Ralph Ellison Biography
Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man (1952) embodies the dilemma of being black in America with the line, “I am invisible, understand, because people refuse to see me.” Along with racial prejudice, Ellison experienced emotional and financial hardships in his young life, including the death of his father. Despite these difficulties, Ellison had an unstoppable passion for the arts. He began his career as a trumpet player at the Tuskegee Institute, but finding it too conservative for his unconventional jazz leanings, Ellison moved to New York to pursue a career as a visual artist. A happenstance meeting with the poet Langston Hughes and the novelist Richard Wright changed his artistic direction once again. In 1936, he joined the Federal Writers’ Project and found his true calling. Ellison died in 1994, leaving a legacy of innovative writing that still stirs passions.
Facts and Trivia
- Though critically acclaimed, Invisible Man was controversial in the black community because Ellison wanted integration with white society rather than a completely separate black identity.
- Ellison’s biological father named him after the nineteenth-century philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, hoping the boy would grow up to be a poet.
- He served in World War II as a cook and wrote the first lines of Invisible Man after the end of the war.
- Ellison claimed his main influences were Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky and American author Richard Wright.
- He won the National Medal of Arts in 1985 for his body of work.
Ralph Waldo Ellison was born in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, on March 1, 1914. His father, Lewis, named him after Ralph Waldo Emerson, the famous American poet. Lewis was an adventurous and accomplished man who served overseas in the military and started his own ice and coal business in Oklahoma City. Ellison’s mother, Ida, was affectionately known as “Brownie.” She was a political activist who campaigned for the Socialist party and against the segregationist policies of Oklahoma’s governor, “Alfalfa Bill” Murray. After her husband’s death, Ida supported Ralph and his younger brother, Herbert, by working at a variety of domestic jobs.
Ellison benefited from the advantages of the Oklahoma public schools but took odd jobs to pay for supplemental education. His particular interest was music. Influenced by his good friends Jimmy Rushing, a blues singer, and trumpeter Hot Lips Page, Ellison played the trumpet throughout high school. In return for yard work, Ellison received lessons from Ludwig Hehestreit, the conductor of the Oklahoma City Orchestra. At nineteen, with the dream of becoming a composer, he accepted a state scholarship and used it to attend Tuskegee Institute in Macon County, Alabama (1933-1936).
Unlike the protagonist of Invisible Man, Ellison was not expelled from Tuskegee, but like the character he later created, Ellison did not graduate. Instead, he traveled to New York City in 1936 to study sculpture during the summer between his junior and senior years, intending to return to Tuskegee in the fall. Soon after his arrival in New York, however, Ellison met Alain Locke and Langston Hughes, major literary figures of the Harlem Renaissance. Through his acquaintance with Hughes, Ellison was introduced to Richard Wright, who encouraged Ellison to write and published Ellison’s first review in New Challenge, a journal that Wright edited.
Ellison supported himself with a variety of jobs during his first years in Harlem. In 1938, he joined the Federal Writers’ Project, for which he and others employed by the Living Lore Unit gathered urban folklore materials. This experience introduced Ellison to the richness of black urban culture and provided him with a wealth of folklore materials that he incorporated into Invisible Man.
In the early 1940’s, Ellison published several essays, reviews, and short stories for various periodicals, including New Masses , and he worked as the editor...
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