Who was Ralph Waldo Ellison?
Ralph Waldo Ellison was an African American novelist famous for his novel ‘Invisible Man’. He was also a scholar and literary critic who had published many essays on critical social and political issues. Even though his life started off in a very humble way, he was able to carve a niche for himself in the literary circles and won many accolades for his work. His body of work has been regarded as an important treatise on the complexity of American culture, especially when it comes to the African American communities. Ralph was also deeply interested in jazz music and readers can see a glimpse of this love for music in his writing as well. His narrative is simple and yet so rich, interspersed with rhymes and lyrics from popular numbers. His writing leaves the reader with a very powerful message conveyed in an appealing manner. His works draw the readers' attention towards the injustice prevalent in the society and forces them to become consciously aware of the various issues plaguing the society. Besides his involvement in writing and music, Ralph also taught at various universities in the United States.
Childhood & Early Life
Ralph Ellison was born on 1st March 1914, in Oklahoma City, as the second of three children born to Lewis Alfred Ellison and Ida Millsap. His elder brother, Alfred, had died shortly after birth, and the younger one, Herbert Maurice, was born in 1916.
His father had named him after the famous poet Ralph Waldo Emerson as he wanted his son to be a poet when he grew up.
Lewis Alfred Ellison was a construction foreman and owned a small business. He died when Ralph was only two years old, following an operation to treat internal stomach injuries which he had incurred earlier in an accident at a construction site.
After Lewis’ death, Ida was left to fend for the family. She took her children to her brother in Gary, Indiana, and had to return to Oklahoma in search of a job.
Ralph had to shoulder financial responsibilities early in his life, and worked at various odd jobs in his youth, including as a shoeshine boy, a dentist’s assistant and a busboy among others.
He completed his schooling from ‘Douglass High School’ in 1931, and while there, he also played in the school football team. After graduating, Ellison bought a trumpet with the money saved, took music lessons, and performed with the local musicians.
Ellison joined the prestigious Tuskegee University in 1933, on his second attempt to get an admission there. He played in the institution’s orchestra as a trumpet player.
In 1934, he worked as a desk clerk in the Tuskegee University library and got the chance to read extensively the works of authors like James Joyce, Gertrude Stein and T.S. Eliot.
He left Tuskegee in 1936, after his third year at the university, without completing his degree as he was facing a financial crunch. He moved to New York City to earn some money and come back to complete his degree, which he never did.
Ida died in 1937 in Dayton, Ohio, leaving Ellison orphaned.
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After moving to New York City in 1936, Ralph Ellison studied sculpture and photography. He met several important personalities like Langston Hughes, a celebrated black author of his time, author Richard Wright, and the African American artist Romare Bearden.
Richard Wright, for whom Ellison had written a book review, inspired him to write fiction. ‘Hymie’s Bull,’ his first published story, was based on his journey on a train with his uncle to Tuskegee.
From 1937 to 1944, he published about 20 book reviews and articles which were published in magazines such as ‘The New Republic’, ‘Saturday Reviews’, ‘The New Masses’, ‘Antioch Review’ and ‘New Challenge.’
Meanwhile, he also started working as a writer and researcher for the ‘Federal Writers’ Project’, following which he served as the managing editor of ‘The Negro Quarterly’ for about a year.
For two years, from 1943 to 1945, during World War II, he worked as a cook in the United States Merchant Marine. After the end of World War II, he started writing ‘Invisible Man’ in 1945. It was published seven years later.
In 1955, he visited Europe and settled down for some time in Rome and lectured on his ideas. In 1958, he returned to the United States and started teaching Russian and American literature at Bard College.
He also started teaching at various universities like Rutgers University and Yale University while working on his second novel ‘Juneteenth’. He taught at the New York University between 1970 to 1979.
The novel ‘Invisible Man’ was a masterpiece written by Ralph Ellison. It became the only novel that was published during his lifetime in 1952. It immediately rose to the top of the best-seller list where it featured for a straight 16 weeks!
In 1964, he published a collection of essays called the ‘Shadow and Act.’ A second collection of essays ‘Going to the Territory’ was published in 1986.
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In 1999, his second novel ‘Juneteenth’ was published under the editorship of John F. Callahan. This was an abridged version with 368 pages, condensed from the 2000 pages long original work written by Ellison.
Awards & Achievements
Ellison won the National Book Award for Fiction in 1953 for his novel ‘Invisible Man’.
He became a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and also received a State Medal from France and two President’s Medals.
Harvard University conferred an honorary doctorate degree on him.
He was the first African American to get a membership to the prestigious Century Association.
Family & Personal Life
Ralph Ellison married Rosa Araminta Poindexter in 1938. The couple divorced five years later. During their marriage, he confessed to his wife about having a brief affair with Sanora Babb.
He was married a second time in 1946 to Fanny McConnell. She helped him sustain himself financially while he worked on his first novel, ‘Invisible Man’, and also helped him type the manuscript.
He breathed his last on 16th April 1994, aged 80, due to pancreatic cancer.
Besides writing, sculpture and music, Ellison was also a sound technician and made electronic equipment like stereo boxes.
He also wrote many books dedicated to his love for jazz music.