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Ellison, Ralph 1914–1994

Ralph Ellison 19141994

Author, social commentator, lecturer

At a Glance

Oklahoma Renaissance Man

Alabama Bound

From the Deep South to Harlem

Literature and World War

Selected writings


Lauded for his brilliance as a writer of modern fiction, Ralph Ellison has produced works that continue to have a profound impact on the understanding of race and social thought in the United States. His often surrealistic images reveal how peopledespite their diverse geographic, racial, or social backgroundsshare a universal common humanity. Ellisons early years as a classically trained musician and jazz trumpeter taught him to approach the arts analytically.

When he sidelined music to take up writing in the late 1930s, he embarked upon a career that took him from obscurity to national fame. His 1952 novel Invisible Man is considered a masterpiece of modern literature and has been translated into fourteen languages around the world. A fiction writer, essayist, and educator, Ellison spent the last decades of his life at conferences and college campuses lecturing on the value of art and its ability to explore the complex relationships of the human experience.

Ralph Waldo Ellison was born to Lewis and Ida Millsap Ellison on March 1, 1914, in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Although his home state practiced segregation, Ellison grew up without the oppressive conditions confronted by African Americans in the Deep South. Years later in his work Shadow and Act, Ellison recalled how he felt no innate sense of inferiority regarding his life goals and creative ambitions.

In Oklahoma City he was exposed to various elements within the black and white cultural worlds. While working as a domestic, Ellisons mother brought home popular magazines and recordings of opera that had been discarded by her employers. And in the public school system, Ellison learned the foundations of musical harmony and symphonic forms as well as the songs, stories, and dances of European folk culture. A great admirer of Oklahoma Citys legendary jazz orchestra the Blue Devils, led by bassist Walter Page, Ellison befriended many of its members, including vocalist Jimmy Rushing, who would later become the singing great of Count Basies Band. Ellison also attended Douglas School with legendary guitarist Charlie Christian, who astounded him with sophisticated chords and progressions played on a self-made instrument made from a cigar box.

At a Glance

Born Ralph Waldo Ellison, March 1, 1914, in Oklahoma City, OK; died of pancreatic cancer, April 16, 1994; son of Lewis (a construction laborer and entrepreneur) and Ida (maiden name, Millsap; a domestic and political activist) Ellison; married Fanny McConnell, 1946. education: Attended Tuskegee Institute, 1934-36.

Wrote first book review for New Challenge in 1937; worked for Federal Writers Project and wrote for various publications, 1938-42; managing editor, Negro Quarterly, 1942; continued contributing book reviews and short stories to periodicals through mid 1940s; began work on novel, Invisible Man, 1945; Invisible Man published, 1952; lectured in Europe, 1954; resided in Rome, 1955-57; taught Russian and American literature at Bard College, 1958-61; visiting professor at University of Chicago and at Rutgers and Yale universities, early 1960s; Gertrude Whittall Lecturer, Library of Congress, and Ewing Lecturer, University of California, Los Angeles, both 1964; fire at summer home in Plainsfield, MA, destroyed 350 text pages of unfinished novel, 1967; served as Albert Schweitzer Professor of Humanities at New York University, 1970-80. Military service: Cook in U.S. Merchant Marines, WWII.

Selected awards: National Book Award and Russwurm Award, both 1953, for Invisible Man; Rockefeller Foundation Award, 1954; American Academy of Arts and Letters fellow, 1955-57; Medal of Freedom from President Lyndon B. Johnson, 1969; named chevalier de IOrdre des Arts et Lettres (France), 1969; National Medal of Arts, 1985; more than a dozen honorary degrees.

Addresses: c/o Joe Fox, Random House, 201 E. 50th St., New York, NY 10022.

Oklahoma Renaissance Man

Ellisons broad cultural experience inspired him to join several schoolmates in proclaiming themselves Renaissance Menindividuals dedicated to transcending racial barriers through the study of art and thought. To fulfill this commitment, Ellison aspired to become a composer of symphonic music. In high school he took trumpet lessons from Dr. Ludwig Hebestreit, the founder and conductor of the Oklahoma Symphony Orchestra. Hebestreits instruction contributed to Ellisons understanding of the complex structure of high artistic forms.

Though music emerged as his primary means of expression, Ellison also enjoyed reading literature. In grade school, one of his teachers, Mrs. L. C. McFarland, introduced him to the writers of the Harlem Renaissance, including Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Claude McKay, and James Weldon Johnson. At home, Ellison read fairy tales, westerns, detective stories, and Harvard Classics. Outside on the streets and in the barber shops of Oklahoma City, African Americans introduced him to rural folk tales and legends of black cowboys, outlaws, and black Indian chiefs.

Alabama Bound

After graduating from high school, Ellison won a state sponsored scholarship to study music at Tuskegee Institute in Macon County, Alabama. In 1933, without funds for transportation, he hoboed by freight car to Tuskegee. Ellisons studies there included music appreciation, modern languages, physical education, and psychology. His three-hour-a-day trumpet practice sessions were heavily influenced by his music tutor, Hazel Harrison, one of Italian pianist and composer Ferruccio Busonis prize pupils and a friend of Russian composer Sergey Prokofiev.

Through Harrison, Ellison met famous Howard University professor, philosopher, and anthologist Alain Locke, who visited the Tuskegee campus in the mid-1930s. Meanwhile, Ellisons employment at the college library was affording him the chance to broaden his literary horizons; he read T. S. Eliots Waste Land a piece of poetry that, as he later explained in his book Going to the Territory, utilized endless patterns of sounds that resembled the improvisational approach of the jazz experience. From the references of The Waste Land, Ellison learned of other great modernist writers. Soon he was reading the works of Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, Sherwood Anderson, and Ernest Hemingway.

From the Deep South to Harlem

To earn money to finish his senior year of college, Ellison traveled to New York in the summer of 1936. On the day after his arrival, having taken a room at the Harlem Annex of the YMCA, he met up with Locke, who was accompanied by Langston Hughes. Locke introduced Ellison to Hughes; later Hughes asked Ellison to deliver two books Andre Malrauxs Mans Fate and Days of Wrath to a friend. Following a suggestion by Hughes to read Mal-rauxs works before returning them, Ellison found the writings an important source of inspiration that drew him closer to the world of literature.

Unable to raise the money to return to school, Ellison decided to remain in New York. He had originally intended to study sculpture during his stay in the city; unable to find an opening with Harlem artist Augusta Savage, he studied for one year with Richmond Barthé. Because the economic impact of the Great Depression limited his chance of finding work as a trumpeter, Ellison supported himself by taking jobs as a waiter, free-lance photographer, and file clerk. As his interest in sculpture waned, he returned to the study of music composition.

In the office of the Daily Worker on 135th Street in Harlem, Ellison met writer Richard Wright in 1937. After becoming engaged in a discussion about literature, Wright asked Ellison to write a book review of Walter Turpins These Low Grounds for the first edition of the short-lived periodical New Challenge. To one who had never attempted to write anything, stated Ellison in Going to the Territory, this was the wildest of ideas. He penned his first short story, Heines Bull, for the 1937 winter issue of New Challenge. Not long afterward, Ellison became a regular contributor to the left-wing cultural periodical New Masses and to the Negro Quarterly.

Ellisons first works as a writer were influenced by Wrights harsh vision. The short stories Slick Gonna Learn (1939) and The Birthmark (1940) are examples of Ellisons use of brutal themes and violence. But Ellison soon broke from the literary naturalism of Wright and the Hemingway school. Instead of focusing entirely upon environmental forces, Ellison upheld faith in the inner strength of the individual to overcome the barriers and oppressive elements of his surroundings.

From 1938 to 1942 Ellison worked for the Federal WritersProject. During this time he focused his literary themes on African American folklore and ethnic identity. In 1941 he published Mister Toussan for New Masses. After serving as managing editor for the Negro Quarterly, Ellison wrote two short stories in 1944, Flying Home and King of the Bingo Game, which dealt with a young black mans attempt to control his destiny within the impersonal surroundings of a northern city. Within his early stories like King of the Bingo Game, Ellison employed techniques of irony, gothicism, and macabre humor to describe realities hidden behind the surface of the black and white worlds.

Literature and World War

Unable to join the U.S. Navy, Ellison enlisted in the Merchant Marine during World War II. He served as a cook and sailed with a naval convoy that supplied troops at the Battle of the Bulge. Around the same time, having secured a $1,500 grant from the Rosenwald Foundation, he wrote the story In a Strange Country. Set in a Nazi prisoner-of-war camp, the tale describes a black fighter pilots struggle as the highest-ranking officer among his fellow Allied prisoners.

Upon his return to New York, Ellison accepted an invitation to spend time on a friends farm in Waitsfield, Vermont, where he conceived the idea for his novel Invisible Man. Ellison recalled in his book Going to the Territory how, one afternoon during his stay, he wrote some words while sitting in an old bam looking out on the mountain. Im an Invisible Man. I didnt quite know what it meant, or where the idea came from. But the moment I started to abandon it, I thought:Well maybe I should try to discover what lay behind the statement. After a long period of contemplation, Ellison built upon the meaning of the phrase and its relationship to the theme of alienation and self-definition.

Part autobiography and part surrealistic odyssey, Invisible Man incorporates numerous themes of the African American experience. Condemned to search for both acceptance and identity, the books nameless protagonist crosses mysterious boundaries until he is awakened to the reality of his invisibility. As S. P. Fullinwider explained in his book The Mind and Mood of Black America, Ellisons novel not only describes what it is like to be a Negro in America, but what it is like to be a modern man living in a society which fears mans inhumanity. Its use of blues, jazz, and African American folk culturewith political themes of so-called Uncle Tom conservatism, communism, and black nationalism in the tradition of Marcus Garveyserve to, as Ellison stated in Going to the Territory, take one below the level of racial structuring, and down into those areas where we are simply human beings.

Invisible Man is indebted to the literary contributions of poet-critic T. S. Eliot and American novelist William Faulkner. It was Eliot, wrote Robert Bone, who taught [Ellison] the value of the past which was both painful and precious, flinching neither from slavery nor incest nor prostitution nor chaos itself, to assimilate even his negative heritage, conquering it, transforming it into an asset, a weapon. From Faulkner, Ellison learned to draw upon grotesque scenes of southern rural life to illuminate the dark reality underneath American society.

But the two most profound influences on Ellisons work are Richard Wrights 1944 short story The Man Who Lived Underground and its predecessor, Notes from Underground, by nineteenth-century Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky. William Walling wrote in the literary journal Phylon that, by utilizing these two sources, Ellison combined elements from Dostoevskys classic dramatization of alienation in the west with the specifically American plight of Wrights black protagonist. The hero in Ellisons novel, driven underground by society, celebrates his anonymity by breaking from the conformity that made him invisible.

In 1953, a year following its publication, Invisible Man received the National Book Award for fiction, the Russ-wurm Award, and the Certificate of Award from the Chicago Defender. Upon winning the Rockefeller Foundation award in 1954, Ellison went on a lecture tour of Germany and appeared at a seminar in Salzburg, Austria. He then toured with the U.S. Information Service. And after receiving American Academy of Arts and Letters fellowships, he resided in Rome for two years.

Though Ellison never completed a second novel, he continued to work on a manuscript that he first began in 1955. Aside from publishing various essays and short stories, he concentrated primarily on lecturing about literature in universities throughout the country. Having returned from Rome in 1957, he taught Russian and American literature at Bard College from 1958 to 1961. In 1964 the Tuskegee Institute awarded him an honorary doctorate. That same year, he published Shadow and Act, a collection of sixteen essays, speeches, and interviews dealing with African American culture, literature, and music criticism. Written mainly for publication in magazines, the books articles cover a time span from the late forties to the early sixties.

In 1965 the New York Herald Tribunes poll of 200 prominent authors, editors, and critics selected Invisible Man as the most distinguishable single work published in the last twenty years. Shortly afterward, a fire at Ellisons summer home in Plainsfield, Massachusetts, destroyed almost 350 pages of the manuscript of his unfinished novel. Along with this serious setback, he faced increasing criticism from militant black writers and students who dismissed his commitment to civil rights issues and to the ongoing struggles of people of color in the United States.

But Ellisons determination and passion for literature kept him in the forefront of intellectual and academic circles. In 1969 President Lyndon B. Johnson awarded him the Medal of Freedom, Americas highest civilian honor.

From 1970 to 1980 Ellison served as the Albert Schweitzer Professor of Humanities at New York University. His second collection of essays and lectures, Going to the Territory, was published in 1986.

Few novels of postwar American fiction have been as celebrated, written about, and analyzed as Ellisons Invisible Man. Many critics contend that this authors ability to delve deeply into the chaotic and complex character of American society has rendered him a lasting figure in modern literature. Rooted in the great musical and literary traditions of African American and European cultures, Ellisons prose breaks from the earlier styles of the Harlem Renaissance and the literary naturalism of Richard Wright; his writings are filled with surrealistic, dream-like scenes that provide a view of the dark recesses of the human experience. Art is the celebration of life, stated Ellison in Shadow and Act; it is, as he explained, a means of understanding the value of diversity within unity, allowing us to explore the full range of humanity.

Ellison died of pancreatic cancer on April 16, 1994. Joe Fox, his editor at Random House, was quoted as saying in Time that the authors novel-in-progress was virtually finished, but the books title and subject were never divulged during their meetings. Still, with the praise and critical attention already bestowed upon his published work, there is little doubt that his universalist message will endure long after the close of the twentieth century.

Selected writings


Invisible Man (novel), Signet, 1952.

Shadow and Act (essays, interviews, and lectures), Random House, 1964.

Going to the Territory (essays, interviews, and lectures), Vintage Books, 1986.

Short stories

Heines Bull, 1937.

Slick Gonna Learn, 1939.

The Birthmark, New Masses, 1940.

Mister Toussan, New Masses, 1941.

Hying Home, Cross-section, 1944.

King of the Bingo Game, Tomorrow, 1944.

In a Strange Country, Tomorrow, 1944.

Did You Ever Dream Lucky?, New World Writing, 1954.

A Coupla Scalped Indians, New World Writing, 1956.

And Hickman Arrives, 1960.

The Roof, the Steeple, and the People, 1960.

Out of the Hospital and Under the Bar, 1963.

Tell It Like It Is Baby, 1965.

Cadillac Flambé, 1973.



Bishop, Jack, Ralph Ellison, Chelsea House, 1988.

Black Literature Criticism, Gale, 1992.

Bone, Robert, The Negro Novel in America, Yale University Press, 1968.

Busby, Mark, Ralph Ellison, Twayne, 1991.

Dark Symphony: Negro Literature in America, edited by James A. Emanuel and Theodore L. Gross, New York Free Press, 1958.

Fullinwider, S. P., The Mind and Mood of Black America: Twentieth-Century Thought, Dorsey, 1969.

McSweeney, Kerry, Invisible Man: Race and Identity, Twayne, 1988.

Nadel, Alan, Invisible Criticism: Ralph Ellison and the American Canon, University of Iowa Press, 1988.

OMeally, Robert G., The Craft of Ellison, Harvard University Press, 1980.

Ralph Ellison: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by John Hersey, Prentice Hall, 1974.


Chicago Tribune, June 18, 1992, p. 1.

Commentary, June 1952.

Esquire, July 1986, p. 98.

Iowa Review, Fall 1989, pp. 1-10.

Jet, May 2, 1994, pp. 54-55.

New York Times Book Review, April 13, 1952, p. 5.

Phylon, June 1973, pp. 120-34.

Time, April 25, 1994, p. 90.


Associated Press release, April 16, 1994.

John Cohassey

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Ralph Waldo Ellison

Ralph Waldo Ellison

American author Ralph Waldo Ellison (1914-1994) wrote "Invisible Man," a classic 20th-century American novel. He was an early spokesman among African-Americans for the need for racial identity.

Ralph Ellison was born in Oklahoma City on March 1, 1914. His father, a construction worker, died when Ellison was 3, and his mother stretched a meager income as a domestic worker to support her son. He studied music at Tuskegee Institute from 1933 to 1936. He worked on the New York City Federal Writers Project, contributed stories, reviews, and essays to New Masses, the Antioch Review, and other journals (these writings have not yet been collected); and in 1942 became editor of the Negro Quarterly. He met Richard Wright and Langston Hughes during these years; both had a major influence on his work, along with T.S. Eliot, Ernest Hemingway, and the Russian novelists.

After brief duty in the U.S. Merchant Marine during World War II, Ellison won a Rosenwald fellowship to work on the novel which brought him instant recognition and the National Book Award, Invisible Man (1952). The story of a young man's growing up, first in the South and then in Harlem, it is sensational, brutally honest, and graphic in the humiliating, often violent treatment the nameless hero suffers at the hands of the Southern white men who "educate" him and the Northern black men who "use" him. But Ellison reminds the reader that he "didn't select the surrealism, the distortion, the intensity as an experimental technique but because reality is surreal." When, at the end of the novel, the hero creeps into an empty Harlem cellar to escape from the world, it is only the last of his many bouts with "invisibility." The life of a African-American has always been relentlessly unreal, and his search for identity endless. But what Ellison's novel illuminates is the common plight of all human beings in the confrontations between dream and reality, light against darkness, idealism smothered by disillusion, injured psyche, adopted personae. In 1965, in a poll of 200 writers and critics, they voted Invisible Man the most distinguished novel published between 1945 and 1965 in America.

Ellison's Shadow and Act (1964) is a collection of 20 essays and 2 interviews. He contributed to The Living Novel (Granville Hicks, ed., 1957), The Angry Black (John A. Williams, ed., 1963), and Soon One Morning (Herbert Hill, ed., 1963) and to numerous literary journals. He lectured at the Salzburg Seminar in 1954; taught Russian and American literature at Bard College from 1958 to 1961; was visiting professor at the University of Chicago in 1961 and visiting professor of writing at Rutgers University from 1962 to 1964; and in 1964, became visiting fellow in American studies at Yale University.

Ellison died on April 16, 1994, in New York City, leaving his second novel unfinished. His influence on American literature has been tremendous, and the loss of this second work is a bitter pill. According to Ellison himself, it was to be a work which would "[equal] his imaginative vision of the American novel as conqueror of the frontier and [answer] the Emersonian call for a literature to release all people from the bonds of oppression."

Further Reading

Perceptive critical comment on Ellison is available in Robert Bone, The Negro Novel in America (1958; rev. ed. 1965); Ihab Hassan, Radical Innocence: Studies in the Contemporary American Novel (1961); Marcus Klein, After Alienation: American Novels in Mid-century (1964); Jonathan Baumbach, The Landscape of Nightmare (1965); and Seymour L. Gross and John Edward Hardy, eds., Images of the Negro in American Literature (1966).

Ralph Ellsion, Invisible Man, Random House, 1982.

Ralph Ellison, Shadow and Act, Random House, 1964.

Ralph Ellison, Going to the Territory, Random House, 1986.

Kimberly W. Benston, editor, The Black American Writer, Everett Edwards, 1969. □

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Ellison, Ralph

Ralph Ellison (Ralph Waldo Ellison), 1914–94, African-American author, b. Oklahoma City; studied Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee Univ.). Originally a trumpet player and aspiring composer, he moved (1936) to New York City, where he met Langston Hughes, who became his mentor, and became friends with Richard Wright, who radicalized his thinking. Ellison's earliest published writings were reviews and stories in the politically radical New Masses magazine. His literary reputation rests almost completely on one novel, Invisible Man (1952). A classic of American literature, it draws upon the author's experiences to detail the harrowing progress of a nameless young black man struggling to live in a hostile society. Ellison also published two collections of essays, Shadow and Act (1964) and Going to the Territory (1986). His collected essays were published in 1995, and a volume of stories appeared in 1996. For many years Ellison struggled with the writing of a second novel, sections of which appeared (1960–77) in magazines, but it was still uncompleted at his death. Condensing the sprawling mass of text and notes written over four decades, his literary executor assembled the novel Juneteenth, which was published in 1999.

See R. G. O'Meally, ed., Living with Music: Ralph Ellison's Jazz Writings (2001); biographies by L. Jackson (2002) and A. Rampersad (2007); studies by J. Hersey, ed. (1974), R. G. O'Meally (1980), A. Nadel (1988), M. Busby (1991), E. Schor (1993), J. G. Watts (1995), H, Bytkerm, ed., (2000), H. Bloom, ed. (2003), K. W. Warren (2003), S. C. Tracy, ed. (2004), J. S. Wright (2006), and A. Bradley (2010).

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Ellison, Ralph Waldo

Ellison, Ralph Waldo (1914–94) US writer. Encouraged by Richard Wright, he wrote Invisible Man (1952), a semi-autobiographical novel about a young man's struggle for identity in a hostile society. The narrator becomes aware that to be black in US society is to be “invisible”.

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