Study Guide

Ralph Ellison

Ralph Ellison Introduction

On 1 March 1913, an African-American couple in Oklahoma City had their first baby boy. The father, a great lover of literature, named his son Ralph Waldo Ellison and believed that his boy would also grow up to be a poet.

Ralph Ellison did turn out to be a man of letters and, like his namesake, sought out universal truths through his art. In 1952, Ellison published Invisible Man, the story of a nameless African-American man navigating America during the mid-twentieth century. Influenced by an artistic heritage that ranged from jazz to Ernest Hemingway, Ellison sought to transcend the racial categories that so starkly divided America in the 1950s. However, as the Civil Rights Movement progressed, Ellison often found himself the target of black critics who accused him of choosing acceptance by white society over his African-American identity. Ralph Ellison rejected the idea that he should stand for any particular ideology. He was an artist, first and foremost.

When he died in 1994, Ellison left behind a literary legacy of critical essays, short stories, 2,000 pages of an unfinished novel, and, of course, Invisible Man. In writing the story of a man who felt invisible, Ralph Ellison helped us see ourselves.

Ralph Ellison Trivia

Ralph Waldo Ellison was named after the Transcendentalist poet Ralph Waldo Emerson. Ellison's father Lewis Alfred Ellison, who died in an accident when Ralph was a toddler, told people that his son would grow up to be a poet.

Ellison traveled by boxcar to attend the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.

Ellison and his second wife, Fanny McConnell, were introduced to one another by poet Langston Hughes.

When Ellison won the National Book Award in 1953, he beat out one of his literary idols—Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea was also up for the award that year.

In 1965, literary critic F.W. Dupree called Invisible Man a "veritable Moby Dick of the racial crisis."

Ralph Ellison worked dozens of odd jobs during his early years in order to finance his writing career. In the 1920s, he and his brother hunted game and sold their kill in order to pull through the Great Depression. In the seven years he spent writing Invisible Man, Ellison also shot freelance photographs, built audio amplifiers, and installed sound systems.

Ralph Ellison Resources

Books

Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1952)
Ellison's classic novel about an unnamed African-American man and his journey through America is considered one of the defining novels of the twentieth century. By giving a voice to the black experience, Ellison helped us see a truth about all of humanity. It is the only novel Ellison completed during his lifetime, but was enough to define Ellison as one of the most important writers of his generation.

Ralph Ellison, Shadow and Act (1964)
"Even if Ralph Ellison were not the author of Invisible Man, his recent collection of essays, Shadow and Act, would be a very significant work,"_CITATION29_ wrote Robert Penn Warren in a 1965 review of Ellison's second book. The essays shed light on Ellison's personal development as an artist and his search for identity.

Ralph Ellison, Going to the Territory (1986)
In his second essay collection, Ellison drew from roughly 30 years of material to produce a book that covered everything from art and culture to history and religion. It contains thought-provoking essays like "What America Would Be Like Without Blacks," as well as pieces that honor Richard Wright and Duke Ellington.

Ralph Ellison, Juneteenth (1999)
Ellison spent the last forty years of his life working on his second essay. He died without finishing it, leaving behind roughly 2,000 pages of material and rough drafts. A few years after his death, his literary executor edited those pages down to about 360, and released that version of the novel. Some people think it's a hack job, while others see a glimpse of the extraordinarily ambitious literary goal Ellison set for himself. Read it and decide for yourself.

Arnold Rampersad, Ralph Ellison: A Biography (2007)
This is a comprehensive biography of Ellison, written by Stanford professor Arnold Rampersad. Rampersad writes with unsparing candor about his subject, illuminating both his intellectual achievements and his human flaws. It is by far the best guide to the person behind Invisible Man.

Jerry Gafio Watts, Heroism and the Black Intellectual (1994)
How do African-American intellectuals define themselves in a society that is so often hostile to their creative and professional development? This interesting book explores the case of black intellectuals, using Ellison as the prime example. Watts argues that, by finding his own space to express himself, Ellison opened the door for other black thinkers and creators.

Arnold Rampersad, The Life of Langston Hughes: Vols. I & II (1986, 1988)
Professor Rampersad undertook this sprawling two-part biography of Langston Hughes prior to writing Ellison's, and the two studies complement one another. Hughes was an invaluable mentor to Ellison, introducing him both to Richard Wright and to his second wife Fanny McConnell. Reading about Hughes and the Harlem Renaissance sets the stage for Ellison's generation of African-American artists and intellectuals.

Music

Ralph Ellison: Living With Music
As a trumpet player and lifelong jazz aficionado, Ralph Ellison saw music as an integral part of his life and wrote about it frequently. When Modern Library published an anthology of his music writing, the publisher also arranged for this companion disc that features the artists he wrote about. It includes stars like Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, as well as a recording of a lecture that Ellison gave at the Library of Congress.

Louis Armstrong
Ellison once wrote that Armstrong and his fellow jazz greats were "the stewards of our vaunted American optimism."_CITATION30_ Some of Armstrong's songs have practically become national anthems—who doesn't tear up a little at "What a Wonderful World"?—but Armstrong's contribution to jazz and American culture goes far beyond a few catchy tunes.

Louis Armstrong, "Black and Blue"
It has been said that Invisible Man is structured more like a jazz composition than a novel. Armstrong's classic "Black and Blue" figures prominently in the book, with the song lulling the narrator into a nearly-hallucinatory state.

Duke Ellington
"For more than 40 years Duke Ellington's music has been not only superb entertainment but an important function of national morale,"_CITATION31_ Ellison wrote in the essay "Homage to Duke Ellington on His Birthday," penned in honor of the trumpet master's 70th birthday. Start with the song "East St. Louis Toodle-Oo," one of Ellison's favorites, and work your way through the rest of this great artist's catalogue.

Jimmy Rushing
In a 1958 essay, Ellison wrote that "Jimmy Rushing was not simply a local entertainer; he expressed a value, an attitude about the world for which our lives afforded no other definition."_CITATION32_ To Ellison, jazz artist Rushing expressed a bold optimism and dignity at a time when the rest of white society pushed black Americans to the side.

Bessie Smith
"Bessie Smith might have been a 'blues queen' to society at large," Ellison wrote of this singer, but in the black community "she was a priestess, a celebrant who affirmed the values of the group and man's ability to deal with chaos."_CITATION33_ Listen to Smith's singular voice for yourself.

Images

Ralph Ellison, Take 1
The younger writer at work.

Ralph Ellison, Take 2
The writer in his study.

Ralph Ellison, Take 3
A portrait of the writer later in life.

Ralph Ellison Memorial
A sculpture in Manhattan that honors the writer.

After Invisible Man
A photograph by artist Jeff Wall, inspired by the title character of Ellison's novel.

Invisible Man
First-edition dust jacket.

Movies & TV

Ralph Ellison: An American Journey (2002)
Ralph Ellison never allowed his masterpiece Invisible Man to be made into a film. The makers of this excellent documentary about Ellison's life are the first to film scenes from the book, which are interspersed with interviews about the writer. Ellison's widow approved the filming of the Invisible Man scenes only after the estate was granted permission to review the script.

King of the Bingo Game (1999)
This movie focuses on Sonny, an impoverished black man who turns to bingo games in an attempt to support his struggling family during the Depression. The movie is based on a short story that Ellison published just before he started writing Invisible Man.

Native Son (1951)
This adaptation of Richard Wright's novel was beset with problems, one of which was Wright's decision to play the role of Bigger himself. Having an overweight, 40-something-year-old man attempt to portray a 19-year-old did not help the movie's quality. It flopped upon release in the U.S. After seeing the film industry's treatment of his former mentor's opus, Ellison refused to allow a film adaptation of Invisible Man during his lifetime.

The Fifties (1997)
We remember the 1950s as an era of poodle skirts, men in suits, and Donna Reed. It was also the decade of Invisible Man, Rosa Parks, and the awakening of a new American consciousness. This TV documentary, based on the book by legendary historian David Halberstam, takes an honest look at American art, culture, and politics during the 1950s. Segment Six of the series looks at the impact of Ellison's Invisible Man.

Jazz (2001)
Jazz was a major influence on Ellison's life and work. Documentary master Ken Burns looks at the role in American life and culture played by jazz music, a medium that has been called the most democratic of all music. Burns also discusses the use of jazz in Invisible Man.

Richard Wright: Black Boy (1995)
Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright had a complicated friendship, encouraging each other's work despite serious ideological differences. Ellison appears in this documentary about Wright's life.

Websites

Ralph Ellison Webliography
This amazingly comprehensive site lists virtually everything ever written by or about Ralph Ellison. It also contains biographical information about the author, plus a chronology of his life, and links to other web resources.

African American Literature Book Club
This site is a clearinghouse of information about African-American writers. Ellison's page has his biography, reviews of his work, and links to purchasing information for his books. From here you can navigate to other writers associated with Ellison, such as Langston Hughes and Richard Wright.

Ralph Ellison Project at Jerry Jazz Musician
This unique site features the texts of interviews with people connected to Ellison, such as his biographer Arthur Rampersad and his best friend Albert Murray. It's a great place to find insights on the writer as an individual.

PBS—American Masters
This website accompanies the PBS documentary "Ralph Ellison: An American Journey." It features an interactive timeline of the writer's life, extra footage from the film, and interviews with the filmmakers. This is a great place to for an overview of Ellison's life.

Literature and Life
A great PBS web resource that charts the evolution of African-American literature. The site features e-texts, audio and video clips, and a narrative that walks you through the decades.

Jazz Age Culture—Pittsburg State University
Learn more about the Harlem Renaissance, the flourishing of African-American literature, art, and culture that paved the way for writers like Ralph Ellison. Ellison's mentor Langston Hughes was one of its key members.

Video & Audio

Ellison on Ellison
An audio clip of Ralph Ellison talking about Invisible Man.

Invisible Man
A reading from Invisible Man.

"Invisible Man—Battle Royal"
A scene from the novel as depicted in the PBS documentary Ralph Ellison: An American Journey.

"Invisible Man—The Brotherhood"
Another scene from the novel, as depicted in the PBS documentary.

Authors@Google: Arthur Rampersad
The pre-eminent Ellison biographer speaks about his subject. Settle in for this one—it's nearly an hour long.

Invisible Man and the American Lexicon
This short video discusses the impact of Ellison's Invisible Man on the American lexicon. Note: The documentary uses the "N-word," in the context of its use in Invisible Man.

King of the Bingo Game
A trailer for a movie based on a story by Ellison.

Primary Sources

Juneteenth
Chapter 1 of Ellison's second novel.

Acceptance Speech
Ellison's acceptance speech at the National Book Awards in 1953.

New York Times Interview
An interview with Ralph Ellison in 1977.

Obituary
Ralph Ellison's 17 April 1994 obituary in The New York Times.

Obituary
Ralph Ellison's 25 April 1994 obituary in Time magazine.

Paris Review Interview
An interview with Ralph Ellison.

Bellow on Ellison
Saul Bellow's 1952 review of Invisible Man.

Ellison on Jazz
An excerpt from Ellison's essay "Homage to Duke Ellington on His Birthday."