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.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 740
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 for Negro Quarterly. During World War II, he served from 1943 to 1945 as a cook on a merchant marine ship. Upon the war’s end, he traveled to New Hampshire to rest, and there he wrote the first lines of Invisible Man. With the financial assistance of a Rosenwald Foundation grant, Ellison worked on the novel for seven years, publishing it in 1952.
Invisible Man was controversial and attacked by militants as reactionary and banned from schools because of its explicit descriptions of black lifestyles. Critics, however, generally agreed on the book’s significance. In 1965, a poll of literary critics named it the most outstanding book written by an American in the previous twenty years, placing it ahead of works by William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, and Saul Bellow. For his literary achievements and academic service, Ellison earned several awards, including the National Book Award (1953), the Russwurm Award (1953), a fellowship to the National Academy of Arts and Letters in (1955-1957), the Medal of Freedom (1969), Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters (1970), and the National Medal of Arts (1985). He was elected vice president of American PEN in 1964.
In 1958, Ellison accepted a teaching position at Bard College. In subsequent years, he taught at Rutgers University, the University of Chicago, and New York University, where he was the Albert Schweitzer professor in the humanities and from which he retired in 1979. He accepted numerous honorary doctorates and published two collections of essays. The essays in Shadow and Act (1964) focus on three topics: African American literature and folklore, African American music, and the interrelation of African American culture and the broader culture of the United States. Going to the Territory (1986) collected sixteen reviews, essays, and speeches that Ellison published previously.
Following the 1960’s, Ellison worked on a second novel, Juneteenth, that he planned to publish as a trilogy. His work on the novel was disrupted in 1967 when approximately 350 pages of its one-thousand-page manuscript were destroyed in a house fire. Unfortunately, after a long bout with pancreatic cancer, the novel was left unfinished upon Ellison’s death on April 16, 1994. However, the two thousand pages of manuscript were later edited by John Callahan, and Juneteenth was published posthumously in 1999.