Ralph Ellison

Ralph Ellison

Ralph Ellison 

Ralph Waldo Ellison (March 1, 1914 – April 16, 1994) was an African American novelist, literary critic, scholar and writer.  He was born on March 1, 1914 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma (Note: Ellison's birthday has been listed as either 1913 or 1914 by various reputable sources). 

Ellison is best known for his novel “Invisible Man”, 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).

 Ralph Ellison and Fanny Ellison At Home In Manhattan 1972

Ralph Ellison and Fanny Ellison At Home In Manhattan, 1972 (courtesy Nancy Crampton) 

Early life

Ralph Ellison, named after Ralph Waldo Emerson, was born to Lewis Alfred Ellison and Ida Millsap.  Research by Lawrence Jackson, one of Ellison's biographers, has established that he was born a year earlier than had been previously thought.  He had one brother named Herbert Millsap Ellison, who was born in 1916.  His father, a small-business owner and a construction foreman, died when Ralph was three years old from stomach ulcers he received from an ice-delivering accident.  Many years later, Ellison would find out that his father hoped he would grow up to be a poet.

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 William L. Dawson. Ellison also had the good 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 reading T. S. Eliot's “The Waste Land” as a major awakening moment for him. 

Ellison and Richard Wright

After his third year, Ellison moved to New York City to study the visual arts.  He studied sculpture and photography.  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.  Langston Hughes introduced Ellison to his friend Richard Wright.   Wright (later famous for his novels “Black Boy” and “Native Son”) was then a young much talked about African-American writer who contributed to Communist-leaning publications. He encouraged Ellison to write and to to pursue a career in writing, specifically fiction, after Ellison had published his first book review and short story.  Ellison threw himself into the writing life, churning out dozens of book reviews, essays, and short stories for publications like the Marxist New Masses.

 Ralph Ellison - Langston Hughes and James Baldwin

Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, and James Baldwin

In 1938, Wright helped Ellison find a job with the Federal Writers' Project, a New Deal-era initiative that set unemployed writers to work producing guidebooks, histories, and children's books.  Ellison was assigned to write ethnographic studies of African-Americans in Harlem.  He took careful note of the way his interview subjects spoke, and later said that the fieldwork helped him realistically create the cadence of black speech in “Invisible Man”.  Also during this year, Ellison married an actress and dancer named Rose Poindexter. The marriage lasted until 1945.

Ellison left the Federal Writers' Project in 1942 to take over as editor of a short-lived publication called Negro Quarterly.  When it folded a year later, and World War II was still going strong, Ellison joined the Merchant Marine. He wanted to contribute to the war effort but had no desire to serve, he said, in a "Jim Crow" army. He spent two years aboard a ship as a cook.  Then, in 1945, Ellison became ill from contaminated water on his ship and was awarded sick leave.  Ellison decided to use the time to write a novel. He had been planning one for a while, imagining a war-themed plot centered on his own experiences at sea. But when it came time to sit down and write the words that actually came out were quite different.  As he told an interviewer years later:

Ralph Ellison with Hannah Atkins and Mayor Patience Latting  

Ralph Ellison with Hannah Atkins (L) and Mayor Patience Latting (R)

"I had come back on sick leave from my service in the Merchant Marine and, after a hospital stay, in the summer of 1945, my wife and I went to a friend's farm in Waitsfield, VT.  Sitting in a lumberman's cabin, looking at the hills, I wrote the first line of the book: 'I am an Invisible Man

Wright was then openly associated with the Communist Party and Ellison was publishing and editing for communist publications, although his ‘affiliation’ was quieter, according to historian Carol Polsgrove in “Divided Minds”.  Both Wright and Ellison lost their faith in the Communist Party during World War II when they felt the party had betrayed African Americans and replaced Marxist class politics with social reformism.  In a letter to Wright, August 18, 1945, Ellison poured out his anger with party leaders: "If they want to play ball with the bourgeoisie they needn't think they can get away with it. ... Maybe we can't smash the atom, but we can, with a few well chosen, well written words, smash all that crummy filth to hell."

In the wake of this disillusion, Ellison began writing “Invisible Man”, a novel that was, in part, his response to the party's betrayal.

Robert Penn Warren, Eleanor Clark Warren, Robert Motherwell, Ralph Ellison and Nancy Lewis in Bethany CT 

Robert Penn Warren, Eleanor Clark Warren, Robert Motherwell, Ralph Ellison, and Nancy Lewis, Bethany, CT, 1962.

In writing “Invisible Man” in the late 1940s, Ralph Ellison created a new kind of black protagonist, one at odds with the characters of Richard Wright. Where Wright’s characters were angry, uneducated, and inarticulate, the consequences of a racist society that oppressed them Ellison’s Invisible Man was educated, articulate, and self-aware.  Ellison’s view was that the African American culture and sensibility was far from the downtrodden, unsophisticated picture presented by writers, sociologists and politicians, both black and white.  He believed instead that blacks had created their own traditions, rituals, and a history that formed a complex culture that was the source of African American identity

Shadow and Act contains autobiographical aspects of Ellison’s life, but it only reveals his young character, the Ellison who was still heavily influenced by Wright's ideological vision.  Ellison's early writings reflect Richard Wright's creativity, but as Ellison continued his writing career, his literary works such as Invisible Man demonstrated the richness and complexity of his own vision.

If Wright’s protest literature was a natural outcome of a brutal childhood spent in the Deep South, Ellison’s more positive approach came out of a very different background in Oklahoma.  A frontier state with no legacy of slavery, Oklahoma in the 1910s had a societal flexibility for both blacks and whites that was not possible even in the North.  Although the Ellisons lived very poorly for a time in Oklahoma City, Ralph still had the ability to go to a decent school, and the motivation to find mentors, both black and white, from among the most talented people in the city.

Ralph Ellison  

Ralph Ellison

Ellison's work in the years surrounding World War II, like that of Richard Wright, focuses on the meaning of the Harlem Renaissance, the movement North for many blacks historically rooted in the south, and how it defined the African American people. They viewed their work as a response to both the modern-day experiences of African Americans and to the work of their literary predecessors, the New Negro writers.  The period between the world wars - specifically the years of the Harlem Renaissance - produced a "self-conscious" literature in response to the Great Migration and the establishment of urban cultures in the North.  The writers’ representations of black folk imply a conscious effort toward the (re)construction of an authentic African American identity. 

Many of the New Negro writers were defined by their geographical location, class, and gender - as southern and rural, poor, and most often male - and this construct underwrote a discourse of black difference and, therefore, of racial identity. Both Ellison and Wright dismissed much of the work of these New Negro writers because, to them, it presented an inauthentic portrait of the black folk or focused only on the middle-class.  They even saw their own work as revising New Negro texts and intentions.  Instead, Ellison and especially Wrights ideologies reflected those of the Communist Party.  Beginning in the late 1920s, the Party defined black folk culture as an expression of a unique national culture and of a workers' culture that arose out of the specific conditions of class and racial oppression in the South.  The Party, along with Wright and Ellison, was vehemently opposed to capitalist and racial exploitation. 

 Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray

Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray

Ellison was deeply interested in the works of Russian authors, especially Fyodor Dostoevsky's “Notes from the Underground”, and also its parallel, “The Man Who Lived Underground”, by Richard Wright.  While both writers initially adopted a Marxist ideology, as defined by Wright's "Blueprint for Negro Writing" (1937), the work of Ellison and Wright diverged from this platform in radically different ways. Ellison's perspective encompassed a cultural nationalist position that was deeply embedded in a pluralist vision of American culture.  In African American folk culture, Ellison depicted a political agenda for activism. Wright, in contrast, aligned himself with the views of Gunnar Myrdal, which Ellison disputed.

Fanny Ellison Ralph Ellison circa 1940 

Fanny Ellison Ralph Ellison (circa 1940)

Though Ellison did embrace Wright's vision of naturalistic determinism, Ellison found that Wright's vision was too narrow to represent the overall black experience in America.  He believed that Wright's writing, especially “Native Son”, only perpetuated stereotypical images that the black writer should attempt to eradicate.  In “Shadow and Act”, Ellison maintained that too many books written by black authors were geared toward a white audience, and that black writers then tended to limit themselves to their audience's assumptions about what black people were like or should be like.  Therefore, the black writer was reduced to pleading the humanity of his own race, which Ellison saw as the equivalent of questioning whether blacks were fully human. Believing that a naturalistic/deterministic approach could not define the black experience, Ellison created a style that embraces the strength, courage, endurance, and promises as well as the uniqueness of the black experience in America

Though he and Wright remained friends, by 1940 Ellison quit showing his written work to his former mentor. "I understood that our sensibilities were quite different," Ellison later said of his ideological split with his friend, "and, what I was hoping to achieve in fiction was something quite different from what he wanted to achieve."

Writing career

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.


Ralph Ellison - Jet Magazine 

Ralph Ellison's, Jet Magazine

World War II was nearing its end when Ellison, reluctant to serve in the segregated army, chose merchant marine service over the draft.  In 1946 he married his second wife, Fanny McConnell.  She worked as a photographer to help sustain Ellison.  From 1947 to 1951 he earned some money writing book reviews, but spent most of his time working on “Invisible Man”.  Fanny also helped type Ellison's longhand text and assisted her husband in editing the typescript as it progressed. 

Published in 1952, “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 1930s.  In contrast to his contemporaries such as Richard Wright and James Baldwin, Ellison created characters that 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 novel, with its treatment of taboo issues such as incest and the controversial subject of communism, won the 1953 U.S. National Book Award for Fiction.

 Ralph Ellison speaks at a 1966 Senate Subcommittee hearing on race

Ralph Ellison speaks at a 1966 Senate Subcommittee hearing on race (courtesy AP)

The award was his ticket into the American literary establishment.  Disillusioned by his experience with the Communist Party, he used his new fame to speak out for literature as a moral instrument.  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.  Robert Penn Warren was in Rome during the same period and the two writers became close friends.  

In 1958, Ellison returned to the United States to take a position teaching American and 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 their 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 University and Yale University, while continuing to work on his novel.  The following year, a survey of 200 prominent literary figures was released that proclaimed “Invisible Man” 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 more than 300 pages of his second novel manuscript were lost.  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 more than 2000 pages of this second novel but never finished it.

 Ralph Ellison later years

Ralph Ellison, later years

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 Presidential Medal of Freedom. The following year, he was made a Chevalier of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by France and became a permanent member of the faculty at New York University as the Albert Schweitzer Professor of Humanities, serving from 1970 to 1980.

Memorial to Ralph Ellision 

Memorial to Ralph Ellision

In 1975, Ellison was elected to The American Academy of 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 Medal.  In 1985, he was awarded the National Medal of Arts.  In 1986, his “Going to the Territory” was published.  This is a collection of seventeen essays that included insight into southern novelist William Faulkner and Ellison's friend Richard Wright, as well as the music of Duke Ellington and the contributions of African Americans to America’s national identity.

Final years

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 University, the University of Chicago, and New York University.  Ellison was also a charter member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers.

Ralph Ellison died on April 16, 1994, of pancreatic cancer, and was buried at Trinity Church Cemetery in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City.  He was survived by his wife, Fanny Ellison, who died on 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”, 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 more than 2000 pages written by Ellison over a period of forty years.  All the manuscripts of this incomplete novel were published collectively on January 26, 2010, by Modern Library, under the title “Three Days Before the Shooting”.








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