Ellison was not known for giving interviews, but in 1966 he sat down at his home in New York City with Robert Hughes. The video of their conversation shows Ellison dressed in a sweater vest and dark-framed glasses. He’s in his element—an office decorated with stacks of books and Buddhist statues. When answering questions about American society, Ellison leans back and waves his cigar in the air. When talking about going to fight in World War II, or struggling to write his first novel, he leans forward and talks out of the corner of his mouth. Toward the end of the conversation, Ellison reads a passage out of his second novel, which he was working on at the time.
LISTEN: Hear the full interview, wherein Ralph Ellison reveals the illness that led him to write Invisible Man and reads a passage from his second novel, which he never completed.
Hughes: So, Ellison, how do you feel about being interviewed?
Ellison: Well, naturally, you feel quite mixed about it. And you feel a fascination. I’m fascinated by how the interviewer’s mind works, and I’m also aware that, for all my shunning of a public role which is divorced from my identity as a writer, any kind of statement that I make, anytime my face appears, there are a lot of people who are going to be interpreting my face, my statements, in terms of my racial identity rather than in terms of the quality of what I have to say.
Hughes: Ralph Ellison was born in Oklahoma City and was named for Ralph Waldo Emerson. A music major and varsity athlete in college, he only decided he was a writer in his mid-20s. He had first tried musical composition, then sculpture. Since that decision, he has also worked as a professional photographer, an electronic specialist, and as a teacher of literature. Here, in his Manhattan apartment, 150th Street and Riverside Drive, where he lives with his wife, Fanny McConnell, Mr. Ellison, at 51, took time out from the last stages of work on his new novel to grant one of his rare interviews and also to read a passage from his complex work in progress.
Mr. Ellison, would you describe the genesis of your first novel?
Ellison: I came to write Invisible Man as a result of a failure. I had conceived of a novel during the time I was going to sea during the Second World War. I was working as a second cook and baker on merchant ships, but somehow the Rosenwald Fund had granted me a scholarship to work on a novel. And I had a novel. It was wartime novel wherein a Negro flyer comes down, gets captured by the Nazis, and is placed in a detention camp where he is the highest-ranking officer. You can see how [laughs] my mind was working. He was the highest-ranking American, and then you had the Nazi who was philosophically minded and who pitted this American against the other Americans.
Well, going into the harb on this particular trip to sea when I was working on this book, and it turned out to be such a hot passage that I came back to the States with a blood pressure of about 90 and absolutely through with that particular idea. But, one thing led to another—I was somewhat ill and the Merchant Marine hospital people told me to get a rest. And I went to a friend’s place in Waitsfield, Vermont, and while there, certain things that I’d been doing—reading, thinking about—came into focus, a sort of unconscious focus, as often happens when you’re writing something. One morning, scribbling, I wrote the first sentence of what later became Invisible Man. And I played with that, started to reject it, and then it intrigued me and I began to put other things with it. And pretty soon I had a novel going and I began to work out a conceptual outline of it. And as fast as I could work out the concepts of it, the incidents started flowing in on me.
One of the, shall I say, “literary” traditions—although it’s really a tradition of eloquence—which I bring to fiction from my Negro background is the eloquence which you find within the Negro church, wherein the minister, who might preach variations on the same sermon a hundred times a year or more, but who must at the same time believe that as he is initiated; he is a manipulator of emotions and of eloquence and of sacred vision, so to speak. Not that I got it solely from Negro churches or listening to Negro orators, but it gelled with, for instance, the long sermons in Joyce inThe Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and so I was feeding that Negro church experience into Joyce, and I was learning to see that this kind of eloquence was a very valuable thing for a writer of fiction—not only because it has possibilities of presenting something new and fresh for readers who are not Negro, who don’t share that particular experience, but because it has its own rhetorical shade, it has its own stable cluster of imagery, imagery which gets into folklore, and it gets into the blues, it gets into folk song, it gets into papa songs written by Negroes.
Hughes: How near to completion is your work in progress?
Ellison: Well, if I knew exactly I think I’d rest a little freer in my own mind. But I can tell you this: that the first book of the novel is now being typed and soon as that’s done I’ll start working with my editor on it. And that’s about as much as I can say about it. I want to publish the book in the coming year, so the pressure is on.
Ralph Ellison never managed to finish the work in progress. One year after this interview, in 1967, there was a fire that destroyed his vacation home in Plainfield, Massachusetts, as well as the 300-page manuscript for this book. The work in progress has since been published in two forms: once as Juneteenth in 1999, and again in an expanded edition in 2010 as Three Days Before the Shooting.
Published in This Land, Vol. 5, Issue 5, March 1, 2014. Interview used by permission of the Oklahoma Historical Society.