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American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
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5. Masculine Heroes   

14. Becoming Visible

•  Unit Overview
•  Using the Video
•  Authors
- James Baldwin
- Saul Bellow
- Gwendolyn Brooks
- Ralph Ellison
- Bernard Malamud
- Paule Marshall
- Arthur Miller
- N. Scott Momaday
- Grace Paley
- Philip Roth
- Suggested
•  Timeline
•  Activities

Authors: Ralph Ellison (1914-1994)

Tuskegee Institute, Alabama. Students
[7852] Arthur Rothstein, Tuskegee Institute, Alabama. Students (1942), courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USW3-000237-D].

Ralph Ellison Activities
This link leads to artifacts, teaching tips and discussion questions for this author.
Ralph Ellison grew up in Oklahoma City and attended college at the Tuskegee Institute, where he was a music major who admired both the classics of the European tradition and Kansas City jazz. After graduation he moved to New York City, where he met Richard Wright, who encouraged him to pursue his writing career. Invisible Man (1952), the result of seven years of writing, won the National Book Award and brought Ellison into the national spotlight. Critics disagreed about whether the book made a statement about African Americans, but Ellison felt both sides had missed the point. He had never aimed to be a spokesperson and asked to be judged simply as a writer. After the enormous success of Invisible Man, Ellison began teaching, and from 1970 until his retirement he was the Albert Schweitzer Professor of the Humanities at New York University. His essays are collected in Shadow and Act (1964).

In the 1930s the communist party attracted much community attention as a force in the civil rights movement, and many African American intellectuals gravitated to it. Ellison found his way into the party because it seemed at the time to be the strongest and most promising force for change in African American life, a major presence in inner-city neighborhoods, with skilled organizers and an agenda that offered hope in the midst of a worldwide depression. Like Richard Wright and James Baldwin, however, Ellison broke with communism when he came to understand that the party, under the control of the Stalinist Soviet Union, was exploiting black Americans rather than genuinely championing their causes. This disappointment with the communist party is a central theme in Ellison's Invisible Man, contributing to the novel's pervading sense of alienation and dashed hopes. That mood is also palpable in his short story "Cadillac Flambé," in which a black man acts out of anger not only against the complacent racist remarks of a national politician, but also against his own susceptibility to consumerism, the dream that something purchased, something material, can bring fulfillment and peace.

By the early 1960s, Invisible Man was being praised at American universities as the greatest novel by an African American; later in that decade, however, as campus radicalism shook up literary and scholastic life in the United States, the book and its author were faulted for showing too much respect for traditions both literary and social. Ellison's wry humor and his public demeanor were liabilities at a time when artists tended to take themselves and racial politics very seriously. When the politics of the 1960s subsided, Ellison's reputation recovered.

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