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W&L to Host Symposium on 60th Anniversary of “Invisible Man”

Washington and Lee University will hold a major gathering of leading scholars of Ralph Ellison when it presents a symposium, The New Territory: Ralph Ellison and the Twenty First Century, on March 16-17, in recognition of the 60th anniversary of the publication of Invisible Man.

“This is a significant national event in terms of American literature,” said Marc Conner, professor of English at W&L. Conner and Lucas Morel, the Lewis G. John Term Professor of Politics at W&L, organized the event. Both have conducted research and written extensively on Ellison’s work.

According to Conner, W&L has a long legacy with Ellison. “On Nov. 15, 1963, Ellison gave a lecture in Lee Chapel on the civil rights movement and American literature, and we believe he was the first black man to speak in Lee Chapel,” he said.

This is the second symposium on Ellison to be held at Washington and Lee; the first was held to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Invisible Man in 2002. “Lucas had the idea to hold the first symposium, and I helped him,” said Conner. “It was the only major commemoration of the 50th anniversary of any kind in the country and, as far as I know, this second symposium will also be the only one.”

The first symposium brought the scholar John Callahan to campus, and he will return to deliver the concluding address at the second symposium. He is the Morgan S. Odell Professor of the Humanities at  Lewis and Clark College and was Ellison’s best friend. After Ellison died in 1994, Callahan became the literary executor in charge of all of Ellison’s manuscripts and unpublished material. “He’s really the top figure in Ellison studies, and he’s been very generous and supportive,” said Conner. “He’s also very grateful that W&L is concentrating on and working on Ellison’s material.”

According to Conner and Morel, there has been a lot of momentum surrounding Ellison over the last few years, including a stage production of Invisible Man in Chicago, a new biography of Ellison published five years ago and four new books on Ellison in the last three years. “We’re really riding a crest right now,” said Conner. “Also, some colleagues and I founded the Ralph Ellison Society at the American Literature Association in spring 2011. Right now I am co-editing, with Callahan, Ellison’s selected letters, which are all in the Library of Congress. It’s a major undertaking and probably the biggest scholarly project I’ve ever done.”

Conner explained that the focus of the symposium will be on Ralph Ellison and the 21st century. “If we have a thesis of this symposium, it is that the world is just now catching up to the vision of Ralph Ellison. In a way, this 21st-century age of multiculturalism, the age of Obama, was what Ellison was writing about as early as the 1940s, 50s and 60s.” Morel agreed, adding “Ellison speaks to problems that we still have today in terms of the color line and whether we live in a post-racial society. He also pointed out ways in which the United States still hasn’t come to terms with its past and the impact of slavery and segregation on this country.”

Morel published a book of essays from the 2002 symposium on different aspects of Ellison’s work and he and Conner plan to do the same after this event. “It’s a way to get out to those who were unable to attend what we’ve learned from the symposium,” said Morel. “We’ll put together a significant variety of essays that we hope are a serious reflection on what Ralph Ellison still has to teach us.”

The symposium will begin with a keynote speech, “Ralph Ellison in His Labyrinth,” by Eric Sundquist, the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of the Humanities at Johns Hopkins University, Friday, March 16, at 8 p.m. in Lee Chapel

Three panel discussions will take place in Northen Auditorium on Saturday, March 17, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The first panel, “The Invisible Man 60 Years Later: Ellison’s Masterpiece in the 21st Century,” will re-evaluate Ellison’s famous first novel.

The second panel, “Three Days Before the Shooting: Ellison’s Ongoing Epic of America,” will look at Ellison’s recently published unfinished second novel Three Days Before the Shooting (Random House 2010). “This will be the first ever panel of four of the leading Ellison scholars in the world assessing the book, which is just now being discovered by readers and scholars alike,” said Conner. “It’s a really exciting breakthrough because Ellison was one of the most important American writers who ever lived.”

The third panel, “Ralph Ellison and American Culture: Ellison Past, Present and Future,” chaired by Morel, will look at the political implications of Ellison’s work.

At the end of the symposium, six W&L students will present papers on Three Days Before the Shooting. The students have all studied Ellison with either Morel or Conner. “They will present their research papers, which are all really good, at a round table with these Ellison scholars listening,” said Conner. “In some ways the scholars are more excited to hear from the students than they are to hear from each other, because they’re going to learn what young minds in the 21st century are saying about this author.”

The symposium will conclude with an address, “That Condition of Being at Home in the World,” by Callahan at 8 p.m. on Saturday in Hillel House.

The symposium is open to the public and is free to the W&L community. For others, there is a registration fee of $50 or $25 for students, which includes luncheon and dinner. Full details of the symposium can be found at its website http://ellisonsymposium.org/

News Contact:
Sarah Tschiggfrie
News Director