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Although he was a Renaissance man who took on many roles including jazz trumpeter, editor, freelance photographer, and furniture maker, Ralph Waldo Ellison is best known as an award-winning novelist. His novel Invisible Man plays upon themes common to most of Ellison’s work: invisibility, blindness, betrayal, initiation, and violence; yet, ultimately, Ellison emphasizes that the individual must assume responsibility for shaping his own identity. At the time of their publication, his novels were instrumental in portraying the experiences of an African-American male as oppressed by white society but who was, at the same time, presented with ample opportunities to succeed.
Biographical and Historical Context
From Tuskegee to Harlem
Ralph Ellison was born in Oklahoma City on March 1, 1914. Ellison’s father died when Ralph was three. As a young man, Ellison learned that his father had named him after the American poet-philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson in hopes that his son would one day become a poet. Ellison’s mother raised him, along with his brother Herbert.
Ellison was awarded a scholarship by the state of Oklahoma in 1933 to attend Booker T. Washington’s prestigious Tuskegee Institute, a college attended predominantly by African Americans, in Alabama. Ellison did not see the scholarship as completely positive, however, because he suspected the funding to send him to an all-black school was motivated by a desire to keep him (and other black students) out of Oklahoma’s state universities. The Tuskegee Institute offered teacher training and instruction in practical skills, such as carpentry.
Booker T. Washington, born a slave in 1856, was a famous African American educational leader, but his efforts at the Tuskegee institute were not without detractors. Washington founded the school at a time when African Americans had few options in higher education. Washington sought to create more opportunity by working with wealthy white patrons who helped fund his projects. His critics, among them social scientist W. E. B. Du Bois, labeled Washington an “accommodationist” because he did not push his white supporters forcefully to give blacks equal educational opportunities with whites. Ellison’s experience at Tuskegee would shape his future work. A fictionalized version of Tuskegee Institute served as a setting in Invisible Man.
Although Ellison had an interest in music and studied the subject at Tuskegee, he never graduated. Instead, he went to New York City in 1936, where he met two influential men: Alain Locke and Langston Hughes, both leading figures in the Harlem Renaissance, an artistic flowering in the mostly black New York neighborhood of Harlem that began in the 1920s.
Writing in New York City
In New York City, Ellison sought to parlay his interest in the arts into employment. With the encouragement of Richard Wright (author of Native Son, 1940), Ellison wrote book reviews, articles, and short stories. In 1938, he became involved with the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP), a New Deal program created by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt under the Works Progress Administration. The FWP provided jobs for unemployed writers, editors, and scholars during the Great Depression by assigning them to record local and oral histories, spearhead ethnographical projects, and write essays on various cultural subjects. The program helped move Ellison’s writing career forward.
World War II and Invisible Man
During World War II, Ellison served as a cook for the Merchant Marines from 1943 to 1945 and began to gather ideas for what was to become Invisible Man. Eventually, the story grew into a rich narrative about a nameless African-American man who is losing both his sense of identity and his faith in people. Ellison married Fanny McConnell in 1946 and spent several years, both in Vermont and New York City, working on the novel. When Invisible Man was published in 1952, segregationist laws were still in full force in many American states. The Supreme Court decision Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education, which overturned an earlier court decision declaring ”separate but equal” public schools for black and white children legal, was not given until 1954. The Montgomery Bus Boycott, considered the spark that started the Civil Rights movement, did not happen until 1955. The book’s frank treatment of racism was shocking to many readers, but critics considered the novel a key work in defining race relations in America, especially from a black perspective. It won numerous honors, including the National Book Award.
Honors, Awards, Teaching, and Fire
For over a decade following the publication of Invisible Man, Ellison continued to write and was awarded honorary degrees and fellowships from several universities, including Harvard and Tuskegee. But, twelve years passed after the release of his popular novel before he published a collection of essays and interviews called Shadow and Act. During this interim, Ellison turned to teaching. In 1954, as recipient of the Rockefeller Foundation Award, he lectured at the Salzburg Seminar, taught Russian and American literature at Bard College between 1958 and 1961, and served as a visiting professor at the University of Chicago and Rutgers University. In 1964, Ellison was given a visiting fellowship in American studies at Yale University. He also began work on a second novel; how-ever, in 1967, a fire at Ellison’s home destroyed nearly 350 pages of the manuscript. Pieces of the novel have been printed in various literary journals, but the book as a whole was lost. Years later, John F. Callahan, an English professor at Lewis and Clark College in Oregon, took on the daunting challenge of reconstructing the unfinished book. Using drafts and other notes, Callahan published Juneteenth in May 1999, to mixed reviews.
In 1969, Ellison received the Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor, from President Lyndon B. Johnson. Throughout the 1970s, Ellison wrote and taught, and in 1986 he released Going to the Territory, a collection of previously published essays, including those that gave new insight into the lives of William Faulkner and Richard Wright, as well as other culturally important African Americans. In 1994, Ellison died of pancreatic cancer.
Works in Literary Context
An avid reader, Ellison as a young man gravitated toward work by modernists, including Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. But in writing his novels, Ellison looked to the democratic principles and moral resolve of such nineteenth-century writers as Herman Melville and Henry James. Ellison also admired their depiction of American slavery as well as their portrayal of African Americans.
Beyond the Protest Novel
Although the protest genre is loosely defined and includes vastly different works such as Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath and Richard
Wright’s Black Boy, Ellison’s novel does not squarely fit in that category. Specifically in terms of the African American novel, the protest novel genre, for the most part, sought to expose socio-political injustices and ”culturally sponsored ignorance’s,” in the words of critic Maryemma Graham. In 1949, James Baldwin attacked the genre in ”Everybody’s Protest Novel,” suggesting that the genre trapped African Americans in certain roles and tied them to particular destinies. Along similar lines, with Invisible Man, Ellison sought to capture more than the struggle of the African American. In fact, when he accepted his National Book Award for the novel, he admitted that he did not envision an inherently black book, but rather ”dream[ed] of a prose which was flexible, and swift as American change is swift, confronting the inequalities and brutalities of our society forthrightly, but yet thrusting forth its images of hope, human fraternity, and individual self-realization.”
The Ideals of the Frontier
Ellison spent his child hood in Oklahoma when the state was just a territory, and the symbolism of the frontier underscores the thematic nature of Invisible Man, despite the fact the novel is set in Harlem. The book’s narrative deals with tension against personal and physical boundaries and the struggle for freedom, often illustrated in American literature through the conflict between ”east” and ”west.” Invisible Man encapsulates Ellison’s personal realization that the frontier spirit had limitations, particularly in the South, at least for the African American adult. In the novel, the narrator’s belief in freedom and possibility slowly decays in the presence of a restrictive social and political reality. Ellison makes his character aware that he has a ”personal moral responsibility to participate in and contribute to democracy,” a message that reverberates throughout much of Ellison’s work.
Works in Critical Context
Although the reception of Invisible Man was overwhelmingly positive, earning Ellison numerous honors, critics have disagreed about how Ellison’s work fits into African-American cultural politics. Many black nationalists, or those who contributed to a political movement that fought in the name of black pride, as well as black economic and socio-political independence from mainstream society, railed against the novel for its lack of militancy toward civil rights issues, yet no one could deny the novel’s deft construction, inherent symbolism, and masterful language.
Many critics have viewed the novel as a chronicle of African-American history. The book marks the Reconstruction legacy left by the narrator’s grandfather, the narrator’s own experience at a Southern college for blacks, the emotional and social effects of World War I on black veterans, the Great Migration of blacks from South to North, and the difficulties of gaining employment in a discriminatory and exploitive capitalistic economy. In this way, some critics note, Ellison presents a history common to both his protagonist and African Americans in general.
Stewart Lillard suggests, ”As a novelist, Ellison seems to have engaged his literary talents in a conscious effort of recording a century of Negro culture in Invisible Man. He records speech habits and musical lyrics of an oral tradition before they are lost to future ages.”
Some readers see Invisible Man as going beyond the specific boundaries of African American history to tell a more universally American story. Ellison himself recognized Invisible Man as the tale of an American individual, a man who struggles to define his values and his identity despite his transience. Jonathan Baumbach joins this opinion in noting that, ”Ellison’s world is at once surreal and real, comic and tragic, grotesque and normal—our world viewed in its essentials rather than its externals. Though the protagonist of Invisible Man is a southern Negro, he is, in Ellison’s rendering, profoundly all of us.”
- Graham, Maryemma. Cambridge Companion to the African American Novel. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
- Ellison, Ralph. The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison. Ed.John F. Callahan. New York: Random House, 1995.
- Rampersad, Arnold. Ralph Ellison: A Biography. New York: Knopf, 2007.
- Warren, Kenneth W. So Black and Blue: Ralph Ellison and the Occasion of Criticism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.
- Wright, John Samuel. Shadowing Ralph Ellison. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2006.
- Allen, Brooke. ”The Visible Ralph Ellison.” New Criterion. (May 2007): 24-9. Stewart, Lillard. ”Ellison’s Ambitious Scope in Invisible Man.” English Journal, 58:6 (September 1969).
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