RALPH ELLISON Biography - Writers


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Ralph Waldo Ellison was born in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma on March 1, 1914. His               
father, Lewis Ellison, was an adventurous and accomplished man who had served in             
the military overseas and had lived in Abbeville, South Carolina and Chattanooga,           
Tennessee before moving to Oklahoma a short time after the former Indian                     
territory achieved statehood. In Oklahoma City Lewis Ellison worked in                       
construction and started his own ice and coal business. Ellison's mother, Ida               
Millsap Ellison, who was known as "Brownie," was a political activist who                   
campaigned for the Socialist Party and against the segregationist policies of               
Oklahoma's governor "Alfalfa Bill" Murray. After her husband's death, Ida                   
Ellison supported Ralph and his younger brother Herbert by working at a variety             
of jobs. Although the family was sometimes short of money, Ellison and his                   
younger brother did not have deprived childhoods.                                           
Ellison benefited from the advantages of the Oklahoma public schools but took               
odd jobs to pay for supplemental education. His particular interest was music,               
and in return for yard work, Ellison received lessons from Ludwig Hebestreit,               
the conductor of the Oklahoma City Orchestra. At nineteen, with the dream of                 
becoming a composer, he accepted a state scholarship and used it to attend                   
Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.                                                               
Unlike the protagonist of Invisible Man, Ellison was not expelled from Tuskegee,             
but like the character he later created, Ellison did not graduate. Instead, he               
travelled to New York City in 1936 to find work during the summer between his               
junior and senior years, intending to return to Tuskegee in the fall. Soon after             
his arrival in New York, however, Ellison happened to meet Alain Locke and                   
Langston Hughes, major literary figures of the Harlem Renaissance. Through his               
acquaintance with Hughes, Ellison was introduced to Richard Wright, who                     
encouraged Ellison to write and published his first review in New Challenge, a               
journal that Wright edited.                                                                 
Ellison supported himself with a variety of jobs during his first years in                   
Harlem. In 1938, he joined the Federal Writer's Project where he and others                 
employed by the Living Lore Unit gathered urban folklore materials. This                     
experience introduced Ellison to the richness of black urban culture and                     
provided him with a wealth of folklore materials that he used effectively in                 
Invisible Man. In the early 1940's Ellison published several short stories.                 
During World War II, Ellison served as a cook on a merchant marine ship. At the             
war's end, he travelled to New Hampshire to rest, and there he began work on                 
Invisible Man. With the financial assistance of a Rosenwald Foundation Grant,               
Ellison worked on the novel for several years, publishing it in 1952.                       
Invisible-Man was controversial, attacked by militants as reactionary and banned             
from schools because of its explicit descriptions of black life. Literary                   
critics, however, generally agreed on the book's significance. In 1965, a poll               
of literary critics named it the outstanding book written by an American in the             
previous twenty years, placing it ahead of works by Faulkner, Hemingway, and                 
Bellow. Ellison received many awards for his work, including the National Book               
Award (1953), the Russwurm Award (1953), the Academy of Arts and Letters                     
Fellowship to Rome (1955-1957), the Medal of Freedom (1969), and the Chevalier               
de l'Ordre des Artes et Lettres (1970).                                                     
In 1958 Ellison accepted a teaching position at Bard College. In subsequent                 
years he taught at Rutgers University, the University of Chicago, and New York               
University from which he retired in 1979. He has accepted numerous honorary                 
doctorates and published two collections of essays. The essays in Shadow and Act             
(1964) focus on three topics: African-American literature and folklore; African-American     
music; and the interrelation of African-American culture and the broader culture             
of the United States. Going to the Territory (1986) collected sixteen reviews,               
essays, and speeches that Ellison had published previously.                                 
Since the 1960's Ellison has worked on a second novel that he reputedly plans to             
publish as a trilogy. His work on the novel was disrupted when about 350 pages               
of its 1,000 page manuscript were destroyed in a house fire in 1967. Several                 
selections from the book have been published in journals.                                   
The central theme of Ralph Ellison's writing is the search for identity, a                   
search that he sees as central to American literature and the American                       
experience. He has said that "the nature of our society is such that we are                 
prevented from knowing who we are," and in Invisible Man this struggle toward               
self-definition is applied to individuals, groups, and the society as a whole.               
The particular genius of Invisible Man is Ellison's ability to interweave these             
individual, communal, and national quests into a single, complex vision.                     
On the level of the individual, Invisible Man is, in Ellison's words, a clash of             
"innocence and human error, a struggle through illusion to reality." In this                 
sense, the book is part of the literary tradition of initiation tales, stories               
of young men or women who confront the larger world beyond the security of home             
and attempt to define themselves in these new terms. Through the misadventures               
of his naive protagonist, Ellison stresses the individual's need to free himself             
from the powerful influence of societal stereotypes and demonstrates the                     
multiple levels of deception that must be overcome before an individual can                 
achieve self-awareness. Ellison describes the major flaw of his protagonist as               
an unquestioning willingness to do what is required of him by others as a way to             
success." Although Ellison's hero is repeatedly manipulated, betrayed, and                   
deceived, Ellison shows that an individual is not trapped by geography, time, or             
place. He optimistically asserts that human beings can overcome these obstacles             
to independence, if they are willing to accept the responsibility to judge                   
existence independently.                                                                     
Invisible Man is also concerned with the communal effort of African-Americans to             
define their cultural identity. The novel surveys the history of African-American           
experience and alludes directly or indirectly to historical figures who serve as             
contradictory models for Ellison's protagonist. Some of the novel's effect is               
surely lost for readers who do not recognize the parallels drawn between Booker             
T. Washington and the Founder, between Marcus Garvey and Ras the Destroyer, or               
between Frederick Douglass and the narrator's grandfather. W. E. B. DuBois'                 
description of the doubleness of the African-American experience fits the                   
Invisible Man's narrator, and DuBois' assertion that the central fact of an                 
African-American's experience is the "longing to attain self-conscious manhood,             
to merge his double self into a better and truer self" stands as a summary of               
the novel's overriding action.                                                               
However, Ellison does not restrict himself to the concerns of African-Americans             
because he believes that African-American culture is an inextricable part of                 
American culture. Thus, Invisible Man shows how the struggles of the narrator as             
an individual and as a representative of an ethnic minority are paralleled by               
the struggle of the nation to define and redefine itself. Ellison's frequently               
expressed opinion that African-American culture's assimilation by the dominant               
culture of the United States is inevitable and salutary has led some African-American       
critics to attack him as reactionary. The suspicion that he has "sold out" has               
also been fed by his broad popularity among white readers and his acceptance of             
teaching positions at predominantly white universities.                                     
The breadth and diversity of Invisible Man make it possible to fit Ellison's                 
novel into several American literary traditions. As part of the vernacular                   
tradition, exemplified by Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway, Ellison skillfully               
reproduces the various speech patterns and rich folklore of rural and urban                 
African-Americans. As part of the symbolist tradition, exemplified by Herman                 
Melville and T. S. Eliot, Ellison builds his novel around a full set of                     
provocative and multifaceted symbols. As part of the tradition of African-American           
literature, Ellison echoes the theme of DuBois' The Souls of Black Folk (1903),             
reproduces the northward flight to freedom in Frederick Douglass' Narrative (1845),         
explores the ambiguity of identity as James Weldon Johnson did in The                       
Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man (1912), and appropriates the striking                   
underground metaphor of Richard Wright's "The Man Who Lived Underground" (1944)             
In Invisible Man, Ellison employs a "jazz" style in which an improvisation of               
rhetorical forms is played against his central theme. Letters, speeches, sermons,           
songs, nursery rhymes, and dreams are used throughout the novel, and the novel's             
style adjusts to match the changing consciousness and circumstances of the                   
protagonist. In the early chapters Ellison employs a direct, didactic style                 
similar to that of the social realist protest novels of the 1930's and 1940's.               
In the middle portions of the novel, after the narrator moves to New York City,             
Ellison's prose becomes more expressionistic, reflecting the narrator's                     
introspection. In the last section of the novel, as the narrator moves toward               
the apocalyptic race riot in Harlem with which the novel concludes, the prose               
becomes surreal, emphasizing the darkly comic absurdities of American existence.             
In all sections the book in enriched by Ellison's versatile use of symbols that             
focus attention on his major themes while underscoring the ambiguous nature of               
Structurally, Invisible Man is episodic and cyclic, presenting the reader with               
versions of a basic pattern of disillusionment enacted in increasingly complex               
social environments. In each cycle the narrator eagerly accepts an identity                 
provided by a deceitful mentor and eventually experiences a revelation that                 
shatters the illusory identity he has adopted. This repeated narrative pattern               
demonstrates the pervasiveness of racism and self-interest and convinces the                 
narrator that he must find his individual answers and stop looking to others.               
Although Invisible Man addresses some of the most serious concerns of American               
society, it is also a comic novel in which Ellison relies on both the                       
traditional picaresque humor of initiation and the rough-edged and often                     
disguised humor of urban African-Americans. Its dark comedy, sophisticated play             
of rhetorical forms, complex use of symbolism, and original examination of                   
difficult social issues distinguish the book as a masterpiece of modern fiction.             
Invisible Man                                                                               
First Published: 1952                                                                       
Type of Work: Novel                                                                         
An ambitious but naive black youth journeys through American society in search               
of his identity.                                                                             
Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man is framed by a Prologue and an Epilogue that are               
set at a time after the completion of the novel's central action. The novel's               
picaresque story of a young black man's misadventures is presented as a memoir               
written by an older, more experienced embodiment of the narrator. The narrator               
of the Prologue and Epilogue has withdrawn into a state he calls "hibernation"               
after surviving the multiple deceptions and betrayals that he recounts in his               
memoir. As the narrator says, "the end is the beginning and lies far ahead."                 
The Prologue foreshadows the novel's action, preparing the reader for the                   
narrator's final condition; focusing the reader's attention on the major themes             
of truth, responsibility, and freedom; and introducing the reader to the double             
consciousness that operates in the book. Throughout the novel the naive                     
assumptions of the youthful narrator are counterbalanced by the cynical                     
judgments of his more mature self, creating an ironic double perspective.                   
The broken narrator to whom the reader is introduced in the Prologue is hiding               
in an underground room, stealing power from the Monopolated Power Company to                 
light the thousands of bulbs he has strung up. An angry and damaged man, he                 
explains his frustration at his "invisibility," a quality that prevents others               
from seeing anything but "surroundings, themselves, or figments of their                     
imagination." The narrator experiences a desperate need to "convince [himself]               
that [he] exists in the real world." As he listens to Louis Armstrong's                     
recording of "What Did I Do to Be so Black and Blue?", he dreams and then                   
recounts his experiences.                                                                   
The first episode of the narrator's memoir, which goes back to his graduation               
from a black high school in the South, is a representative anecdote, a story                 
that sets the pattern and themes of the narrator's subsequent misadventures.                 
Throughout Invisible Man, the narrator builds illusory expectations based on the             
deceitful promises of people who set themselves up as his mentors. In each cycle             
the narrator is eventually disillusioned by a dramatic revelation of deceit and             
sent spiralling toward his final confrontation with himself.                                 
In the initial episode, the narrator is invited to repeat his valedictory speech             
before the white leaders of the town. These men, however, humiliate the                     
protagonist and some other black youths by forcing them to engage in a "battle               
royal," a blindfolded fist fight in which the last standing participant is                   
victorious; tempting the black youths to fight for counterfeit coins tossed on               
an electrified rug; and rudely disregarding the protagonist's remarks when he is             
finally allowed to speak. The episode demonstrates how racist leaders control               
African-Americans by encouraging them to direct their anger at one another and               
by rewarding acceptably submissive behavior such as the protagonist's speech                 
about "social responsibility." Although the episode clearly reveals the corrupt             
and even bestial nature of these men, the protagonist is blinded by his                     
eagerness to succeed and gratefully accepts the briefcase he is given after his             
The episode develops the ocular symbols of blindness/sight, darkness/light that             
are used in the novel to describe the protagonists invisibility and his                     
quest for truth. It also introduces the briefcase, a symbol of the narrator's               
naive effort to accept prescribed identities. The briefcase stays with the                   
narrator until the end of the novel, accumulating objects and documents that                 
represent the various false identities he assumes. These two symbols are united             
at the end of the novel when the narrator burns the contents of his briefcase in             
order to see in his underground hideout.                                                     
At the black college which the protagonist attends, he is introduced to the                 
misuse of black power. The President of the school, Dr. Bledsoe, a ruthless man             
whose name implies his deracinated disregard for other                                       
African-Americans, , is blindly idolized by the narrator for whom the college is             
a paradise of reason and culture. He says that "within the quiet greenness I                 
possessed the only identity I had ever known." But when he mishandles a visiting             
white trustee named Norton by allowing him to hear Jim Trueblood's shocking tale             
of incest and taking him to a brothel where they are beset by a group of World               
War I veterans, Dr. Bledsoe banishes the protagonist from the collegiate Eden.               
It is only later, after fruitless efforts to find employment in New York City,               
that the narrator discovers that Bledsoe's letters of reference have betrayed               
The revelation of Dr. Bledsoe's perfidy destroys the narrator's dream of                     
returning to the college, so he accepts a job with Liberty Paints, determined to             
make his own way. The factory, which is a microcosm of capitalist America,                   
produces Optic White, "the purest white that can be found," a paint that will "cover         
just about anything," for the government, but the secret ingredient is a small               
amount of black base that is produced in a boiler room by an aging African-American         
named Lucius Broakaway. The protagonist is assigned to Brockaway, but the                   
veteran employee's paranoid suspicion that the protagonist is a spy sent to                 
discover his secrets and the protagonist's resentment at being assigned to an               
African-American supervisor result in a fight. As the two fight, pressure builds             
until the boilers explode.                                                                   
The protagonist awakes to find himself in the factory infirmary where various               
masked doctors are discussing ways in which to make him pliable. Half-conscious,             
the narrator is dimly aware of the doctors' efforts at scientific behavior                   
modification, but their bizarre treatment only succeeds at stripping away layers             
of superficial personality and revealing a changed man who looks at the world               
with "wild infants' eyes."                                                                   
In this reborn state the narrator is adopted by Mary Rambo, the maternal owner               
of a boarding house in Harlem. Mary's nurturing restores the protagonist and                 
awakens a new sensitivity to injustice. When he comes across an elderly couple               
being evicted from their apartment, he speaks up in their behalf, stirring the               
crowd of neighbors to action and preventing the eviction. The protagonist's                 
unpremeditated but effective oratory is noticed by Jack, an organizer for the               
Brotherhood, an organization that closely resembles the Communist Party. Jack               
recruits the protagonist and tells him that he will become the party's new                   
spokesperson in Harlem.                                                                     
The Brotherhood supplies the protagonist with a name and establishes him in                 
their Harlem office. As director of the party's Harlem branch, the protagonist               
works with Todd Ciifton, an idealistic young party member, who is eventually                 
killed for resisting arrest, and Tarp, a grizzled escapee from @ southern chain             
gang. He competes with Ras the Destroyer, a African-American nationalist who is             
reminiscent of Marcus Garvey.                                                               
Eventually the protagonist realizes that he is being used by Jack and that the               
Brotherhood is willing to sacrifice the progress made in Harlem for the larger               
ends of the party. In a climactic showdown, Jack shocks the protagonist by                   
plucking out his glass eye, demonstrating the necessity for personal sacrifice               
and his own blindness.                                                                       
Realizing that his dream of real progress through the Brotherhood is futile, the             
narrator moves toward chaos, suddenly finding that he is mistaken for the                   
Protean character Rinehart, a mysterious con man who is at once a minister and a             
pimp, a man whose name suggests the ambiguous relation of inner and outer                   
realities. The protagonist considers adopting the cynicism of Rinehart, a                   
decision that would end the search for a true identity, but he soon realizes                 
that he cannot abandon his conscience or his quest.                                         
As the book nears its conclusion, the protagonist runs through a race riot that             
the Brotherhood has encouraged, seeing men burn their own homes. He finds                   
sanctuary in an underground hole where he is forced to burn the symbolic                     
contents of his briefcase in order to see. He thus destroys the various                     
identities that have been handed to him by others, in order to prepare himself               
for the "hibernation" during which he hopes to discover himself.                             
Invisible Man's Epilogue completes the frame begun in the novel's Prologue,                 
returning the reader to narrator who is hibernating underground. The narrator               
says that although the world outside his underground haven is as deceitful and               
dangerous as ever, the process of retelling his story has made him "better                   
understand my relation to it and it to me." He has come to accept the                       
responsibility of determining his own identity and rejects demagogic reactions               
to injustice. He advises his reader that "too much of your life will be lost,               
its meaning lost unless you approach it as much through love as through hate."               
He now sees his own life as "one of infinite possibilities." Thus, at the novel's           
conclusion the narrator is preparing to reenter the world, to make a fresh start.           
As Ellison has said, his narrator ficomes up from the underground because the               
act of writing and thinking necessitated it." The novels concluding question, "Who           
knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?", underscores                     
applicability of the narrator's experience and revelation to individuals,                   
African-Americans, and the nation as a whole.