Very Visible Author: Ralph Ellison (1938-2005)
Brilliant, proud, enigmatic, and mysterious, this Oklahoma City native rose from humble Jim Crow era beginnings to the heights of the American literary and cultural world. When asked by a white professor following an Ellison lecture in northern Illinois how he felt to “go places where most black can’t go,” the author famously responded, “What you mean is, how does it feel to be able to go places where most white men can’t go.”
His renowned OKC Douglass High music teacher Zelia Page Breaux (OKLAHOMANS 2, Chapter 4) strongly influenced Ellison’s passion for music, including promoting him to band captain. After graduating, “riding the rails like a hobo,” according to one biographer, he traveled to the famed Tuskegee Institute.
He attended the famed college for African Americans on a music scholarship. He did not enjoy what he considered the school’s elitist air, and moved to New York City. There, in Harlem, his creative energies gradually turned toward writing.
Ellison, like many other intellectuals in the 1930s, black and white, got involved with the Communist movement. During World War II, he grew disenchanted with it and separated himself.
After volunteering and serving in the Merchant Marines, where he reputedly experienced some combat, he set about writing his landmark novel Invisible Man. It concerned an unnamed black narrator’s search for his identity and place in society. He worked for more than half a decade on it, as his second wife, Fanny, provided much of the couple’s income.
“He relied on the discipline and rhythm of the music he learned,” as he wrote it, according to historian Anita Arnold. The work of his favorite authors—T. S. Eliot (The Waste Land), Fyodor Dostoyesvy (Crime and Punishment), William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, and Richard Wright (Native Son), all of them white except Wright—also helped shape the book.
In 1952, Invisible Man struck the literary world like a thunderbolt. It also sat atop the New York Times bestseller list for 16 straight weeks. Then, a year before Brown vs. Board of Education, two years before Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the Montgomery bus, and four years before Clara Luper sat down for a Coke at Katz Drug Store, Ellison’s book defeated Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea and John Steinbeck’s East of Eden for the National Book Award, America’s highest honor for a work of fiction.
A Towering Shadow
Invisible Man garnered Ellison lasting fame, endless honors, and acceptance to the most exalted halls of academia and society. He went on to author voluminous and acclaimed short works, and teach and lecture across the country. He worked, too, on his second novel. He did so for 40 years, to the end of his life. He wrote 2,000 pages. But he never finished it.
Reading among the many accounts of this long and frustrating effort, one is reminded of John Milton’s literary character Captain Ahab and his long, obsessive, ultimately unsuccessful pursuit of the great white whale Moby-Dick. Ellison seemed, in the view of one observer, “to carry the weight of the entire (African American) race via his art….Nothing would ever be good enough for him, and not just because he set his standards for himself so exceedingly high, (but) because he believed that much was at stake.”
Often lost under the towering shadow of Invisible Man is that brilliant trove of short stories, essays, book reviews, and articles. Ellison’s non-fiction books Shadow and Act (1964) and Going to the Territory (1986) feature essays on literature, politics, music, and American culture.
Arnold recalled the dynamic portrait Ellison drew in Shadow and Act of his beloved native OKC:
“Ellison describes himself, Charlie Christian, and Jimmy Rushing as ‘Renaissance Men’ whose identities were rooted in culture and intellectualism…Ellison wrote about his Oklahoma City friends, family, classmates, and others. He described how jazz music affected the lives of African Americans in and around Deep Deuce. There is a sense of the classical music that Zelia N. Page Breaux taught in the life of Charlie Christian, for instance.”
In 1999, five years after Ellison’s death, his friend, literature professor John Callahan, completed a monumental task requested by Fanny. He shaped those 2,000 pages into the second novel that Ellison himself could never complete. These efforts bore the 368-page Juneteenth.
Publishers Weekly described it at as “A visionary tour de force, a lyrical, necessary contribution to America's perennial racial dialogue, and a novel powerfully reinforcing Ellison's place in literary history.”
Newsday wrote, “(A)n extraordinary book, a work of staggering virtuosity. With its publication, a giant world of literature has just grown twice as tall.”
This Moby-Dick, it turns out, finally went down.
The above article is a bonus to the fascinating historical content found within our book
Oklahomans Vol 2 :
Statehood - 2020s
which can be purchased HERE.
View the inspiring 2-minute preview video HERE.