Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright

One important influence on Ralph Ellison’s intellectual and artistic life was his mentor and close friend, Richard Wright. Ellison admired his friend’s intellectual sophistication and his dedication to the craft of writing. When the two men first met in New York in 1938, they shared similar political views. They both felt struck by the intellectual naïveté of the Black people involved in the Community Party of Harlem. But Ellison took a rather different approach to fiction than did his mentor. Ellison particularly criticized Wright for relying too much on sociology. For instance, Wright’s landmark 1940 novel, Native Son, ends with a famous courtroom scene, in which a Black man’s lawyer echoes Marxist-Leninist ideology to argue that social forces conditioned his client’s crimes. As Ellison lamented in a 1963 interview for The New Leader: “How awful that Wright found the facile answers of Marxism before he learned to use literature as a means for discovering the forms of American Negro humanity.” By contrast, Ellison sought to explore the African-American psyche from the inside. The particular form of “American Negro humanity” Ellison pursued in Invisible Man thus took shape around an anonymous first-person narrator who tells his story directly and intimately.