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FW: Ralph Waldo Ellison, ANB - Bio of the Day

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  • A.J. Wright
    Ellison spent three years as a student at Tuskegee Institute...aj wright // ajwright@uab.edu Date: Sat, 1 Sep 2001 02:00:09 -0400 From: ANB Biography of the
    Message 1 of 1 , Sep 4, 2001
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      Ellison spent three years as a student at Tuskegee Institute...aj wright //

      Date: Sat, 1 Sep 2001 02:00:09 -0400
      From: ANB Biography of the Day <biod-request@...>

      American National Biography Online

      Ellison, Ralph Waldo (1 Mar. 1914-16 Apr. 1994), writer, was
      born in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, the son of Lewis Alfred Ellison
      and Ida Millsap. Ellison's father, who died when Ralph was only
      three years old, worked as a construction foreman and sold ice
      and coal as an independent small businessman. He named his son
      after the poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, hoping he would become a
      poet. His mother worked as a domestic and a church janitor to
      raise Ralph and his younger brother after her husband died. Ellison
      credits his mother for his early interest in books because she
      brought home books and magazines from the homes in which she
      worked for her sons to read. Ralph Ellison's grandparents had been slaves.

      Ellison attended the segregated Frederick Douglass School in
      Oklahoma City for twelve years. The school's curriculum emphasized
      music, and Ellison studied classical trumpet and also developed
      a love for jazz. After graduating from high school, he received
      a scholarship from the state of Oklahoma to study music and musical
      composition at the Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama. Lacking
      the money for transportation to Tuskegee during the Great Depression,
      Ellison hopped freight trains to get to college.

      At the end of his junior year, Ellison found himself without
      the funds to continue at Tuskegee. He decided to travel to New
      York City to play the trumpet professionally in order to raise
      enough money to return to college. Ellison also planned to study
      sculpture while he was in New York. On his second day in New
      York, Ellison met writers Alain Locke and Langston Hughes. Hughes
      provided Ellison with an introduction to Richard Wright when
      Wright came to New York to write in the Harlem Bureau of the
      Daily Worker, the Communist party newspaper, and to edit a new
      magazine called New Challenge. It was Wright who encouraged Ellison
      to write a book review for what became the only published issue
      of New Challenge. Wright impressed upon Ellison the need to further
      develop his writing technique. New Masses, Directions, and the
      Negro Quarterly began publishing Ellison's reviews and literary
      criticism. In 1939 Ellison published his first short story, "Slick
      Gonna Learn." He was never able to realize his ambition to play
      the trumpet professionally because during the depression he never
      had enough money to join the musicians' union.

      In 1938 Ellison began working for the Federal Writers' Project,
      a program intended to provide work relief for unemployed writers.
      His assignment was to work on the Negroes in New York book project
      and also to collect African-American folklore. Ellison resigned
      from the Federal Writers' Project in 1942 to become the managing
      editor of the Negro Quarterly. His position only lasted a year
      because the magazine folded after publishing only four issues.

      Between 1939 and 1945 Ellison published seven additional short
      stories: "The Birthmark," "Afternoon," "Mister Toussan," "That
      I Had Wings," "In a Strange Country," "Flying Home," and "King
      of the Bingo Game." In the last three stories, all published
      in 1944, Ellison moved beyond the Marxist ideology and literary
      naturalism he was introduced to by Wright. No longer convinced
      that individuals were trapped by their environment, Ellison began
      to experiment with more contemporary themes: the alienation of
      modern man in an increasingly complex society, modern man's search
      for his personal identity, and the modern black man's responsibility
      for shaping his own environment within the confines of the black
      experience. Ellison began to use black folklore, black historical
      experience, and especially jazz to reveal the richness of black
      culture as well as to celebrate the creative achievements of black

      In 1943 Ellison joined the merchant marine and served as a cook.
      After his release in 1945 because of illness, a $1,500 stipend
      from the Julius Rosenwald Fund enabled him to begin work on the
      novel that occupied the next seven years of his life. Although
      Ellison published a substantial number of essays, reviews, and
      short stories beginning in 1939 and continuing throughout his
      life, his importance as a writer was established by his first
      novel, Invisible Man, published in April 1952. Immediately acclaimed
      by critics, it was recognized not merely as an excellent novel
      by a black author, but as a great literary achievement. In The
      Negro Novel in America, Robert Bone called Invisible Man "quite
      possibly the best American novel since World War II." Also well
      received by general readers, the novel spent sixteen weeks on
      the New York Times bestseller list.

      Invisible Man begins with one of the most memorable scenes in
      modern literature, that of its unnamed protagonist reclused in
      the basement den he has wired with 1,369 filament lights, while
      Louis Armstrong's "What Did I Do to Be So Black and Blue" plays
      on his phonograph. The opening lines of the novel are among the
      most quoted in twentieth-century American fiction. The narrator's
      first statement, an introduction of himself to his reader, also
      summarizes the black man's experience in America: "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 this point, Ellison's
      unnamed protagonist reveals his life story. As the invisible
      man seeks to construct his own identity, he comes into contact
      with various organizations and institutions representing different
      facets of black American life in the 1930s. The protagonist's
      story begins with a surreal fight scene during which black youth
      entertain a white male fraternal organization. The naive invisible
      young man believed he had been invited to receive a college scholarship
      and to give an acceptance speech. The narrator's life story goes
      on to recount his experience at a southern black college, his
      adjustment from southern rural life to urban Harlem, his factory
      job, and his involvement with the Communist party and black nationalism
      in Harlem. Ellison uses violence, comedy, and surrealism to expose
      the contradiction between American democratic ideals of justice
      and equality and the reality of black experience. Each of the
      protagonist's experiences results in further loss of innocence
      and eventually in his self-imposed exile from the world.

      In Invisible Man Ellison crafted a complex novel exposing the
      richness and diversity of black American culture and creativity.
      The novel also celebrates the ability of African-American culture
      to provide sustenance to anyone who is trying to negotiate the
      complexity of modern life. Although he suffers repeated disillusionment,
      at the end of the novel the still-unnamed narrator accepts and
      embraces his past and plans his reentry into society. Ellison
      affirmed his own belief that love, commitment, human imagination,
      and individual action can bring change. In the essay "The World
      and the Jug" (1963), Ellison elaborated further on his belief
      in the power of individual resistance to oppression. He wrote
      that a black man "is no mere product of his socio-political environment.
      He is a product of the interaction between his racial predicament,
      his individual will and the broader American cultural freedom
      in which he finds his ambiguous existence."

      Invisible Man is a political novel as well as a celebration
      of black creativity. The narrator searches for a leadership role
      in a country whose expressed democratic ideals are at odds with
      its treatment of black Americans. Like Ellison himself, the narrator
      loses faith in the simplistic solutions offered by black educational
      institutions and their conservative leaders, black nationalists,
      and Marxist ideologues. Nevertheless, Ellison remained optimistic
      about the possibility of change through individual struggle against

      The novel is also Ellison's comment on the writer's responsibility
      to reveal some meaning in the world and to provide some insight
      into the human condition. It was the obligation of the writer,
      according to Ellison, "to give pattern to the chaos" and to encourage
      acceptance of one's own history. In the invisible man's own attempt
      to write, he discovers that "the world is just as concrete, ornery,
      vile and sublimely wonderful as before, only now I better understand
      my relation to it and it to me."

      During 1953, the year following the publication of Invisible
      Man, Ellison became the first black writer to be awarded the
      National Book Award. He was also awarded the National Newspaper
      Publishers' Russwurm Award and the Chicago Defender's Certificate
      of Award that year. From 1955 to 1957 Ellison lectured in Italy
      as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Although
      Ellison never completed his senior year at Tuskegee Institute,
      he taught at Bard College between 1958 and 1961. He served as
      a visiting professor at the University of Chicago in 1961 and
      at Rutgers and Yale between 1962 and 1964. In 1964 Ellison was
      the Gertrude Whittall Lecturer at the Library of Congress. Ellison
      also lectured on African-American folklore, creative writing,
      and literature at Columbia, Fisk, Princeton, Antioch, and Bennington.
      From 1970 to 1980 Ellison was the Albert Schweitzer Professor
      of Humanities at New York University.

      In 1960 excerpts from a second novel began appearing in print,
      beginning with the short fiction "And Hickman Arrives." Between
      1960 and 1977 a total of eight short stories appeared as excerpts
      from a novel in progress. Ellison's second novel received a severe
      setback when over 350 pages of revised manuscript were burned
      in a fire at his home in the Berkshires.

      Ellison published his first collection of essays, Shadow and
      Act, in 1964. A second collection of essays, Going to the Territory,
      was published in 1986. Most of Ellison's essays are concerned
      with the artist's imagination, the craft of writing, and the
      relationship of black culture to American culture. Ellison believed
      that what made American culture unique in the world were the
      contributions of black Americans. He never deviated from his
      firm belief that African-American culture was an integral part
      of American culture and could not be separated from it. The music,
      art, language, and cuisine that were identified as American had
      all been significantly influenced by African-American culture.
      During the late 1960s and early 1970s Ellison was criticized
      for this belief by Afrocentric young black nationalists who believed
      that black culture existed separately from American culture and,
      consequently, felt that Ellison was too much of an integrationist.

      "The World and the Jug" is one of Ellison's best-known essays.
      The essay was his response to an article written by literary
      critic Irving Howe comparing Ellison to Richard Wright. Ellison
      felt that Howe too narrowly constricted black writers when he
      insisted they take the role of militant ideologue and restrict
      themselves to writing angry protest literature. Ellison also
      objected to Howe's view that Wright had been the significant
      influence on Ellison's writing. Although Wright was his friend
      and mentor, Ellison had read broadly and considered Wright's
      vision of reality limited. Ellison did not believe black life
      was characterized by unrelieved suffering, nor did he believe
      that man's actions were controlled by his environment. Ellison
      believed black life was rich and varied and that man was capable
      of exercising influence over his environment as Wright himself
      had. Ellison had examined Wright's vision of American life in
      an earlier essay, Richard Wright's Blues, and Wright was also
      the subject of a later essay, "Remembering Richard Wright," published
      in Going to the Territory.

      Jazz and the jazz musicians that Ellison had loved since childhood
      were frequent topics of his essays. Ellison was fascinated with
      the roots of jazz in the African-American past and also with
      its expression of social conditions in the present. He wrote
      several essays examining the lives and music of particular musicians,
      including Charlie Parker and Mahalia Jackson. He loved the lyricism
      and the rhythm of jazz, as well as its expression of black heritage,
      and he often used it as a metaphor in his writing. Ellison believed
      jazz was the authentic American music.

      Numerous awards have been bestowed upon Ellison for his contribution
      to world literature and culture. They include his appointment
      to the American Institute of Arts and Letters in 1964, the Medal
      of Freedom awarded to him in 1969 by President Lyndon Baines
      Johnson, the Chevalier de L'Ordre des Artes et Lettres in 1970
      awarded by French minister of cultural affairs Andre Malraux,
      and the Langston Hughes Medallion bestowed by City College of
      New York in 1984. He was one of the recipients of the first National
      Medal of Arts in 1985.

      Ellison himself was proud of his contributions as a citizen
      as well as a writer. In the late 1960s he was a member of the
      Carnegie Commission on Educational Television, which established
      public broadcasting, and he also was involved with the creation
      of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.

      Although his long-anticipated second novel remained unpublished
      at his death, his friends and his editor believed he had been
      nearing the book's completion and expected it would one day be
      published in its almost finished form. Invisible Man remained
      in print more than forty years after it was first published,
      continuing to be the subject of scholarly debate and analysis.
      Indicating continuing interest in the work of Ralph Ellison,
      in 1995 The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison was published,
      including nine previously unpublished pieces. Flying Home and
      Other Stories was published in 1996. This collection includes
      six short stories that were discovered in Ellison's papers after
      his death. Both books were edited by John F. Callahan.

      Ralph Ellison died in New York City. He was survived by his
      second wife, Fanny McConnell, whom he married in 1946. There
      is no information about Ellison's brief earlier marriage. Fanny
      and Ralph Ellison had no children.


      The Library of Congress acquired the papers of Ralph Ellison
      in 1996. Unpublished essays and interviews from the Federal Writers'
      Project are available at the Library of Congress, Folklore Achives,
      and at the 135th Street Branch of the New York City Library.
      Recent writings that contain extensive bibliographies of both
      Ellison's own work and the secondary literature include Robert
      O'Meally, The Craft of Ralph Ellison (1980), which contains biographical
      information and analysis of Ellison's work as well as an exhaustive
      list of Ellison's short fiction, essays, and critical reviews.
      O'Meally's bibliography also can be found reprinted in Speaking
      for You, ed. Kimberly W. Bensten (1987). Mark Busby, Ralph Ellison
      (1991), includes biographical information, analysis of Ellison's
      work, and an extensive bibliography of Ellison's work and the
      secondary literature. Edith Schor, Visible Ellison (1993), includes
      a complete list of Ellison's short fiction before 1996 and a
      selected bibliography of Ellison's essays, articles, and published
      interviews, plus an extensive list of secondary sources. Ralph
      Ellison, ed. John Hersey (1974), includes a valuable interview
      of Ellison by Hersey. Also important is the introduction by Ralph
      Ellison to the 1990 Vintage Edition of Invisible Man. Lengthy
      obituaries are in the New York Times, 17 and 20 Apr. 1994.

      Jenifer W. Gilbert

      Jenifer W. Gilbert. "Ellison, Ralph Waldo";
      American National Biography Online Feb. 2000.

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