US novelist. His Invisible Man (1952) portrays with humour and energy the plight of a black man whom post-war US society cannot acknowledge. It is regarded as one of the most impressive novels published in the USA in the 1950s. He also wrote essays collected in Shadow and Act (1964).
Ellison saw black people not as separate or marginalized but right in the centre of US national life. He identified ‘being invisible’ as a complex condition, applying to himself ‘simply because people refuse to see me’, but emphasizing that part of the problem was that the invisible man was also invisible to himself. The success of his work encouraged the development of black literature in the 1950s and 1960s.
Ellison was born in Oklahoma City and named after the US philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson. His father, a construction foreman, died when he was three. Ellison played the trumpet and studied music at the Tuskegee Institute; in his mid-twenties he moved to New York. The classic Invisible Man was published in 1952. A second novel And Hickman Arrives was never completed, partly because the first draft of it was destroyed in a house fire; extracts did appear in a literary magazine in the 1960s, however. Similarly unfinished was his novel Juneteenth, but it was pieced together and published posthumously by Ellison's literary executor, John F Callahan. Ellison was an instructor in Russian and American Literature at Bard College, Annadale-on-Hudson 1958–61 and held visiting professorships at Chicago 1961, Rutgers 1962–64, and Yale University 1966. He was Albert Schweitzer Professor of Humanities at New York University 1970–79.
Ellison, Ralph Waldo
Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man