The Moment



October 1974

Ralph Ellison is standing before the packed audience in the Carriage Barn. It is 1974. He is recalling the first lecture he gave to a college audience during his visit to Bennington 29 years earlier, and he marks it as the beginning of his career as a teacher. "Stanley Hyman convinced me that I might possibly have something to say which would be of interest to an audience. This was shortly after he had arrived here to become a member of Bennington's faculty and I fought him off as long as I could but I was just curious about what was going to happen to him considering some of the things we used to do rather late at night, over a bottle. So I agreed, really rather opportunistically, to come up, to see what the scene was up here. To pay for that I had to stand up and try to talk, with a certain amount of consistency, to an audience, over in the Commons. Out of such mixed motives are careers made, I suppose, because I have been a teacher in various places since then." The talk in 1945 was a popular event; the students voted it one of the top three events of the year. Ellison said that he and his wife, Fanny, "fell completely in love with Bennington and would hurry back at the drop of a hat" having enjoyed Bennington College and their stay with Stanley Hyman and Shirley Jackson at their North Bennington home.

Ellison can vividly recall his first visit to Bennington College but since that time nearly three decades have passed. He is standing before this audience as the speaker for the Stanley Edgar Hyman Memorial Lecture. His close friend has died of a heart attack. He has been reading for over an hour from his long-awaited second book. He pauses, shuffling the pages of the manuscript. "I'll bring this to a quick end," he promises the audience, still sorting through the sheets. The moment is emblematic of his struggle with the work; he will never finish the book despite having written approximately 2,000 pages at the time of his death. The audience is waiting. He searches through a few more pages before admitting the manuscript is "utterly mixed up." The audience laughs, relieved by his candor. He begins to talk without a script, something he very rarely does. His slight stammer only enhances the genuine, unrehearsed feeling of the moment. The audience is quiet, listening intently. He talks about the contemporary context of his writing, about his belief that all people are "heirs of all the literature of the ages and one makes of it what one can." He begins to talk about the references in his work. It is 1974 but it could be 1945. Ellison could be in Stanley and Shirley's living room, holding his glass in the air, making a toast. He says, "to history, to popular culture, and to dirty jokes, to Shakespeare and Sophocles, and everybody else."

From the Archive

Biography

While writing The Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison took only one significant break. At the request of Stanley Edgar Hyman, his friend and prominent faculty member at Bennington College, Ellison agreed to deliver his first lecture in 1945 in the Deane Carriage Barn. Hyman had written to him, "I hope you will come. You can speak on anything you want, but I'd rather you spoke on literature than anything else." The talk was a success. Ellison's connection with Bennington continued throughout the next four decades, serving on the Board of Trustees from 1969 through 1975. At Bennington's first annual Stanley Edgar Hyman Memorial Lecture in 1974, Ellison read from his second novel in progress and in 1984, at the request of faculty member Nicholas Delbanco, Ellison addressed students at the summer writing workshop series with Bernard Malamud. Among Ralph Ellison's many awards and accolades are the National Book Award for Fiction in 1953 (Invisible Man), the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1969, and the Nation Medal of Arts in 1985.

Sources:
"Ellison Reads from New Novel." Bennington Quadrille Fall 1974: 43. Print.
Rampersad, Arnold. Ralph Ellison: A Biography. New York: Knopf, 2007. Print.
Cheuse, Alan. "50 years later, Ralph Ellison's 'Invisible Man' Keeps Calling." Chicago Tribune 14 Jul. 2002. Digital.
"Ralph Ellison to Read from Long-Awaited Second Novel." Bennington Banner 30 September 1974. Print.
Ellison, Ralph. "Ralph Ellison Reading." Bennington College Archive. Bennington, VT. 3 October 1974. CD. Inaugural Lecture of the Stanley Edgar Hyman Lecture.