African American novelist Ralph Waldo Ellison originally studied music and art but was drawn eventually to the world of literature. Ellison spent seven years writing Invisible Man (1952, National Book Award), and, although it was his only novel, it gained him a place as a respected American writer and remains one of the central texts of the twentieth-century canon.
Originally thought to have been born March 1, 1914, recent biographers have determined that he was likely to have been born on that date in 1913, in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. His father died when he was three, so he and his brother were raised by a single mother who supported her children through work as a custodian and domestic. His childhood in Oklahoma City was filled with exposure to classical music and learning. Later, in the city’s “Deep Deuce” district, he participated in a thriving jazz scene that played host to the likes of Charlie Christian and Jimmy Rushing. In 1933 he hopped freight trains and made his way to Alabama to study music at the Tuskegee Institute. He left before finishing his degree to move to the cultural hub of New York City, where he evolved as a young writer.
He continued to write throughout his career and published short excerpts of a second novel in periodicals, but the follow-up to Invisible Man proved a long challenge after he lost major portions of a manuscript in a fire at his summer home in Massachusetts. In addition to Invisible Man , his major works include collections of essays and interviews, Shadow and Act (1964) and Going to the Territory (1986), and the posthumous publications Flying Home (short stories, 1996), Juneteenth (1999), and Three Days Before the Shooting (2010). His posthumous works were fostered into publication by his literary executor John F. Callahan.
He won many awards, including a National Book Award, and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1969. After teaching at various universities, he became the Albert Schweitzer Professor in the Humanities at New York University. Ellison died on April 16, 1994.
To learn more about Ralph Ellison and the guiding philosophy of our Foundation, please watch the short video below.