Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture

Skip Navigation

Electronic Publishing Center
Oklahoma Historical Society
Encyclopedia Homepage
Search all Volumes
Disclaimer and Usage
Copyright 2007

Table of Contents Search All Entries Home

ELLISON, RALPH WALDO (1913-1994)

Ralph Ellison publicity shot used on the back cover of the original printing of The Invisible Man

Born to Lewis Alfred and Ida Millsap Ellison on March 1, 1913, in Oklahoma City, then along with Kansas City a hotbed of musical creativity, Ralph Ellison showed at an early age the interest in jazz and other modern art forms that would be reflected throughout his life in literature. He attended the Frederick Douglass School in Oklahoma City, going on to the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama in 1933, pursuing studies in music but also encountering the work of T. S. Eliot and other Modernist writers.

Chafed by racial conditions in the deep South, and by what he found to be the conservatism of Tuskegee, Ellison left in 1936, without a degree, for New York City. He was drawn there by cultural legacies of the Harlem Renaissance and by opportunities to meet such authors as Langston Hughes and Richard Wright. After an interval in Ohio due to the death of his mother in 1937 (a period during which he read widely and intensively), he returned to New York in 1938 with renewed determination to pursue a literary career. He obtained employment with the Federal Writers' Project, which sustained him from 1938 to 1942 as he worked to establish himself as a writer. Having sailed in the Merchant Marine from 1943 to 1945, an alternative to service in the segregated U.S. military, Ellison married Fanny McConnell in 1946 (his second wife, an earlier marriage having ended unhappily), and resettled in New York.

Speaking at the dedication of the Ralph Ellison Library, 1975

His stories, essays and articles from the later 1930s and early 1940s were partially rooted in materials stemming from his interviews with people in Harlem for the Writers' Project. So too was his work toward a novel, Invisible Man (1952), which announced him as a major figure in American letters and won the National Book Award for 1953. This book also took shape, however, in counterpoint to Wright's earlier Native Son (1940), which seemed to Ellison too fatalistically absolute in its determinism, and insufficiently representative of African American experience. Response to Invisible Man was mixed; some black critics found the novel lacking in radical political perspectives on problems of race in America. But the book continues to be considered by many the first great novel by an African American writer that both fulfills and transcends its racial theme. It remains a landmark achievement in American, as well as African American, literary tradition, and in the broad movement of modernism. It may also be seen as a precursor to the postmodern, and it remains a highly "contemporary" text.

Ellison went on to publish Shadow and Act (1964) and Going to the Territory (1986), two influential volumes of essays on literature, music, and American culture. For years there were rumors of another novel in progress, about which little was publicly revealed. Upon his death in New York on April 16, 1994, an unfinished manuscript was found and, with collaborative assistance, published in 1999 as Juneteenth. Its appearance was an important literary event, even if the first-person narrative of the unnamed protagonist in Invisible Man will always be touchstone and cornerstone to his life's work.

Ralph Ellison with Hannah Atkins (L) and Mayor Patience Latting (R) at the dedication ceremony for the Ralph Ellison Library, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma 1975

Named for Ralph Waldo Emerson, Ellison reflects throughout his work a lifelong engagement with Emersonian issues of personal and cultural autonomy and self-reliance, and with the problems and prospects of American and African American consciousness and identity. Such engagement could be argumentative, even adversarial, with respect to the unfulfillment or betrayal of American ideals (witness the destructive role of a character called "Emerson" in Invisible Man). The "double consciousness" famously posited by W. E. B. DuBois in The Souls of Black Folk (1903) is both amplified and intensified, rather than resolved, in Ellison's writing. But like the narrator of Invisible Man particularly as epilogue reconnects with prologue "underground," launching anew the cycle of retelling and rereading a classic American tale of self-discovery Ellison's example, now as always nourished by his Oklahoma roots, promises powerfully to "emerge."

SEE ALSO: AFRICAN AMERICANS, JOHN HOPE FRANKLIN, JAZZ, SECOND STREET, SEGREGATION, MELVIN B. TOLSON.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: Kimberly W. Benston, Speaking for You: The Vision of Ralph Ellison (Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1987). John F. Callahan, ed., Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man: A Casebook (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004). Lawrence Jackson, Ralph Ellison: Emergence of Genius (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2002). Robert G. O'Meally, The Craft of Ralph Ellison (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1980). Susan Resneck Parr and Pancho Savery, eds., Approaches to Teaching Ellison's Invisible Man (New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 1989). Eric J. Sundquist, ed., Cultural Contexts for Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man: A Bedford Documentary Companion (Boston: Bedford Books of St. Martin's Press, 1995). Steven C. Tracy, A Historical Guide to Ralph Ellison (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004).

Gordon O. Taylor

© Oklahoma Historical Society

Return to top


Electronic Publishing Center | OSU Home | Search this Site