Ralph Ellison and the Genius of America
A provocative reappraisal of the legacy of a major American writer
Ralph Ellison has long been admired as the author of one of the most important American novels of the twentieth century, Invisible Man. Yet he has also been dismissed by some critics as a writer who only published one major work of fiction and a black intellectual out of touch with his times. In this book, Timothy Parrish offers a fundamentally different assessment of Ellison’s legacy, describing him as the most important American writer since William Faulkner and someone whose political and cultural achievements have not been fully recognized.
Embracing jazz artist Wynton Marsalis’s characterization of Ellison as the unacknowledged “political theorist” of the civil rights movement, Parrish argues that the defining event of Ellison’s career was not Invisible Man but the 1954 Supreme Court decision that set his country on the road to racial integration. In Parrish’s view, no other American intellectual, black or white, better grasped the cultural implications of the new era than Ellison did; no other major American writer has been so misunderstood.
Drawing on Ellison’s recently published “unfinished” novel, newly released archival materials, and unpublished correspondence, Parrish provides a sustained reconsideration of the writer’s crucial friendships with Richard Wright, Robert Penn Warren, and C. Vann Woodward to show how his life was dedicated to creating an American society in which all could participate equally. By resituating Ellison’s career in the historical context of its making, Parrish challenges the premises that distorted the writer’s reception in his own lifetime to make the case for Ellison as the essential visionary of post–Civil War America.
"Timothy Parrish’s Ralph Ellison and the Genius of America argues for a new understanding of Ralph Ellison’s importance to American life and literature. Eschewing what he believes to be artificial divisions between art and politics, Parrish contends that Ellison’s 1952 classic, Invisible Man, provided a blueprint for the civil rights revolution that followed. The book’s greatest contribution comes in the way that it explicates Ellison’s relationships—personal, philosophical, and literary—with Philip Roth, Richard Wright, C. Vann Woodward, Robert Penn Warren, and Martin Luther King, Jr."—Adam Bradley, coeditor of Three Days before the Shooting: The Modern Library Edition of Ralph Ellison’s Second Novel
"In sum, Parrish cuts through the propaganda of discourse and reminds the reader of Ellison's genius. Highly recommended."—Choice