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The Important Life and Work of Ralph Ellison

By Adrienne Rivera. Mar 1, 2019. 9:00 AM.

Topics: American History, Book Collecting, Awarded Books

Born on March 1, 1914 in Oklahoma City and named after transcendentalist poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, American novelist and literary critic Ralph Ellison remains an important figure and influence in American literature and scholarship. But in spite of his numerous awards and the influence he has had on African American literature, Ellison almost pursued a different field entirely.

Ellison_JuneteenthEven before embarking on his greatly lauded literary career, Ellison lived a life full of art. He studied coronet at the prestigious Tuskegee University and later moved to New York to focus on photography and sculpture. But in New York City, Ellison met the legendary Langston Hughes, who introduced him to the black literary community in the city and set him on an entirely different path.

Ellison eventually was introduced to Richard Wright, whose works Uncle Tom's Children and Native Son are credited with having a massive impact on race relations at the time. Ellison wrote a book review for Wright and upon his suggestion, took up serious fiction writing as a career.

During World War II he enlisted in the United States Merchant Marines and afterwards dedicated his time to working on his first novel with the financial support of his wife. His first novel, Invisible Man, was published by Random House in 1952. Ellison's work explores crucial themes such as race, black nationalism, and activism. He died of pancreatic cancer in 1994. Today on his birthday, let's take a look at some of Ellison's works.

Invisible Man

invisible manEllison's first novel, Invisible Man, was published by Random House in 1952. He worked for many years on the novel thanks to the financial and emotional support of his wife and the supplemental income brought in by his book reviews.

Invisible Man received immediate critical acclaim. Focusing on themes of race, invisibility, and Marxism, Ellison listed T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland and Ernest Hemingway as influences. Interestingly enough, Hemingway's own The Old Man and the Sea was one of the novels Invisible Man beat out for the National Book Award for Fiction in 1953. Others include William Carlos Williams' The Build-Up and John Steinbeck's East of Eden.

Invisible Man also went on to win the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Special Achievement in 1992. Time Magazine named it one of the 100 Most Influential Novels Written Between 1923-2005. Modern Library ranked it 19th on its list of the 100 best novels written in the English language in the 20th century. The book continues to be an influence today, even serving as a model for President Barack Obama's memoir, Dreams From My Father.

Shadow and Act

If Invisible Man proved Ellison was a force in the literary community, 1964's Shadow and Act proved that his skills lied not just in fiction, but in essays as well. The essays collected in this seminal collection were compiled from over two decades of Ellison's writing on race and identity and worked at dismantling some of the harmful stereotypes that were commonly perpetuated about the black community in America.

The collection was very well received by critics. R.W.B. Lewis, renowned biographer, literary critic, and founder of the discipline now known as American Studies heralded it as a triumph. Modern Library named the book 91st on its list of the 100 best nonfiction books of the 20th century.

Juneteenth and Three Days Before the Shooting...

ralph ellisonSuch was Ellison's perfectionism that he never published a second novel in his lifetime. Instead, he worked on a sprawling series of writings that he intended to transform into a novel had he not succumbed first to pancreatic cancer. This 2,000 page work was later collected, edited, and published posthumously.

Juneteeth, a 400 page novel edited together from Ellison's unorganized body of fiction, was put together by his friend John F. Callahan in a way that he thought Ellison would have liked to see his work. It was released in 1999 by Ellison's longtime publisher, Random House.

In 2010, Callahan collaborated with literary critic Adam Bradley to edit a more complete version of Ellison's 2000 pages. What they came up with is Three Days Before the Shooting... which finishes at over 1000 pages. It represents a larger portion of the work Ellison had put together in hopes of piecing together his novel.

Both novels provide an interesting look at Ellison's prose and the story he worked so hard to tell, while also presenting two different takes on the nature of fiction and the role of the editors in the creation of these finished products.

 

Adrienne Rivera
Adrienne Rivera received her MFA in fiction from Southern Illinois University Carbondale. She currently lives in southern Indiana.

 

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