Ralph Waldo Ellison was born March 1, 1914, in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, to Lewis Alfred Ellison, a construction foreman who died when Ellison was only three years old, and the former Ida Milsap, a church stewardess, who used to bring him books she borrowed from the houses she cleaned. Ellison attended Frederick Douglass School in Oklahoma City, receiving lessons in symphonic composition. He began playing the trumpet at age eight and, at age eighteen, attended Tuskegee Institute in Montgomery, Alabama, studying music from 1933 to 1936. During that time, he worked at a variety of jobs including janitor, shoeshine boy, jazz musician, and freelance photographer. He also became a game hunter to keep himself alive, a skill he says he learned from reading Hemingway.
Completing only three years majoring in music at Tuskegee, Ellison sometimes referred to himself as a college dropout. Ironically, Ellison went on to receive 12 honorary doctorate degrees from such prestigious universities as Tuskegee Institute, Rutgers University, the University of Michigan, and Harvard University.
Moving to New York in 1936, Ellison met writers Richard Wright and Langston Hughes, which led to his first attempts at fiction and prompted his move to Harlem where he lived for more than 40 years with his wife, Fanny McConnell.
A renowned novelist, short story writer, and critic, Ellison taught at several colleges and universities and lectured extensively at such prestigious institutions as Yale University, the Library of Congress, and the U.S. Military Academy.
In 1970, Ellison became Albert Schweitzer Professor of the Humanities at New York University, where he served until 1980. He also received the prestigious Chevalier de L'Ordre des Artes et Lettres, one of the highest honors France can bestow on a foreign writer. In 1982, he was named professor emeritus at NYU, teaching for several years while continuing to write.
Ellison died of cancer on April 16, 1994, at his home in New York City.
Soon after his move to New York in 1936, his book reviews, short stories, and articles began to appear in numerous magazines and anthologies, and Ellison was on his way to becoming an acclaimed author.
Early Success with Invisible Man
In the early 1940s, Ellison started out writing a novel about a captured American pilot in a Nazi prisoner-of-war camp. But during the summer of 1945, visiting friends in Vermont while on sick leave from the Merchant Marine, the opening lines of Invisible Man came to him, prompting him to write an entirely different novel.
Ellison described Invisible Man, published in 1952, as "a novel about innocence and human error, a struggle through illusion to reality." Ellison claimed that his novel comprised "a series of reversals," providing a "portrait of the artist as rabble-rouser." Responding to questions concerning the narrator's journey as a reflection of the black struggle for justice and equality, Ellison contended that he is "not concerned with injustice, but with art," pointing out that there is "no dichotomy between art and protest". To illustrate, he cited works such as Cervantes' Don Quixote and Dostoyevski's Notes from Underground, arguing that these literary works not only embody protest against social and political constraints, but ultimately protest against the limitations of human life itself.
Ellison became known primarily for Invisible Man, which won the Russwurm Award and the National Book Award and established him as one of the most important American authors of the twentieth century. But he also published several nonfiction works and short stories.
Other Major Works
In 1960, Ellison published his first Hickman stories, "And Hickman Arrives" and "The Roof, the Steeple, and the People." In these stories, he introduced Senator Adam "Bliss" Sunraider, a light-skinned black man, passing for white most of his adult life, and Reverend "Daddy" Hickman, the Negro preacher who takes him in and raises him as his own son.
Ellison also published two important volumes of nonfiction, Shadow and Act (1964) and Going to the Territory (1986). These two works, together with numerous unpublished speeches and writings, were published in 1995 as The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison. He also wrote numerous short stories — including "King of the Bingo Game," "That I Had the Wings," and "Flying Home" — published posthumously in 1996 as Flying Home and Other Stories.
The Hickman characters later appeared in his posthumously published novel, Juneteenth. Because 368 pages of his Hickman manuscript were destroyed in a fire at his summer home in Massachusetts in 1967, Ellison spent the remaining years of his life reconstructing it. The novel, still incomplete at his death, was eventually published as Juneteenth.
Ellison credits T.S. Eliot's poem, The Waste Land — which he describes "as intriguing as a trumpet improvisation by Louis Armstrong," for arousing his interest in literature. Trying to gain a better understanding, Ellison started reading literary criticism. He soon started searching for what he called "Eliot's kind of sensibility" in Negro poetry but didn't find it — until he came across the writings of Richard Wright.
Although he admired Wright's work, such as the novel Native Son, Ellison felt that Wright's use of the protest novel, which generally depicted blacks as the oppressed victims of whites, and his tendency to write primarily for a white audience limited his vision. Writing Invisible Man, Ellison set out to move beyond the protest novel to portray a narrator whose life was not defined strictly by his race, but by his willingness to accept personal responsibility for creating his own life.
Adopting His Namesake's Philosophy
Like his namesake, poet and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-82), Ellison believed in the philosophy of transcendentalism, asserting that individuals create their own reality and that reality is essentially mental or spiritual in nature. This accounts for much of his fascination with masks and disguises and his preoccupation with appearance vs. reality.
Ellison admired the American transcendentalists, particularly Emerson, Whitman, and Thoreau. He liked their faith in the American democratic ideal, concern for cultural pluralism, belief in personal freedom, and idealistic vision of a world in which individuals would transcend (or rise above) their petty desires for self-aggrandizement, obtain a kind of spiritual enlightenment, and work together for the good of all people. This goal is perhaps best expressed in Emerson's essay, "Self-Reliance," contending that, "Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind," emphasizing the virtues of solitude by declaring that "the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude."
From Poetry to Novels
In a 1954 interview, Ellison contended that by devoting himself to the novel, he "took on one of the responsibilities inherited by those who practice the craft in the U.S.: that of describing for all that fragment of the huge diverse American experience which I know best, and which offers me the possibility of contributing not only to the growth of the literature but to the shaping of the culture as I should like it to be." Despite criticism from younger blacks who argued that he did not present a true picture of the plight of black Americans, Ellison remained firm on his stance, insisting that the struggles of blacks, although different in some respects from the struggles of whites, were basically the same struggles all Americans had to face in order to achieve a sense of personal freedom and responsibility.
Commenting on Blacks in America
According to Ellison, "[One writes] out of one thing only — one's experience as understood through one's knowledge of self, culture, and literature." His dedication to this concept is evident in his writings, which focus on the struggles of black Americans striving to be accepted as simply Americans.
Renowned author and critic Henry Louis Gates Jr. once wrote that Ellison, Richard Wright (1908-60) and James Baldwin (1924-87) comprised "the holy male trinity of the black tradition." Wright, most famous for his protest novel Native Son, was known for depicting blacks as oppressed victims of white society, and Baldwin — best known for his nonfiction works such as Notes of a Native Son, Nobody Knows My Name, and The Fire Next Time — focused on religious themes and "blackness as salvation." But only Ellison, who saw blackness as a metaphor for the human condition, transcended the theme of race by incorporating mythological and supernatural elements into his works. Thus, while Invisible Man explores the narrator's attempt to cope with racism and segregation, it also explores one man's attempts to come to terms with the myth of the American Dream and to make sense of a society in which both the oppressed and the oppressor become victims of their blindness concerning American identity and the true brotherhood of humanity. Consequently, Ellison is renowned not only as an author and the master of black vernacular, but as an astute commentator on literature, culture, and race.