Ralph Waldo Ellison (March 1, 1914 – April 16, 1994) was an American novelist, literary critic, scholar and writer. He was born in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Ellison is best known for his novel Invisible Man, which won the National Book Award in 1953. He also wrote Shadow and Act (1964), a collection of political, social and critical essays, and Going to the Territory (1986). A posthumous novel, Juneteenth, was published after being assembled from voluminous notes he left after his death.
Ralph Ellison, named after Ralph Waldo Emerson, was born in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, to Lewis Alfred Ellison and Ida Millsap. Research by biographers Lawrence Jackson and Arnold Rampersand has established that he was born in 1913, a year earlier than he usually listed. He was the second of three brothers; firstborn Alfred died in infancy, and younger brother Herbert Maurice (or Millsap) was born in 1916. Lewis Alfred Ellison, a small-business owner and a construction foreman, died in 1916 after an operation to cure internal wounds suffered after shards from a 100-lb ice block penetrated his abdomen when it was dropped while being loaded into a hopper. The elder Ellison loved literature, and doted on his children, so Ralph discovered as an adult that his father had hoped his son would grow up to be a poet.
Ellison's widowed mother remarried three times after Lewis died. However, the family life was precarious, and Ralph worked various jobs during his youth and teens to assist with family support. While attending Douglass High School, he also found time to play on the school's football team. He graduated from high school in 1931. He worked for a year, and found the money to make a down payment on a trumpet, using it to play with local musicians, and to take further music lessons.
Ellison entered the Tuskegee Institute in 1933 on a scholarship to study music. Tuskegee's music department was perhaps the most renowned department at the school, headed by composer William L. Dawson. Ellison also was guided by the department's piano instructor, Hazel Harrison. While he studied music primarily in his classes, he spent his free time in the library with modernist classics. He specifically cited reading T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land as a major awakening moment.
As a child, Ellison evidenced what would become a lifelong interest in audio technology, starting by taking apart and rebuilding radios, and later moved on to constructing and customizing elaborate hi-fi stereo systems as an adult. He discussed this passion in a December 1958 essay, "Living With Music", in High Fidelity magazine. Ellison scholar John S. Wright contends that this deftness with the ins-and-outs of electronic devices went on to inform Ellison's approach to writing and the novel form.
Life in New York
Ellison remained at Tuskegee until 1936, and decided to leave before completing the requirements for a degree. Desiring to study sculpture and photography, he moved to New York City, where he met several artists who would influence his later life, including the artist Romare Bearden and the author Richard Wright (with whom he would have a long and complicated relationship). After Ellison wrote a book review for Wright, Wright encouraged him to write fiction as a career. His first published story was "Hymie's Bull", inspired by Ellison's 1933 hoboing on a train with his uncle to get to Tuskegee. From 1937 to 1944, Ellison had over 20 book reviews, as well as short stories and articles, published in magazines such as New Challenge and New Masses.
Wright was then openly associated with the Communist Party, and Ellison was publishing and editing for communist publications, although his "affiliation was quieter", according to historian Carol Polsgrove in Divided Minds. Both Wright and Ellison lost their faith in the Communist Party during World War II, when they felt the party had betrayed African Americans and replaced Marxist class politics with social reformism. In a letter to Wright, dated August 18, 1945, Ellison poured out his anger with party leaders: "If they want to play ball with the bourgeoisie they needn't think they can get away with it. ... Maybe we can't smash the atom, but we can, with a few well chosen, well written words, smash all that crummy filth to hell." In the wake of this disillusion, Ellison began writing Invisible Man, a novel that was, in part, his response to the party's betrayal.
In 1938 Ellison met Rose Poindexter, and soon moved in to her apartment. They were married in late 1938. She was a stage actress, and continued her career after their marriage.
At the start of World War II, Ellison was classed 1A by the local Selective Service System, and thus eligible for the draft. However, he was not drafted. Toward the end of the war, he enlisted in the Merchant Marine service. In 1946, he married his second wife, Fanny McConnell. She worked as a photographer to help sustain Ellison. From 1947 to 1951, he earned some money writing book reviews but spent most of his time working on Invisible Man. Fanny also helped type Ellison's longhand text and assisted him in editing the typescript as it progressed.
Published in 1952, Invisible Man explores the theme of man's search for his identity and place in society, as seen from the perspective of an unnamed black man in the New York City of the 1930s. In contrast to his contemporaries such as Richard Wright and James Baldwin, Ellison created characters that are dispassionate, educated, articulate, and self-aware. Through the protagonist, Ellison explores the contrasts between the Northern and Southern varieties of racism and their alienating effect. The narrator is "invisible" in a figurative sense, in that "people refuse to see" him, and also experiences a kind of dissociation. The novel, with its treatment of taboo issues such as incest and the controversial subject of communism, won the 1953 U.S. National Book Award for Fiction.
The award was his ticket into the American literary establishment. Disillusioned by his experience with the Communist Party, he used his new fame to speak out for literature as a moral instrument. In 1955 he traveled to Europe, visiting and lecturing, settling for a time in Rome, where he wrote an essay that appeared in a 1957 Bantam anthology called A New Southern Harvest. Robert Penn Warren was in Rome during the same period, and the two writers became close friends. Later, Warren would interview Ellison about his thoughts on race, history, and the Civil Rights Movement for his book Who Speaks for the Negro? In 1958, Ellison returned to the United States to take a position teaching American and Russian literature at Bard College and to begin a second novel, Juneteenth. During the 1950s, he corresponded with his lifelong friend, the writer Albert Murray. In their letters they commented on the development of their careers, the Civil Rights Movement, and other common interests including jazz. Much of this material was published in the collection Trading Twelves (2000).
In 1964, Ellison published Shadow and Act, a collection of essays, and began to teach at Rutgers University and Yale University, while continuing to work on his novel. The following year, a survey of 200 prominent literary figures was released that proclaimed Invisible Man the most important novel since World War II.
In 1967, Ellison experienced a major house fire at his home in Plainfield, Massachusetts, in which he claimed more than 300 pages of his second novel manuscript were lost. A perfectionist regarding the art of the novel, Ellison had said in accepting his National Book Award for Invisible Man that he felt he had made "an attempt at a major novel" and, despite the award, he was unsatisfied with the book. Ellison ultimately wrote more than 2000 pages of this second novel but never finished it.
Writing essays about both the black experience and his love for jazz music, Ellison continued to receive major awards for his work. In 1969, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom; the following year, he was made a Chevalier of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by France and became a permanent member of the faculty at New York University as the Albert Schweitzer Professor of Humanities, serving from 1970 to 1980.
In 1975, Ellison was elected to The American Academy of Arts and Letters, and his hometown of Oklahoma City honored him with the dedication of the Ralph Waldo Ellison Library. Continuing to teach, Ellison published mostly essays, and in 1984, he received the New York City College's Langston Hughes Medal. In 1985, he was awarded the National Medal of Arts. In 1986, his Going to the Territory was published; this is a collection of seventeen essays that included insight into southern novelist William Faulkner and Ellison's friend Richard Wright, as well as the music of Duke Ellington and the contributions of African Americans to America's national identity.
In 1992, Ellison was awarded a special achievement award from the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards; his artistic achievements included work as a sculptor, musician, photographer and college professor as well as his writing output. He taught at Bard College, Rutgers University, the University of Chicago, and New York University. Ellison was also a charter member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers.
Ellison died on April 16, 1994 of pancreatic cancer and was interred in a crypt at Trinity Church Cemetery in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Upper Manhattan. He was survived by his wife, Fanny Ellison (1911–2005), who died on November 19, 2005, eight days shy of her 94th birthday.
After Ellison's death, more manuscripts were discovered in his home, resulting in the publication of Flying Home and Other Stories in 1996. In 1999 his second novel, Juneteenth, was published under the editorship of John F. Callahan, a professor at Lewis & Clark College and Ellison's literary executor. It was a 368-page condensation of more than 2000 pages written by Ellison over a period of 40 years. All the manuscripts of this incomplete novel were published collectively on January 26, 2010, by Modern Library, under the title Three Days Before the Shooting.
On February 18, 2014, the USPS issued a 91¢ stamp honoring Ralph Ellison in its Literary Arts series.
- Invisible Man (Random House, 1952). ISBN 0-679-60139-2
- Flying Home and Other Stories (Random House,1996). ISBN 0-679-45704-6
- Includes the short story "A Party Down at the Square"
- Juneteenth (Random House, 1999). ISBN 0-394-46457-5
- Three Days Before the Shooting... (Modern Library, 2010). ISBN 978-0-375-75953-6
- Shadow and Act (Random House, 1964). ISBN 0-679-76000-8
- Going to the Territory (Random House, 1986). ISBN 0-394-54050-6
- The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison (Modern Library, 1995). ISBN 0-679-60176-7
- Living with Music: Ralph Ellison's Jazz Writings (Modern Library, 2002). ISBN 0-375-76023-7
- Trading Twelves: The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray (Modern Library, 2000). ISBN 0-375-50367-6
- Polsgrove, Carol (2001). Divided Minds: Intellectuals and the Civil Rights Movement, New York: W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN 0-393-02013-4
- Other sources
- Lifetime Honors – National Medal of Arts
- Going to the Territory by Ralph Ellison.