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.)