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.”
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“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.
“Like any great writer, Ellison had a universal quality to his writing. He was steeped in the Western classical traditions and could travel easily in that rarefied atmosphere. His writings recall Homer's ‘Odyssey,' Shakespeare's ‘King Lear' and Sophocles' ‘Oedipus the King.' But he could also identify with sharecroppers and the low street culture of New York. He's the most unsnobbish writer I know.”
Conner's own research into Ellison's life and career has taken him to the Library of Congress, a Washington, D.C., repository that houses Ellison's manuscripts, personal letters and some personal memoirs.
“The Library of Congress has hundreds of boxes of Ellison's writings,” Conner said. “He and his wife, Fanny, kept everything. There must be tens of thousands of pages, which makes it a real treasure trove for scholars. I found it fascinating that you can still smell his cigars when you go through his manuscripts.”
While the influence of noted American authors of the early to mid-20th century has tended to wax and wane according to prevailing attitudes, Ellison has remained one of the seminal authors of his generation.
“Last fall, I taught an upper-level course on Ellison,” Conner said. “Most of my students hadn't read any of his works but as the course progressed, they began to see how prescient he was about where America was headed.
“They were impressed by his courage but also with his humor. People often forget how funny Ellison was. He was a satiric writer who knew we had to laugh at American culture. He called it a tragic-comic attitude toward America.
“For anyone who is unfamiliar with Ralph Ellison, his debut novel “Invisible Man” offers a good introduction to his writings. It's very readable but challenging. I consider it one of the five greatest American novels ever written.”