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E is for Ellison

Inspired by Stuck in a Book, I am continuing this occasional series, in which I will discuss favorite authors, alphabetically. The latest is Ralph Ellison.

How many books do I have by Ellison?
Two: his masterpiece, the novel Invisible Man, and his essay collection Shadow and Act. I also once owned his second, posthumously-published but nowhere-near-completed novel, Juneteenth, but found it so unsatisfying that I got rid of it.

How many of these have I read?
Of the Ellison that I currently own, I've only read Invisible Man. I've also read Juneteenth (see above) and his story collection Flying Home and Other Stories (checked out from the library). I bought Shadow and Act only recently, and will read it by the end of this year.

How did I start reading Ellison?
I think I first read Ellison's short story "The King of the Bingo Game" in a literature class during college. Or maybe I didn't read it in that class, but it was in the Norton Anthology of Short Fiction that was the textbook for the class, and I read the story sometime afterward. It's a truly great story that I re-read recently. I might even record a reading of it for the blog. Fortunately, that story eventually lead me to Invisible Man.

General impressions...
Invisible Man is simply brilliant, and one of the greatest works of American literature. Besides the impeccable prose, vivid scenes (oh, the Battle Royale! the Golden Day!), exciting plot and deep philosophical ideas, the novel gains much of its power from its timeless relevance. Although Ellison writes about the 1940s, its events could still happen today; in fact, the narrator's eulogy for Brother Tod Clifton could have easily been used this year to honor George Floyd or Jacob Blake. I've read the book five or six times since acquiring it during the late 1980s; it's a long, densely-written book that demands a slow, careful reading. But the brilliance of Invisible Man made Juneteenth utterly disappointing for me. Ellison spent something like forty years writing and re-writing the latter, and obviously never quite got it the way he wanted it. The thousand-plus page manuscript he left behind at his death must have been an unruly mess (the unedited manuscript has also been published, as Three Days Before the Shooting), which his literary executor had only minimal success at stitching together into an only occasionally coherent novel.

If you've never read Ellison, you should start with...
Invisible Man. Obviously.

If I had to get rid of one Ellison book, it would be...
Actually, I already did - Juneteenth.

Other "E" candidates:
Andrew Ervin, Jeffrey Eugenides.

September 28, 2020 in Books | Permalink