A Biography of Ralph Ellison

Ralph Waldo Ellison was born on March 1, 1913 in Oklahoma City. His father died when Ellison was three, leaving Ellison’s mother to raise him and his then month-old brother. Ellison’s rapacious curiosity was evident from a young age, and as a teenager, he immersed himself in the music scene of Oklahoma City — a crossroads of blues, jazz, and swing. Remaining interested in literature and writing, Ellison graduated from high school with a scholarship to study classical composition at the music school of the venerable Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.

Ellison’s scholarship didn’t cover the full cost of attending the Institute, so he went to work in New York City for the summer after his junior year. In Harlem, Ellison met poet Langston Hughes and novelist Richard Wright, who hired Ellison to write his first review and also encouraged his fiction writing. After several months immersed in Harlem’s literary and left-wing political circles, Ellison decided to stay in New York rather than finish his degree.

Ellison supported himself as a journalist and critic while developing his fiction. He covered the 1943 Harlem Race Riots for The New York Post. When World War II broke out, Ellison joined the integrated Merchant Marines, saying he wished to “contribute to the war but not be in a Jim Crow army.”

He returned to the US in 1945, the same year he won a fellowship to write what would become Invisible Man. In 1946, Ellison married his second wife, journalist and stage director Fanny McConnell, whose income and critical eye supported Ellison while he wrote Invisible Man; she remained an important editorial presence throughout their marriage.

Invisible Man was published in 1952. Since its first publication, the novel won the 1953 National Book Award, sold millions of copies, has never been out of print, and was recently hailed by the Library of Congress as one of the “Books That Changed America.” Ellison continued to write, teach, and lecture; he published two volumes of his essays, speeches, and reviews — Shadow and Act (1964) and Going to the Territory (1986). Ellison was appointed to the Academy of American Arts and Letters in 1964, and was awarded the National Medal of Arts in 1985.

After his death in 1994, numerous unpublished essays and short stories were discovered in the Ellison apartment at 730 Riverside Drive. His literary executor, John F. Callahan, edited two volumes from these papers: The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison (1994) and Flying Home and Other Stories (1996), which includes six stories unpublished in Ellison’s lifetime.

Ellison also left behind more than 2,000 pages of manuscript, printouts, notes, and electronic files from his unfinished second novel. From these texts Callahan edited a 348-page narrative, published as Juneteenth in 1999. In 2010 Callahan and scholar Adam Bradley edited some thousand pages of manuscripts and printouts from the unfinished second novel into a volume titled Three Days Before the Shooting.

All of Ellison’s wide-ranging work attempted to articulate the animating spirit of what he called a “society caught in the process of being improvised out of the democratic ideal.” And out of society’s many improvisations, Ellison sought to demonstrate the convergence of experience that defined America’s national character. “Power for the writer,” he said in a 1966 interview, “lies in the ability to reveal even a little bit more about the complexity of humanity...because the slightest thing that is new or...overlooked which would tell us about the unity of American experience — beyond all considerations of class, of race, or religion — is very, very important.”

— Adrien-Alice Hansel
Literary Director, Studio Theatre
Originally published in Studio Theatre's Fall Newsletter

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