Study Guide

Ralph Ellison Harlem & Richard Wright

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."

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