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Ralph Ellison in Progress

Ralph Ellison in Progress: The Making and Unmaking of One Writer's Great American Novel

Copyright Date: 2010
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 320
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  • Book Info
    Ralph Ellison in Progress
    Book Description:

    Ralph Ellison may be the preeminent African-American author of the twentieth century, though he published only one novel, 1952'sInvisible Man.He enjoyed a highly successful career in American letters, publishing two collections of essays, teaching at several colleges and universities, and writing dozens of pieces for newspapers and magazines, yet Ellison never published the second novel he had been composing for more than forty years. A 1967 fire that destroyed some of his work accounts for only a small part of the novel's fate; the rest is revealed in the thousands of pages he left behind after his death in 1994, many of them collected for the first time in the recently publishedThree Days Before the Shooting. . . .

    Ralph Ellison in Progressis the first book to survey the expansive geography of Ellison's unfinished novel while re-imaging the more familiar, but often misunderstood, territory ofInvisibleMan. It works from the premise that understanding Ellison's process of composition imparts important truths not only about the author himself but about race, writing, and American identity. Drawing on thousands of pages of Ellison's journals, typescripts, computer drafts, and handwritten notes, many never before studied, Adam Bradley argues for a shift in scholarly emphasis that moves a greater share of the weight of Ellison's literary legacy to the last forty years of his life and to the novel he left forever in progress.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-14714-8
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. Introduction 1993
    (pp. 1-18)

    Ralph Ellison’s untitled second novel ends—or rather, it stops—when its protagonist, Alonzo Zuber Hickman, takes a “quick look at the glowing 369 on the fanlight” as he hurries away from the startling scene he has just witnessed at an old townhouse somewhere in the nation’s capital. Saved to his computer in December 1993, just months before his death in April 1994, these are among the final words of fiction Ellison would write.

    As far as last words go, they seem like something of a disappointment. After all, they do not complete the novel Ellison had been laboring on...

  4. Part I

    • I 1982
      (pp. 21-56)

      Ralph Ellison’s laptop weighed twenty-five pounds and could, its manufacturer touted, be “safely stowed under the passenger seat of most aircraft.”¹ It was an Osborne 1, one of the world’s first portable computers, and although it was cumbersome and almost comically feeble by today’s standards (it had a paltry 64K of RAM and a five-inch green-text monitor), it was state-of-the-art when Ellison purchased it in 1982. Ellison used it to write letters, store addresses, record stray thoughts, and, most important, continue to compose the novel he had been writing for nearly three decades.

      That Ellison would be an early adopter...

    • II 1970
      (pp. 57-88)

      In 1970 Ralph Ellison was an author under siege. In the December edition ofBlack World,a special issue dedicated entirely to Ellison, Marxist critic Ernest Kaiser offered a withering assessment that captured the spirit of much of the criticism directed at Ellison at the time. “Ellison has become an Establishment writer,” Kaiser wrote, “an Uncle Tom, an attacker of the sociological formulations of the Black freedom movement, a defender of the criminal Vietnam War of extermination against the Asian (and American Black) people, a denigrator of the great tradition of Black protest writing and, worst of all for himself...

    • III 1955
      (pp. 89-118)

      By most accounts, 1955 marked the beginning of the civil rights movement. The Supreme Court, having handed down the landmarkBrown v. Board of Educationruling overturning the separate but equal doctrine ofPlessy v. Fergusonin 1954, now ordered that the nation’s schools be integrated “with all deliberate speed.” A host of other state and federal bodies followed suit, banning segregation in buses and railroad coaches and public recreational facilities. President Dwight D. Eisenhower issued Executive Order 10590 mandating nondiscriminatory practices in federal employment. And, most memorably, on December 1, Rosa Parks refused to relinquish her seat to a...

  5. Part II

    • IV 1952
      (pp. 121-144)

      Buried among the hundreds of notes Ralph Ellison jotted on loose scraps of paper, in spiral-bound notebooks, and on the backs of used envelopes is a small composition book of the kind familiar to most college students. On the line after “Property of” Ellison has scrawled his name and after “Subject” he has written a description of the journal’s contents: “NOVEL: Opus II.” This by itself is unremarkable. After all, Ellison kept copious notes throughout the second novel’s extended gestation. They would provide the germ of his plot and the intimations of his most evocative phrases. This particular notebook, however,...

    • V 1950
      (pp. 145-169)

      Invisible Man once had a wife. As hard as it is to believe of a novel so thoroughly bereft of eros, in which the few romantic or sexual encounters that do occur quickly become occasions for anger or laughter or both, Ellison toyed with the idea of his nameless protagonist marrying a white member of the Brotherhood, a woman named Louise. In the working notes for the novel Ellison writes the following by way of explaining the relationship:

      Louise is the one person in the organization that whom he can believe accepts him as a human being and not as...

    • VI 1945
      (pp. 170-208)

      In the spring of 1945, as World War II was drawing to a close and the world was just beginning to remake itself, Ralph Ellison began work on what would become, nearly seven years later, the only novel he would publish. In a letter addressed to Peggy Hitchcock of Reynal and Hitchcock, Ellison’s publisher at the time, he defined the contours of the new literary philosophy taking shape in his imagination. He wished to write a “political allegory of everyday life” concerning a young Negro who moves from a small college in the rural South to the streets of New...

  6. Conclusion 2010
    (pp. 209-216)

    The story of Ellison’s unfinished second novel is most often told in tones of tragedy. “The tragedy,” Stanley Crouch asserts, “lies in the weight Ralph put on himself. He created this grand tower in his mind, with a priceless penthouse at the top, which was virtually impossible to climb.” Speaking to Ellison’s biographer Arnold Rampersad a decade after Ellison’s death, Toni Morrison offered a more nuanced interpretation of Ellison’s literary career. She noted his grand achievements and continued esteem. “And yet one is tempted to say also that it is tinged with tragedy, because expectations of much more fictional work...

  7. Notes
    (pp. 217-226)
  8. Bibliography
    (pp. 227-232)
  9. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 233-236)
  10. Index
    (pp. 237-244)