Ralph Ellison, 1914-1994
By Paula Caudle, Naomi Lancaster, and Andy Stamper
Students, University of North Carolina at Pembroke
Ralph Waldo Ellison was born on March 1, 1914, in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. From his birth, Ellison’s parents knew he was bound for prosperity. His father even named him for the great writer Ralph Waldo Emerson in an effort to ensure such success. As Ellison himself says in reference to his parents, “no matter what their lives had been, their children’s lives would be lives of possibility.” Mrs. Ellison, a maid, would bring home books, magazines, and record albums that had been discarded in the homes she cleaned. Ralph and his brother, Herbert, were supplied with chemistry sets, toy typewriters, and a rolltop desk so that they would have the tools to succeed.
When he was a teenager, Ellison and his friends daydreamed of being “Renaissance Men.” Therefore, they studied the values and attitudes of Native Americans and whites, as well as blacks. Ellison revered and admired the musicians of his area. At Douglas High School, Ellison followed his inclination toward music. From there, he went to Tuskegee Institute on a scholarship and dreamed of writing a symphony. After there was a mix-up with his scholarship, Ellison chose to go north in order to save money for tuition. Arriving in New York, Ellison found it difficult to find work and even harder to find work as a musician. The result was a succession of odd jobs at Harlem’s YMCA with a psychiatrist. There Ellison acted as a file clerk and a receptionist, and held various other jobs around town. During this time, Ellison met the writer Richard Wright, who encouraged him to be a writer rather than a musician.
From this point on, Ellison followed a life of writing in which he earned many awards. His best known work is the novel Invisible Man, though he also wrote several short stories. He began a second novel that has recently been published posthumously. Students at Rutgers, New York University, and Bard College were lucky enough to have Ellison as a professor. Ellison died on April 16, 1994, of pancreatic cancer, but he continues to be published. In 1996, Flying Home: And Other Stories was published after being discovered in his home.
Ellison is often criticized for not using his writing as a propaganda tool to elevate the “black man in society.” For instance, critic Richard Corliss writes, “The unfashionable fact is that Ellison’s writing was too refined, elaborate, to be spray painted on a tenement wall. He was a celebrator as much a denouncer of the nation that bred him.” Ellison defended himself by saying “I wasn’t and am not concerned with injustice but with art.”
In Invisible Man, Ellison depicts a black individual searching for his identity or place in society. For example, when the young black men are in the Battle Royal, they are forced to watch a nude white woman dance. The white observers abuse these young black men for not watching and also abuse them for watching. These black fellows do not know how they are expected to behave; therefore, they do not know their place in society.
Perhaps Ellison’s most important contact would be with the author Richard Wright, with whom he would have a long and complicated relationship. After Ellison wrote a book review for Wright, Wright encouraged Ellison to pursue a career in writing, specifically fiction. 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.
Wright was at that time openly associated with the Communist Party, and Ellison himself was publishing and editing for communist publications although, as historian Carol Polsgrove has written, his “affiliation was quieter.” 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 for social reformism. In a letter to Wright August 18, 1945, Ellison poured out his anger toward the 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.
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 National Book Award in 1953.
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.
Had the price of looking been blindness, I would have looked.
I am not ashamed of my grandparents for having been slaves. I am only ashamed of myself for having at one time being ashamed
If the word has the potency to revive and make us free, it has also the power to blind, imprison, and destroy.
I am an invisible man. 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.
Arnold Rampersad, the first scholar given complete access to Ellison’s papers at the Library of Congress.
Rampersad discussed and signed his book, “Ralph Ellison: A Biography,” as part of the Books & Beyond author series organized by the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress. The event was co-sponsored by the Library’s Manuscript Division.
Very few books capture the essence of a people the way that Mr. Ellison did. To be blunt, he needed to do nothing else in his entire life after Invisible Man. So profound was that piece of literature, that, IMO, he was the vessel to get it out and into the hands of his people, who needed it.