Ralph Ellison: Harlem & Richard Wright
New York City in 1936 was a pretty amazing place for a young black artist to be. The city—particularly the predominantly black neighborhood of Harlem—was the epicenter of a huge movement in black culture, art, and politics known as the Harlem Renaissance. The movement, which ran from about 1920 until the mid-1930s, was a flowering period when black artists and intellectuals celebrated and sought ways to express identities distinct from white culture. Groups like the National Urban League and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People lobbied against lynchings and racial discrimination. Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald brought the house down at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. Newspapers and magazines that were written by and for black Americans proliferated. Many had a leftist or pro-Communist orientation, since the left was far more accepting of black people than mainstream American politics had ever been. Among the new magazines was a literary journal called Fire!! Its roster of young African-American contributors included Zora Neale Hurston and a gifted young poet named Langston Hughes.
Before Ellison could immerse himself in this scene, tragedy struck. His mother Ida died in 1937, and Ellison moved with his brother Herbert to Dayton, Ohio, where the brothers could support themselves by hunting quail and selling their catch. They hunted during the day and at night, back in their flat, Ellison immersed himself in the work of the writers he admired: Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Fyodor Dostoyevsky. He carefully studied Hemingway's prose and sentence structure (he even said that Hemingway's descriptions improved his shot while he and his brother were working as hunters). He also read T.S. Eliot's epic poem "The Waste Land," which was a transformative experience. Ellison found in Eliot's cadence a rhythm akin to his beloved jazz music—a spontaneous, original sound that he later wrote was "perhaps as close as Americans can come to expressing the spirit of tragedy."7
The following year, Ellison returned to New York City. Ellison met Langston Hughes on his first trip to the city and, when he returned, Hughes introduced Ellison to his friend Richard Wright. Wright (later famous for his novels Black Boy and Native Son) was then a young African-American writer who contributed to Communist-leaning publications. He encouraged Ellison to write and, by 1937, Ellison had published his first book review and short story. He threw himself into the writing life, churning out dozens of book reviews, essays, and short stories for publications like the Marxist New Masses. Though he and Wright remained friends, by 1940 Ellison quit showing his written work to his former mentor. "I understood that our sensibilities were quite different," Ellison later said of his ideological split with his friend, "and, what I was hoping to achieve in fiction was something quite different from what he wanted to achieve."8
In 1938, Wright helped Ellison find a job with the Federal Writers' Project, a New Deal-era initiative that set unemployed writers to work producing guidebooks, histories, and children's books. Ellison was assigned to write ethnographic studies of African-Americans in Harlem. He took careful note of the way his interview subjects spoke, and later said that the fieldwork helped him realistically create the cadence of black speech in Invisible Man.9 Also during this year, Ellison married an actress and dancer named Rose Poindexter. The marriage lasted until 1945.
Ellison left the Federal Writers' Project in 1942 to take over as editor of a short-lived publication called Negro Quarterly. When it folded a year later, and World War II was still going strong, Ellison joined the Merchant Marine. He wanted to contribute to the war effort but had no desire to serve, he said, in a "Jim Crow" army. He spent two years aboard a ship as a cook. Then, in 1945, Ellison became ill from contaminated water on his ship and was awarded sick leave. Ellison decided to use the time to write a novel. He had been planning one for a while, imagining a war-themed plot centered on his own experiences at sea. But when it came time to sit down and write, the words that actually came out were quite different. As he told an interviewer years later:
"I had come back on sick leave from my service in the Merchant Marine and, after a hospital stay, in the summer of 1945, my wife and I went to a friend's farm in Waitsfield, Vt. Sitting in a lumberman's cabin, looking at the hills, I wrote the first line of the book: 'I am an Invisible Man.'"10