Ralph Ellison: Biography, Books & Quotes

Instructor: Natarielle Powell
Have you ever known a cook who won the Presidential Medal of Freedom? Or a musician who wrote novels? Well, then, you don't know Ralph Ellison. This lesson discusses the many faces of this great man.

Ralph Ellison's Childhood

Ralph Waldo Ellison was born in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma on March 1, 1914 to Ida and Lewis Ellison. He was named after the famous poet, Ralph Waldo Emerson. He had one brother named Herbert, and their parents often read to them and encouraged their love for reading.

Lewis Ellison worked delivering ice and coal. When Ralph was three years old, his father died as a result of a work-related accident. His mother, Ida, continued to raise the two boys on her own.

Ralph Waldo Ellison
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Ellison's College Experience and Working in New York City

As a child, Ralph Ellison played the cornet and the trumpet. His love for music guided him to Tuskegee Institute, where he studied music on a scholarship. He wanted to be a composer of classical music.

In 1936, Ellison moved to New York to earn money for school. He took a job as a researcher and writer with the New York Federal Writers Program. There, he also studied photography and met legendary author Richard Wright, who mentored him and introduced him to other writers in the city.

World War II and Marriage

Ralph Ellison served as a Merchant Marine Cook in World War II. He later married for the second time (the first marriage did not last very long) to Fanny McConnell in 1946. She typed and edited his writing for him and was a devoted wife. Ralph and Fanny did not have any children.

The Invisible Man

Ellison began writing his first novel after World War II. In 1952, he published Invisible Man, and it became an instant hit. Other authors and critics loved it. Invisible Man is the story of a young African American man in South Harlem who becomes overwhelmed by racism and unjust treatment. He decides to live in a basement, away from society, therefore becoming invisible.

In 1964, he published a collection of essays called Shadow and Act. The second collection, Going to the Territory, was published in 1986. He began working on an additional novel, but never completed it. The novel, Juneteenth, was later completed and published after his death by John Callahan.

Famous Quotes

Although he did not write a host of novels, Ralph Ellison is widely known for his profound quotes. Here are a few of them:

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