Ralph Ellison Additional Biography


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.)


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

ph_0111201208-Ellison.jpg Ralph Ellison Published by Salem Press, Inc.

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.


(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.)


Ralph Ellison, one of the most famous black writers of the twentieth century, was virtually unknown as a writer when, in 1952, his novel...

(The entire section is 298 words.)


With the publication of his novel Invisible Man in 1952, Ralph Ellison became a widely acclaimed author who is considered among the...

(The entire section is 530 words.)


Ralph Waldo Ellison was born on March 1, 1914, in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. His father, who died when the author was three years old, named...

(The entire section is 403 words.)


Born in Oklahoma City on March 1, 1914, Ralph Ellison was raised in a cultural atmosphere that encouraged self-fulfillment. He was awarded a...

(The entire section is 358 words.)


Ralph Waldo Ellison, a twentieth-century African American writer and scholar, is one of America’s most powerful and notable voices in the...

(The entire section is 541 words.)


Ralph Ellison Published by Gale Cengage

As a boy, Ralph Waldo Ellison announced that his ambition was to become a Renaissance man. ‘‘I was...

(The entire section is 501 words.)