Ralph Ellison

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Ralph Ellison, writer and literary critic. Public Domain

Overview

Writer Ralph Waldo Ellison is best known for his novel , which won the National Book Award in 1953. Ellison also wrote a collection of essays, Shadow and Act (1964) and Going to the Territory (1986). A novel, Juneteenth was published in 1999--five years after Ellison’s death.

Early Life and Education

Named after Ralph Waldo Emerson, Ellison was born in Oklahoma City on March 1, 1914. His father, Lewis Alfred Ellison, died when Ellison was three years old.

His mother, Ida Millsap would raise Ellison and his younger brother, Herbert, by working odd jobs.

Ellison enrolled in Tuskegee Institute to study music in 1933.

Life in New York City and an Unexpected Career

In 1936, Ellison traveled to New York City to find work. His intention was originally to save enough money to pay for his school expenses at Tuskegee Institute. However, after he began working with the Federal Writer’s Program, Ellison decided to relocate to New York City permanently. With the encouragement of writers such as Langston Hughes, Alain Locke, and , Ellison began to publish essays and short stories in a variety of publications. Between 1937 and 1944, Ellison published an estimated 20 book reviews, short stories, articles and essays. In time, he became the managing editor for The Negro Quarterly.

Invisible Man

Following a brief stint at a Merchant Marine during World War II, Ellison returned to the United States and continued writing.

While visiting a friend’s home in Vermont, Ellison began writing his first novel,  Invisible Man. Published in 1952, Invisible Man tells the story of an African-American man who migrates from the South to New York City and feels alienated as a result of racism.

The novel was an instant bestseller and won the National Book Award in 1953.

Invisible Man would be considered a groundbreaking text for its exploration of marginalization and racism in the United States.

Life After Invisible Man

Following the success of Invisible Man, Ellison became an American Academy fellow and lived in Rome for two years. During this time, Ellison would publish an essay included in the Bantam anthology, A New Southern Harvest. Ellison published two collections of essays--Shadow and Act in 1964 followed by Going to the Territory in 1986. Many of Ellison’s essays focused on themes such as the African-American experience and jazz music.  He also taught at schools such as Bard College and New York University, Rutgers University and the University of Chicago.

Ellison received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1969 for his work as a writer. The following year, Ellison appointed as a faculty member at New York University as the Albert Schweitzer Professor of Humanities. In 1975, Ellison was elected to The American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 1984, he received the Langston Hughes Medal from the City College of New York (CUNY).

Despite the popularity of Invisible Man and the demand for a second novel, Ellison would never publish another novel.

In 1967, a fire at his Massachusetts home would destroy more than 300 pages of a manuscript. At the time of his death, Ellison had written 2000 pages of a second novel but was not satisfied with his work. 

Death

On April 16, 1994, Ellison died from pancreatic cancer in New York City.

Legacy

A year after Ellison’s death, a comprehensive collection of the writer’s essays were published.

In 1996, Flying Home, a collection of short stories was also published.

Ellison’s literary executor, John Callahan, shaped a novel that Ellison was completing before his death. Entitled Juneteenth, the novel was published posthumously in 1999. The novel received mixed reviews. The New York Times said in its review that the novel was “disappointingly provisional and incomplete.”

In 2007, Arnold Rampersad published Ralph Ellison: A Biography.

In 2010, Three Days Before the Shooting was published and provided readers with an understanding of how the previously published novel was shaped.