The Department of English sponsors the annual Ralph Ellison Lecture, which features distinguished scholars, writers, and artists from around the country in an effort to encourage critical examination of significant intellectual, aesthetic, social and political issues. The lectures are intended to recognize Ellison's contributions to American letters and to invoke the spirit of intellectual rigor and creativity that these achievements exemplify. The list of past lecturers includes Albert Murray, Cornel West, Arnold Rampersad, and Natasha Trethewey.
Ralph Waldo Ellison was an American novelist, literary critic, and scholar. Ellison is best known for his novel Invisible Man, which won the National Book Award in 1953. He also wrote Shadow and Act (1964), a collection of political, social and critical essays, and Going to the Territory (1986). A posthumous novel, Juneteenth, was published after being assembled from voluminous notes he left after his death.
Ralph Waldo Ellison, named after Ralph Waldo Emerson, was born at 407 East First Street in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, to Lewis Alfred Ellison and Ida Millsap, on Saturday March 1, 1913. He was the second of three brothers.
Ellison was admitted to Tuskegee Institute in 1933 for lack of a trumpet player in its orchestra. Ellison hopped freight trains to get to Alabama, and was soon to find out that the institution was no less class-conscious than white institutions generally were.
Tuskegee's renowned music department was headed by composer William L. Dawson. Ellison was also guided by the department's piano instructor, Hazel Harrison. While he studied music primarily in his classes, he spent his free time in the library with modernist classics. In 1934, he began to work as a desk clerk at the university library, where he read James Joyce and Gertrude Stein. Librarian Walter Bowie Williams enthusiastically let Ellison share in his knowledge.
A major influence upon Ellison was English teacher Morteza Drezel Sprague, to whom Ellison later dedicated his essay collection Shadow and Act. He opened Ellison's eyes to "the possibilities of literature as a living art" and to "the glamour he would always associate with the literary life." Through Sprague Ellison became familiar with Fyodor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment and Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure, identifying with the "brilliant, tortured anti-heroes" of those works.
As a child, Ellison evidenced what would become a lifelong interest in audio technology, starting by taking apart and rebuilding radios, and later moved on to constructing and customizing elaborate hi-fi stereo systems as an adult. He discussed this passion in a December 1955 essay, "Living With Music," in High Fidelity magazine. Ellison scholar John S. Wright contends that this deftness with the ins-and-outs of electronic devices went on to inform Ellison's approach to writing and the novel form. Ellison remained at Tuskegee until 1936.
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