American author Ralph Waldo Ellison (1914-1994) wrote "Invisible Man," a classic 20th-century American novel. He was an early spokesman among African-Americans for the need for racial identity.
Ralph Ellison was born in Oklahoma City on March 1, 1914. His father, a construction worker, died when Ellison was 3, and his mother stretched a meager income as a domestic worker to support her son. He studied music at Tuskegee Institute from 1933 to 1936. He worked on the New York City Federal Writers Project, contributed stories, reviews, and essays to New Masses, the Antioch Review, and other journals (these writings have not yet been collected); and in 1942 became editor of the Negro Quarterly. He met Richard Wright and Langston Hughes during these years; both had a major influence on his work, along with T.S. Eliot, Ernest Hemingway, and the Russian novelists.
After brief duty in the U.S. Merchant Marine during World War II, Ellison won a Rosenwald fellowship to work on the novel which brought him instant recognition and the National Book Award, Invisible Man (1952). The story of a young man's growing up, first in the South and then in Harlem, it is sensational, brutally honest, and graphic in the humiliating, often violent treatment the nameless hero suffers at the hands of the Southern white men who "educate" him and the Northern black men who "use" him. But Ellison reminds the reader that he "didn't select the surrealism, the distortion, the intensity as an experimental technique but because reality is surreal." When, at the end of the novel, the hero creeps into an empty Harlem cellar to escape from the world, it is only the last of his many bouts with "invisibility." The life of a African-American has always been relentlessly unreal, and his search for identity endless. But what Ellison's novel illuminates is the common plight of all human beings in the confrontations between dream and reality, light against darkness, idealism smothered by disillusion, injured psyche, adopted personae. In 1965, in a poll of 200 writers and critics, they voted Invisible Man the most distinguished novel published between 1945 and 1965 in America.
Ellison's Shadow and Act (1964) is a collection of 20 essays and 2 interviews. He contributed to The Living Novel (Granville Hicks, ed., 1957), The Angry Black (John A. Williams, ed., 1963), and Soon One Morning (Herbert Hill, ed., 1963) and to numerous literary journals. He lectured at the Salzburg Seminar in 1954; taught Russian and American literature at Bard College from 1958 to 1961; was visiting professor at the University of Chicago in 1961 and visiting professor of writing at Rutgers University from 1962 to 1964; and in 1964, became visiting fellow in American studies at Yale University.
Ellison died on April 16, 1994, in New York City, leaving his second novel unfinished. His influence on American literature has been tremendous, and the loss of this second work is a bitter pill. According to Ellison himself, it was to be a work which would "[equal] his imaginative vision of the American novel as conqueror of the frontier and [answer] the Emersonian call for a literature to release all people from the bonds of oppression."
Further Reading on Ralph Waldo Ellison
Perceptive critical comment on Ellison is available in Robert Bone, The Negro Novel in America (1958; rev. ed. 1965); Ihab Hassan, Radical Innocence: Studies in the Contemporary American Novel (1961); Marcus Klein, After Alienation: American Novels in Mid-century (1964); Jonathan Baumbach, The Landscape of Nightmare (1965); and Seymour L. Gross and John Edward Hardy, eds., Images of the Negro in American Literature (1966).
Ralph Ellsion, Invisible Man, Random House, 1982.
Ralph Ellison, Shadow and Act, Random House, 1964.
Ralph Ellison, Going to the Territory, Random House, 1986.
Kimberly W. Benston, editor, The Black American Writer, Everett Edwards, 1969.