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W&L Professors Lead Ellison Seminar at the Library of Congress

The historic Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress, in Washington, contains three named rooms: one for Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, one for President Woodrow Wilson and one for Ralph Ellison, author of the 1952 novel “Invisible Man” and the first African-American writer to win the National Book Award. In the Ellison Reading Room on May 22, W&L professors Marc Conner and Lucas Morel led the library’s second Ralph Ellison Seminar for an international cohort of Ellison experts talking about the importance of his writing to 21st-century America.

“The Ellison Reading Room is such a special place,” explained Conner, the Jo M. and James Ballengee Professor of English and associate provost. “Ellison’s own books line the shelves—his copies of all the classics that he read and learned from. To talk about Ellison’s work in that setting is so powerful.”

“Ellison’s commentary on American society and politics, whether in fiction or critical essays, remains a gold mine of insight into the possibilities and pitfalls of American democracy,” said Morel, professor of politics and the Class of 1960 Professor of Ethics. “Gathering scholars from various academic fields to discuss Ellison in the nation’s capital couldn’t be more fitting.”

In recent years, Washington and Lee has emerged as a leader in the study of Ellison, who spoke on campus in Lee Chapel in 1963. In 2002, Conner and Morel hosted a national symposium marking the 50th anniversary of the publication of “Invisible Man.” Morel, who is also a nationally recognized Lincoln scholar, edited the essays from that event into his book “Raft of Hope: A Political Companion to ‘Invisible Man’.” In 2012, they organized another symposium, “The New Territory: Ralph Ellison and the 21st Century.” That gathering comprised the first Ellison Seminar at the Library of Congress and a two-day event at W&L, including presentations by six W&L students who had studied Ellison’s work in Conner’s African-American literature course. Conner and Morel also have co-edited a book of essays that emerged from the 2012 symposium; the manuscript is under consideration at the University Press of Mississippi.

Although working in different disciplines, Morel and Conner have found significant overlap in their studies of Ellison. “Lucas and I complement each other’s work so well,” said Conner. “He brings this great political perspective to Ellison’s work. I approach his work from a more literary point of view. But Ellison was as much an essayist as a novelist, as insightful a commentator about American politics and culture as anyone in our tradition. So between the two of us, we bring a great range of approaches to Ellison’s work.”

In 2007, Conner and Morel helped found the African-American Studies Program at W&L (now the Africana Studies Program), and each has taught courses on Ellison’s work over the years. In 2011, Conner helped found the Ralph Ellison Society, an international group of scholars working on Ellison’s writing. He organized and chaired two panels about Ellison at the 2014 American Literature Association Conference, which followed the Ellison Seminar in May. He also is co-editing Ellison’s selected letters, along with John Callahan, Ellison’s literary executor.

Callahan, who helped Ellison’s widow, Fanny, establish the Ellison Reading Room after her husband died in 1994, is enthusiastic about the work going on there. “Conner and Morel have made one of Ellison’s wildest dreams come true,” he said. “The work they’re leading is literally fulfilling Ellison’s dream of democratic equality and American fraternity. They have my gratitude and that of the Ellison Trust.”