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Virginia university to celebrate life and career of Ralph Ellison

Washington and Lee University plans a two-day symposium about Oklahoma author Ralph Ellison.
BY RICK ROGERS Published: March 16, 2012

Unlike the protagonist of his novel “Invisible Man,” a man who considered himself socially invisible, Oklahoma native Ralph Ellison became one of America's most respected and highly visible authors. In celebration of the novel's 60th anniversary, Virginia's Washington and Lee University will celebrate Ellison's life and writings during a two-day symposium this weekend.

Born in Oklahoma City in 1914, Ellison studied music at Alabama's Tuskegee Institute before moving to New York in 1936. There, he befriended Richard Wright, an author who encouraged Ellison to pursue a career as a writer.

“Ellison had the good fortune to arrive in New York just after the great Harlem Renaissance,” said Marc Conner, an Ellison scholar and professor of English at Washington and Lee University. “Wright proved that a black American's novel could sell, and Ellison took those achievements even further.”

In 1952, Ellison published “Invisible Man,” a novel that explores an unnamed black man's search for his identity and place in society during the 1930s. In 1953, “Invisible Man” received the National Book Award.

“Ellison was a gifted storyteller who was brilliant at understanding the whole range of the human experience,” Conner said. “He put his great insights about economics, religion and history into a novel that was fascinating but that would challenge the reader.”

The Washington and Lee symposium will bring together many distinguished Ellison scholars, including Eric Sundquist from Johns Hopkins University and John Callahan from Lewis and Clark College. They'll be joined by several other speakers who will discuss Ellison's place in American literature.

“I think in terms of understanding race relations in America, Ellison was at least 50 years ahead of his time,” Conner said. “He believed it was necessary for America to become integrated and that we would eventually move into a post-racial era. We haven't achieved that, although we are moving closer to the kind of vision he had for America.

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