Ralph Ellison, who would have celebrated his 97th birthday this week, wrote one of the great American novels and then struggled to produce another for the rest of life. Here’s how it happened.
Ralph Ellison was born in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma in 1914. His father, a construction foreman, died when Ellison was only 3 years old as the result of injuries received from an accident delivering ice. Unbeknownst to Ellison, his father had wished him to grow up to be a poet, even naming him after Ralph Waldo Emerson. His mother, a hotel maid, would bring home discarded books and records from the houses she cleaned. The family struggled to make ends meet.
After graduating from an all-black high school where he was first-chair trumpeter and student conductor, Ellison attended Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute on a music scholarship in 1933. While there, he was exposed to the work of poet T.S. Eliot, who he would later cite as a primary influence. After three years in Tuskegee, he lost his scholarship when the music school closed amidst financial difficulties.
Ellison moved to New York, where he studied sculpture and photography. He made the acquaintance of Harlem Renaissance figures like artist Romare Bearden and writer Langston Hughes, but the figure who played the most pivotal role in young Ellison’s life was Richard Wright. After hiring Ellison to write a book review, Wright suggested that Ellison try his hand at fiction. Ellison did, producing a story called “Heine’s Bull” that was deemed unpublishable. But Ellison kept at it, aided by federal WPA money, and between 1937 and 1945 published eight stories and over twenty book reviews for magazines like New Challenge and New Masses.
When WWII broke out, Ellison served in the Merchant Marines, wishing to “contribute to the war, but not be in a Jim Crow army.” After taking sick leave in 1945 due to a kidney infection, he spent the next seven years working on the book that would define him for the rest of his life.
Told by an unnamed narrator living underground in New York City, Invisible Man is about racial stereotypes, political consciousness, the search for individual identity, and the pursuit of elusive truths. More than a story about racism in 1940s America, the book is about the universal struggle to define who we are and stake out a place in a chaotic, unjust and seemingly absurd world. Unlike characters in most African American literature at the time, Ellison’s unnamed narrator is educated and articulate. And where writers like Richard Wright and Langston Hughes favored realism in their depictions of racial prejudice and class struggle, Ellison’s Invisible Man takes place in an often surreal, symbolic realm, one having as much to do with the theories of Carl Jung as Karl Marx.
Some critics felt Ellison wrote too much with his head, not enough with his heart. Some African Americans condemned the book for being too difficult, too opaque, even anti-black. But those opinions were firmly in the minority. Invisible Man eclipsed works by Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck to win the 1953 National Book Award and was a huge international success.
It was also the last novel Ralph Ellison would ever finish.
Becoming the first black author to win the National Book Award made Ellison a celebrity, a public intellectual sought for all manner of boards, panel discussions, cultural symposiums and elite dinner parties. As the years wore on, many began to feel being Ralph Ellison was a role the writer relished to the detriment of his own work.
He managed to escape the spotlight in 1956 by moving to Italy on a Prix de Rome Fellowship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, but the second novel – a conceived magnum opus Ellison hoped would be on the epic level of Moby Dick – was still slow in taking shape. After returning to the United States, he took a position teaching Russian literature at Bard College, and in 1963 announced that his next novel would be published the following year. Instead, he released Shadows and Act, a well-received book of interviews and essays. He quit teaching to focus on his novel, but soon found himself in academia again, a pattern that would repeat itself throughout his life as he accepted posts at Yale, Rutgers, the University of Chicago and New York University.
Ellison said a 1967 fire at his Berkshire home claimed more than 300 pages of the manuscript for his new novel, but a prominent biography would later debunk this claim. In 1994, at age 80, he again told an interviewer that his second novel would be released the following year, but his editor and publisher had still heard nothing about it when Ellison died on April 16, 1994.
But what survived him showed that Ellison had been suffering less a case of writer’s block than editor’s block. His literary executors inherited typewritten pages, handwritten notebooks and computer printouts that totaled nearly 2,000 pages. Editor John F. Callahan spent five years trying to find a cohesive shape for the sketchy and disjointed mountain of a manuscript, finally releasing a 368-page condensation titled Juneteenth in 1999. Last year, an expanded 1,100-page version of the book was published as Three Days Before the Shooting. Critical reaction to both was muted, with reviewers finding praiseworthy passages but stipulating that the Frankenstein’s monsters editors had stitched together were far from being complete novels.
In 1981, nearly three decades into the one of fiction’s most famous authorial dry spells, Ellison told an interviewer, “If I’m going to be remembered as a novelist, I better produce a few more books.”
Nearly 20 years after his death, we can safely say that Ellison was wrong. He’s still remembered as a novelist, albeit one ultimately paralyzed by his own success.