ELLISON, RALPH (1911-1994)
Portrait photograph of Ralph EllisonView larger
Ralph Waldo Ellison, best known as the author of the award-winning novel Invisible Man (1952), was a "Renaissance man": sculptor, editor, short-story writer, novelist, jazz trumpeter, and photographer. He was born March 1, 1914, in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, to Lewis Alfred Ellison and Ida Millsap Ellison. The Ellisons had moved to Oklahoma in 1911 in hopes of finding more opportunities in an area free of the severe racism of the Deep South. When Ellison was born, Oklahoma had only been a state for seven years, and it retained its frontier spirit.
Oklahoma had a long history of racism, as evidenced by its maintenance of segregated schools. Ellison graduated in 1931 from the allblack Douglas High School, where he received a rigorous training in music. From 1933 to 1936 Ellison studied music at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. He played first trumpet in the school orchestra as well as serving as the orchestra's student director.
Ellison decided to spend the summer of 1936 in New York City in order to earn money for the next academic year. He never returned to school. While in New York, Ellison met Langston Hughes and Richard Wright, who encouraged him to write his first story, "Hymie's Bull." He then began to write book reviews, essays, and short stories, and he served as editor of the Negro Quarterly for a short time. Ellison's masterwork, Invisible Man, received many awards, including the National Book Award in 1953.
Besides his novel, Ellison also published two essay collections, Shadow and Act (1964) and Going to the Territory (1987). He began a second novel from which he released several sections, but he died April 16, 1994, in New York City before it was published. Six unpublished short stories that predate Invisible Man were published posthumously.
Venetria K. Patton University of Nebraska-Lincoln
O'Meally, Robert G. The Craft of Ralph Ellison. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980.
Reckley, Ralph. "Ellison, Ralph." In The Oxford Companion to African American Literature, edited by William L. Andrews, Frances Smith Foster, and Trudier Harris. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997: 129–31.