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 clichés of recent styles and limitations of conception.”
An impressively edited volume commemorates a canonical literary figure.