Ralph Ellison Introduction (03:13)
Ellison's 1952 novel, “Invisible Man” is a classic on par with the works of Mark Twain, James Joyce and Homer. Social critic Cornel West comments on Ellison's work.
Ellison's Early Life (05:40)
Ellison was born in Oklahoma City in 1914. His parents had left the Deep South in pursuit of the greater freedom of the frontier. Ellison’s family prospered in Oklahoma until his father, Lewis, died in a work-related accident.
Musical Outlet (03:29)
Ellison received a cornet when he was eight, and music became his passion. Oklahoma City had a vibrant jazz scene through which Ellison was exposed to the likes of Duke Ellington and Count Basie. The Harlem Renaissance Black Arts Movement also made an impression.
Race in Oklahoma, College (03:12)
A white mob in Tulsa incited a race riot in 1921. Ellison pretended that segregation did not exist because he did not want it to limit his horizons. He eventually left Oklahoma for Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute where he excelled in the school’s rigorous music program.
Ellison Leaves Tuskegee (01:22)
Ellison studied T. S. Eliot’s poem “The Wasteland”; his obsession with literature caused him to neglect his musical studies. Ellison boarded a train to New York after junior year, hoping to find a summer job.
New York Mentors (06:37)
Ellison met authors Langston Hughes and Richard Wright. He began fiction writing and was encouraged by the success of Wright’s first novel, “Native Son.” He questioned whether protest fiction could depict the complexity of everyday black life.
Finding His Voice (09:41)
Ellison found his voice with his short story, “King of the Bingo Game.” He later submitted another short story to "Horizon" titled “Battle Royal”; it became the first chapter to “Invisible Man.”
Marriage and Writing (02:46)
Ellison met Fanny McConnell, and they married in 1946. Ellison worked on his "The Invisible Man" over the next five years.
"Invisible Man" Plot (06:30)
The novel was published in 1952. The protagonist is chased by white police and a violent back nationalist after being spurned by white radicals, betrayed by black leaders, and humiliated by white racists.
"Invisible Man" Reception (04:58)
The novel became a bestseller and earned Ellison the National Book Award. His former colleagues in the Communist Party accused him of selling out to the bourgeoisie; Irving Howe panned him as inauthentic.
"Shadow & Act" (03:18)
Ellison’s essay collection was published in 1964. It includes his full reply to Howe’s criticism and reflections on American and African-American identity.
"And Hickman Arrives" (05:21)
In 1960, Ellison published the excerpt from his forthcoming, second novel. American race relations radically changed as he continued to work on the manuscript.
Ellison and Black Nationalism (08:44)
The Black Arts Movement created artistic works that promoted black pride. The movement rejected what it saw as the Eurocentric aesthetic of the past. Ellison rejected Black Nationalism as wrong-headed and ineffective.
Manuscript Work and Accusations (05:01)
The Ellisons retreated to their farm house in Plainfield, Massachusetts in 1967 so Ellison could concentrate on his novel; he lost more than 350 pages in a fire. Later, he had a public meltdown after being accused of being an "Uncle Tom."
Solace in Academia (02:02)
Ellison accepted a teaching position at New York University in 1969. “Invisible Man” was voted the most distinguished novel since World War 2.
Publishing Woes and Death (04:10)
Ellison continued to write, but he struggled to give form to ambitious projects. He and his wife gradually became more reclusive, and the author died in 1994. He left behind thousands of unpublished pages.
Ellison's Unfinished Work (07:05)
John Callahan salvaged part of the “Hickman” story which was published posthumously as “Juneteenth.” Toni Morrison read a passage from the novel at its launch event.
Credit: Ralph Ellison: An American Journey (03:11)
Credit: Ralph Ellison: An American Journey
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