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18 - Ralph Ellison

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 December 2012

Timothy Parrish
Affiliation:
Florida State University
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Summary

“In the dim beginnings, before I ever thought consciously of writing, there was my own name,” wrote Ralph Waldo Ellison (1913–94), “and there was, doubtless, a certain magic in it.” The words were delivered at a 1964 lecture to the Library of Congress, where Ellison’s copious volumes of papers would eventually find a posthumous home. The title of the lecture, “Hidden Name and Complex Fate,” refers to his near-namesake Ralph Waldo Emerson and to Henry James’s proposition that it “is a complex fate, being an American.” A dozen years after the publication of Invisible Man (1952), his only completed novel, Ellison could already riff on the sage of Concord and what he called the “super subtle fish fry” of James’s House of Fiction, knowing that he had already been canonized.

The instant classic that seemed only to expand over time – it still expands today – documents a nameless hero who, in his junior year at a black college, unwittingly seals his fate when he drives a white trustee named Mr. Norton (as in the publishing house) to a bar called the Golden Day (as in the book by the American Renaissance scholar Lewis Mumford). Through a series of misadventures that include a black sharecropper’s routine about father-daughter incest, the hero is kicked out of college and sent, with a batch of poison letters of recommendation, to a man called Mr. Emerson. (The hero only gets as far as meeting Mr. Emerson’s son, a bundle of neuroses.) The self-destruction is devastating, but the satire is palpable in every detail, and the hero’s dialogue with Mr. Norton demonstrates the palpable irony of Ellison’s hidden name and complex fate:

“You’ve studied Emerson, haven’t you?”

“Emerson, sir?”

I was embarrassed because I hadn’t. “No, sir. We haven’t come to him yet.”

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Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2012

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References

Bradley, Adam, Ralph Ellison in Progress, New Haven, Conn., Yale University Press, 2010.Google Scholar
Callahan, John F. (ed.), Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man: A Casebook, New York, Oxford University Press, 2004.
Callahan, John F.Trading Twelves: The Letters of Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray, New York, Modern Library, 2000.Google Scholar
Ellison, Ralph, The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison, ed. Callahan, John, New York, Modern Library, 2003.Google Scholar
Ellison, Ralph, Invisible Man, New York, Random House, 1952.Google Scholar
Ellison, Ralph, Three Days before the Shooting… The Unfinished Second Novel, ed. Callahan, John and Bradley, Adam, New York, Modern Library, 2010.Google Scholar
Jackson, Lawrence P., Ralph Ellison: Emergence of a Genius, New York, John Wiley & Sons, 2002.Google Scholar
O’Meally, Robert G, The Craft of Ralph Ellison, Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 1980.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Parrish, Timothy L.Ralph Ellison and the Genius of America, Amherst, Mass., University of Massachussetts Press, 2012.Google Scholar
Posnock, Ross, The Cambridge Companion to Ralph Ellison, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2005.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Rampersad, Arnold, Ralph Ellison: A Biography, New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 2007.Google Scholar
Sundquist, Eric J., Cultural Contexts for Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,”Boston, Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1995.Google Scholar
James, Henry, letter to Charles Eliot Norton, February 4, 1872, in Henry James: The Imagination of Genius, A Biography, ed. Fred Kaplan (New York, William & Morrow, 1992), p. 132Google Scholar
Ellison, Ralph, “Introduction,” in Invisible Man (New York, Random House, 1995)Google Scholar
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  • Ralph Ellison
  • Edited by Timothy Parrish, Florida State University
  • Book: The Cambridge Companion to American Novelists
  • Online publication: 05 December 2012
  • Chapter DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/CCO9781139003780.019
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  • Ralph Ellison
  • Edited by Timothy Parrish, Florida State University
  • Book: The Cambridge Companion to American Novelists
  • Online publication: 05 December 2012
  • Chapter DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/CCO9781139003780.019
Available formats
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Save book to Google Drive

To save content items to your account, please confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your account. Find out more about saving content to Google Drive.

  • Ralph Ellison
  • Edited by Timothy Parrish, Florida State University
  • Book: The Cambridge Companion to American Novelists
  • Online publication: 05 December 2012
  • Chapter DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/CCO9781139003780.019
Available formats
×