Ralph Ellison Quotes

Ralph Ellison is most well known for writing Invisible Man, one of my favorite books.  If you liked that book, then I recommend reading his book of essays Shadow and Act.  The collection contains a few interviews and speeches, as well as essays on the Negro during his times and Jazz music.  The essays betray an extremely deep thinker.  Ellison pierced the American fabric and what it feels like to live in it with Invisible Man.  Shadow and Act elaborates further the themes of the book and how he got there.

From That Same Pain, That Same Pleasure, an interview on being a Negro writer:

Sometimes you get a sense of mission even before you are aware of it.  An act is demanded of you but you’re like a sleepwalker searching for some important object, and when you find it you wake up to discover that it is the agency through which that mission, assigned you long ago, at a time you barely understood the command, could be accomplished.

If the writer exists for any social good, his role is that of preserving in art those human values which can endure by confronting change.

From the essay Twentieth-Century Fiction and the Black Mask of Humanity:

For while objectively a social reality, the work of art is, in its genesis, a projection of a deeply personal process, and any approach that ignores the personal at the expense of the social is necessarily incomplete.

From his acceptance speech for the National Book Award:

What has been missing from so much experimental writing has been the passionate will to dominate reality as well as the laws of art.

From the interview The Art of Fiction on Invisible Man:

The three parts [of the novel] represent the narrator’s movement from, using Kenneth Burke’s terms, purpose to passion to perception… After all, it’s a novel about innocence and human error, a struggle through illusion to reality.  Each section begins with a sheet of paper; each piece of paper is exchanged for another and contains a definition of his identity, or the social role he is to play as defined for him by others.  But all say essentially the same thing, ‘Keep this nigger boy running.’  Before he could have some voice in his own destiny he had to discard these old identities and illusions; his enlightenment couldn’t come until then.

The major flaw in the hero’s character is his unquestioning willingness to do what is required of him by others as a way to success, and this was the specific form of his ‘innocence.’

In the Epilogue the hero discovers what he had not discovered throughout the book: you have to make your own decisions; you have to think for yourself.

The hero’s invisibility is not a matter of being seen, but a refusal to run the risk of his own humanity, which involves guilt.

Ellison was a brilliant essay writer and an eloquent speaker.  Pick up the book and you will find sentences critiquing Hemingway that are 200 words long.

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