Ralph Ellison loved his library. He loved the public library as a child, and he loved the one that was named in his honor some fifty years later.
The elementary school he attended in segregated Oklahoma City had no library, and the Carnegie library downtown would not allow black patrons when the novelist was a boy. Fortunately, the Dunbar “colored” branch opened in a converted pool hall on the 300 block of Stiles right around the time young Ralph was getting good at reading, and, according to his biographers, the new library was a major influence in his life. It was a source for his imagination to explore the world, the educational supplement his inquisitive mind needed, and he and his buddies even “made a pact to read every single book in the library.”
It’s no wonder, then, that he was deeply moved when the Oklahoma County Libraries (now Metropolitan Library System) decided to name a new branch for him in his hometown. After decades as a resident of New York, he was a successful writer with his own impressive personal library. He probably never had to purchase a book again after winning the National Book Award in 1952 for Invisible Man, and many of the hundreds of volumes on his home shelves were given to him by the very authors who had written them. He was seldom a public library patron by the 1970s, yet he was utterly humbled when he received the official news from Oklahoma County Libraries Director Lee Brawner. Ellison responded, “In a life during which there’ve been many twists and turns, surely this tops them all, and certainly it is a rare tribute to a living writer to have his name elevated from the spines of a few books to the façade of the building."
Ellison exchanged correspondence with Brawner, other library employees, and community members throughout the two-and-a-half year process that led to the dedication of the Ralph Ellison Library in June of 1975. On a recent trip to the Library of Congress to work in the Ellison manuscript archives, I saw tangible evidence of what this honor meant to him. He had saved almost everything related to the library: the congratulatory and planning letters, the handwritten drafts of the remarks he would make at the dedication ceremony, and the library’s newsletters and reports sent to him afterward as mailing list items—even some dating from the early 1980s, years after the dedication.
Of course, as a civic-minded artist with strong involvement in national institutions like the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities, he also loved the Library of Congress, and it was his last wish that all his papers would be housed there after his death. His widow Fanny worked hard to make that happen, and along with the original drafts of his famous novel; essays on American cultural identity and literature and jazz; the long-awaited, never-finished second novel; letters between him and the likes of Richard Wright, Saul Bellow, John Cheever, Shirley Jackson, and Toni Morrison—there, among these documents that scholars travel from afar to study, are the pieces from the Oklahoma City library system that made him so proud.
Tracy Floreani is Professor of English at Oklahoma City University. She is author of Fifties Ethnicities: The Ethnic Novel and Mass Culture at Midcentury and is currently working on a biography of Fanny McConnell Ellison.
Photo of Ralph Ellison by Bob Adelman courtesy of Random House.
Images in this post courtesy of the Library of Congress Manuscripts Division and used by permission of the Ralph Ellison Trust.
Lawrence Jackson, Ralph Ellison: Emergence of Genius, University of Georgia Press, 2002.
See also Arnold Rampersad, Ralph Ellison, A Biography, Knopf, 2007.
Letter to Lee Brawner, Nov. 24, 1972, Ralph Ellison Papers, Library of Congress.