Author Spotlight: Ralph Ellison

By Audrey W. | Arcadia Staff
Ralph Ellison was an American novelist, literary critic, and scholar who lived during the 20th century. Ellison’s talent was unmatched, and he left a mark on the literature of the era. He is best known for his 1963 National Book Award winning novel Invisible Man, and his writing contributed to a social justice awakening across the country. We’re looking into the events that helped shape Ellison into one of the most prolific writers of the 20th century.

The Father and University That Fueled a Budding Writer

 Ellison was born in Oklahoma City on March 1, 1916. He was named after the great American essayist, lecturer, poet, and philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Ellison’s father was a deep admirer of literature, and played a substantial hand in Ellison’s involvement with literature from a young age. Sadly, Ellison’s father died when the writer was just three years old. In 1919, a construction accident sent shards of an ice block through his abdomen and proved fatal. To support his family during his teenage year, Ellison held a number of odd jobs. He was a shoeshine boy, hotel waiter, busboy, and dentist’s assistant. He also made time to learn how to play the trumpet, with the help of the father of a neighborhood friend.
After several failed attempts, Ellison was finally admitted to Tuskegee Institute, a prestigious all-black university in Alabama founded by Booker T. Washington. Ellison was accepted in 1933 because the university’s orchestra needed a trumpet player, and Ellison proved himself a skilled musician. While he attended Tuskegee, Ellison mostly studied music. His free time was spent in the library reading modernist classics. It was here that he discovered writers like James Joyce and Gertrude Stein. Ellison once claimed that after reading Wasteland by T.S. Eliot, he felt a creative awakening that no other piece of writing had prompted for him before. He was inspired to start experimenting with his own writing.

Author Ralph Ellison (center).

After a few months at Tuskegee, Ellison was surprised to find that, despite being an all-black university, Tuskegee was no more race conscious than any other white only institute in the country. Literary critic Hilton Als believed this inspired Ellison’s satirical writing voice. In Ellison’s most famous work Invisible Man he writes, “He looks back with scorn and despair on the sniveling ethos that ruled at Tuskegee.” Ellison left the university in 1936, without finishing the requirements necessary to secure a degree.

Meeting Literary Giants in Harlem

After leaving Tuskegee, Ellison moved to New York City and found lodging at a YMCA in Harlem. Here he met Langston Hughes, who introduced Ellison to the black art scene where he met artists like Romare Bearden and Richard Wright. Wright and Ellison would form a lasting bond that persisted through most of their lives. Not long after arriving, Ellison published his first story. “Hymie’s Bull” was inspired by Ellison and his uncle’s train hopping to reach the Tuskegee campus in 1933. Between 1937 and 1944, he had over 20 stories, reviews, and articles printed in publications across New York.
After an unsuccessful first marriage, Ellison married Fanny McConnell in 1946. McConnell was the founder of the Negro People’s Theater, and a writer for the Chicago Defender. Her income supported them both while Ellison worked on Invisible Man. The novel was published in 1952, and chronicles an unnamed African American man’s search for his identity in New York City in the 1930s. Despite being the recipient of a National Book Award, Ellison claimed that he was ultimately unhappy with the book. Ellison earned many more awards during his lifetime. He was admitted to the American Academy of Arts and Letters and was the recipient of two President’s Medals from Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan. Ellison was the first African American inducted into the Century Association, and the recipient of the 1985 National Medal of the Arts, to name a few.
In 1967, a devastating house fire destroyed 300 pages of the manuscript for his second novel. Ellison would rewrite more than 2000 pages of this book, but he never finished it. He died of pancreatic cancer in 1994. After a tragic childhood event and an underwhelming college experience, Ellison eventually found his way to New York City, where he met writers and artists that forever altered his career. His criticism and essays exposed raw places of society invisible to most, all with a distinct voice that helped define an era of American literature.