November’s Autumn Classics Challenge: Ralph Ellison

Posted January 9, 2012 by in Reading Challenges / 14 Comments

November's Autumn Classics Challenge
Click to see January’s prompts

January’s prompt for the November’s Autumn Classics Challenge comes with choices, depending on how far I am in the book. This month I am reading Invisible Man, written by Ralph Ellison over the span of seven years and finally published in 1952. It won the National Book Award in 1953.

I just started reading this late Saturday night, so I’m only on chapter two, but I can already tell that I am going to love it. Ellison had me hooked from the Introduction that he wrote for the edition reprinted in 1981.

Since I haven’t read very much of the book yet, I am going to answer the questions from Level 1: Who is the author? What do they look like? When were they born? Where did they live? What does their handwriting look like? What are some of the other novels they’ve written? What is an interesting and random fact about their life?

Ralph Ellison photoRalph Waldo Ellison (named after Ralph Waldo Emerson) was born in Oklahoma on March 1, 1914. He lived there with his family until 1933, at which time he moved to Alabama to train as a musician at the Tuskegee Institute. In 1936, Ellison had to leave Tuskegee because of financial problems, and he moved to Harlem. There he met Richard Wright, which started Ellison on his path to becoming a writer. Ellison’s fiction career started with short stories published for various magazines. Over the course of his life, he wrote many reviews, short stories, articles, and criticisms that were published in national magazines and anthologies.

Ellison is best known for the book I am currently reading–Invisible Man–but while he was alive, he also published a collection of essays titled Shadow and Act (1964), and a second collection of essays titled Going to the Territory (1986). He wrote 2000 pages of a second work of fiction titled Juneteenth, but he never completed it before his death (from pancreatic cancer) in 1994. This and other works were published after his death.

I found this interesting information about Ellison on PBS’ website for its American Masters series:

In his own life, Ellison’s interests were as far ranging as his “integrative” imagination. He was expert at fishing, hunting, repairing car engines, and assembling radios and stereo systems. His haberdasher in New York said that he “knew more about textiles than anyone I’ve ever met,” and his friend Saul Bellow called him a “thoroughgoing expert on the raising of African violets.” He was also an accomplished sculptor, musician, and photographer. The scope of Ellison’s mind and vision may have contributed to the growing unwieldiness of his much-awaited second novel, which he toiled over for forty years. He planned it as three books, a saga that would encompass the entire American experience. The book was still unfinished when Ellison died in New York in 1994 at the age of eighty.

Photo of Ellison's handwriting

I found the best example of Ellison’s handwriting on Bibliopolis, a website that offers hosting for independent, rare, and used booksellers. This inscription is from an autographed copy of Invisible Man that is selling for $15,000. If I were independently wealthy, I would have clicked the “buy now” button as soon as I found this. Wow.


  • Now there’s another book I have to read. You review has so much interesting information about Ellison. Thank You.

  • I am so so SO excited you are reading this. This is one of my all-time favorite books and one I teach every time I teach American Literature. I think it is wholly overlooked as one of the best examples of American literature. The first time I read this book, I was a sophomore in college, and the only way I can describe it is with the cliche: It was life changing. I thought things I had never thought and felt things I had never felt.

    I look forward to your thoughts on it.

    • I am loving it so far, and I’m already more than halfway through it. I can’t wait to be able to chat with you about it when I’m done. It might be cliché, but “life changing” is sometimes the only way we can describe good literature. I felt the same way after reading Richard Wright’s Black Boy and Native Son, so I know exactly what you mean. Ellison is definitely having the same effect on me.

      • Yes, if you liked those two, I feel assured you will enjoy this book immensely and have a lot to talk about afterwards. I could discuss this book for years and not tire of it.

  • I’d love to hear what you think of The Invisible Man, and maybe learn some great quotes from it! Didn’t they make that into a movie? Thanks for the informative post!

  • I’m very interested in reading The Invisible Man though I don’t own a copy and have not put it on my TBR for 2012. I read parts of it in a recent English class. Very moving.

  • Interesting stuff, thank you. 🙂
    Here’s my Classics Challenge post on Anne Brontë

  • I really enjoyed reading this post. Having just read some reviews on Invisible Man, I want to read it now. This is an important book portraying an African -American in the 1950’s.

  • I just read this last year, so it was great finding out more about Ellison. You really get a sense of his musical background in the book. That’s too bad that he didn’t finish that last novel.

  • I swear, H, you read some amazing books. Hope your weekend is going well.

  • I’ve been meaning to read this one ever since Stephen King mentioned it in Stand By Me – would you believe that it’s pretty much not possible to get this book from a library in Germany? I’m looking forward to reading more about it here, maybe I’ll buy it and put it on my reading list for this Challenge as well.

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