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Ralph Ellison on Fiction as a Voice for Injustice, a Chariot of Hope, and a Lens on the Human Experience

“Fiction … can arrive at the truth about the human condition, here and now, with all the bright magic of the fairy tale.”

“Good fiction is made of what is real, and reality is difficult to come by,” beloved writer Ralph Ellison (March 1, 1913–April 16, 1994) famously said.

In 1953, upon receiving the National Book Award for Invisible Man — the only novel he published in his lifetime — Ellison captured the heart of fiction in his remarkable acceptance speech, included in the immensely rewarding The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison (public library).

Forty-year-old Ellison — a lover of language, a connoisseur of symbolism, and astute observer of humanity — writes:

If I were asked in all seriousness just what I considered to be the chief significance of Invisible Man as a fiction, I would reply: Its experimental attitude and its attempt to return to the mood of personal moral responsibility for democracy which typified the best of our nineteenth-century fiction.

When I examined the rather rigid concepts of reality which informed a number of the works which impressed me and to which I owed a great deal, I was forced to conclude that for me and for so many hundreds of thousands of Americans, reality was simply far more mysterious and uncertain, and at the same time more exciting, and still, despite its raw violence and capriciousness, more promising.

To see America with an awareness of its rich diversity and its almost magical fluidity and freedom I was forced to conceive of a novel unburdened by the narrow naturalism which has led after so many triumphs to the final and unrelieved despair which marks so much of our current fiction. I was to dream of a prose which was flexible, and swift as American change is swift, confronting the inequalities and brutalities of our society forthrightly, but yet thrusting forth its images of hope, human fraternity, and individual self-realization. A prose which would make use of the richness of our speech, the idiomatic expression, and the rhetorical flourishes from past periods which are still alive among us. Despite my personal failures there must be possible a fiction which, leaving sociology and case histories to the scientists, can arrive at the truth about the human condition, here and now, with all the bright magic of the fairy tale.”

Complement Ellison’s Collected Essays with the author on race and the power of the writer in society. For more on the distinction between truth and fiction, see this omnibus of insight by some of modernity’s greatest writers.

Published March 7, 2012




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