Ralph Waldo Ellison is born in Oklahoma City, the second of three sons born to Lewis Alfred Ellison and Ida Millsap Ellison. His older brother died before Ellison was born. His parents name their new son after the writer Ralph Waldo Emerson. (Scholars dispute the year of his birth, with some accounts placing it in 1914 instead.)
Ellison's younger brother Herbert is born.
Lewis Ellison works delivering ice and coal to businesses and homes in Oklahoma City. One day at work, when Ellison's father attempts to hoist a hundred-point block of ice, a shard stabs him in the stomach. Lewis Ellison later dies from his injuries, leaving Ida to support her two young sons alone. She is forced to take on a number of jobs in order to support the young family.
At the age of eight, Ellison begins playing the trumpet, which sparks a lifelong passion for the instrument and for jazz music.
Ellison graduates with honors from Douglas High School, an all-black school.
Ellison enrolls in the Tuskegee Institute, an African-American university in Alabama, to study music.
In search of money to pay his final year of tuition, Ellison travels to New York City to work as a musician and to find other odd jobs. He is unable to earn enough money and never returns to Tuskegee.
Ellison's mother Ida Millsap Ellison dies. Ellison and his brother Herbert move to Dayton, Ohio, and earn their living by hunting and selling what they catch. Ellison writes at night and studies the literature of writers he admires, such as Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky.
Later that year he moves back to New York City, where poet Langston Hughes introduces him to writer Richard Wright. Wright encourages Ellison's talent and Ellison publishes his first short story and book review.
Richard Wright helps Ellison find a job with the New Deal-sponsored Federal Writers' Project. As part of his new job, Ellison writes an ethnography entitled "The Negro In New York."
Also this year, Ellison marries Rose Poindexter, an actress. The marriage ends in divorce in 1945.
Over the next few years, Ellison publishes short stories, essays, and reviews in the Marxist newspaper New Masses and other left-wing publications.
Richard Wright publishes Native Son. In a review, Ellison praises the book as "The first philosophical novel by an American Negro in the front rank of American fiction."
Ellison becomes managing editor of the Negro Quarterly, a magazine that features African-American thought and culture. It folds one year later.
Ellison joins the Merchant Marine so he can "contribute to the war, but [not] be in a Jim Crow army." He serves for two years as a cook.
The Rosenwald Foundation awards Ellison a grant to write a novel.
Ellison falls ill from a contaminated water supply on his Merchant Marine ship. While on sick leave, he begins writing Invisible Man. The project will take him seven years to complete.
Ellison marries Fanny McConnell.
Invisible Man is published by Random House. The book is a first-person narrative of an unnamed African-American man who battles against racial discrimination. It is an instant bestseller. Invisible Man comes to be regarded as one of the most important American novels of the twentieth century.
During the summer, Ellison travels to Paris to lecture.
Ellison moves to Rome for two years to work as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. During this time, he begins work on his second novel, a massive project on which he toils for the next forty years but never finishes.
Ellison takes a job at Bard College as an instructor in American and Russian literature. He teaches there until 1961.
Longtime friend Richard Wright dies of a heart attack in Paris at the age of 52.
Ellison teaches creative writing at Rutgers University.
Shadow and Act, a collection of his short stories and essays, is published.
A fire guts Ellison's home in the Berkshire Mountains, destroying 300 pages of his second novel.
Ellison is named the Albert Schweitzer Professor of Humanities at New York University.
Ellison retires from his position at New York University, where he taught for ten years.
Going to the Territory, a second collection of stories and essays, is published. It is Ellison's last published book during his lifetime.
Ralph Ellison dies of pancreatic cancer at the age of 81, and is buried in New York City.
Ellison's literary executor publishes Juneteenth, a 368-page novel taken from the 2,000 pages of work that Ellison completed toward his second novel. A fuller version of the book is scheduled for release in 2010.