Author Ralph Ellison is perhaps best known for his 1952 landmark novel, Invisible Man. What some might not know is that Ellison was also a musician, educator, and a World War II veteran over the course of his rich life.
Born March 1, 1914 in Oklahoma City, Okla., Ralph Waldo Ellison was named after journalist, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Ellison lost his father, Lewis, when he was just three years of age, leaving his mother to raise him and his brother alone. Reading, music and education was a hallmark of the Ellison home. As a a young amen, Ellison enrolled at Tuskegee Institute as a trumpeter with hopes of becoming a symphony composer.
A trip to New York in 1936 changed Ellison’s fortunes. Ellison visited the city to earn enough money to pay for his college expenses, but ended up moving there. He joined the New York Federal Writers program and was mentored by Langston Hughes and Richard Wright, among other literary greats.
Ellison fancied himself a modern-day Renaissance man, and used his time in New York to embrace that path. His relationship with Wright was reportedly tumultuous and complex but it helped advance his writing career.
During World War II. Ellison was a Merchant Marine cook. After his return from the military, in 1946, he wed his second wife, Fanny McConnell, and the pair remained together for the rest of Ellison’s life. She is credited with helping Ellison edit his books and helped organized his notes after his death for posthumous release of his second book.
After years of fine-tuning his craft, Ellison released Invisible Man and it was an immediate success. The book won the U.S. National Book Award For Fiction in 1953, and its exploration of race in North America remains a gripping examination of the times and a work still relevant today.
Ellison lived in Europe for several years, residing in Rome, Italy and lecturing throughout the continent. Ellison returned to the States in 1958, and taught American and Russian Literature at Bard College. It was also then he began work on his second novel, Juneteeth.
In 1964. Ellison’s collection of essays, Shadow and Act was released and well-received. Ellison also began teaching at Rutgers University and Yale University.
In 1969, Ellison was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 1975, he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. A library in his hometown was built bearing his name during his lifetime as well.
Ellison succumbed to cancer in 1994, survived by his wife, who died in 2005 at 93.