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Ralph Ellison: A Biography

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  • Posted October 27, 2008

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    The Power and Genius of Ralph Ellison

    "Invisible Man," "Shadow and Act," and "Going to the Territory," all books by that quintessential twentieth century literary artist Ralph Waldo Ellison, remain towering masterworks of American literature for their penetrating explorations of racial identity, cultural complexity, and historical consequences in the United States. With Senator Barack Obama¿s historic bid for the White House evolving daily into the possibility of an historic win, Ellison¿s brilliantly charged writings, which first catapulted him to fame in the 1950s, are perhaps more relevant now than ever before, making Arnold Rampersad¿s detailed biography of the great writer one of the best reads around during these very exciting times. <BR/><BR/>Biographies of high-achieving African Americans have too often in the past fallen into one of two categories: those that romanticized their subjects as cultural heroes and those that condemned them as embarrassing villains. Fortunately, in Rampersad, we have a biographer who assigned himself the demanding task of providing as full and honest a portrait of his subject as he could. He does so with balanced assessments of both the publicly applauded Ellison who became a permanent fixture in world literature the moment he won the National Book Award for Invisible Man in 1953, and detailed sketches of the more private Ellison, who bemoaned his lack of children and wrestled for almost half a century with his inability to follow his initial literary victory with a second completed novel. <BR/><BR/>As one might expect from any capable literary biographer, Rampersad provides readers with a highly engaging dramatic account of Ellison¿s beginnings in Oklahoma City and his subsequent rise from demoralizing poverty and tragedy to international literary stardom. Much of the story of Ellison¿s youth and his struggles to give birth to his identity as a writer is already well known, both from Ellison¿s essays and Lawrence Jackson¿s biography of the author: Ralph Ellison, Emergence of Genius. Even so, Rampersad¿s own eloquent placement of Ellison within the greater contexts of American social history, and within such specific cultural movements as the Harlem Renaissance, shine an even more revealing light on the author. <BR/><BR/>Moreover, high school and college students writing papers on Invisible Man can duly thank Rampersad for his lucid dissection of the surrealistic, historical, and political elements that make the novel the uniquely brilliant American coming of age tale that it is. <BR/><BR/>Because Invisible Man is a celebrated novel that has sold untold millions of copies in different languages around the world for more than half a century, the stories of cultural politics and extramarital dalliances surrounding its celebrity author may not stun readers too much. What might, though, while reading along, is the realization of just how much cultural and political influence Ellison came to wield based on the strength of that one mighty novel and a couple of volumes of essays. With his role as a founding participant in such organizations as the Commission on Educational Television, which in time would lead to the development of public broadcast stations, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Ellison occupied a position in which he could make or break the careers of various writers with his registered approval or disapproval of them. <BR/><BR/><BR/>by Aberjhani<BR/>author of The American Poet Who Went Home Again<BR/>and Encyclopedia of the Ha

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