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President Conner discusses Ralph Ellison with Skidmore community

November 18, 2020
by James Helicke

Skidmore College President and literary scholar Marc C. Conner discussed his latest book, “The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison,” with members of the Skidmore community and described the African American literary giant’s uncanny understanding of issues that continue to face the contemporary United States. 

Conner, a widely published scholar of English literature, spoke about the collection of Ellison’s letters during the English Department’s annual “Critical Futures” event, which celebrates new work by faculty.  

“I think Ellison is speaking to our present moment with such prescience and such foresight,” Conner said. “You can go back to (Ellison’s) ‘Second Novel’ or even ‘Invisible Man’ and you think, ‘My God. That must be 2018.’ It’s the same paradoxes of America that he is writing about.” 

During the talk, the president read letters from throughout Ellison’s lifetime, from his studies at the Tuskegee Institute and the writing of “Invisible Man” in 1952, to struggles in the eminent author’s personal life and unsuccessful efforts to finish his voluminous but incomplete second novel.  

In 1953, Ellison became the first African American to win the National Book Award for “Invisible Man.” He received the National Medal of Arts from President Ronald Reagan in 1985. Ellison died in 1994.  

Book coverDuring his talk, President Conner said the more than 1,000-page collection of Ellison’s letters, which was published by Random House in 2019, took him and collaborator John F. Callahan, literary executor for Ellison’s estate, a decade to complete. The New York Times Book Review has hailed the volume as “a treasure trove for scholars and general readers alike.” 

Conner, who formerly served as provost at Washington and Lee University, taught English literature for more than two decades before joining Skidmore as its eighth president in July. He holds a doctorate in English literature from Princeton University and has published extensively on modern American, African American and Irish literature. 

The president, who has successfully guided Skidmore through an exceptionally challenging semester due to the COVID-19 pandemic, expressed deep appreciation for the invitation from the English Department and the opportunity to discuss his scholarship.  

“To have a chance to participate in the intellectual life of the College is really a great honor. I’ve been delighted to attend the talks, readings and exhibits of many of my new colleagues this fall, and to be part of that is really a thrill,” he said. “It such an honor to call myself part of the Skidmore faculty.” 

Barbara Black, professor and chair of the English Department, said the department was particularly proud of Conner’s leadership at Skidmore. 

“We’re so grateful we have a president who is an active scholar,” Black said. “Thank you so much for teaching us how to be a teacher, a scholar and a citizen of a higher education community.”  

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