Cover image for The selected letters of Ralph Ellison
The selected letters of Ralph Ellison
Physical Description:
1060 pages : illustrations ; 25 cm

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R.H. Stafford Library (Woodbury)1On Order
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Over six decades (1933 to 1993), Ralph Ellison's extensive and revealing correspondence remarkably details his aspirations and anxieties, confidence and uncertainties throughout his personal and professional life. From early notes to his mother, as an impoverished college student; to debates with the most distinguished American writers and thinkers of his time, including Romare Bearden, Saul Bellow, Robert Penn Warren, Richard Wright, and Alfred Kazin, among others; to exchanges with friends and family from his hometown of Oklahoma City, whose influence would always be paramount, these letters communicate the immense importance of Ellison's life and work. They show his metamorphosis from an impressionable youth into a cultured man of the world, from an aspiring composer into a distinguished novelist, and ultimately into a man who confronted America's many complexities through his words.

Author Notes

Ralph Ellison (March 1, 1914 - April 16, 1994) has the distinction of being one of the few writers who has established a firm literary reputation on the strength of a single work of long fiction. Writer and teacher, Ralph Ellison was born in Oklahoma City, studied at Tuskegee Institute, and has lectured at New York, Columbia, and Fisk universities and at Bard College. He received the Prix de Rome from the Academy of Arts and Letters in 1955, and in 1964 he was elected a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters. He has contributed short stories and essays to various publications.

Invisible Man (1952), his first novel, won the National Book Award for 1953 and is considered an impressive work. It is a vision of the underground man who is also the invisible African American, and its possessor has employed this subterranean view and viewer to so extraordinary an advantage that the impression of the novel is that of a pioneer work. A book of essays, Shadow and Act, which discusses the African American in America and Ellison's Oklahoma boyhood, among other topics, appeared in 1964.

Ralph Ellison died on April 16, 1994 of pancreatic cancer and was interred in a crypt at Trinity Church Cemetery in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Upper Manhattan.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 4

Publisher's Weekly Review

Callahan, Ellison's literary executor, and Conner (The Poetry of James Joyce Reconsidered, editor), offer a generous edition of the Invisible Man author's previously unpublished letters from 1933 to 1993. Arranged by decades, the book traces Ellison's path from college student to budding writer, renowned author, and elder statesman, with Callahan providing compact but informative introductions to each segment. The letters' recipients are diverse: Some are family--notably, Ellison's mother, Ida­--while others are old friends from his birthplace, Oklahoma City, and college friends from his alma mater, Tuskegee Institute, with whom he remained in touch even as his circle grew to encompass such well-known writers as Langston Hughes and Saul Bellow. Ellison's many letters to Richard Wright and Albert Murray are the most intimate, about matters personal, professional, and political. He candidly discusses with Wright, in August 1945, his break with the Communist Party, and in June 1951, updates Murray on the progress of Invisible Man, writing: "I cut out 200 pages myself and got it down to 606." The collection also touches on Ellison's second, never-finished novel, and on the devastating 1967 fire which destroyed much of it. A splendid, indeed exemplary, collection, this is a remarkable historic document crafted with great scholarly acumen. Agent: Jacqueline Ko, Wylie Agency. (Dec.)

Booklist Review

Invisible Man is a masterpiece of blazing dissent, and the only novel Ralph Ellison completed, though he worked on another for decades. With his persistent writer's block surrounding him like a dark halo, the enormity of The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison is startling, and so vivid, muscular, frank, lengthy, and involving are his missives, it's clear that writing was his sustenance. He began corresponding as soon as he left Oklahoma City, to pursue music at Tuskegee Institute. When he arrived in New York, fate and Richard Wright steered him to his true destiny. Ellison's letters to family, friends (especially Albert Murray and Saul Bellow), colleagues, agents, editors, and fans have the agility, wit, and spectrum of the moods, tones, and pace found in jazz, which he loved. Editor John F. Callahan provides a chronology, a richly dimensional general introduction, and enlightening overviews of Ellison's preoccupations, endeavors, and travels during each decade. Ellison's supremely well-crafted, captivating, often caustic letters chronicle his personal life, experiences teaching and lecturing, replies to endless queries about his masterpiece, and research into his family history for his uncompleted novel. Ellison also delivers probing inquiries into the complexities of race, identity, Americanness, and creativity.--Donna Seaman Copyright 2019 Booklist

Kirkus Review

A rich collection reveals a writer's aspirations and frustrations.Drawing primarily on an extensive trove of correspondence at the Library of Congress, Callahan (Emeritus, Humanities/Lewis and Clark Coll. In the African American Grain: Call and Response in 20th Century Black Fiction, 2008, etc.), Ellison's literary executor, and Conner (English/Washington and Lee Univ.; editor: The Poetry of James Joyce Reconsidered, 2012, etc.) have created a model of scholarship in their volume of letters by acclaimed African American writer Ralph Ellison (1913-1994), author of the 1953 National Book Award winner, Invisible Man. Organized by decade beginning in the 1930s, the letters are contextualized by a comprehensive general introduction, a focused introduction to each chapter, and informative footnotes where needed; a detailed chronology appends the volume. Ellison's long, candid letters trace his transformation from a "savvy and street-smart" kid born and raised in Oklahoma to a sophisticated world traveler, award-winning author, college professor, and literary celebrity. As he worked on essays, stories, and his first novel, Ellison revealed his ambition to change public consciousness. To Gotham Book Mart owner Frances Steloff, he cited Bernard Shaw's plays, which he read as a teenager, as a decisive influence, especially the prefaces, which illuminated "the relationship between ideas, art, and politics." "Frankly, we are angry," he wrote to a friend in 1939, but the prominence of figures such as Richard Wright and Langston Hughes was proof that African American authors "have overcome the cultural and intellectual isolation" that, until recently, they experienced. Ellison's cultural landscape expanded vastly when he was in residence at the American Academy in Rome in 1955: "Ruins, architecture, art, palaces, churches and graveyards, my head is whirling with it all." Surely, he said, "human aspiration found its most magnificent expression here." Among Ellison's many literary correspondents was Saul Bellow, with whom he felt aesthetic camaraderie. Together, he wrote in 1959, "we're moving toward an emancipation of our fiction from the clichs of recent styles and limitations of conception."An impressively edited volume commemorates a canonical literary figure. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Library Journal Review

Ellison, best known as the author of the novel Invisible Man (1952), is a master of the dying form of epistolary writing, as amply illustrated in this generous selection of letters from 1933 to 1993, edited by Ellison's literary executor Callahan (Odell Professor of Humanities, Lewis and Clark Univ.) and Connor (The Aesthetics of Toni Morrison). Whether writing to his peers such as Richard Wright, Saul Bellow, Albert Murray, or Stanley Edgar Hyman, or addressing his mother; his wife, actress Rose Poindexter; or lifelong friends from Oklahoma City, Ellison never fails to be entertaining or illuminating. One of the most insightful entries, to his former teacher at Tuskegee University, Morteza Sprague, dated May 19, 1954, speaks poignantly on the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision mandating the end of school segregation. Numerous correspondence revolves around Invisible Man, as well as the fitful composition of Ellison's unfinished second novel, Juneteenth, which he worked on for nearly 40 years. VERDICT An invaluable volume for Ellison scholars and recommended for all readers interested in American literature.--L.J. Parascandola, Long Island Univ., Brooklyn



Letters from the Thirties Ralph Ellison's letters from the 1930s tell an affecting story of his journey from boy to man. He writes from Tuskegee, Alabama; from New York City; and, in between, from Dayton, Ohio, where, after his mother's unexpected death, he enters the months of his young man's moratorium, writing Richard Wright that boyhood is over. "Geography is fate," Ellison often said in later life, sometimes swiveling a formidable cigar between his thumb and fingers. Certainly the thirties letters show these three places shaping the emotional and psychological geography he was fated to bring to his life. Tuskegee, home to the flourishing, first-among-equals national black college in the black belt of the fiercely Jim Crow Deep South; Dayton, epitome of small-town middle America, surrounded by woods teeming with game and wild pears; New York, the country's greatest city, with the "black metropolis" of Harlem within its borders--in different ways each place sharpened the edges of a personality that Ellison associated with the territory in which he was born and bred: the southwestern part of Oklahoma, in particular Oklahoma City. The young Ralph Ellison who arrived at Tuskegee was a homeboy just leaving home. Still a kid, he was savvy and street-smart about some things, naive about others, especially the false masks and true faces of power. Of the more than fifty letters he wrote from Tuskegee, all but six were to his mother, Ida Bell. (Four were to his younger brother, Herbert, whom Ralph affectionately calls "Huck," and instructs to "watch your tenses and endings, don't write fool when you mean fooling or fooled"; one was to his stepfather, John Bell, referred to as "Mister John" or "Mr. Bell," whom he praises as a generous, much "above the average stepfather"; and a long letter was to Vivian Steveson, his old flame from Oklahoma City.) "Dear Mama," he writes his first day at Tuskegee, a salutation that for the next three years alternates only with "Dearest Mama." His sign-offs on the numerous letters to his mother are not so uniform. They seem to vary according to his shifting sense of self at the moment he is writing. "Your Hobo Son, Ralph W. Ellison," he wittily signs that first letter. Other sign-offs over the years include "Your son" (multiple times), "Till next time," "Ralph," "Your son Ralph," "Your son Ralph W. Ellison," "As ever," "Yours as ever," more and more often "With love" or "Love," and, on one occasion, "Be good." His first letter contains a list of fourteen items he needs ASAP and unpaid bills he wants his mother to pay in Oklahoma City. There is plenty of rushed chatter, but he does not mention the deep gash he received just above his eye fleeing railroad bulls in Decatur, Alabama, on the last leg of his journey to Tuskegee. That omission belies the frankness that usually marks Ellison's letters to his mother. For three years at Tuskegee he writes her about his mundane activities; his joys and sorrows, intense and fleeting; his adventures and needs, financial and emotional; and his gradual awareness, in the process of becoming a young man, of the unforgiving nature of the world. He writes with enviable ease about all facets of his life, holding back little, as if writing his mama was a way of keeping faith with himself, especially his feelings. Not far beneath the conventions of Ralph's mother-son relationship there is often the strong feel of a steady, abiding friendship. Always his mother, Mama is also a friend-in-trust with whom young Ellison is comfortable--or, if not always comfortable, at least determined to share the flow of his life. Ralph's lot at Tuskegee was a difficult one. "You know I travel with the richer gang here and this clothes problem is a pain," he writes with a larger dash of self-pity than perhaps he realizes. At the same time that he sympathizes with the on-and-off employment and hand-to-mouth existence of his mother and stepfather in the Oklahoma City of the Depression, his letters home are full of appeals for money. He asks for as much as "Mama" and "Mister John" can spare for his band uniform, black drill shoes, winter coat, and other incidental needs and small pleasures: "I have no razor blades, no soap, no haircut, no toothpaste, no anything. I wish you would send as many of these as possible as soon as possible. You could send a box, and you could cook a cake? and send a few sardines etc." Reminders of the amount and due date of Tuskegee's numerous fees and charges usually accompany Ralph's list of personal needs. Yet, sensing his sacrificing mother's "Ellison pride," he also includes details of his activities, accomplishments, and musical performances, especially his occasional solos, ready-made for her to share with family and friends back in Oklahoma City--those he calls "dear folks" in letters and knows are rooting for him to succeed as their native son. However, what stands out more than eighty years later is Ellison's candor with his mother about the deeper currents merging with the flow of his ordinary life. Writing to her, he shares his personality along with the point of view he is developing toward the world around him. Consider his chilling, yet not sensationalized account of brazen, repeated efforts by the Tuskegee registrar and dean of men to compel him to trade sexual favors in exchange for official permission to be away from campus for a week in the summer. "This is just some more of the mess I've mentioned before," he writes his mother in August 1934. "The person trying to study should not be worried and nagged at because he does not consent to prostitute himself." Though Ida Bell's response to her son is not explicit, Ralph's comments imply she has understood him and he has been comforted by her quiet support for his refusal to accept the abusive conditions imposed on him, even if the consequences are forfeiting privileges that are his due as a Tuskegee student and free person. Other accounts of how power works in the world, written to his mother from Tuskegee and later from New York, foreshadow his "On Being the Target of Discrimination." Written and published in 1989, this memoir/essay is a riveting, witty account of how in the years after his father's death, when he was three and his brother Herbert a mere six or seven weeks old, their mother fought Jim Crow by schooling her boys in the power of little conspiracies to resist segregation by pretending to accept its values and conditions. His letters to his mother also display a disarming honesty and directness about how Ellison sees the young women at Tuskegee. Though not graphic, his observations leave no doubt that, for him, sexual activity is necessary, normal, and healthy. His nonchalance makes clear he feels no need to conceal or evade his experience for fear of his mother's disapproval. In the last letter he wrote from Tuskegee in June 1936, he refuses to fudge his diminishing romantic interest in his former Oklahoma City girlfriend, Vivian Steveson, whom his mother continues to regard with favor. "You seem to feel that I miss her. This is a nice romantic way to have things happen: but in this case it's hardly true to life. There are two or three others who have come my way since she did and I must confess that I miss either of them much more than I ever did miss Vivian, and I would much rather see anyone of them any day than that little lady. You must understand Mama that I don't feel just as you do about things." Other letters are memorable for touching, sometimes amusing, expressions of Ellison's love for his mother. He closes an upbeat, chatty Christmas letter of 1934 with a play on the nickname he bristled at hearing white men use to her face as a small boy. "Be a good Brownie," he tells her, tongue in cheek, "and write soon." And in March 1935, he brags of showing close friends Walter Williams and Hazel Harrison a charming photograph just received from Ida. "The picture," he writes her, "is the most appreciated thing you have sent since I've been here . . . and when you looked up at me from the frame--well I felt very strange, it was the next best thing to seeing you." Excerpted from The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison by Ralph Ellison All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.