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February 20, 1996

Library of Congress Acquires Ralph Ellison Collection

Librarian of Congress James H. Billington announced today the acquisition of the papers of author Ralph Ellison. Ellison's collection of manuscripts, drafts and notes for both published and unpublished works; his speeches, correspondence, notebooks, lectures, subject files, photographs, and recordings; and his entire personal working library are being acquired from his widow, Fanny McConnell Ellison, over a four-year period.

"By giving voice to the inarticulate, invisible elements in American society, Ralph Ellison illustrated his belief that art and democracy are intertwined. The preservation of his personal papers is a major event in 20th century cultural history because it enriches the analysis of what Ellison called ongoing `twin experiments' -- the novel and the nation," Dr. Billington said.

Ralph Waldo Ellison (1914-1994) was born in Oklahoma City and studied at Tuskegee Institute in 1933-36. During the Depression he participated in the New York City Writers' Project under the Works Progress Administration. He served with the U.S. Merchant Marine from 1943 to 1945 and married Fanny McConnell in 1946. During a long and distinguished literary career he taught at the following universities and colleges: Bard (1958-61), Chicago (1961), Rutgers (1962-64), Yale (1966), and New York University (1970-79), as well as Columbia, Fisk, Antioch, Princeton and Bennington. He served as the Library's Honorary Consultant in American Letters from 1966 to 1972.

Dr. Billington paid tribute to Mr. Ellison, who wished his papers to come to the Library of Congress; to Mrs. Ellison for her generosity; and to the Librarian of Congress Emeritus, Daniel J. Boorstin, an old friend of Ellison and a fellow Oklahoman, who was involved in the dialogue that led to this significant acquisition.

Although Ellison published a number of short stories and numerous essays, including the collections Shadow and Act (1964) and Going to the Territory (1986), much of his reputation rests on the novel Invisible Man. Published in 1952, this novel became the pioneer work of fiction for the genre of African American literature. It won the National Book Award in 1953 and can be credited with stimulating a vital strain of ethnic fiction, drama and poetry in the United States that has flourished since. Ellison's seminal novel portrays the inner realities of a black youth as he moves from the South to the North and then underground. It is considered a major achievement in both American and world literature.

Ellison expressed a wide range of cultural interests through his service as trustee or board member for the following organizations: the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the New School for Social Research, Bennington College, the Carnegie Commission on Educational Television, Wake Forest University, Hampshire College, the National Portrait Gallery, the Museum of the City of New York, the Ossabau Island Project, the Educational Broadcasting Corp., the National Council of the Arts, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, and the Institute for Jazz Studies.

Ellison was a Rosenwald Fellow in 1945 and a National American Academy for Arts and Letters fellow in Rome, 1955-57. He received the United States Medal of Freedom and the National Medal of Arts, and was decorated chevalier Ordre et Lettres, France.

The Ellison Papers include correspondence from Saul Bellow, Kenneth Burke, John Cheever, James T. Farrell, Martin Luther King Jr., Archibald MacLeish, Budd Schulberg, Robert Penn Warren, Bernard Malamud, and a large group of letters from Richard Wright. The collection also features notes, plans and drafts for Invisible Man, as well as for his long-awaited unpublished second novel. Access to materials for published Ellison works will be open to researchers in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress after arrangement of the papers is complete. The manuscripts for Ralph Ellison's unpublished works are restricted at this time.

The Ellison book library will be displayed in a special place adjacent to the restored Great Hall when the Thomas Jefferson Building formally reopens in its fully restored state in April 1997.

The Ralph Ellison Papers relate to other collections already in the Library's Manuscript Division. There are, for example, letters from Ralph or Fanny Ellison, or both, in the papers of Shirley Jackson, Stanley Edgar Hyman, Melvin Tolson and Daniel P. Moynihan. Ellison's early contributions to the Federal Writers' Project may be found in the Works Progress Administration files held in the division.

Since the Manuscript Division was established in 1897, its holdings have grown to more than 45 million items. Early acquisitions concentrated on original manuscripts for political, military, and diplomatic history, but since World War II they have expanded to include cultural history, history of science, and the archives of nongovernmental organizations. Among the division's treasures are Jefferson's rough draft of the Declaration of Independence and Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.

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PR 96-14
ISSN 0731-3527

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