The rare genius of Ralph Waldo Ellison

First aired on the Sunday Edition (17/06/12)

Few American novelists have had the kind of cultural and social impact that Ralph Waldo Ellison has. When the Oklahoma-born writer published Invisible Man in 1952, it became a literary sensation. It's recognized as one of the finest works of modern American fiction that examines race issues, African-American identity and political action. Invisible Man is a novel as significant as Moby Dick or Huckleberry Finn, yet Ellison's name is rarely mentioned in the same breath as Herman Melville's or Mark Twain's. Ellison struggled to write another novel after Invisible Man. Literary scholars like Timothy Parrish, author of Ralph Ellison and the Genius of America, says this affected his reputation.

"I think [his reputation] suffered a great deal, and I think as time passes and a historical perspective can be gained on his life hopefully people won't see him only that way," Parrish said during a recent interview on The Sunday Edition.

ralph-waldo-ellison-150.jpg"I mean, Melville wrote a number of books that people still read but when people think of Melville they primarily think of Moby Dick. People don't think of the sequels that Mark Twain wrote for Huckleberry Finn, about Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer being private detectives or whatever," Parrish pointed out. "They think of Huckleberry Finn, and unfortunately for Ellison, part of it was just the nature of having a career. He was a person with a career, and his career was technically novelist. You would expect him to keep publishing novels, and Ellison himself continually promised a second novel that he could not bring himself to publish or quite complete in his lifetime. And so he presents himself always, after Invisible Man, as this novelist working on a novel and so, understandably, that became curious."

Ellison published essay collections, often about his love of jazz music and his experience as an African-American, and became more involved in teaching and public speaking after the publication of Invisible Man. But the noted perfectionist laboured over creating another novel. In the late 1960s, a fire destroyed parts of a manuscript he had been working on for 14 years. Literary scholars have debated how devastating to his work this loss actually was, but it's clear that Ellison was under enormous pressure to deliver something equal to or better than Invisible Man, which had been declared by many as a masterpiece.

ralph-ellison-cover-100.jpg"Ellison voiced something that had never really been voiced in American literature," Parrish said. "That is to say, the vernacular, the rituals and the rhythms of African-American culture that had been sort of worked out and created in defiance, really, of American society between the Civil War and the civil rights movement."

Because Ellison's first book was such a sensation, the public eagerly looked to him for new work. "Many readers were so inspired by what Ellison had done they wanted more from him, and I think he struggled with how to live up to those expectations."