Ralph Waldo Ellison (March 1, 1914 – April 16, 1994) was a scholar and writer. He was born in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, named by his father after Ralph Waldo Emerson. Ellison was best known for his novel Invisible Man (ISBN 0-679-60139-2), 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). Research by Lawrence Jackson, one of Ellison's biographers, has established that he was born a year earlier than had been previously thought.
Ellison was born in Oklahoma City on March 1, 1914. Ellison's father, a small-business owner and a construction foreman, died when Ralph was three. Many years later, Ellison would find out that his father hoped he would grow up to be a poet, and named him after the great American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson. Ellison's mother raised him and his brother Herbert, while working as a domestic and nursemaid.
Early in life he became enamored of music, studying trumpet and piano. Ellison lived at a time when several great jazz musicians were in Oklahoma City, so he became immersed in that genre of music as well as the classical composition which he studied in school. Jimmy Rushing would be a particularly strong influence; years later he would include the essay "Remembering Jimmy" in his book of criticism Shadow and Act. Music was a constant theme both in his personal life and in his writing.
In 1933, Ellison entered the Tuskegee Institute on a scholarship to study music. Tuskegee's music department was perhaps the most renowned department at the school, headed by the conductor Charles L. Dawson. (The Tuskegee choir was invited to play at many prestigious locations throughout the world, including Radio City.) Ellison also had the fortune to come under the close tutelage of the piano instructor Hazel Harrison. While he studied music primarily in his classes, he spent increasing amounts of time in the library, reading up on modernist classics. He specifically cited The Waste Land as a major awakening moment for him.
After his third year, Ellison moved to New York City to earn money for his final year. He decided to study sculpture and he made acquaintance with the artist Romare Bearden. Perhaps Ellison's most important contact would be with the author Richard Wright, with whom he would have a long and complicated relationship. After Ellison wrote a book review for Wright, Wright encouraged Ellison to pursue a career in writing, specifically fiction. The first published story written by Ellison was a short story entitled "Hymie's Bull," a story inspired by Ellison's hoboing on a train with his uncle to get to Tuskegee. From 1937 to 1944 Ellison had over twenty book reviews as well as short stories and articles published in magazines such as New Challenge and New Masses.
During WWII Ellison joined the Merchant Marine, and in 1946 he married his second wife, Fanny McConnell. She supported her husband financially while he wrote Invisible Man, and typed Ellison's longhand text. She also assisted her husband in editing the typescript as it progressed.
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 1940s. In contrast to his contemporaries such as Richard Wright and James Baldwin, Ellison created characters who 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 groundbreaking novel, with its treatment of previously taboo issues such as incest and white America's distorted perceptions of black sexuality, won the National Book Award in 1953.
In 1955, Ellison went abroad to Europe to travel and lecture before settling for a time in Rome, Italy, where he wrote an essay that appeared in a Bantam anthology called A New Southern Harvest in 1957. In 1958, he returned to the United States to take a position teaching American &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 these 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 and Yale, and continued to work on his novel. The following year, a survey of 200 prominent literary figures was released that proclaimed Invisible Man as 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 300 pages of his second novel manuscript were lost. This assertion is disproved in the 2007 biography of Ellison by Arnold Rampersad. 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 over 2000 pages of this second novel, most of them by 1959. He never finished.
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 Medal of Freedom; the following year, he was awarded the coveted Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et Lettres by France and became a permanent member of the faculty at New York University as the Albert Schweitzer Professor of Humanities, acting from 1970-1980.
In 1975, Ellison was elected to the American Academy for the 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 Medallion. The following year saw the publication of Going to the Territory, a collection of seventeen essays that included insight into southern novelist William Faulkner and his 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.
Ellison was also an accomplished sculptor, musician, photographer and college professor. He taught at Bard College, Rutgers, the University of Chicago, and New York University. Ellison was also a charter member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers.
Ralph Ellison died of pancreatic cancer on Saturday, April 16, 1994, and was buried in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City. His wife survived him, and died November 19, 2005.
After his death, more manuscripts were discovered in his home, resulting in the publication of Flying Home: And Other Stories in 1996. In 1999, five years after his death, Ellison's second novel, Juneteenth (ISBN 0-394-46457-5), 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 over 2000 pages written by Ellison over a period of forty years. All the manuscripts of this incomplete novel will be published on June 17, 2008 by Modern Library, under the tentative title Three Days Before the Shooting.