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Ralph Ellison: Emergence Of Genius
by Lawrence Patrick Jackson
Publisher: Wiley 2002
Category: Non-fiction20th centuryManhattanNeighborhoods
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Ralph Ellison (1913-1994) earned his place in the canon of African-American literature in a single act, the publication of Invisible Man (1952). His only completed novel, its controlled fury and modernist polish were thought by many to represent both the vanguard and the future of African-American literature. The book's uniqueness and its influence on subsequent generations have made the absence of an Ellison biography conspicuous; this first study by Jackson, an assistant professor of English at Howard University, ably answers the need. Its greatest limitation is that it ends in 1953, only halfway through Ellison's life. Hence Jackson doesn't discuss the highly anticipated second novel, the manuscript of which was destroyed in a fire in 1967, and which Ellison spent the rest of his life trying to complete. (The fragments were put together by Ellison's executor and published in 2001 as Juneteenth.) Material on Ellison's early years is hard to come by, and readers will find few of the anecdotes, letters or quotations that make up biographers' usual stock-in-trade. Still, these constraints do not seriously detract from the book's real merits. Jackson does a masterful job of re-creating the environments in which Ellison lived: childhood in Jim Crow Oklahoma, education at Tuskegee Institute, coming-of-age in the wake of the Harlem Renaissance. Ellison's intellectual and cultural development is faithfully traced, carefully researched and copiously annotated. Ellison will receive more comprehensive scrutiny in 2003, the projected publication date of acclaimed biographer Arnold Rampersad's authorized treatment. Till then, Jackson's study of the early Ellison does a fine job of shedding light on this enigmatic and revered figure in American letters.

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