How Ralph Ellison Changed My Life, a letter from Don Katz
As a college student, Don Katz, author and founder and CEO of Audible, met Ralph Ellison. The author of ‘Invisible Man’ introduced his protégé to the wonders of oral storytelling.
During the winter of 1971 I was a freshman at NYU, and I read two books that changed me. The first was Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury—a book I read in a single afternoon-to-dawn sitting. The second was Invisible Man, an astonishingly artful and complex work of literature written by a man I heard was actually teaching a course at NYU the next semester.
Over the next three years, after Ralph Ellison allowed me into a small seminar focused on the American vernacular, and a year after that, when he took me on as a tutee every Wednesday afternoon until I graduated, one of the greatest of all American writers taught me how to read. Ralph also helped me gain the courage and occasional insight to write, and I went on to make a living as a writer for 20 years after that. Ralph encouraged me and spoke up for me publicly until he died in 1994.
I learned from Ralph Ellison that Americans worked to create an identity from a synthesis of divergent cultures. We created a distinctive way of talking and telling stories, which led to the distinctive voice in the way we wrote. I understood from Ralph that the American experience derived from the process of a nation constantly making and remaking itself, a place that needed to create its own myths and art and even its own sounds because we had to. While Ralph Ellison taught me that Americans needed to create our own archetypes and myths, he also conveyed that in a nation creating itself without kings, a new order was created based on the color of people’s skin.
Because of Ralph I always heard the sound of what I read and what I wrote. Well-composed words sound like music to me, and after being a writer for 20 years, this led directly to an idea that became Audible.com and our 20-years of applying new technologies to the celebration and elevation of the unbridled power of the well-spoken word.
A few feet from my cube is the Ralph Ellison room, and the following is what I wrote about Ralph for the glass wall I see every day: Ralph Ellison’s understanding of the power of the oral tradition and his ability to hear the music in well-wrought arrangements of spoken words informed the vision and mission of Audible from the beginning. Ellison was the teacher and mentor of Audible’s founder. According to Ellison, the way the early American vernacular embraced storytelling around campfires, the braggadocio of our salesmanship, and the sound of our lamenting in the fields became the distinctive voice that defined American novels and our singularly “conscious and conscientious” culture, a culture that created itself “out of whatever it found useful.” Ellison loved the melodies in language and he told stories in a voice that sounded like a coal car coming out of a mine. He loved enormous cigars, jazz, and ideas. In many ways Audible exists to honor his legacy.
Don’t let anyone ever tell you that great teachers can’t direct the course and meaning of a life.