Ralph Waldo Ellison (March 1, 1913 – April 16, 1994) was an African-American scholar and writer who is considered to be one of the most important writers in twentieth century African-American literature. Ellison is best known for Invisible Man, his monumental novel on the state of race relations in America, which won the National Book Award in 1953. In addition to Invisible Man, Ellison also wrote a number of essays on social, political, and literary issues which were collected in the publications Shadow and Act (1964) and Going to the Territory (1986). Along with Richard Wright and James Baldwin, Ellison is considered to be one of the most important African-American writers of the latter twentieth century, and Invisible Man in particular is considered one of the most influential American novels of the twentieth century as well as one of the most comprehensive portrayals of the Black experience in America ever written. Among the African-American writers of his time, Ellison stands out as a unique and at times idiosyncratic figure; although a supporter of civil rights, Ellison was deeply skeptical of the Civil Rights Movement, and he was a vocal critic of both black and white ideologues who attempted to simplify or gloss over the deep complexities of American racism. It is due in large part to Ellison’s complex and controversial views that his works, with their intellectual depth and realism, have survived much better than those of many of his more idealistic contemporaries. His works remain some of the most important and widely-read in all of twentieth century American literature.
In 1933, a young Ralph Waldo Ellison (named after Ralph Waldo Emerson by his father) entered the Tuskegee Institute on a scholarship to study music. He had hopes of writing at least one symphony. Due to financial difficulties, Ellison was forced to leave Tuskegee after three years. In 1936 Ellison moved to New York City where he met novelist Richard Wright. After writing a book review for him, Wright encouraged Ellison to pursue a career of his own 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 railroad 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. During World War II Ellison joined the Merchant Marines, and in 1946 he married his second wife, the former Fanny McConnell. She supported her husband financially while he wrote the critically acclaimed Invisible Man, and typed Ellison’s longhand text. She also assisted her husband in editing the typescript as it progressed. The novel immediately won the National Book Award and propelled Ellison to the height of literary stardom.
Following the publication of Invisible Man, Ellison became an international literary hero. In 1955, he went abroad to Europe to travel and lecture before settling for a time in Rome, Italy, where he composed a series of essays. In 1958, he returned to the United States to take a position teaching American and Russian literature at Bard College in New York State. During this time he also began work on his second, unfinished novel, Juneteenth.
In 1964, Ellison published Shadow And Act, a collection of essays, and began to teach at Rutgers University in New Jersey and Yale University, while continuing to work on Juneteenth. The following year, a survey of 200 prominent literary figures was released that proclaimed Invisible Man as the most important novel since World War II.
In 1968, Ellison experienced a major house fire at his home in New York City; the entire manuscript of Juneteenth was destroyed. A perfectionist regarding the art of the novel, Ellison had said in accepting his National Book Award for Invisible Man that he felt he had made “an attempt at a major novel,” and despite the award, he was unsatisfied with the book. The loss of his manuscript pages was devastating to him, and while he ultimately wrote another 2000 pages, the book would not be completed in his lifetime.
Writing essays about the black experience, political subjects, music, and literature, Ellison continued to receive major awards for his work. In 1969, he received the Medal of Freedom; the following year, he was awarded the coveted Chevalier de l’Ordre des Artes et Lettres (Order of Arts and Literature) by France’s Minister of Culture. He was made a permanent member of the faculty at New York University as the Albert Schweitzer Professor of Humanities.
In 1975, Ellison was elected to the American Academy for the Arts and Letters and his hometown of Oklahoma City honored him with the dedication of the Ralph Waldo Ellison Library. Continuing to teach, Ellison published mostly essays, and in 1984, he received the New York City College’s Langston Hughes Medallion. The following year saw the publication of Going to the Territory, a collection of seventeen essays that included insights into southern novelist William Faulkner and his friend Richard Wright, as well as the music of Duke Ellington and the contributions of African Americans to America’s national identity.
Ralph Ellison died of pancreatic cancer on April 16, 1994, and was buried in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City.
After his death, more manuscripts were discovered in his home, resulting in the publication of Flying Home: And Other Stories in 1996. Five years after his death, under the editorship of John Callahan, a professor at Lewis & Clark College and Ellison’s literary executor, Ellison’s second novel, Juneteenth, was published in the form of 300-page condensation of the thousands of pages of manuscript which Ellison had left unfinished.
Invisible Man was originally developed out of Ellison’s short story “Battle Royal,” which forms the novel’s opening chapter. It was Ellison’s only novel to be published during his lifetime, yet it nonetheless cemented Ellison’s reputation as one of the premier novelists of twentieth century America. It addresses many of the social and intellectual issues facing African-American identity in the twentieth century, in particular the issues of racism, civil rights, and Marxism.
Invisible Man is narrated in the first person by the protagonist, an unnamed African American man who considers himself “invisible” because the majority of white American society seems to pretend that he and other African-Americans don’t exist. His character may have been inspired by Ellison’s own life.
In the prologue, Ellison’s narrator tells readers, “I live rent-free in a building rented strictly to whites, in a section of the basement that was shut off and forgotten during the nineteenth century.” In this secret place, the narrator creates surroundings that are symbolically illuminated with 1,369 lights. He says, “My hole is warm and full of light. Yes, full of light. I doubt if there is a brighter spot in all New York than this hole of mine, and I do not exclude Broadway.” The protagonist explains that light is an intellectual necessity for him since “the truth is the light and light is the truth.” From this underground perspective, the narrator attempts to cast light on the state of American society.
In the beginning of the book, the narrator lives in a small Southern town. He is a model black student, named his high school’s valedictorian. Having written and delivered a successful speech about the need for humility in order for the black man to progress, he is invited to give his speech before a group of affluent white men. However, instead of being able to deliver his speech, he is instead forced to fight a humiliating “battle royal” with other blacks in a boxing ring. After brutally winning the battle royal, injured and bleeding, the narrator is finally given the chance to deliver his speech, after which his white benefactors applaud and award him a scholarship to a black university clearly modeled on the Tuskegee Institute.
At some point during his studies, the narrator is required to give Mr. Norton, a rich white trustee, a tour of the grounds. He accidentally drives to the house of Jim Trueblood, a black man living on the college’s outskirts who accidentally impregnated his daughter. Trueblood, though disgraced by his fellow blacks, has been supported by whites who wish to hold him up as an example of black inferiority. Norton is so shocked by this encounter that he faints, prompting the Invisible Man to take him to a local tavern in a misguided search for aid. At the Golden Day tavern, Norton passes in and out of consciousness as black veterans suffering from mental delusions occupy the bar and a fight breaks out among them.
Upon returning to the school with Mr. Norton, the narrator views a sermon by the highly respected Reverend Homer A. Barbee. The narrator is so inspired by the speech that he feels impassioned like never before to contribute to the college’s legacy. However all his dreams are shattered when the narrator learns that he will be expelled as a result of the fiasco with Mr. Norton. The narrator, having nowhere else to go, travels north to New York in search of employment.
He eventually gets a job in the boiler room of a paint factory in a company renowned for its white paints. Eventually the narrator becomes intrigued by a workers’ union which leads to the narrator being involved in a violent fight with his co-worker Brockway, which leaves the narrator hospitalized.
No longer able to work at the factory, the narrator wanders the streets of New York. Eventually, he comes across an elderly couple being evicted from their apartment and gives an impromptu speech rallying passers-by to their cause. The onlookers, angry at the marshal in charge of the eviction, charge past him and start a riot. The narrator’s talent for speech brings him to the attention of the Brotherhood, an equality-minded nationalist organization with obvious communist undertones. Their leader, Brother Jack, who witnessed the speech and the riot, recruits him and begins training him as an orator, with the intention of uniting New York’s black community.
The narrator is at first happy to be making a difference in the world, soon becoming the chief executive of the Brotherhood in Harlem. However, the narrator soon encounters trouble in the form of Ras the Exhorter, a fanatical black nationalist who believes that the Brotherhood is controlled by whites.
The novel ends with a massive Harlem race riot, fueled by anger over an innocent black man’s death at the hands of the police and the tension between the Brotherhood and the followers of Ras. Riding through the streets of Harlem on a horse in full tribal regalia, Ras orders the narrator hanged and attempts to kill him with a javelin. Fleeing both Ras and a number of white pursuers, the narrator falls down a manhole, where, rather than try to escape, he decides to make a new life for himself underground, thus taking us back to the novel’s beginning. The narrator, now disillusioned with Marxism and black nationalism, prefers to remain invisible, writing his thoughts for a future generation to see.