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Ellison, Ralphfree

(01 March 1914–16 April 1994)
  • Jenifer W. Gilbert

Ralph Ellison

Courtesy of the National Archives (61-8989, 306-PS-A).

Ellison, Ralph (01 March 1914–16 April 1994), writer, was born Ralph Waldo Ellison in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, the son of Lewis Alfred Ellison and Ida Millsap. Ellison’s father, who died when Ralph was only three years old, worked as a construction foreman and sold ice and coal as an independent small businessman. He named his son after the poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, hoping he would become a poet. His mother worked as a domestic and a church janitor to raise Ralph and his younger brother after her husband died. Ellison credits his mother for his early interest in books because she brought home books and magazines from the homes in which she worked for her sons to read. Ralph Ellison’s grandparents had been slaves.

Ellison attended the segregated Frederick Douglass School in Oklahoma City for twelve years. The school’s curriculum emphasized music, and Ellison studied classical trumpet and also developed a love for jazz. After graduating from high school, he received a scholarship from the state of Oklahoma to study music and musical composition at the Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama. Lacking the money for transportation to Tuskegee during the Great Depression, Ellison hopped freight trains to get to college.

At the end of his junior year, Ellison found himself without the funds to continue at Tuskegee. He decided to travel to New York City to play the trumpet professionally in order to raise enough money to return to college. Ellison also planned to study sculpture while he was in New York. On his second day in New York, Ellison met writers Alain Locke and Langston Hughes. Hughes provided Ellison with an introduction to Richard Wright when Wright came to New York to write in the Harlem Bureau of the Daily Worker, the Communist party newspaper, and to edit a new magazine called New Challenge. It was Wright who encouraged Ellison to write a book review for what became the only published issue of New Challenge. Wright impressed upon Ellison the need to further develop his writing technique. New Masses, Directions, and the Negro Quarterly began publishing Ellison’s reviews and literary criticism. In 1939 Ellison published his first short story, “Slick Gonna Learn.” He was never able to realize his ambition to play the trumpet professionally because during the depression he never had enough money to join the musicians’ union.

In 1938 Ellison began working for the Federal Writers’ Project, a program intended to provide work relief for unemployed writers. His assignment was to work on the Negroes in New York book project and also to collect African-American folklore. Ellison resigned from the Federal Writers’ Project in 1942 to become the managing editor of the Negro Quarterly. His position only lasted a year because the magazine folded after publishing only four issues.

Between 1939 and 1945 Ellison published seven additional short stories: “The Birthmark,” “Afternoon,” “Mister Toussan,” “That I Had Wings,” “In a Strange Country,” “Flying Home,” and “King of the Bingo Game.” In the last three stories, all published in 1944, Ellison moved beyond the Marxist ideology and literary naturalism he was introduced to by Wright. No longer convinced that individuals were trapped by their environment, Ellison began to experiment with more contemporary themes: the alienation of modern man in an increasingly complex society, modern man’s search for his personal identity, and the modern black man’s responsibility for shaping his own environment within the confines of the black experience. Ellison began to use black folklore, black historical experience, and especially jazz to reveal the richness of black culture as well as to celebrate the creative achievements of black Americans.

In 1943 Ellison joined the merchant marine and served as a cook. After his release in 1945 because of illness, a $1,500 stipend from the Julius Rosenwald Fund enabled him to begin work on the novel that occupied the next seven years of his life. Although Ellison published a substantial number of essays, reviews, and short stories beginning in 1939 and continuing throughout his life, his importance as a writer was established by his first novel, Invisible Man, published in April 1952. Immediately acclaimed by critics, it was recognized not merely as an excellent novel by a black author, but as a great literary achievement. In The Negro Novel in America, Robert Bone called Invisible Man “quite possibly the best American novel since World War II.” Also well received by general readers, the novel spent sixteen weeks on the New York Times bestseller list.

Invisible Man begins with one of the most memorable scenes in modern literature, that of its unnamed protagonist reclused in the basement den he has wired with 1,369 filament lights, while Louis Armstrong’s “What Did I Do to Be So Black and Blue” plays on his phonograph. The opening lines of the novel are among the most quoted in twentieth-century American fiction. The narrator’s first statement, an introduction of himself to his reader, also summarizes the black man’s experience in America: “I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids—and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.” From this point, Ellison’s unnamed protagonist reveals his life story. As the invisible man seeks to construct his own identity, he comes into contact with various organizations and institutions representing different facets of black American life in the 1930s. The protagonist’s story begins with a surreal fight scene during which black youth entertain a white male fraternal organization. The naive invisible young man believed he had been invited to receive a college scholarship and to give an acceptance speech. The narrator’s life story goes on to recount his experience at a southern black college, his adjustment from southern rural life to urban Harlem, his factory job, and his involvement with the Communist party and black nationalism in Harlem. Ellison uses violence, comedy, and surrealism to expose the contradiction between American democratic ideals of justice and equality and the reality of black experience. Each of the protagonist’s experiences results in further loss of innocence and eventually in his self-imposed exile from the world.

In Invisible Man Ellison crafted a complex novel exposing the richness and diversity of black American culture and creativity. The novel also celebrates the ability of African-American culture to provide sustenance to anyone who is trying to negotiate the complexity of modern life. Although he suffers repeated disillusionment, at the end of the novel the still-unnamed narrator accepts and embraces his past and plans his reentry into society. Ellison affirmed his own belief that love, commitment, human imagination, and individual action can bring change. In the essay “The World and the Jug” (1963), Ellison elaborated further on his belief in the power of individual resistance to oppression. He wrote that a black man “is no mere product of his socio-political environment. He is a product of the interaction between his racial predicament, his individual will and the broader American cultural freedom in which he finds his ambiguous existence.”

Invisible Man is a political novel as well as a celebration of black creativity. The narrator searches for a leadership role in a country whose expressed democratic ideals are at odds with its treatment of black Americans. Like Ellison himself, the narrator loses faith in the simplistic solutions offered by black educational institutions and their conservative leaders, black nationalists, and Marxist ideologues. Nevertheless, Ellison remained optimistic about the possibility of change through individual struggle against repression.

The novel is also Ellison’s comment on the writer’s responsibility to reveal some meaning in the world and to provide some insight into the human condition. It was the obligation of the writer, according to Ellison, “to give pattern to the chaos” and to encourage acceptance of one’s own history. In the invisible man’s own attempt to write, he discovers that “the world is just as concrete, ornery, vile and sublimely wonderful as before, only now I better understand my relation to it and it to me.”

During 1953, the year following the publication of Invisible Man, Ellison became the first black writer to be awarded the National Book Award. He was also awarded the National Newspaper Publishers’ Russwurm Award and the Chicago Defender’s Certificate of Award that year. From 1955 to 1957 Ellison lectured in Italy as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Although Ellison never completed his senior year at Tuskegee Institute, he taught at Bard College between 1958 and 1961. He served as a visiting professor at the University of Chicago in 1961 and at Rutgers and Yale between 1962 and 1964. In 1964 Ellison was the Gertrude Whittall Lecturer at the Library of Congress. Ellison also lectured on African-American folklore, creative writing, and literature at Columbia, Fisk, Princeton, Antioch, and Bennington. From 1970 to 1980 Ellison was the Albert Schweitzer Professor of Humanities at New York University.

In 1960 excerpts from a second novel began appearing in print, beginning with the short fiction “And Hickman Arrives.” Between 1960 and 1977 a total of eight short stories appeared as excerpts from a novel in progress. Ellison’s second novel received a severe setback when over 350 pages of revised manuscript were burned in a fire at his home in the Berkshires.

Ellison published his first collection of essays, Shadow and Act, in 1964. A second collection of essays, Going to the Territory, was published in 1986. Most of Ellison’s essays are concerned with the artist’s imagination, the craft of writing, and the relationship of black culture to American culture. Ellison believed that what made American culture unique in the world were the contributions of black Americans. He never deviated from his firm belief that African-American culture was an integral part of American culture and could not be separated from it. The music, art, language, and cuisine that were identified as American had all been significantly influenced by African-American culture. During the late 1960s and early 1970s Ellison was criticized for this belief by Afrocentric young black nationalists who believed that black culture existed separately from American culture and, consequently, felt that Ellison was too much of an integrationist.

“The World and the Jug” is one of Ellison’s best-known essays. The essay was his response to an article written by literary critic Irving Howe comparing Ellison to Richard Wright. Ellison felt that Howe too narrowly constricted black writers when he insisted they take the role of militant ideologue and restrict themselves to writing angry protest literature. Ellison also objected to Howe’s view that Wright had been the significant influence on Ellison’s writing. Although Wright was his friend and mentor, Ellison had read broadly and considered Wright’s vision of reality limited. Ellison did not believe black life was characterized by unrelieved suffering, nor did he believe that man’s actions were controlled by his environment. Ellison believed black life was rich and varied and that man was capable of exercising influence over his environment as Wright himself had. Ellison had examined Wright’s vision of American life in an earlier essay, Richard Wright’s Blues, and Wright was also the subject of a later essay, “Remembering Richard Wright,” published in Going to the Territory.

Jazz and the jazz musicians that Ellison had loved since childhood were frequent topics of his essays. Ellison was fascinated with the roots of jazz in the African-American past and also with its expression of social conditions in the present. He wrote several essays examining the lives and music of particular musicians, including Charlie Parker and Mahalia Jackson. He loved the lyricism and the rhythm of jazz, as well as its expression of black heritage, and he often used it as a metaphor in his writing. Ellison believed jazz was the authentic American music.

Numerous awards have been bestowed upon Ellison for his contribution to world literature and culture. They include his appointment to the American Institute of Arts and Letters in 1964, the Medal of Freedom awarded to him in 1969 by President Lyndon Baines Johnson, the Chevalier de L’Ordre des Artes et Lettres in 1970 awarded by French minister of cultural affairs André Malraux, and the Langston Hughes Medallion bestowed by City College of New York in 1984. He was one of the recipients of the first National Medal of Arts in 1985.

Ellison himself was proud of his contributions as a citizen as well as a writer. In the late 1960s he was a member of the Carnegie Commission on Educational Television, which established public broadcasting, and he also was involved with the creation of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.

Although his long-anticipated second novel remained unpublished at his death, his friends and his editor believed he had been nearing the book’s completion and expected it would one day be published in its almost finished form. Invisible Man remained in print more than forty years after it was first published, continuing to be the subject of scholarly debate and analysis. Indicating continuing interest in the work of Ralph Ellison, in 1995 The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison was published, including nine previously unpublished pieces. Flying Home and Other Stories was published in 1996. This collection includes six short stories that were discovered in Ellison’s papers after his death. Both books were edited by John F. Callahan.

Ralph Ellison died in New York City. He was survived by his second wife, Fanny McConnell, whom he married in 1946. There is no information about Ellison’s brief earlier marriage. Fanny and Ralph Ellison had no children.


The Library of Congress acquired the papers of Ralph Ellison in 1996. Unpublished essays and interviews from the Federal Writers’ Project are available at the Library of Congress, Folklore Achives, and at the 135th Street Branch of the New York City Library. Recent writings that contain extensive bibliographies of both Ellison’s own work and the secondary literature include Robert O’Meally, The Craft of Ralph Ellison (1980), which contains biographical information and analysis of Ellison’s work as well as an exhaustive list of Ellison’s short fiction, essays, and critical reviews. O’Meally’s bibliography also can be found reprinted in Speaking for You, ed. Kimberly W. Bensten (1987). Mark Busby, Ralph Ellison (1991), includes biographical information, analysis of Ellison’s work, and an extensive bibliography of Ellison’s work and the secondary literature. Edith Schor, Visible Ellison (1993), includes a complete list of Ellison’s short fiction before 1996 and a selected bibliography of Ellison’s essays, articles, and published interviews, plus an extensive list of secondary sources. Ralph Ellison, ed. John Hersey (1974), includes a valuable interview of Ellison by Hersey. Also important is the introduction by Ralph Ellison to the 1990 Vintage Edition of Invisible Man. Lengthy obituaries are in the New York Times, 17 and 20 Apr. 1994.