Ralph Ellison’s Development Into the Most Intense and Experimental African American Writer


Ralph Ellison’s Development Into the Most Intense and Experimental African American Writer

Ralph Waldo Ellison, achieved international fame with his first novel, Invisible Man upon which his literary reputation rests almost completely .

Soon becoming a classic of American literature, now regarded as among the most distinguished works of American fiction since World War II. the novel narrated by a nameless young black man, reflects bitterly on American race relations drawing upon the author’s experiences to detail the harrowing progress of the nameless young black man struggling to live in a hostile society. thus bringing its author immediate eminence

Ralph Waldo Ellison was born in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, on March 1, 1914. His father, Lewis Alfred Ellison, originally from Abbeyville, South Carolina, was a soldier who had served in Cuba, the Philippine Islands, and China before marrying Ida Millsap of White Oak, Georgia, and migrating to Oklahoma, where he became a construction worker and later a small-scale entrepreneur.

An upwardly mobile couple, Lewis and Ida moved to Oklahoma because it was still considered the American frontier, which they felt would provide better opportunities than the South for their self-realization. Still, Oklahoma was not free of prejudice and racism. Ellison’s childhood was thus to some extent, circumscribed, but not overly repressive.

Many years later, Ellison would find out that his father in harbouring the hope that he would grow up to be a poet like him, had named him after the great American essayist and poet, Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Unfortunately his father died when Ellison was 3, and was not alive to see his son realise his wish. But Ellison’s mother now stretched a meager income as a domestic worker, a custodian, and sometimes a cook to support her two sons, Ralph and Herbert.

Though Ralph Ellison’s great-grandparents were slaves, he insists that they were strong Black people who, during Reconstruction, held their own against southern whites.

Inspite of segregation practiced here, Ellison grew up without the oppressive conditions confronted by African Americans in the Deep South. So, he “felt no innate sense of inferiority” regarding his life goals and creative ambitions as he recalled years later. In Oklahoma City he was exposed to various elements within the black and white cultural worlds. Ellison’s mother while working as a domestic, brought home popular magazines and recordings of opera that had been discarded by her employers which were to open up a new world of culture to him.

And in the public school system, Ellison learned the foundations of musical harmony and symphonic forms as well as the songs, stories, and dances of European folk culture.

A great admirer of Oklahoma City’s legendary jazz orchestra, the Blue Devils, led by bassist Walter Page, Ellison befriended many of its members, including vocalist Jimmy Rushing, who would later become the singing great of Count Basie’s Band and eventually such a particularly strong influence on Ellison that years later he would include the essay “Remembering Jimmy” in his book of criticism Shadow And Act. No wonder then music became a constant theme both in his personal life and in his writing.

Ellison also attended Douglas School with legendary guitarist Charlie Christian, who astounded him with “sophisticated chords and progressions” played on a self-made instrument from a cigar box

Early in life Ellison becoming enamored of music. He was studying trumpet and piano as he lived at a time when several great jazz musicians were in Oklahoma City thus becoming immersed in that genre of music as well as the classical composition which he studied in school.

Growing up in the Southwest did not destroy Ellison’s self-image or his will to dream. So desiring to break free of the restrictions of race, his broad cultural experience inspired him to join several schoolmates in proclaiming themselves Renaissance Men, individuals dedicated to transcending racial barriers through the study of art and thought. This concept seems to have acted as a grounding force throughout his life. His activities in high school, his various interests in college-music, literature, sculpture, theater-and his vocation and various avocations as an adult indicate that the concept helped him realize his full potential.

To fulfill this commitment, Ellison aspired to become a composer of symphonic music. In high school, therefore, he took trumpet lessons from Dr. Ludwig Hebestreit, the founder and conductor of the Oklahoma Symphony Orchestra whose instruction contributed to Ellison’s understanding of the complex structure of high artistic forms.

Though music emerged as his primary means of expression, Ellison also enjoyed reading literature. In grade school, one of his teachers, Mrs. L. C. McFarland, introduced him to the writers of the Harlem Renaissance, which included Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Claude McKay, and James Weldon Johnson. At home, Ellison read fairy tales, westerns, detective stories, and Harvard Classics. Outside on the streets and in the barber shops of Oklahoma City, African Americans introduced him to the rural folk tales and legends of black cowboys, outlaws, and black Indian chiefs

Ellison after being educated in a segregated school system graduated from Douglas High School in 1931 excelling in music but like W. E. B. Du Bois who was given a scholarship to attend Fisk University because the good people of Massachusetts did not want him to integrate their school system, he won a state sponsored scholarship to study music at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. This was so that he would not attend a white college or university in Oklahoma. He was however not financially able to attend immediately. Later, he had to hitch ride there on a freight train as he was without funds for transportation.

The music department where Ellison, studied music at Tuskegee Institute was perhaps the most renowned department at the school, headed by the conductor Charles L. Dawson, an accomplished composer and choir director.whose reputation drew Ellison there. The Tuskegee choir was an added attraction as they were often being invited to play at many prestigious locations throughout the world, including Radio City.

Ellison’s studies there from 1933 to 1936 included amongst others music appreciation, modern languages, physical education, and psychology. He also profitted from the close tutelage of the piano instructor Hazel Harrison one of Italian pianist and composer Ferruccio Busoni’s prize pupils and a friend of Russian composer Sergey Prokofiev whose three-hour- a-day trumpet practice sessions heavily influenced him.

Ellison found the South restrictive because of “the signs and symbols that marked the dividing lines of segregation” . He insists, too, that a great deal of his education at Tuskegee was away “from the use of the imagination, away from the attitudes of aggression and courage… There were things you didn’t do because the world outside was not about to accommodate you”.

Ellison was also baffled by the political alliances Tuskegee made with whites, especially that with Dr. Robert E. Park, a professor at the University of Chicago’s School of Sociology. He observed that it was with the help of Dr. Park, whom many considered the power behind Booker T. Washington, that Tuskegee gained a national reputation.

Yet this same sociologist along with Ernest Burgess wrote Introduction to the Science of Sociology (1924), a textbook often used at Tuskegee, in which he disparages the Black man’s intellect by affirming that he ” is by natural disposition neither an intellectual nor an idealist…. He is primarily an artist, loving life for its own sake. His metier is expression rather than action. He is, so to speak, the lady among the races”.

Despite all these, Ellison found Tuskegee to be a progressive institution where he met Morteza Sprague, the head of the English department to whom he later dedicated his first book of essays, Shadow and Act (1964). True to his Renaissance man ideal, he studied sculpting under the direction of Eva Hamlin, an art instructor who was later responsible for his meeting and studying with August Savage, a Black sculptor in New York.

Though Ellison made no serious formal attempt to study literature at Tuskegee, while he studied music primarily in his classes, he spent increasing amounts of time in the library, reading modernist classics. There he began to explore literature, examining T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) –a piece of poetry that, as he later explained, utilized “endless patterns of sounds” that resembled the improvisational approach of “the jazz experience.”

Ellison found the poem intriguing because, as he explains, he was able to relate his musical experience to it: “Somehow its rhythms were often closer to those of jazz than were those of the Negro poets” He specifically cited it as a major awakening moment for him. For it was the fascination with the poem’s musicality that really got him interested in writing. As he confesses, “Somehow in my uninstructed reading of Eliot and Pound, I had recognized a relationship between modern poetry and jazz music. Indeed, such reading and wondering prepared me not simply to meet [Richard] Wright but to seek him out”.

From the references of The Waste Land, Ellison learned of other great modernist writers. Soon he was reading the works of Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, Sherwood Anderson, and Ernest Hemingway. His readings thus got him interested in writing. Through Harrison, Ellison met famous Howard University professor, philosopher, and anthologist Alain Locke, who visited the Tuskegee campus in the mid-1930s.

After his third year, Ellison moved to New York City to find summer employment to earn enough money to return to his studies in the fall to complete his final year. The economic impact of the Great Depression limited his chance of finding work as a trumpeter. Unable to raise the money to return to school, Ellison decided to remain in New York.. He supported himself by taking jobs as a waiter, free-lance photographer, and file clerk.

He had originally intended to study sculpture during his stay in the city. Unable to find an opening with Harlem artist Augusta Savage, he studied for one year with Richmond Barthe. He made acquaintance with the artist Romare Bearden. As his interest in sculpture waned, he returned to the study of music composition.

On the day after his arrival, in New York , he met  with Alain Locke who introduced him to Langston Hughes who was accompanying him. Hughes later asked Ellison to deliver two books–Andre Malraux’s Man’s Fate and Days of Wrath–to a friend after reading them. But after reading them, Ellison found the writings important sources of inspiration that drew him closer to the world of literature.

Ellision’s most important contact would be with African American writer Richard Wrioght with whom he developed a long though complex relationship. It was Arna Bontemps and Langston Hughes who helped him to meet Wright. who was at the time the editor of the New Challenge. Ellison met him in the office of the Daily Worker on 135th Street in Harlem, in 1937. After becoming engaged in a discussion about literature, Wright asked Ellison to write a book review of Walter Turpin’s These Low Grounds for the first edition of the short-lived periodical New Challenge. “To one who had never attempted to write anything,” Ellison stated, “this was the wildest of ideas.”

After Ellison wrote the book review, Wright encouraged him to pursue a career in writing fiction which resulted in his writing his first short story, “Hymie Bull”, for the 1937 winter issue of New Challenge. Not long afterward, he became a regular contributor to the left- wing cultural periodical New Masses and to the Negro Quarterly. His writing career was thus begun with Richard Wright being the first person who encouraged him to write.

The summer Ellison came to New York, the Great Depression had sapped America’s economic and industrial growth. The Harlem Renaissance, which depended heavily on white philanthropy for its existence, ran out of steam with the crash of 1929, because many of its patrons were not able to continue their financial support of the movement. Fortunately, the New York Federal Writers’ Project was established by the WPA, and Ellison like Wright and other writers were able to continue their careers by joining it . During this time he worked in the Black community gathering and recording folk material that became an integral aspect of his writing of Invisible Man.

From 1938 to 1942 Ellison worked for the New York City Federal Writers’ Project. contributed stories, reviews, and essays to New Masses, the Antioch Review, and other journals; and in 1942 became editor of the Negro Quarterly. In 1941 he published “Mister Toussan” for New Masses. After serving as managing editor for the Negro Quarterly, he wrote two short stories in 1944, “Flying Home” and “King of the Bingo Game,” which dealt with a young black man’s attempt to control his destiny within the impersonal surroundings of a northern city.From 1937 to 1944 Ellison had accumulated over twenty book reviews as well as short stories and articles published in magazines such as New Challenge and New Masses. These constituted his earliest published writings.

During this time he focused his literary themes on African American folklore and ethnic identity.His first creative works as a writer were influenced by Wright’s harsh vision. The short stories “Slick Gonna Learn” (1939) and “The Birthmark” (1940) are examples of his use of brutal themes and violence. But he soon broke from the literary naturalism of Wright and the Hemingway school. Instead of focusing entirely upon environmental forces, he upheld faith in the inner strength of the individual to overcome the barriers and oppressive elements of his surroundings.

Early details of his life such as these, set down in Shadow and Act (1964), a collection of political, social, and critical essays, reviews, and interviews enhance an understanding of Invisible Man dealing with, in its author’s words, “literature and folklore, with Negro musical expression–especially jazz and the blues–and with the complex relationship between the Negro American subculture and North American culture as a whole.”

In it, Ellison answers critic Irving Howe on the responsibility of the black writer, contests the nature of black folklore presented by Stanley Edgar Hyman, and criticizes LeRoi Jones on his interpretation of the blues.

Ralph Ellison won the National Book Award for his first novel Invisible Man (1952), the story of an alienated and isolated black man living in racially repressive urban America.The remarkable success of Invisible Man made Ellison famous worldwide and he was suddenly considered one of America’s most important writers. Reluctant to assume the role of a representative for his race, Ellison always maintained that in writing his book he was pursuing art more than he was pursuing racial justice.

Though Ellison’s early writings reflect Richard Wright’s creative imagination, but as he continued to hone his craft, his writings demonstrated “the richness and complexity” of his own vision. Ellison’s style was unique because of the way he combined such diverse elements as realism, surrealism, folklore, and myth in Invisible Man the story of the nameless narrator, a Black man who learns to assert himself.

Shadow and Act has been described as autobiographical, but it only reveals the young Ellison, the Ellison who, to a great extent, is still under the influence of Wright’s vision and feels it necessary to defend himself. Going to the Territory Ellison’s second collection of essays, reviews, speeches, and interviews reveals a mature Ellison-the literary statesman, the ambassador of good will between the races, the philosopher who believes not so much in the integration of the races as he does in a culturally pluralistic society.. It treats figures such as Erskine Caldwell, Richard Wright, and Duke Ellington while considering the question of American democracy and identity.

An author’s standing in a literary tradition rests on how well he or she perceives that tradition and how much he or she contributes to or changes it. Ellison insists that he was following the great writers of the world and claims as his literary ancestors such giants as T. S. Eliot, Henry James, Ernest Hemingway, Mark Twain, Herman Melville, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and William Faulkner.

Though Ellison does not claim Richard Wright as a literary ancestor, he did embrace Wright’s vision of naturalistic determinism. Ellison found that Wright’s vision was too narrow to represent the Black experience in America. He believed that Wright’s writing, in many instances, only perpetuated in the larger community stereotypical images that the Black writer should attempt to deflate.

In Shadow and Act, Ellison maintained that too many books written by Black authors were aimed at a white audience, the danger in this being that Black writers then tended to limit themselves to their audience’s assumptions about what Black people were like or should be like. The Black writer is as a result reduced to pleading the humanity of his own race, which Ellison saw as the equivalent of questioning whether Blacks were fully human, an indulgence in a false issue that Blacks could ill afford. Believing that a naturalistic/deterministic mode could not define the Black experience, Ellison created a style that embraces the strength, the courage, the endurance, and the promise as well as the uniqueness of the Black experience in America.

In breaking away from the traditional literary path of Black writers, Ellison became a liberator, freeing Black literature from American literary colonialism and bringing it to national and international independence. Ellison’s liberating spirit is evident in such writers as McPherson, Ernest J. Gaines, Leon Forrest, and Clarence Major, and in the surrealism of Ishmael Reed, the folk tradition of Toni Morrison, the historical tradition exhibited by Gloria Naylor, and the spirituality of Toni Cade Bambara who have developed alternative modes of expression or, as Ellison would say, have realized new literary possibilities. They write not only about the Black experience in America but also about the American experience. While writing in the tradition of the great writers, Ellison blazed a literary trail for younger writers to follow. His innovative style was probably the first step in helping Black writers to break the literary constraints of the sociological tradition in African American letters. And Ellison has also had a “profound effect” on mainstream writers.

Ralph Ellison, more so than any other Black writer, brought change to the African American (and also to the American) literary canon by refusing to accept prescribed formulas for depicting the Black American. He thus brought a fierce reality to his vision that neither Blacks nor Caucasians were quite ready to accept. But his truth was/is so eminent, so palpable that neither race could deny it. Ellison will be remembered in literature and in life for making Blacks visible in a society where they had been invisible.

Within his early stories like “King of the Bingo Game,” Ellison employed techniques of irony, gothicism, and macabre humor to describe realities hidden behind the surface of the black and white worlds..

Unable to join the U.S. Navy, Ellison enlisted in the Merchant Marine during World War II serving as a cook and sailing with a naval convoy that supplied troops at the Battle of the Bulge. Whilst serving here he published short stories. Around the same time, having secured a $1,500 grant from the Rosenwald Foundation, he wrote the story “In a Strange Country.” Set in a Nazi prisoner-of-war camp, the tale describes a black fighter pilot’s struggle as the highest- ranking officer among his fellow Allied prisoners.

Upon his return to New York, with his Rosenwald fellowship Ellison accepted an invitation to spend time on a friend’s farm in Waitsfield, Vermont, where he conceived the idea for his novel Invisible Man. Ellison recalled in his book Going to the Territory how, one afternoon during his stay, he “wrote some words while sitting in an old barn looking out on the mountain…. ‘I’m an Invisible Man.’ I didn’t quite know what it meant, or where the idea came from. But the moment I started to abandon it, I thought: ‘Well maybe I should try to discover what lay behind the statement.'” After a long period of contemplation, Ellison built upon the meaning of the phrase and its relationship to the theme of alienation and self-definition. ,.

Few novels of postwar American fiction have been as celebrated, written about, and analyzed as Ellison’s Invisible Man. Many critics contend that this author’s ability to delve deeply into the chaotic and complex character of American society has rendered him a lasting figure in modern literature. Rooted in the great musical and literary traditions of African American and European cultures, Ellison’s prose breaks from the earlier styles of the Harlem Renaissance and the literary naturalism of Richard Wright; his writings are filled with surrealistic, dream-like scenes that provide a view of the dark recesses of the human experience.

In 1964, Ellison published Shadow And Act, a collection of of 20 essay, 2 interviews and speeches, dealing with African American culture, literature, and music criticism. Written mainly for publication in magazines, the book’s articles cover a time span from the late forties to the early sixties. 

“Art is the celebration of life,” stated Ellison in Shadow and Act . it is, as he explained, a means of understanding the value of “diversity within unity,” allowing us to explore the full range of humanity.

The following year, in 1965 a survey of 200 prominent literary figures authors, editors, and critics conducted by the New York Herald Tribune was released that proclaimed Invisible Man as the most important novel since World War II. It was “the most distinguishable single work published in the last twenty years.”

He contributed to The Living Novel (Granville Hicks, ed., 1957), The Angry Black (John A. Williams, ed., 1963), and Soon One Morning (Herbert Hill, ed., 1963) and to numerous literary journals. In 1964 the Tuskegee Institute awarded him an honorary doctorate.

A perfectionist regarding his practice of the art of the novel, Ellison had said in accepting his National Book Award for Invisible Man, that he felt he had made “an attempt at a major novel”, and despite the award, he was unsatisfied with the book.

Writing essays about both the black experience and his love for jazz music, Ellison’s determination and passion for literature kept him in the forefront of intellectual and academic circles. Ellison thus continued to receive major awards for his work.

In 1969, he received the Medal of Freedom; America’s highest civilian honor awarded him by President Lyndon B. Johnson. The following year, he was awarded the coveted Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et Lettres by France and became a permanent member of the faculty at New York University as the Albert Schweitzer Professor of Humanities, acting from 1970-1980. In 1975, he was elected to the American Academy for the Arts and Letters and his hometown of Oklahoma City honored him with the dedication of the Ralph Waldo Ellison Library. Continuing to teach, Ellison published mostly essays, and in 1984, he received the New York City College’s Langston Hughes Medallion. The following year saw the publication of Going to the Territory, a collection of seventeen essays that included insight into southern novelist William Faulkner and his friend Richard Wright, as well as the music of Duke Ellington and the contributions of African Americans to America’s national identity. His second collection of essays and lectures, Going to the Territory, was published in 1986.

Ellison died of pancreatic cancer on April 16, 1994, in New York City, leaving his second novel which he had begun around 1958 unfinished and unpublished,. A fire at his summer home in Plainsfield, Massachusetts, destroyed much of the manuscript, forcing him to reconstruct much of what he had already done.

Ralph Ellison was buried in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City. His wife, who survived him, lived until November 19, 2005. After his death, more manuscripts were discovered in his home, resulting in the publication of Flying Home: And Other Stories in 1996. Still, with the praise and critical attention already bestowed upon his published work, there is little doubt that his universalist message will endure long after the close of the twentieth century.



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