Ralph Ellison, author of Invisible Man
Ralph Ellison, author of Invisible Man
Keystone/Getty Images

10 Facts About Ralph Ellison's 'Invisible Man'

Ralph Ellison, author of Invisible Man
Ralph Ellison, author of Invisible Man
Keystone/Getty Images

For a generation marked by civil rights battles, the arrival of Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man in 1952 signaled a new chapter in how people of color were depicted in literature. Ellison’s unnamed protagonist was a rejection of cultural stereotypes, grappling with his identity in a prejudiced world and attempting to make sense of the unease around him.

Since its publication, Invisible Man has been heralded as one of the most important novels of the 20th century. Ellison won a National Book Award for Fiction in 1953, and it’s been heavily circulated in classrooms ever since. Take a look at some things you might not know about Ellison and his landmark work.

1. ELLISON EXPECTED TO BECOME A MUSICIAN.

Picking up the cornet at the age of 8, Ralph Ellison (1914-1994) fell deeply in love with music while growing up in Oklahoma City. An appreciation for jazz and classical music led to his enrolling at the Tuskegee Institute as a music major at 19. When he visited New York City during his senior year, he was unable to return to finish school due to a lack of funds both on his end and Tuskegee’s—it had closed its music program. While in the city, he befriended author Richard Wright. Ellison’s passions turned to writing instead.

2. INVISIBLE MAN TOOK SEVEN YEARS TO WRITE.

Following the end of his service as a cook in the United States Merchant Marine during World War II, Ellison acted further on Wright’s encouragement and began to write what would become Invisible Man. The work took from 1945 to 1952, a seven-year stretch that would foreshadow Ellison’s difficulties in finishing future projects.

3. IT STARTED WITH JUST ONE LINE.

Although they shared similar experiences, Ellison has warned that the protagonist of Invisible Man is not a stand-in for the author. The novel began when Ellison was home from the war and visiting a friend in Vermont. Ellison recalled that he typed “I am an invisible man” almost spontaneously, without having any additional idea of where he was going or what the sentence meant.

4. THE FIRST CHAPTER WAS PUBLISHED YEARS EARLIER.

While still toiling on the complete novel, Ellison published the first chapter in Horizon magazine in 1947. The emotionally-charged nature of the scene—Ellison writes of black students forced to box blindfolded for the amusement of white spectators—led the literary community to brace for a potent novel by Ellison, even though he was first-time author.

5. HE WAS HIGHLY CRITICAL OF HIS ACCOMPLISHMENT.

Invisible Man was an instant success, spending 16 weeks on bestseller lists and hailed by critics as one of the most impressive novels of the century. But in accepting his National Book Award in 1953, Ellison referred to the book as an “attempt” at a great novel.

6. THE FBI KEPT A FILE ON HIM.

Ellison's considerable success in articulating the civil rights climate of the mid-20th century, and his tangential relationship to the Communist Party, prompted J. Edgar Hoover’s infamously paranoia-fueled FBI to keep a close watch on the author. The bureau amassed more than 1400 pages of information about his political and professional activities. Agents were even able to preview Invisible Man prior to publication thanks to informers in the publishing industry.

7. THE BOOK WASN’T INTENDED TO BE ONLY ABOUT DISCRIMINATION IN AMERICA.

Although Invisible Man has been heralded as a definitive exploration of how people of color are minimized in America, Ellison said that that is only one interpretation of the book—another is that it’s a parable about integration. “When I was a kid, I read the English novels. I read Russian translations and so on,” he said in 1983. “And always, I was the hero. I identified with the hero. Literature is integrated. And I'm not just talking about color, race. I'm talking about the power of literature to make us recognize again and again the wholeness of the human experience."

8. QUINCY JONES WANTED TO PRODUCE A FILM VERSION.

Like Catcher in the Rye, Invisible Man has never been translated into film or television. Music producer Quincy Jones once inquired about the rights, but nothing materialized: Ellison thought no film could capture what he had in the novel. It wasn’t until 2012 that Ellison’s estate allowed a stage production in Boston and Washington to be mounted, providing no new dialogue was added.

9. HE DEVELOPED SERIOUS WRITER’S BLOCK.

Invisible Man took years to finish, but it eventually saw the light of day. In the following four decades, Ellison would try and fail to complete a second, ambitious novel about a white child raised by a black minister. Theories abound as to why Ellison could never seem to complete the work, from a 1965 fire that destroyed a portion of the manuscript to his anxiety over how it would be received. After Ellison’s death in 1994, the novel appeared posthumously under the title Juneteenth.

10. IT WAS BANNED IN NORTH CAROLINA SCHOOLS IN 2013.

Following a complaint lodged by a parent that objected to the book’s language and content as being unsuitable for 11th graders, Invisible Man was pulled from the Randolph County school district libraries in North Carolina in 2013. The board that had voted in favor of the ban quickly reversed course after a local and national protest, with one bookstore handing out free copies to area students.

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Ralph Ellison, author of Invisible Man
By Benjamin D. Maxham, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
11 Simple Facts About Henry David Thoreau
By Benjamin D. Maxham, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
By Benjamin D. Maxham, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

In his book Walden, Henry David Thoreau declared his love of nature, simplicity, and independence. Although most people know about Thoreau’s time in Walden Woods, as well as his Transcendentalism, abolitionist views, and writing on civil disobedience, there’s a lot more to uncover about him. In honor of his birthday (he would’ve turned 201 years old today), here are 11 things you might not have known about Henry David Thoreau.

1. WE’RE PROBABLY MISPRONOUNCING HIS NAME.

Born in Concord, Massachusetts in 1817, David Henry Thoreau switched his first and middle names after graduating from Harvard. His legal name, though, was always David Henry. Although most people today pronounce Thoreau’s surname with the emphasis on the second syllable, he most likely pronounced it “THOR-oh.” Ralph Waldo Emerson’s son, Edward, wrote that the accent in Thoreau’s name was on the first syllable, and other friends called him “Mr. Thorough.”

2. HE INVENTED A MACHINE TO IMPROVE PENCILS.

In the 1820s, Thoreau’s father started manufacturing black-lead pencils. Between teaching students, surveying land, and working as a handyman, Thoreau made money by working for his family’s pencil business. After researching German techniques for making pencils, he invented a grinding machine that made better quality plumbago (a mixture of the lead, graphite, and clay inside a pencil). After his father died, Thoreau ran the family’s pencil company.

3. HE ACCIDENTALLY BURNED HUNDREDS OF ACRES OF WOODS.

In 1844, a year before moving into a house in Walden Woods, the 26-year-old Thoreau was cooking fish he had caught with a friend in the woods outside Concord. The grass around the fire ignited, and the flames burned between 100 and 300 acres of land, thanks to strong winds. Even years later, his neighbors disparagingly called him a rascal and a woods burner. In an 1850 journal entry, Thoreau described how the earth was “uncommonly dry”—there hadn’t been much rain—and how the fire “spread rapidly.” Although he initially felt guilty, he wrote that he soon realized that fire is natural, and lightning could have sparked a fire in the woods just as easily as his cooking accident did.

4. HIS HOUSE AT WALDEN POND LATER BECAME A PIGSTY.

After Thoreau left the home he built in Walden Woods in 1847, the structure went through multiple iterations. He sold the house to Emerson (it was on land that Emerson already owned), and Emerson sold it to his gardener. The gardener never moved in, so the house was empty until a farmer named James Clark bought it in 1849. Clark moved it to his nearby farm and used it to store grain. In 1868, the roof of the building was removed from the base and used to cover a pigsty. In 1875, the rest of the structure was used as a shed before its timber was used to fix Clark’s barn. Today, you can see replicas of Thoreau’s house near Walden Pond in Massachusetts.

5. HE AND HIS BROTHER WERE CAUGHT IN A LOVE TRIANGLE.

In 1839, Thoreau wrote in his journal about how he fell in love with Ellen Sewall, an 18-year-old from Cape Cod. In 1840, Thoreau’s older brother John proposed marriage to Sewall but was rejected. So, like any good brother, Thoreau wrote a letter to Sewall, proposing that she marry him instead. Sewall rejected him too, probably due to her family disapproving of the Thoreau family’s liberal views on Christianity.

Despite the aforementioned marriage proposal, some historians and biographers speculate that Thoreau was gay. He never married, reportedly preferred celibacy, and his journals reveal references to male bodies but no female ones.

6. DESPITE POPULAR MISCONCEPTION, HE WASN’T A LONER.

Historians have debunked the misconception that Thoreau was a selfish hermit who lived alone so he could stay away from other people. Rather than being a loner, Thoreau was an individualist who was close to his family members and lived with Emerson’s family (on and off) for years. To build his cabin in the woods, he got help from his friends including Emerson and Bronson Alcott, the father of Louisa May Alcott. During his stay in the woods, he frequently entertained guests, visited friends, and walked to the (nearby) town of Concord. At his funeral at Concord’s First Parish Church, a large group of friends attended to mourn and celebrate his life.

7. HE WAS A MINIMALIST.

Long before tiny houses were trendy, Thoreau wrote about the benefits of living a simple, minimalist lifestyle. In Walden, he wrote about giving up the luxuries of everyday life in order to quiet the mind and have time for thinking. “My greatest skill has been to want but little,” he wrote. Thoreau also related his love of simplicity to the craft of writing: “It is the fault of some excellent writers ... that they express themselves with too great fullness and detail. They give the most faithful, natural, and lifelike account of their sensations, mental and physical, but they lack moderation and sententiousness.”

8. HE TOOK COPIOUS NOTES.

Although he was a minimalist, Thoreau wrote an abundance of notes and ideas in his journals, essays, and letters. He jotted down his observations of nature, writing in detail about everything from how plant seeds spread across the land to the changing temperature of Walden Pond to animal behavior. In addition to his plethora of notes and environmental data, Thoreau also collected hundreds of plant specimens and birds’ eggs.

9. HE WAS PRAISED FOR HIS ORIGINALITY.

In 1862, newspapers widely reported the news of Thoreau’s death. Obituaries for the 44-year-old writer appeared in The Boston Transcript, The Boston Daily Advertiser, The Liberator, The Boston Journal, The New-York Daily Tribune, and The Salem Observer. The obituaries describe Thoreau as an “eccentric author” and “one of the most original thinkers our country has produced.”

10. HE DONATED HIS COLLECTIONS TO THE BOSTON SOCIETY OF NATURAL HISTORY.

After Thoreau’s death, the Boston Society of Natural History got a huge gift. Thoreau, a member, gave the society his collections of plants, Indian antiquities, and birds’ eggs and nests. The plants were pressed and numbered—there were more than 1000 species—and the Native American antiquities included stone weapons that Thoreau had found while walking in Concord.

11. DON HENLEY OF THE EAGLES IS A HUGE FAN.

As a big fan of both Thoreau and Transcendentalism, musician Don Henley of the Eagles started The Walden Woods Project in 1990 to stop 68 acres of Walden Woods from being turned into offices and condominiums. The project succeeded in saving the woods, and today The Walden Woods Project is a nonprofit organization that conserves Walden Woods, preserves Thoreau’s legacy, and manages an archive of Thoreau’s books, maps, letters, and manuscripts. In an interview with Preservation Magazine, Henley described the importance of preserving Walden Woods: “The pond and the woods that inspired the writing of Walden are historically significant not only because they were the setting for a great American classic, but also because Walden Woods was Henry David Thoreau's living laboratory, where he formulated his theory of forest succession, a precursor to contemporary ecological science.”

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Ralph Ellison, author of Invisible Man
Quentin Blake, courtesy Christie's Images Ltd. 2018
Matilda Illustrator Quentin Blake Is Auctioning Items From His Personal Collection of Drawings
Quentin Blake, courtesy Christie's Images Ltd. 2018
Quentin Blake, courtesy Christie's Images Ltd. 2018

When you think of Roald Dahl's classic books, chances are you're actually imagining Quentin Blake's work. Blake is the award-winning illustrator behind the signature imagery in beloved books like The BFG, Matilda, and The Twits. Now, Blake is auctioning off some of his drawings from his private collection through Christie's, giving the public a chance to own art intimately connected with these canonical children's books.

The illustrations on offer were completed by Blake over a period of some 40 years. They include preliminary studies, alternative versions of illustrations that made it into books like The Twits and The Enormous Crocodile (Blake's first collaboration with Dahl), and other related art. In addition to illustrations he drew for Dahl, there's artwork he created for his own books, for other authors, for hospitals (like the watercolor above, an alternative version of a drawing he made for the Rosie Birth Centre at Addenbrooke's Hospital, in Cambridge, UK), and for public exhibitions.

Below are just a few of the pieces available, currently ranging in starting bids from around $600 to more than $15,000.

A watercolor image of a witch dressed in black
"The Grand High Witch," 
an alternative illustration of the character from The Witches created for Blake's 2016 Roald Dahl Centenary Portraits project
Quentin Blake

A watercolor of a father with his arm around his son, holding a kite
"Danny and His Father," an alternative illustration of the characters from Danny the Champion of the World that Blake produced for his Roald Dahl Centenary Portraits
Quentin Blake

Four illustrations showing the BFG with his ears in different positions
“The BFG showing how he flaps his ears,” a preliminary drawing for the 1982 edition of The BFG
Quentin Blake

A watercolor of the BFG holding Sophie in the palm of his hand
“Sophie and the BFG,” an alternative illustration of the characters from The BFG created for the Roald Dahl Centenary Portraits
Quentin Blake

Take a look at the rest here before the auction ends on July 12. Proceeds from the auction will go to three nonprofits: The House of Illustration, Roald Dahl's Marvellous Children's Charity, and Survival International.

All images courtesy Christie's Images Ltd. 2018

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