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W&L’s Conner Co-Edits ‘The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison’ Provost Marc Conner worked with John Callahan, the literary executor of the Ellison estate, to co-edit and publish the collection.

For many years, Marc Conner, provost and Jo M. and James Ballengee Professor of English at Washington and Lee University, spent countless hours in the Library of Congress working through thousands of pages of Ralph Ellison correspondence for “The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison” (Random House, 2019). The collection, published in December, contains intimate letters and details from Ellison’s life. Conner was invited to edit the book along with John Callahan, Ellison’s close friend and the literary executor of his estate.

“This is without question the high achievement of my scholarly work,” Conner said.

Conner first met Callahan in 1998, when W&L’s Lucas Morel, head of the Politics Department at W&L, invited Callahan to campus for a talk. Since then, Callahan has visited W&L’s campus several times to speak, to work with students and to participate in symposia. Callahan and Conner began working on the collection in 2010.

“When [Callahan] asked me to edit the letters with him, I was immensely honored,” Conner said. “I knew this would be a major contribution to Ellison studies, and it was a great honor to work with John on this.”

The letters in the collection give intimate details of Ellison’s life, including his views on literature, American culture and politics.

“The letters also reveal his most private thoughts, anxieties, hopes and loves,” Conner said. “We learn of his intense emotional relationship with his wife Fanny, of his powerful friendships with other writers like Richard Wright and Albert Murray, and of his frustrations with and respect for America as a whole. It’s humbling to enter into the mind of such an intense and probing intellect. He still has so much to teach us about the America of today, of right now.”

Positive reviews for the book have been featured in The New Yorker, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, with the Times calling it an “essential new book.”

“We wanted the letters to let Ellison speak in his voice, to give an unvarnished and open view of what he thought, what he believed in, what he stood for, what he loved and what he hated,” Conner said. “The reviews are showing that people are eager and open to learning more about this great writer.”

In February 2020, in conjunction with Black History Month, Conner will deliver the inaugural lecture of the Ted DeLaney Lecture Series at W&L, where he will discuss the project and read and comment on some of the most significant and moving letters. Also, in May 2020, the Ralph Ellison Society, which Conner founded along with Adam Bradley, Professor of English at the University of Colorado, Lena Hill, dean of the college, Michael Hill, professor of Africana Studies, Callahan and other Ellison scholars, will present a panel on the letters at the American Literature Association conference in San Diego.

“That will be the first opportunity for other Ellison scholars to give detailed responses to the letters, which should be really exciting,” Conner said. “That’s what the real goal is, for the letters to be out there in the public domain for people to engage with, interpret, comment upon and fit into the larger commentary about American literature and culture.”

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