Biography of Ralph Ellison (1914-1994)
Ralph Waldo Ellison was born March 1, 1914 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma to Lewis Alfred and Ida Millsap Ellison. At the beginning of this century, Oklahoma had not been a state for very long and was still considered a part of the frontier. Lewis and Ida Ellison had each grown up in the South to parents who had been slaves. The couple moved out west to Oklahoma hoping the lives of their children would be fueled with a sense of possibility in this state that was reputed for its freedom. Though the prejudices of Texas and Arkansas soon encroached upon Oklahoma, the open spaces and fighting spirit of the people whom Ellison grew up among did provide him with a relatively unbiased atmosphere.
The death of Lewis Ellison in 1917 left Ida, Ralph, and his younger brother Herbert quite poor. To support the family, Ida worked as a domestic and stewardess at the Avery Chapel Afro-Methodist Episcopal Church. The family moved into the parsonage and Ellison was brought into close contact with the minister's library. Literature was a destined medium for Ellison, whose father named him after Ralph Waldo Emerson and hoped that he would be a poet. His enthusiasm for reading was encouraged over the years of his youth by his mother bringing books and magazines home for him from the houses she cleaned. In addition, a black episcopal priest in the city challenged the white custom of barring blacks from the public library and the custom was overturned. Ellison's horizons were broadened to a world outside his own sheltered life in Oklahoma City, by the many books now available to him in the library.
During his teenage years, Ellison and his friends imagined being the eclectic combination of frontiersmen and Renaissance Men. The ideal they created gave them the courage to expect anything out of life. They believed that they had the ability and power to do whatever they wanted in life as well as or better than men of any race. Ellison first used this credo when he attacked the medium of music, participating in an intense music program for twelve years at the Frederick Douglass School in Oklahoma City. Although he received musical training in many instruments as well as theory, he held a high preference for the trumpet and was talented enough to obtain training from the conductor of the Oklahoma City Orchestra. Ellison took part in playing at many concerts, marches, bands, and celebrations for the town. During the midst of this study, he did not lose sight of his desire to be a Renaissance Man, however, and spent time playing football, working at small jobs, and experimenting in electronics.
In 1933, Ellison left Oklahoma and headed to the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama to study music, with the help of a scholarship he had won from the state of Oklahoma. One of his music teachers at the school was Hazel Harrison who would later introduce Ellison to Alain Locke, a New Negro thinker, who would lead Ellison to his writing career years later through connections to Langston Hughes and Richard Wright. At Tuskegee, Ellison excelled in his music program as well as taking a particular liking to his sociology and sculpture classes and the outside classroom which Alabama provided. Though not pleased with the desire of the state's people, black and white, to categorize him as he had never experienced at home, he did appreciate the chance to raise his own consciousness concerning the rest of the country he lived in. Literature would also influence his say at Tuskegee as he again delved into the expansive libraries at his disposal. T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land," with its elusive lyricism would particularly influence him. Disappointed in the limited capacity of African-American literature at this point, Ellison practiced playing with the force of words as he had found Eliot to do. He would later use the experiences from Tuskegee and the injustices he encountered in the South to structure his writing of Invisible Man.
Due to financial problems, Ellison left Tuskegee after his third year. Introduced to Augusta Savage, a black sculptor in Harlem who liked his work, Ellison moved to Harlem, New York in 1936, still hoping to be able to return to school. Ellison lived in New York for most of the rest of his life. One of New York's lures was its energy and reputation of energy and freedom. Ellison enjoyed living in Harlem as it was a tremendously vibrant cultural center in the 1930s and 1940s. After living there for a year, however, he was forced to leave for several months which he found very upsetting. His mother died, and he attended the funeral in Dayton, Ohio. The return to New York though was promising because of a meeting with Richard Wright, who would have a large literary influence on Ellison. This meeting along with his inability to find a steady job playing the trumpet led Ellison to immerse himself more in his writing. His first book review is published in New Challenge entitled "Creative and Cultural Lag." Soon after, as his literary style began to take form, he wrote his first short story, "Heine's Bull." It was not published.
Although Ellison had a few writing successes, finding jobs and money was still extremely difficult during the Depression. Finally in 1938, Wright aided him in getting a job with the Federal Writers' Project. During this time, Ellison came into contact with many interesting interviewees from which he gleaned an interest in folklore and the distinctly African-American collection of rhymes, games, stories, and so on. The glimpse into personal lives enriched his knowledge of American culture and added to his stock of experiences learned in Oklahoma and Alabama. Much of his time was employed by the Project, but Ellison still found ways to submit materials to radical periodicals of the day, as influenced by the leftist Wright, such as Negro Quarterly, New Challenge, and New Masses. Between 1937 and 1944, he published over twenty book reviews. His reviews were often touched by a criticism of the lack in a "conscious protagonist" in order to embrace a text's political significance. This belief of Ellison's later led to his break with his beloved mentor, Richard Wright, as Ellison criticized the character of Bigger Thomas in Wright's masterpiece, Native Son. Still, the time Ellison wrote his reviews was very much a growing time for him. He published his first short stories, such as "Slick Gonna Learn", "The Birthmark", "King of the Bingo Game", and Flying Home". The early War years also gave Ellison the chance to edit Negro Quarterly and begin Invisible Man. Moving away from leftist politics and their champion, Wright, he also joins the Merchant Marine and many of his stories take on a wartime flair. In 1946, he marries Fanny McConnell. The quality of his writing reached masterful proportions by the end of World War II, as he had learned to incorporate the likes of Twain, Faulkner, Dostoevsky, and Hemingway into his work. His own voice arose in full power and in 1952 he published Invisible Man.
The years following this great work are not as prolific as the ones preceding. Some even say that after the publication of Invisible Man, Ellison became nearly invisible himself. However, at the time of publication, Ellison was uncertain of its acceptance and said another novel was in the works in case the first was not a success. This novel was never needed to prove Ellison's skill and the only other one which he produces is left unfinished at the time of his death from cancer in 1994, partly because of a fire destroying over 300 pages of an earlier manuscript in 1967. However, Ellison was visible in certain arenas around the country during the many years between 1952 and 1994. He published two acclaimed books of essays, Shadow and Act and Going to the Territory. Ellison also received many awards for his masterpiece, Invisible Man, and for his overall career during the second half of his life. These honors include the National Book Award, Russwarm Award, and the election to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Lastly, Ellison spent a great deal of time teaching in various colleges. In 1970, he became the Albert Schweitzer Professor of Humanities at New York University. Ellison continued until the day he died spreading and cultivating his vision of America and art: the conscious protagonist and the use of blackness to break categories instead of sustaining them.