- Purchase/rental options available:
MLN 117.5 (2002) 1135-1139
[Access article in PDF]
Lawrence Jackson, Ralph Ellison: Emergence of Genius. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2002. 498 pages.
In 1952 Ralph W. Ellison burst on the literary scene with Invisible Man, his first and only novel that was published during his lifetime. The novel was a signal achievement for any writer but especially for a first novel. The young writer went on to win the National Book Award for fiction in 1953. Born in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, in 1913, Ellison was then thirty-nine years old. For the next forty-one years, he worked on another novel from which he published a number of sections: "And Hickman Arrives" in The Noble Savage, 1960; "A Song of Innocence" in The Iowa Review, 1970; "Cadillac Flambé" in American Review 16: The Magazine of New American Writing in 1973; "Backwacking, A Plea to the Senator" in The Massachusetts Review, 1977. In addition to work-ing on the second novel, Ellison wrote fine essays and reviews that were later collected in two volumes. He also lectured widely and taught at a number of universities; and yet, there was no second novel. What is clear in all of the above stories and essays is that Ellison had a first rate critical mind, and he also was a careful student of the craft of fiction.
In April of 1994, Ellison died at the age of eighty or eighty-one. He was remembered as a great American writer, with his reputation resting on the novel he published at the age of thirty-nine. Of course the question in the minds of those who had waited forty-one years: will the new novel be published posthumously? If so, how would it stand next to the 1952 novel that took the literary world by storm? In 1999, Juneteenth: A Novel edited by John F. Callahan appeared. After the smoke cleared, we noted the flashes of brilliance in the text, and we sadly observed that while Jacob may have indeed conceived and executed much of the text, the hand of Esau had arranged the text for publication. This new novel would be no match for Invisible Man.
Yet no one had undertaken the task of writing a biography of this very fine African American writer. Professor Lawrence Jackson's new biography is just the book that we need to fill the void for understanding how Ralph Waldo Ellison arrived on the literary scene. The volume under review is an excellent biography on Ellison's life up to 1953. Professor Jackson carefully situates Ellison's life in the times that so profoundly shaped his parents and the young Ellison. As noted Ellison was born during the second decade of the 20th century—during a time when African Americans had few rights. Many believed that they could achieve their share of the American dream if they struck out for the territory, not like Huck to escape community and responsi-bility, but like Jim in order to embrace community, i.e., where they would be able to work hard and enjoy the fruits of their labor. Both of Ellison's parents were from the Deep South. His father was born in South Carolina, just after the end of Reconstruction. Lewis Ellison soon struck out, searching for a better landscape. His searches took him to Tennessee and to the United States army during the Spanish American War. Lewis Ellison acquired a good [End Page 1135] education while in the army. What is also clear is that he stood up for his rights. In doing so, he was given a dishonorable discharge from the army.
Like other African Americans who followed the advice of Ida Bell Wells and Pap Singelton, Lewis Ellison ended up in Oklahoma, looking for his share of the American Dream. Likewise, Ellison's mother, Ida Millsap, was a strong-willed woman, who was born in Georgia. She too wanted to escape the oppressive racism of the Deep South. Thus she also landed in Oklahoma City. By early 1910, Lewis Ellison and Ida Millsap were married, and they were determined that their children...