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Ralph Ellison Timeline

How It All Went Down

Mar 1, 1913

Ralph Ellison Born

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.)


Herbert Ellison Born

Ellison's younger brother Herbert is born.


Ellison's Father Dies

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.


Ellison Learns the Trumpet

At the age of eight, Ellison begins playing the trumpet, which sparks a lifelong passion for the instrument and for jazz music.


Graduates with Honors

Ellison graduates with honors from Douglas High School, an all-black school.


Tuskegee Institute

Ellison enrolls in the Tuskegee Institute, an African-American university in Alabama, to study music.


Moves to NYC

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.


Literary Awakening

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.

Sep 1938

First Marriage

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.


Left-Wing Writing

Over the next few years, Ellison publishes short stories, essays, and reviews in the Marxist newspaper New Masses and other left-wing publications.


Reviews Native Son

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."


Editor of Negro Quarterly

Ellison becomes managing editor of the Negro Quarterly, a magazine that features African-American thought and culture. It folds one year later.


World War II

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.


Rosenwald Foundation Grant

The Rosenwald Foundation awards Ellison a grant to write a novel.


Begins Invisible Man

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.


Second Marriage

Ellison marries Fanny McConnell.


Invisible Man

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.


National Book Award

Ellison receives the National Book Award for Invisible Man, along with a host of other honors.


Works in Paris

During the summer, Ellison travels to Paris to lecture.


Moves to Rome

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.


Bard College Professor

Ellison takes a job at Bard College as an instructor in American and Russian literature. He teaches there until 1961.

Nov 28, 1960

Richard Wright Dies

Longtime friend Richard Wright dies of a heart attack in Paris at the age of 52.


Rutgers University

Ellison teaches creative writing at Rutgers University.


Shadow and Act

Shadow and Act, a collection of his short stories and essays, is published.

Nov 29, 1967

Fire Ruins Novel

A fire guts Ellison's home in the Berkshire Mountains, destroying 300 pages of his second novel.


Presidential Medal of Freedom

President Lyndon B. Johnson awards Ellison the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the United States.


Professor of Humanities

Ellison is named the Albert Schweitzer Professor of Humanities at New York University.


Ellison Retires from NYU

Ellison retires from his position at New York University, where he taught for ten years.


Going to the Territory

Going to the Territory, a second collection of stories and essays, is published. It is Ellison's last published book during his lifetime.

Apr 16, 1994

Ralph Ellison Dies

Ralph Ellison dies of pancreatic cancer at the age of 81, and is buried in New York City.


Juneteenth Published Posthumously

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.

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