The grandson of slaves, Ralph Ellison was born in 1914 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, and was raised largely in Tulsa, Oklahoma. His father was a construction worker, and his mother was a domestic servant who also volunteered for the local Socialist Party. As a young man, Ellison developed an abiding interest in jazz music. He befriended a group of musicians who played in a regional band called Walter Page’s Blue Devils, many of whom later played with Count Basie’s legendary big band in the late 1930s. Ellison himself studied the cornet and trumpet, and planned a career as a jazz musician. In 1933, he left Oklahoma to begin a study of music at the Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama. The Institute, which is now called Tuskegee University, was founded in 1881 by Booker T. Washington, one of the foremost Black educators in American history, and became one of the nation’s most important Black colleges. It later served as the model for the Black college attended by the narrator in Invisible Man.
Ellison left the Tuskegee Institute in 1936 and moved to New York City, where he settled in Harlem. As an employee of the Federal Writers’ Project, Ellison befriended many of the most important African-American writers of the era, including Langston Hughes and Richard Wright. Ellison also befriended the eminent jazz writer and sociologist Albert Murray, with whom he carried on a lengthy and important literary correspondence, later collected in the book Trading Twelves. After a year editing the Negro Quarterly, Ellison left for the Merchant Marines, in which he served during World War II. After the war, Ellison won a Rosenwald Fellowship, which he used to write his most celebrated novel, Invisible Man. The first chapter appeared in the 1948 volume of Magazine of the Year, and the novel was published in its entirety in 1952.
Rich in symbolism and metaphor, virtuosic in its use of multiple styles and tones, and steeped in the Black experience in America and the human struggle for individuality, the novel spent sixteen weeks on the best-seller list and won the National Book Award in 1953. Achieving one of the most sensational debuts of any novel in American history, Invisible Man was hailed by writers including Saul Bellow and critics such as Irving Howe as a landmark publication. Some critics called it the most important American novel to appear after World War II.
Despite—or possibly because of—the overwhelming success of Invisible Man, Ellison never published another novel in his lifetime. He worked as a professor at Bard College, Rutgers University, the University of Chicago, and Yale University, and eventually became a permanent professor at New York University. Ellison published two books of essays—Shadow Act in the 1960s and Going to the Territory in the 1980s—Ellison spent his later decades laboring on a vast novel, which he never finished. A highly abridged and edited version of the work was published posthumously.
Among Ellison’s numerous honors were the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the National Medal of Arts. Ellison died in 1994 of pancreatic cancer.