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Ralph Ellison

Ralph Ellison Ralph Ellison[1†]

Ralph Ellison (1913-1994) was an influential American writer celebrated for his novel "Invisible Man," recipient of the National Book Award in 1953. Ellison's literary legacy extends beyond novels; he authored "Shadow and Act" (1964) and "Going to the Territory" (1986). His posthumous work, "Juneteenth," was compiled from his extensive notes. Despite initial criticism from some Black writers, Ellison's exploration of social issues and innovative stylistic approach, blending classic literary motifs with modern Black culture and speech, have secured his place in American literature[1†][2†].

Early Years and Education

Ralph Waldo Ellison was born on March 1, 1914, in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma[2†][3†][4†]. His father, Lewis Alfred Ellison, was a construction foreman who died when Ellison was only three years old[2†][3†][4†]. His mother, Ida Millsap, raised Ellison and his younger brother, Herbert, by working odd jobs[2†][4†]. From an early age, Ellison showed a love for music and expected to be a musician and a composer[2†][5†]. He played his first instrument, a cornet, at age 8[2†][5†].

Ellison attended Frederick Douglass School in Oklahoma City, where he received lessons in symphonic composition[2†][3†]. He began playing the trumpet at age eight and, at age eighteen, attended Tuskegee Institute in Montgomery, Alabama, studying music from 1933 to 1936[2†][3†][4†]. During his time at Tuskegee, Ellison worked at a variety of jobs including janitor, shoeshine boy, jazz musician, and freelance photographer[2†][3†]. He also became a game hunter to keep himself alive, a skill he says he learned from reading Hemingway[2†][3†].

Despite completing only three years majoring in music at Tuskegee, Ellison sometimes referred to himself as a college dropout[2†][3†]. Ironically, Ellison went on to receive 12 honorary doctorate degrees from such prestigious universities as Tuskegee Institute, Rutgers University, the University of Michigan, and Harvard University[3†].

Career Development and Achievements

Ralph Ellison’s career was marked by a series of significant achievements and milestones. After graduating from high school, Ellison left Oklahoma City by freight train to study music at the Tuskegee Institute[6†]. He later moved to New York to study sculpture and to make money as a musician to pay for his last year at Tuskegee[6†].

In New York, Ellison was introduced to Richard Wright, who encouraged him to write[6†]. This marked a turning point in Ellison’s career. He began to contribute essays and reviews to the NEW MASSES and other radical periodicals[6†]. Over the next six years, Ellison published eight short stories, with his writing growing in eloquence and complexity from story to story[6†].

During the Second World War, Ellison served in the Merchant Marine[6†][7†]. His experiences during this time shaped some of his later writings[6†][7†]. After the war, Ellison set himself to the task of writing an important novel that would capture the reality of African American life in all of its complexity while also appealing to the universal experiences of humanity[6†][7†].

Ellison achieved international fame with his first novel, “Invisible Man”, which won the National Book Award in 1953[6†][1†][6†]. The novel is considered a classic of American literature and continues to be widely read and studied today[6†][1†][6†].

Ellison also wrote “Shadow and Act” (1964), a collection of political, social, and critical essays, and “Going to the Territory” (1986)[6†][1†]. His posthumous novel, “Juneteenth”, was published after being assembled from voluminous notes Ellison left upon his death[6†][1†].

Throughout his career, Ellison held various academic positions. He served as an instructor in Russian and American literature at Bard College[6†], took a creative writing position at Rutgers University[6†], and was appointed Albert Schweitzer Professor of Humanities at New York University[6†].

Ellison’s career was not without challenges. A substantial portion of the manuscript of his second novel was destroyed in a fire that razed his summer home in the Berkshires[6†]. Despite this setback, Ellison continued to write and contribute to the field of literature until his death in 1994[1†][6†].

First Publication of His Main Works

Ralph Ellison’s literary career is marked by several significant works that have left a lasting impact on American literature[1†][2†][8†][9†].

Each of these works offers a unique perspective on Ellison’s thoughts and his exploration of identity, race, and society[1†][2†][8†][9†].

Analysis and Evaluation

Ralph Ellison’s work, particularly his novel “Invisible Man”, has been the subject of extensive analysis and evaluation[10†][11†]. His short fiction is often analyzed biographically, as the training ground for the novelist he was to become[10†]. His stories provided experimental laboratories for testing the translation of the forms and experiences of African American life into literature[10†].

Ellison’s most accomplished stories, such as “The King of the Bingo Game” and “Flying Home,” develop themes of the chaos of the modern world and the affliction of racial conflict that would later be combined and expanded in his famous novel[10†]. His earlier stories show him working out many of the same ideas from different perspectives[10†].

Ellison’s unique fictional voice in “Invisible Man”, employing myth, fantasy, and symbolism, was recognized as a breakthrough that changed the face of African American literature in the twentieth century[10†][11†]. His gentlemanly bearing and charm gave him entry into the exclusive world of white society[10†][11†]. However, Ellison also drank heavily, behaved cruelly to his two wives, and ignored younger black writers who sought his support[10†][11†].

Ellison’s creative process and the demons that plagued him as he struggled to write a second novel have been the subject of keen critical insight[10†][11†]. His complex personality and his status as the foremost black intellectual of his generation have been highlighted in various analyses[10†][11†].

Ellison’s short stories are about “adventurers” testing “the fixed boundaries of southern life.”[10†]. His posthumous collection of stories, “Flying Home, and Other Stories”, brings together in one volume all of the principal short fiction Ellison wrote[10†]. The stories explore different aspects of modern life and the human condition[10†].

Personal Life

Ralph Ellison was born to Lewis Alfred Ellison and Ida Millsap on March 1, 1913[1†][2†]. He was the second of three sons; his firstborn brother Alfred died in infancy, and his younger brother Herbert Maurice (or Millsap) was born in 1916[1†]. His father, a small-business owner and a construction foreman, died in 1916[1†]. Ralph discovered as an adult that his father had hoped he would grow up to be a poet[1†].

In his early years, Ralph received free lessons for playing trumpet and alto saxophone from the father of a neighborhood friend[1†]. He hoped to one day compose symphonies and be a full-time musician[1†]. He was a student at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama where he studied music[1†].

In his personal life, Ralph Ellison married Fanny McConnell in 1946[1†]. They stayed together until his death in 1994. Ellison died of pancreatic cancer on April 16, 1994[1†][2†][12†].

Conclusion and Legacy

Ralph Ellison left a significant legacy in American literature. His novel “Invisible Man” is considered a classic and continues to be widely read and studied[1†][2†]. His work, which also includes essays and criticism, is celebrated for its insightful exploration of African American identity and its innovative use of language[1†][2†].

Ellison’s influence extends beyond his own work. He is remembered as an important figure in the early civil rights movement[1†][13†]. His writings have inspired and influenced many other writers and scholars[1†][8†].

Despite the controversy that surrounded him during his lifetime, particularly regarding his views on social change, Ellison’s place in literary history is secure[1†][2†]. His work continues to be relevant, and his contributions to literature and thought continue to be recognized[1†][2†].

Ellison’s legacy is not just his own work, but also the impact he had on others and on American literature as a whole[1†][8†]. His ideas and distinct literary qualities won applause from readers, critics, and fellow writers alike[8†]. Even a hundred years after his birth, his works still enjoy prestige[1†][8†].

Key Information

References and Citations:

  1. Wikipedia (English) - Ralph Ellison [website] - link
  2. Britannica - Ralph Ellison: American author and educator [website] - link
  3. CliffsNotes - Invisible Man - Ralph Ellison Biography [website] - link
  4. ThoughtCo - Ralph Ellison [website] - link
  5. Read.gov - Library of Congress - Ralph Ellison [website] - link
  6. PBS - American Masters - Ralph Ellison's life and career timeline - American Masters [website] - link
  7. BlackPast - Ralph Ellison (1913-1994) • [website] - link
  8. Literary Devices - Ralph Ellison [website] - link
  9. Shmoop University - 404 Not Found [website] - link
  10. eNotes - Ralph Ellison Short Fiction Analysis [website] - link
  11. eNotes - Ralph Ellison Analysis [website] - link
  12. Encyclopedia.com - Ellison, Ralph 1914–1994 [website] - link
  13. Los Angeles Public Library - Page not found [website] - link
  14. Vaia - Ralph Ellison: Biography, Summary & Quotes [website] - link
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