In 1945, with no idea what the next words would be or even precisely what the sentence meant, Ralph Ellison sat down at his typewriter and wrote: "I am an invisible man." He spent the next seven years exploring the meaning of those five words, and when he was finished he had a masterpiece. Invisible Man is Ellison's sprawling, ambitious saga about a nameless African-American man navigating the dangers and prejudices of pre-Civil Rights Movement America. When the novel was published in 1952 it quickly emerged as one of the most important novels in American literature. "One is accustomed to expect excellent novels about boys," the writer Saul Bellow wrote in an admiring review, "but a modern novel about men is exceedingly rare." Ellison jokingly told an interviewer in 1982. He didn't have to. It turns out that one triumph in a lifetime is enough.
Ralph Waldo Ellison was born in Oklahoma City on 1 March 1913 (or maybe 1914—scholars are still debating the exact year of his birth). He was the second of three sons born to Lewis Alfred and Ida Millsap Ellison (only two of their sons lived past infancy, though). The couple earned a modest middle-class living from Lewis's income as an ice and coal vendor, and they believed strongly in the value of education for their children. They named their second son after the Transcendentalist poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Lewis proudly told people that his son would grow up to be a poet as well.
Unfortunately, Lewis Alfred Ellison did not live to see his prophecy come true. In 1917, when Ralph was a toddler, Lewis was stabbed in the stomach by a shard of ice during an accident at work. He later died of his injuries, leaving Ida to raise two young boys on her own. Ellison's mother took an assortment of domestic jobs to keep her family afloat. Ellison was keenly aware of all that his family did not have, and the knowledge of their poverty became a motivating force for him. He wrote about this aspect of his childhood later in his book Shadow and Act:
"As a kid I remember working it out this way: there was a world in which you wore your everyday clothes on Sunday, and there was a world in which you wore your Sunday clothes every day—I wanted the world in which you wore your Sunday clothes every day. I wanted it because it represented something better, a more exciting and civilized and human way of living… I sometimes [glimpsed this world] through the windows of great houses on Sunday afternoons when my mother took my brother and me for walks through the wealthy white sections of the city… And for me none of this was hopelessly beyond the reach of my Negro world, really; because if you worked and you fought for your rights, and so on, you could finally achieve it." blank" rel="nofollow">Great Depression, and jobs—especially jobs for African-Americans—were hard to come by. It soon became clear to Ellison that he wasn't going to earn what he needed. He never returned to Tuskegee, but instead he found his true calling in New York.
New York City in 1936 was a pretty amazing place for a young black artist to be. The city—particularly the predominantly black neighborhood of Harlem—was the epicenter of a huge movement in black culture, art, and politics known as the Harlem Renaissance. The movement, which ran from about 1920 until the mid-1930s, was a flowering period when black artists and intellectuals celebrated and sought ways to express identities distinct from white culture. Groups like the National Urban League and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People lobbied against lynchings and racial discrimination. Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald brought the house down at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. Newspapers and magazines that were written by and for black Americans proliferated. Many had a leftist or pro-Communist orientation, since the left was far more accepting of black people than mainstream American politics had ever been. Among the new magazines was a literary journal called Fire!! Its roster of young African-American contributors included Zora Neale Hurston and a gifted young poet named Langston Hughes.
Before Ellison could immerse himself in this scene, tragedy struck. His mother Ida died in 1937, and Ellison moved with his brother Herbert to Dayton, Ohio, where the brothers could support themselves by hunting quail and selling their catch. They hunted during the day and at night, back in their flat, Ellison immersed himself in the work of the writers he admired: Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Fyodor Dostoyevsky. He carefully studied Hemingway's prose and sentence structure (he even said that Hemingway's descriptions improved his shot while he and his brother were working as hunters). He also read T.S. Eliot's epic poem "The Waste Land," which was a transformative experience. Ellison found in Eliot's cadence a rhythm akin to his beloved jazz music—a spontaneous, original sound that he later wrote was "perhaps as close as Americans can come to expressing the spirit of tragedy."
Ellison labored on his book for seven years. A grant from the Rosenwald Foundation supported him, as did his second wife, Fanny McConnell, whom he married in 1946. Finally, in 1952, Invisible Man was published.
It is really hard to summarize the plot of Invisible Man. Many reviewers (and Ellison himself) have likened it more to a jazz composition than to a novel, with themes, riffs, and digressions that build a mood rather than hammering down a straight narrative line. One critic called it the "Moby Dick of the racial crisis."
In 1955, Ellison was named a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and spent two years studying in Rome. Back in the United States, a 14-year-old African-American boy named Emmett Till was savagely murdered for allegedly whistling at a white woman. A few months later, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white passenger, prompting the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The Civil Rights Movement was officially underway. And that's when Ellison's relationship with black America got really complicated.
Ellison believed in equality between the races. He supported non-violent, moderate groups like Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. He was not a fan of radical groups that emerged later in the movement, such as the Black Panthers. Ellison's biographer, Arnold Rampersad, has pointed out that Ellison's distaste for radicalism wasn't unusual for black people of his age, who were a little older when the Civil Rights Movement started, and felt like the fiery stuff was better left to a younger crowd.
But to a new generation, Ellison's talk about getting along with white people and having blacks "fit in" to white society just missed the point. They felt he didn't understand them, and had compromised his identity as a black man in exchange for acceptance by white society. "There is a sense of anger with Ellison that he has sold out, that he has not dealt with things as they are, that he says little to Black people today and that he is dated in his outlook," wrote the African-American critic Ernest Kaiser in a 1970 essay. "There is in Invisible Man a sense of accommodation and willingness to try and change the prevalent white views...this is out-of-date with the current mood of young Black people in general."
The personal attacks deeply wounded Ellison—his biographer recounts a time when the author broke down in tears after a young black man at a party accused him of being an "Uncle Tom." Ellison made clear that he was not an ideologue, nor a politician, and was not going to speak like one in public. His first obligation, he said, was to art. Everything else was secondary. He later explained:
"Do you still ask why Hemingway was more important to me than Wright? Not because he was white, or more 'accepted.' But because he appreciated the things of this earth which I love and which Wright was too driven or deprived or inexperienced to know… But most important because Hemingway was a greater artist than Wright, who although a Negro like myself, and perhaps a great man, understood little if anything of these, at least to me, important things."
Ellison spent the rest of his life teaching, writing, and working on a colossal second novel that he never finished. In 1964, he published Shadow and Act, a collection of essays. In 1967, a fire gutted his home in the Berkshire Mountains, destroying hundreds of pages of material written for his second novel. The loss was devastating and significantly derailed his progress on the novel. (It also prompted him to purchase a photocopier and always make at least two copies of his work thereafter.)
Meanwhile, Ellison received the honors and the recognition that society gives to a distinguished man of letters. He was named a Trustee of the Kennedy Center, became a member of the exclusive Century Club (a social circle whose criteria for membership can be roughly summarized as "Be Awesome at What You Do"), received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and held visiting professor appointments at Bard College, Rutgers, Yale, and New York University.
The question that dogged him for the rest of his career was: Where was the second novel? Did he have writer's block? Why wasn't he writing? Ellison's responded that he had plenty to write about, thank you very much—he was just very hesitant to release anything before it was ready. "I learned long ago that it's better not to have something in print that you feel isn't ready," he said.
Father: Lewis Alfred Ellison (?-1917)
Mother: Ida Millsap (?-1937)
Brother: Unknown name (died in infancy, before Ellison was born)
Brother: Herbert Millsap Ellison (b. 1916)
Wife 1: Rose Poindexter (age unknown), married 1938-1945
Wife 2: Fanny McConnell (1911-2005), married 1946
Tuskegee Institute (1933-1936)
Managing Editor, Negro Quarterly (1942-1943)
Cook, Merchant Marine (1943-1945)
Fellow, American Academy of Arts and Letters (1955-1957)
Professor, Bard College (1958-1961)
Alexander White Visiting Professor of Literature, University of Chicago (1961)
Visiting Scholar, Rutgers University (1962-1964)
Fellow in American Studies, Yale University (1964)
Albert Schweitzer Professor of Humanities, New York University (1970-1980)
Rosenwald Foundation Grant (1944)
National Book Award (1953)
National Newspaper Publisher's Russwurm Award (1953)
Chicago Defender's Award (1953)
Member, Century Association (1964)
Kennedy Center Trustee (1967-1977)
Presidential Medal of Freedom (1969)
Chevalier, Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (1970)
Board of Directors, Museum of the City of New York (1970-1985)
Member, American Academy of Arts and Letters (1975)
Langston Hughes Medallion (1984)
National Medal of Arts (1985)
Special Achievement Award, Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards (1992)