. The white boy’s most telling response comes from his insides when, to his shame, he throws up. His sensations signify a resistance to values he has been taught not to question. There is nothing like this story in the rest of Ellison’s work.

“Flying Home” (1944) anticipates the theme of invisibility and the technique of solos and breaks with which Ellison took flight in Invisible Man. Just when Todd, Ellison’s northern protagonist, believes that he has learned to use his wiles to escape the limitations of race, language, and geography, circumstances force him to confront the strange “old country” of the South. A literary descendant of Icarus, as well as Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus, Todd, one of the black eagles from the Negro air school at Tuskegee, flies too close to the sun, collides with a buzzard (a “jimcrow”), and falls to earth in rural Alabama. There, he is saved by Jefferson, whose folktales and actions enable Todd to recognize where he is and who he is and to come back to life by following the old black peasant and his son out of a labyrinthine Alabama valley.

In “Brave Words for a Startling Occasion” (1953), Ellison’s acceptance address for the National Book Award, he celebrates the richness and diversity of American speech and the American language. And he identifies the task of the American writer as “always to challenge the apparent forms of reality—that is, the fixed manners and values of the few—and to struggle with it until it reveals its mad, vari-implicated chaos, its false faces, and on until it surrenders its insight, its truth.”

John F. Callahan
Lewis and Clark College

In the Heath Anthology
A Party Down at the Square (1950)
Brave Words for a Startling Occasion (1953)
Flying Home (1994)

Other Works
Invisible Man (1958)
Shadow and Act (1964)
Going to the Territory (1986)

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New York Times Featured Author
Reviews and articles from the archives of the New York Times.

Decoding Ralph Ellison
An analytical article on the major works of Ellison.

Perspectives in American Literature
Paul Reuben's site offering primary and secondary bibliographies and three critical articles.

Ralph Ellison
An introduction to Ellison and some links.

Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man
A collection of criticism on Invisible Man.

Secondary Sources