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Ralph Ellison and the Genius of America

Ralph Ellison and the Genius of America

Timothy Parrish
Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 272
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  • Book Info
    Ralph Ellison and the Genius of America
    Book Description:

    Ralph Ellison has long been admired as the author of one of the most important American novels of the twentieth century, Invisible Man. Yet he has also been dismissed by some critics as a writer who only published one major work of fiction and a black intellectual out of touch with his times. In this book, Timothy Parrish offers a fundamentally different assessment of Ellison’s legacy, describing him as the most important American writer since William Faulkner and someone whose political and cultural achievements have not been fully recognized. Embracing jazz artist Wynton Marsalis’s characterization of Ellison as the unacknowledged “political theorist” of the civil rights movement, Parrish argues that the defining event of Ellison’s career was not Invisible Man but the 1954 Supreme Court decision that set his country on the road to racial integration. In Parrish’s view, no other American intellectual, black or white, better grasped the cultural implications of the new era than Ellison did; no other major American writer has been so misunderstood. Drawing on Ellison’s recently published “unfinished” novel, newly released archival materials, and unpublished correspondence, Parrish provides a sustained reconsideration of the writer’s crucial friendships with Richard Wright, Robert Penn Warren, and C. Vann Woodward to show how his life was dedicated to creating an American society in which all could participate equally. By resituating Ellison’s career in the historical context of its making, Parrish challenges the premises that distorted the writer’s reception in his own lifetime to make the case for Ellison as the essential visionary of post–Civil War America.

    eISBN: 978-1-61376-188-5
    Subjects: Language & Literature, Sociology, History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xvi)
  4. INTRODUCTION Ellison Reconstituted: Beyond Invisible Man
    (pp. 1-41)

    In 1903, in the pitch dark of the nearly one-hundred-year-long Jim Crow night, W. E. B. Du Bois defined the status of black Americans through the ironic inflection of a too familiar question: “How does it feel to be a problem?” (3). In 1952 Ralph Ellison gave perhaps the definitive answer to Du Bois’s question with his classic novel,Invisible Man. Along with articulating the many complex ways in which it was problematic to have been born black in America, Ellison insisted that the implied premise of Du Bois’s question addressed all Americans, not just black ones. In other words,...

  5. 1 Philip Roth’s Invisible Man
    (pp. 42-84)

    When Ralph Ellison died in 1994, his passing was met with a mixture of acclaim and regret. Ellison’s importance as a novelist and cultural critic was widely acknowledged, but amid this celebration of his achievement as one of the major figures of American literature there ran an undercurrent of doubt. Since at least the publication ofShadow and Actin 1964, Ellison’s public appearances both in print and on the podium provoked his audience to wonder when he might produce his next novel. In 1951, a few months beforeInvisible Manwas to be published, he was writing a friend,...

  6. 2 Richard Wright’s Apprentice
    (pp. 85-127)

    Ralph Ellison did not writeInvisible Manbecause he wanted to be the first black writer in the American literary canon. He already understood writers such as Frederick Douglass, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Langston Hughes to be important American writers. Ellison did not writeInvisible Manbecause he wanted to “transcend” his blackness by becoming the toast of the white literary world. He knew himself to be a Negro, and he would not surrender that identity to join any club. Ellison wroteInvisible Manfor two obvious reasons and one essential one. He wrote to express a view...

  7. 3 Ellison, Warren, and Woodward: The Other Side of Invisible Man
    (pp. 128-173)

    The drama ofInvisible Mandoes not end with the protagonist being happily absorbed into the American society, because such an ending was impossible when Ellison wrote the book. When he told Wright that12 Million Black Voicesspoke for him, he was responding to his sense that Negroes had helped to make America possible but had not been allowed the opportunity either to take credit for or reap the rewards of their struggle. OnceInvisible Manwas being celebrated as a work of American genius, the novel’s very success appeared to render the truth of a work like12...

  8. 4 Invisible Man’s Political Vision: Ellison and King
    (pp. 174-215)

    Ellison’s work as a novelist and his career as a public intellectual emerged out of his conception of Negro history and its relationship to the fluid social processes of American democracy. In particular, Ellison understood the Negro’s quest for social equality to be the mechanism by which United States history would fulfill its utopian ideal of creating a society in which everyone enjoyed an equal stake. As Ellison often explained,Invisible Manwas in part an attempt to define the limits and possibilities of Negro leadership in a society that seemed unable to accept any Negro leader who challenged the...

  9. EPILOGUE After Ellison, Toward Obama
    (pp. 216-230)

    Ellison saw almost as soon as his novel was published that the second half of his life would allow him opportunities unimaginable during its first half. His 1950s letters to Murray express a cautious confidence about the possibilities opening up to a pair of talented “moses” such as Ellison and Murray. His optimism can be attributed in part to the startling and immediate success ofInvisible Manand in part to the social revolution occurring beyond the confines of his study. They seemed to be related phenomena. With awe and admiration he watched the Montgomery bus boycott and Autherine Lucy’s...

  10. Notes
    (pp. 231-236)
  11. Works Cited
    (pp. 237-244)
  12. Index
    (pp. 245-253)
  13. Back Matter
    (pp. 254-255)