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Professor shares thoughts on stamp honoring Ralph Ellison

April 09, 2014

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This spring, the U.S. Postal Service released a 91-cent Ralph Ellison stamp as part of its Literary Arts series, which aims to honor distinguished writers in U.S. history. Ellison was awarded the 1952 National Book Award for Invisible Man, a groundbreaking novel that illuminated the mid-20th-century African American experience. Furthermore, 2014 marks the centennial anniversary of Ellison’s birth and the 20th anniversary of his passing. In accordance with this memorial gesture, Morgan S. Odell Professor of Humanities John Callahan and three other scholars were selected to comment on the cultural impact of Ellison’s work.

As the literary executor of Ellison’s estate, Callahan’s participation in this special project is highly appropriate: he has perhaps engaged more extensively than anyone else with the words that Ellison left behind.

Their friendship began in 1977, when Callahan spontaneously decided to send the renowned novelist a letter. Callahan had just published an essay about Ellison’s work and felt compelled to share it, without any expectation of a response. To his surprise, Callahan soon received a lengthy reply. Ellison invited Callahan to his New York City home a few months later, and the two became fast friends.

Years later, Callahan and Adam Bradley B.A. ’96 collaborated for nearly two decades to amalgamate what would have been Ellison’s second novel. Despite having been a prolific writer throughout his life, Ellison never managed to follow the success of his debut. This edited manuscript, Three Days Before the Shooting, was published in 2010.

The Ralph Ellison stamp serves to remind Callahan of his earliest correspondence with the literary great, but it also effectively commemorates Ellison’s love for the power of written words.

Said Callahan, “An American man of letters, [Ellison] loved the letter as a form of communication, and the United States mail as a network of conveyance between writer and reader.”

Katrina Staaf ’16 contributed to this story.

English Department