Ralph Waldo Ellison was an African American novelist who was named after the celebrated poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, by his father who wanted his son to become a poet. Today Ellison is mostly remembered as the mastermind who wrote the emotive and gripping novel “Invisible Man” (along with many others) which met with much critical success, winning the National Book Award in 1953. Ellison was born in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma on 1st March 1914. He was born to Ida Millsap and Lewis Alfred Ellison and had a brother Herbert Millsap Ellison. In his initial years Ellison and his family had to deal with difficult times.
Ralph lost his father – Lewis Alfred in the year 1917 in an accident when Ralph was at the tender age of 3. His loss left Ralph and his family struggling financially. From a young age Ida Millsap encouraged Ralph’s habit of reading. She would bring along magazines and books from residences she cleaned at for him to read. Moreover, a black priest succeeded in giving African American people in Oklahoma City the opportunity to use the public library, a privilege which exposed Ralph to a different world entirely.
He went to study music in Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute in 1933 on a scholarship. The department was led by composer William L. Dawson making it one of the famous departments of Tuskegee. He flourished in his music classes while at Tuskegee and also began to spend more and more time in the library. He particularly recalls reading “The Waste Land” by T. S Elliot as an inspiration.
Ellison left Tuskegee and moved to New York City in 1936 after his third year as a result of financial issues, planning to complete his education in due time. While at New York, Ellison studied photography in addition to sculpture. Ellison thoroughly enjoyed New York’s vibrancy and liveliness. However, the major turning point for Ellison in New York was meeting with Richard Wright. It was Richard Wright who pointed Ellison in the direction of writing and motivated Ellison to write for him. Ellison’s work appeared in various publications including Antioch Review, New Challenge and New Masses. He would write short stories, reviews and essays.
From 1943 to 1945 Ellison worked as a cook in Merchant Marine during the outbreak of WW II. He started writing what was to become his masterpiece “Invisible Man” when WWII ended. His wife Fanny McConnell who he married in 1946 proved to be a valuable asset and great support to Ellison. She supported him financially, working as a photographer and would help edit his work and even type his text.
Invisible Man was published in 1952 by Random House.It tells a story from a young black man’s perspective who is struggling in New York. He feels misplaced, disappointed and traumatized by the injustices and racism in South Harlem. As a result the protagonist withdraws from society to a basement, becoming “invisible”. In 1953, the Invisible Man won the National Book Award.
Afterwards, Ellison published more of his works. Ellison began to teach both American and Russian literature at Bard College. He also began to work on Juneteenth; his second novel. He released a collection of essays; “Shadow and Act” in 1964. He also started to teach at Yale University and Rutgers University, while still working on “Juneteenth”. In 1965, Ellison received the honor of his book “Invisible Man” being declared the most important novel since the end of WW11 by survey of 200 prominent literary figures.
He taught at New York University from (1970 to 1979. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1969.
In 1994, Ralph Ellison died of pancreatic cancer. Following his death, scripts were found in his home which were published in “Other Stories” and Flying Home in 1996.
Ellison’s, “Juneteenth”, was published under the leadership of John F. Callahan, a professor at Lewis and Clark College. The book had been compressed into 368 words originally being above 2000 pages. On January 26 2010, Modern Library made the remaining manuscripts of the unfinished novel available in print, naming it “Three Days Before the Shooting”.