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Ralph Ellison and the Genius of America

Timothy Parrish

Publication Year: 2012

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 Drawing on Ellison’s recently published “unfinished” novel, newly released archival materials, and unpublished correspondence, Parrish provides a sustained reconsideration of the writer’s crucial friendships with Richard Wright, Robert Penn Warren, and C. Vann Woodward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.

Published by: University of Massachusetts Press

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p. iii-iii

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p. iv-iv

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pp. v-vi

Table of Contents

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xvi

This book began in part as a response to Arnold Rampersad’s 2007 biography of Ralph Ellison. It seemed to me that Rampersad’s book had exhausted a line of thinking that began with the early reviews of ...

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Ellison Reconstituted: Beyond Invisible Man

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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 ...

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Chapter 1: Philip Roth’s Invisible Man

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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 ...

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Chapter 2: Richard Wright’s Apprentice

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pp. 85-127

Ralph Ellison did not write Invisible Man because 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 write ...

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Chapter 3: Ellison, Warren, and Woodward: The Other Side of Invisible Man

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pp. 128-173

The drama of Invisible Man does 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 that 12 Million Black Voices spoke for him, he was responding to his sense that Negroes had ...

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Chapter 4: Invisible Man’s Political Vision: Ellison and King

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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 ...

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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 ...


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pp. 231-236

Works Cited

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pp. 237-244


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pp. 245-254

Back Cover

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p. 255-255

E-ISBN-13: 9781613761885
E-ISBN-10: 1613761880
Print-ISBN-13: 9781558499218
Print-ISBN-10: 1558499210

Page Count: 280
Publication Year: 2012