Ellison spent three years as a student at Tuskegee Institute...aj wright //
Date: Sat, 1 Sep 2001 02:00:09 -0400
From: ANB Biography of the Day <biod-request@...
American National Biography Online
Ellison, Ralph Waldo (1 Mar. 1914-16 Apr. 1994), writer, was
born in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, the son of Lewis Alfred Ellison
and Ida Millsap. Ellison's father, who died when Ralph was only
three years old, worked as a construction foreman and sold ice
and coal as an independent small businessman. He named his son
after the poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, hoping he would become a
poet. His mother worked as a domestic and a church janitor to
raise Ralph and his younger brother after her husband died. Ellison
credits his mother for his early interest in books because she
brought home books and magazines from the homes in which she
worked for her sons to read. Ralph Ellison's grandparents had been slaves.
Ellison attended the segregated Frederick Douglass School in
Oklahoma City for twelve years. The school's curriculum emphasized
music, and Ellison studied classical trumpet and also developed
a love for jazz. After graduating from high school, he received
a scholarship from the state of Oklahoma to study music and musical
composition at the Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama. Lacking
the money for transportation to Tuskegee during the Great Depression,
Ellison hopped freight trains to get to college.
At the end of his junior year, Ellison found himself without
the funds to continue at Tuskegee. He decided to travel to New
York City to play the trumpet professionally in order to raise
enough money to return to college. Ellison also planned to study
sculpture while he was in New York. On his second day in New
York, Ellison met writers Alain Locke and Langston Hughes. Hughes
provided Ellison with an introduction to Richard Wright when
Wright came to New York to write in the Harlem Bureau of the
Daily Worker, the Communist party newspaper, and to edit a new
magazine called New Challenge. It was Wright who encouraged Ellison
to write a book review for what became the only published issue
of New Challenge. Wright impressed upon Ellison the need to further
develop his writing technique. New Masses, Directions, and the
Negro Quarterly began publishing Ellison's reviews and literary
criticism. In 1939 Ellison published his first short story, "Slick
Gonna Learn." He was never able to realize his ambition to play
the trumpet professionally because during the depression he never
had enough money to join the musicians' union.
In 1938 Ellison began working for the Federal Writers' Project,
a program intended to provide work relief for unemployed writers.
His assignment was to work on the Negroes in New York book project
and also to collect African-American folklore. Ellison resigned
from the Federal Writers' Project in 1942 to become the managing
editor of the Negro Quarterly. His position only lasted a year
because the magazine folded after publishing only four issues.
Between 1939 and 1945 Ellison published seven additional short
stories: "The Birthmark," "Afternoon," "Mister Toussan," "That
I Had Wings," "In a Strange Country," "Flying Home," and "King
of the Bingo Game." In the last three stories, all published
in 1944, Ellison moved beyond the Marxist ideology and literary
naturalism he was introduced to by Wright. No longer convinced
that individuals were trapped by their environment, Ellison began
to experiment with more contemporary themes: the alienation of
modern man in an increasingly complex society, modern man's search
for his personal identity, and the modern black man's responsibility
for shaping his own environment within the confines of the black
experience. Ellison began to use black folklore, black historical
experience, and especially jazz to reveal the richness of black
culture as well as to celebrate the creative achievements of black
In 1943 Ellison joined the merchant marine and served as a cook.
After his release in 1945 because of illness, a $1,500 stipend
from the Julius Rosenwald Fund enabled him to begin work on the
novel that occupied the next seven years of his life. Although
Ellison published a substantial number of essays, reviews, and
short stories beginning in 1939 and continuing throughout his
life, his importance as a writer was established by his first
novel, Invisible Man, published in April 1952. Immediately acclaimed
by critics, it was recognized not merely as an excellent novel
by a black author, but as a great literary achievement. In The
Negro Novel in America, Robert Bone called Invisible Man "quite
possibly the best American novel since World War II." Also well
received by general readers, the novel spent sixteen weeks on
the New York Times bestseller list.
Invisible Man begins with one of the most memorable scenes in
modern literature, that of its unnamed protagonist reclused in
the basement den he has wired with 1,369 filament lights, while
Louis Armstrong's "What Did I Do to Be So Black and Blue" plays
on his phonograph. The opening lines of the novel are among the
most quoted in twentieth-century American fiction. The narrator's
first statement, an introduction of himself to his reader, also
summarizes the black man's experience in America: "I am an invisible
man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan
Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a
man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids--and I
might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand,
simply because people refuse to see me." From this point, Ellison's
unnamed protagonist reveals his life story. As the invisible
man seeks to construct his own identity, he comes into contact
with various organizations and institutions representing different
facets of black American life in the 1930s. The protagonist's
story begins with a surreal fight scene during which black youth
entertain a white male fraternal organization. The naive invisible
young man believed he had been invited to receive a college scholarship
and to give an acceptance speech. The narrator's life story goes
on to recount his experience at a southern black college, his
adjustment from southern rural life to urban Harlem, his factory
job, and his involvement with the Communist party and black nationalism
in Harlem. Ellison uses violence, comedy, and surrealism to expose
the contradiction between American democratic ideals of justice
and equality and the reality of black experience. Each of the
protagonist's experiences results in further loss of innocence
and eventually in his self-imposed exile from the world.
In Invisible Man Ellison crafted a complex novel exposing the
richness and diversity of black American culture and creativity.
The novel also celebrates the ability of African-American culture
to provide sustenance to anyone who is trying to negotiate the
complexity of modern life. Although he suffers repeated disillusionment,
at the end of the novel the still-unnamed narrator accepts and
embraces his past and plans his reentry into society. Ellison
affirmed his own belief that love, commitment, human imagination,
and individual action can bring change. In the essay "The World
and the Jug" (1963), Ellison elaborated further on his belief
in the power of individual resistance to oppression. He wrote
that a black man "is no mere product of his socio-political environment.
He is a product of the interaction between his racial predicament,
his individual will and the broader American cultural freedom
in which he finds his ambiguous existence."
Invisible Man is a political novel as well as a celebration
of black creativity. The narrator searches for a leadership role
in a country whose expressed democratic ideals are at odds with
its treatment of black Americans. Like Ellison himself, the narrator
loses faith in the simplistic solutions offered by black educational
institutions and their conservative leaders, black nationalists,
and Marxist ideologues. Nevertheless, Ellison remained optimistic
about the possibility of change through individual struggle against
The novel is also Ellison's comment on the writer's responsibility
to reveal some meaning in the world and to provide some insight
into the human condition. It was the obligation of the writer,
according to Ellison, "to give pattern to the chaos" and to encourage
acceptance of one's own history. In the invisible man's own attempt
to write, he discovers that "the world is just as concrete, ornery,
vile and sublimely wonderful as before, only now I better understand
my relation to it and it to me."
During 1953, the year following the publication of Invisible
Man, Ellison became the first black writer to be awarded the
National Book Award. He was also awarded the National Newspaper
Publishers' Russwurm Award and the Chicago Defender's Certificate
of Award that year. From 1955 to 1957 Ellison lectured in Italy
as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Although
Ellison never completed his senior year at Tuskegee Institute,
he taught at Bard College between 1958 and 1961. He served as
a visiting professor at the University of Chicago in 1961 and
at Rutgers and Yale between 1962 and 1964. In 1964 Ellison was
the Gertrude Whittall Lecturer at the Library of Congress. Ellison
also lectured on African-American folklore, creative writing,
and literature at Columbia, Fisk, Princeton, Antioch, and Bennington.
From 1970 to 1980 Ellison was the Albert Schweitzer Professor
of Humanities at New York University.
In 1960 excerpts from a second novel began appearing in print,
beginning with the short fiction "And Hickman Arrives." Between
1960 and 1977 a total of eight short stories appeared as excerpts
from a novel in progress. Ellison's second novel received a severe
setback when over 350 pages of revised manuscript were burned
in a fire at his home in the Berkshires.
Ellison published his first collection of essays, Shadow and
Act, in 1964. A second collection of essays, Going to the Territory,
was published in 1986. Most of Ellison's essays are concerned
with the artist's imagination, the craft of writing, and the
relationship of black culture to American culture. Ellison believed
that what made American culture unique in the world were the
contributions of black Americans. He never deviated from his
firm belief that African-American culture was an integral part
of American culture and could not be separated from it. The music,
art, language, and cuisine that were identified as American had
all been significantly influenced by African-American culture.
During the late 1960s and early 1970s Ellison was criticized
for this belief by Afrocentric young black nationalists who believed
that black culture existed separately from American culture and,
consequently, felt that Ellison was too much of an integrationist.
"The World and the Jug" is one of Ellison's best-known essays.
The essay was his response to an article written by literary
critic Irving Howe comparing Ellison to Richard Wright. Ellison
felt that Howe too narrowly constricted black writers when he
insisted they take the role of militant ideologue and restrict
themselves to writing angry protest literature. Ellison also
objected to Howe's view that Wright had been the significant
influence on Ellison's writing. Although Wright was his friend
and mentor, Ellison had read broadly and considered Wright's
vision of reality limited. Ellison did not believe black life
was characterized by unrelieved suffering, nor did he believe
that man's actions were controlled by his environment. Ellison
believed black life was rich and varied and that man was capable
of exercising influence over his environment as Wright himself
had. Ellison had examined Wright's vision of American life in
an earlier essay, Richard Wright's Blues, and Wright was also
the subject of a later essay, "Remembering Richard Wright," published
in Going to the Territory.
Jazz and the jazz musicians that Ellison had loved since childhood
were frequent topics of his essays. Ellison was fascinated with
the roots of jazz in the African-American past and also with
its expression of social conditions in the present. He wrote
several essays examining the lives and music of particular musicians,
including Charlie Parker and Mahalia Jackson. He loved the lyricism
and the rhythm of jazz, as well as its expression of black heritage,
and he often used it as a metaphor in his writing. Ellison believed
jazz was the authentic American music.
Numerous awards have been bestowed upon Ellison for his contribution
to world literature and culture. They include his appointment
to the American Institute of Arts and Letters in 1964, the Medal
of Freedom awarded to him in 1969 by President Lyndon Baines
Johnson, the Chevalier de L'Ordre des Artes et Lettres in 1970
awarded by French minister of cultural affairs Andre Malraux,
and the Langston Hughes Medallion bestowed by City College of
New York in 1984. He was one of the recipients of the first National
Medal of Arts in 1985.
Ellison himself was proud of his contributions as a citizen
as well as a writer. In the late 1960s he was a member of the
Carnegie Commission on Educational Television, which established
public broadcasting, and he also was involved with the creation
of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.
Although his long-anticipated second novel remained unpublished
at his death, his friends and his editor believed he had been
nearing the book's completion and expected it would one day be
published in its almost finished form. Invisible Man remained
in print more than forty years after it was first published,
continuing to be the subject of scholarly debate and analysis.
Indicating continuing interest in the work of Ralph Ellison,
in 1995 The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison was published,
including nine previously unpublished pieces. Flying Home and
Other Stories was published in 1996. This collection includes
six short stories that were discovered in Ellison's papers after
his death. Both books were edited by John F. Callahan.
Ralph Ellison died in New York City. He was survived by his
second wife, Fanny McConnell, whom he married in 1946. There
is no information about Ellison's brief earlier marriage. Fanny
and Ralph Ellison had no children.
The Library of Congress acquired the papers of Ralph Ellison
in 1996. Unpublished essays and interviews from the Federal Writers'
Project are available at the Library of Congress, Folklore Achives,
and at the 135th Street Branch of the New York City Library.
Recent writings that contain extensive bibliographies of both
Ellison's own work and the secondary literature include Robert
O'Meally, The Craft of Ralph Ellison (1980), which contains biographical
information and analysis of Ellison's work as well as an exhaustive
list of Ellison's short fiction, essays, and critical reviews.
O'Meally's bibliography also can be found reprinted in Speaking
for You, ed. Kimberly W. Bensten (1987). Mark Busby, Ralph Ellison
(1991), includes biographical information, analysis of Ellison's
work, and an extensive bibliography of Ellison's work and the
secondary literature. Edith Schor, Visible Ellison (1993), includes
a complete list of Ellison's short fiction before 1996 and a
selected bibliography of Ellison's essays, articles, and published
interviews, plus an extensive list of secondary sources. Ralph
Ellison, ed. John Hersey (1974), includes a valuable interview
of Ellison by Hersey. Also important is the introduction by Ralph
Ellison to the 1990 Vintage Edition of Invisible Man. Lengthy
obituaries are in the New York Times, 17 and 20 Apr. 1994.
Jenifer W. Gilbert
Jenifer W. Gilbert. "Ellison, Ralph Waldo";
American National Biography Online Feb. 2000.
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