Despite his relatively few major works, Ralph Ellison stands as one of the most influential modern African American writers and cultural critics. Ellison published one novel, Invisible Man (1952), and two essay collections, along with a number of uncollected essays, speeches, and reviews; he also labored for decades on a second novel that remained unfinished at the time of his death. As an essayist and critic, Ellison held to an optimistic view of the possibilities of American life, celebrated African American cultural contributions, especially in jazz and blues, and criticized sociological views that emphasize the bleakness of African American life.
Ralph Ellison grew up in Oklahoma City during the years shortly after the territory became a state. He partook of the optimism of frontier life and imagined himself something a renaissance man, capable of achieving whatever he set his mind to accomplish. His interest in writing was at first a response to his wide reading, and he focused more of his time and interest in music, especially jazz and blues, being particularly attentive to craft and technique. After he was graduated from the Frederick Douglass School, a scholarship brought him to Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, where he studied music for three years before leaving for New York to study sculpture. In Harlem, he met the poet Langston Hughes, who introduced him to novelist Richard Wright. Wright encouraged Ellison’s interest in writing,...
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