Ralph Ellison Biography

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.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)
ph_0111201208-Ellison.jpg Ralph Ellison Published by Salem Press, Inc.

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...

(The entire section is 740 words.)

Ralph Ellison Biography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Although Ellison modestly claimed that Invisible Man is “not an important novel,” the book has demonstrated its ability to speak to a variety of readers for more than five decades. Its author continues to be ranked among America’s greatest fiction writers, and his second novel, Juneteenth, does not disappoint. In it, he continues his plea for collective racial, cultural, and individual consciousness.

Invisible Man earned for Ellison a special place in African American literature because the novel goes beyond the thematic and rhetorical limitations of the protest novel, extending the story of the African American experience to all Americans. The novel’s concluding question, “Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?” underscores this universality.

Ralph Ellison Biography

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Ralph Waldo Ellison was born March 1, 1914, in Oklahoma City to Ida and Lewis Alfred Ellison, who had moved out of the South in search of a more progressive place to live. An ambitious student, he distinguished himself locally and was rewarded with a scholarship to attend the Tuskegee Institute, in part because the local white population did not want Ellison, an African American, to integrate the white colleges in Oklahoma. Unable to afford the fare to Alabama, he rode a freight train to Tuskegee, in which he enrolled in 1933. A voracious reader in college, he pursued interests in literature, history, and folklore. At the end of his junior year, Ellison, like the narrator of Invisible Man, was refused financial aid and so traveled to New York City, where he hoped to make enough money to finish his studies. While in New York, he met another African American author, Richard Wright, who encouraged Ellison’s literary ambitions, and instead of returning to Tuskegee, he began to contribute short stories and essays to various literary journals and anthologies. From 1938 to 1944, he worked with the Federal Writers Project, and in 1945, he was a awarded a Rosenwald grant to write a novel. The result was Invisible Man (1952), a landmark work in African American fiction that won for its author numerous honorary degrees, literary awards, and worldwide fame.

Though Ellison would publish two well-received collections of essays, Shadow and Act and Going to the Territory, he would never follow up his first novel with a second in his lifetime. He began writing his next novel around 1958, and over the years he was to publish numerous excerpts from it as a work-in-progress. A fire at his Plainsfield, Massachusetts, summer home destroyed much of the manuscript in 1967, causing him to have to painstakingly reconstruct it. Though he was to work on this project for the rest of his life, he never found a final form for the novel with which he felt comfortable, and it remained unfinished when he died of a heart attack in 1994. His literary executor, John F. Callahan, published his short fiction in one volume as Flying Home, and Other Stories in 1996 and a self-contained portion of his final novel as Juneteenth in 1999.

Ralph Ellison Biography

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Despite Ralph Ellison’s steadfast denial of the autobiographical elements of Invisible Man and his insistence on the autonomy of the individual imagination, both the specific details and the general sensibility of his work clearly derive from his experience of growing up in a southern family in Oklahoma City, attending college in Alabama, and residing in New York City during most of his adult life. Ellison’s parents—whose decision to name their son Ralph Waldo Ellison, for American philosopher and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson, reflected their commitment to literacy and education—moved from South Carolina to the comparatively progressive Oklahoma capital several years before their son’s birth. Reflecting on his childhood, which was characterized by economic hardship following his father’s death in 1917, Ellison emphasized the unusual psychological freedom provided by a social structure that allowed him to interact relatively freely with both whites and blacks. Encouraged by his mother, Ida, who was active in socialist politics, Ellison developed a frontier sense of a world of limitless possibility rather than the more typically southern vision of an environment filled with dangerous oppressive forces.

During his teenage years, Ellison developed a serious interest in music, both as a trumpet player and as a composer-conductor. Oklahoma City offered access both to formal classical training and to jazz, which was a major element of the city’s nightlife. The combination of Euro-American and African American influences appears to have played a major role in shaping Ellison’s pluralistic sensibility. After he graduated from high school in 1933, Ellison accepted a scholarship to the Tuskegee Institute, where he remained for three years, studying music and literature, until financial problems forced him to...

(The entire section is 750 words.)

Ralph Ellison Biography

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

A native of rural Oklahoma, Ralph Ellison moved to New York City in 1936, where he met fellow black writer Richard Wright. Wright helped Ellison begin his writing career. In 1938, Ellison joined the Federal Writers’ Project, which launched his educational and literary life, which was dedicated to exploring social and personal identities as defined by racial lines.

In 1945, Ellison, who was then exploring and espousing leftist views, began work on Invisible Man, a novel based on his post-World War II interest in racial identity, ethnic unity, and social justice. Invisible Man won the National Book Award and the Russwarm Award in 1953, catapulting Ellison into national prominence as an important black author. Invisible Man traces the life of a young African American male who is attempting to define his identity in the context of his race and of society as a whole. Ellison received numerous honors, including the 1969 Medal of Freedom Award for his leadership in the black literary community.

Shadow and Act and Going to the Territory are considered his spiritual and literary autobiographies. They are collections of essays, criticism, and reviews advocating integration and plurality. Describing “geography as fate,” Ellison wrote much about growing up in Oklahoma and about his deep interest in the creative process, in black folklore and myth, in vernacular and popular styles versus traditional and elite cultures, in jazz, in the blues, in literary modernism, and particularly in the dynamics of race.

Ellison frequently focuses on the complexity of these dynamics, which, for him, impose the obligation to question and challenge codified portrayals of African American life and to embrace the promise of American democracy despite its historic betrayals of the black community. Ellison’s individualism often moved against the grain of public opinion; for example, his essay “The Myth of the Flawed White Southerner” defends Lyndon Johnson, then president of the United States, against the attacks of anti-Vietnam War protesters. He claimed he was an integrationist of the imagination, where ideas are difficult to control by social, economic, and political processes. Such ideas made him a target of black nationalists during the 1960’s and early 1970’s. Ellison is often compared to Mark Twain, William Faulkner, and Ernest Hemingway, all of whom Ellison spoke of as literary mentors.

Ralph Ellison Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Ralph Waldo Ellison’s Invisible Man has a prominent place in the American literary canon. Indeed, some critics have argued that Ellison wrote the great American novel. When Invisible Man first appeared, it was hailed as a masterful depiction of black life in America, and Ellison was received as the first black writer to join the distinguished company of William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway. At the same time, a naturalistic strain was noted in his fiction, which allied him with such writers as Theodore Dreiser and Richard Wright. Ellison enjoyed a unique position among black writers. In the 1960’s, he was attacked by certain Black Nationalists and pan-Africanists for not being black enough, for assimilating...

(The entire section is 980 words.)

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