Modern American, 1914-present: Literature



Ralph Ellison, 1914-1994

By Paula Caudle, Naomi Lancaster, and Andy Stamper 
Students, University of North Carolina at Pembroke 

Ralph Waldo Ellison was born on March 1, 1914, in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.  From his birth, Ellison’s parents knew he was bound for prosperity.  His father even named him for the great writer Ralph Waldo Emerson in an effort to ensure such success.  As Ellison himself says in reference to his parents, “no matter what their lives had been, their children's lives would be lives of possibility.”  Mrs. Ellison, a maid, would bring home books, magazines, and record albums that had been discarded in the homes she cleaned.  Ralph and his brother, Herbert, were supplied with chemistry sets, toy typewriters, and a rolltop desk so that they would have the tools to succeed.   

When he was a teenager, Ellison and his friends daydreamed of being “Renaissance Men.”  Therefore, they studied the values and attitudes of Native Americans and whites, as well as blacks.  Ellison revered and admired the musicians of his area.  At Douglas High School, Ellison followed his inclination toward music.  From there, he went to Tuskegee Institute on a scholarship and dreamed of writing a symphony.  After there was a mix-up with his scholarship, Ellison chose to go north in order to save money for tuition.  Arriving in New York, Ellison found it difficult to find work and even harder to find work as a musician.  The result was a succession of odd jobs at Harlem’s YMCA with a psychiatrist.  There Ellison acted as a file clerk and a receptionist, and held various other jobs around town.  During this time, Ellison met the writer Richard Wright, who encouraged him to be a writer rather than a musician.   
From this point on, Ellison followed a life of writing in which he earned many awards.  His best known work is the novel Invisible Man, though he also wrote several short stories.  He began a second novel that has recently been published posthumously.  Students at Rutgers, New York University, and Bard College were lucky enough to have Ellison as a professor.  Ellison died on April 16, 1994, of pancreatic cancer, but he continues to be published.  In 1996, Flying Home: And Other Stories was published after being discovered in his home.    
Ellison is often criticized for not using his writing as a propaganda tool to elevate the "black man in society."  For instance, critic Richard Corliss writes, "The unfashionable fact is that Ellison's writing was too refined, elaborate, to be spray painted on a tenement wall. He was a celebrator as much a denouncer of the nation that bred him."  Ellison defended himself by saying "I wasn't and am not concerned with injustice but with art."     

In Invisible Man, Ellison depicts a black individual searching for his identity or place in society.  For example, when the young black men are in the Battle Royal, they are forced to watch a nude white woman dance.  The white observers abuse these young black men for not watching and also abuse them for watching.  These black fellows do not know how they are expected to behave; therefore, they do not know their place in society.  Ellison has the characters in this novel deal with the problem of incest, which is not a racial problem, but a social problem.  Both the black man Trueblood and the white man Mr. Norton grapple with the problem of having sexual feelings for their daughters.  They realize that these feelings are unnatural and that the act of incest is not socially acceptable.    
Symbolism is a tool Ellison uses often in his writing.  For example, in Invisible Man, the blindfold symbolizes man's inability to see who he is within society and the reality of society.  Another example could be the contrast between light and dark. Light can symbolize understanding as well as the "good"  of society, whereas dark can symbolize confusion and the "lower scale" of society.  


Busby, Mark. Ralph Ellison. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1991. 

 Relatively timely, this source provided an accurate, but incomplete timeline of Ellison’s life. The book was published before his death so it does not fully cover all his accomplishments.  
Ellison, Ralph.  Invisible Man.  New York: Random House, Second Vintage International Edition, March 1995. 

O’Meally, Robert G. The Craft of Ralph Ellison. Cambridge, Mass:  Harvard University Press, 1980. 

This was published before his death so it doesn't fully cover all of the author's accomplishments.  This source is still  helpful, but the information is not supplied in clear chronological order.  
 Reilly, John M. ed.  Twentieth Century Interpretations of Invisible Man.  Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1970. 100-102. 
Watts, Jerry G. Heroism and the Black Intellectual. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994.   

Valuable Website

Ralph Waldo Ellison 

Major Works

  • Invisible Man
  • Shadow and Act
  • Going to the Territory


  • waiter 
  • freelance photographer
  • file clerk
  • receptionist
  • musician
  • book reviewer
  • U.S. Merchant Mariner
  • editor for Negro Quarterly
  • college professor
  • writer


  • Chicago, IL
  • New York, NY
  • Oklahoma City, OK
  • Pittsfield, MA
  • Rome, Italy
  • Tuskegee, AL


  • Chevalier de l'Ordre des Artes et Lettres
  • Langston Hughes Medal
  • Medal of Freedom
  • National Book Award for Fiction
  • Rosenwald Grant
  • Russwurm Award

Influences (Literature) 

  • Gettysburg Address
  • Ecclesiates
  • Joseph Conrad
  • Fyodor Dostoevski
  • William Faulkner
  • Ben Franklin
  • Henry James
  • Herman Melville


  • Grandparents: slaves
  • Father: Lewis Alfred Ellison, construction foreman
  • Mother: Ida Millsap Ellison ("Brownie"), maid & homemaker
  • Brother: Herbert Ellison
  • Wife: Fanny McConnell Ellison, executive administrator of American Medical Center for Burma


1914: born on March 1 in Oklahoma  City, OK  
1917: father dies  
1920: enters Frederick Douglas School in Oklahoma City  
1933-36: wins scholarship & attends Alabama's Tuskegee Institute  
1936: moves to New York  
1937: mother dies/first work is published, These Low Grounds (review of W.E.Turpin's novel)  
1938: hired by Federal Writer's Project to research oral history  
1942: becomes managing editor of Negro Quarterly  
1943-45: serves in Merchant Marines  
1945: awarded Rosenwald Fellowship to write novel  
1946: marries Fannie McConnell  
1952: Invisible Man  
1953: wins National Book Award for Fiction & Russwurm Award  
1955: lives in Rome  
1957: A New Southern Harvest  
1958-61: teaches Russian & American literature at Bards College  
1958: begins second novel  
1962: The Angry Black  
1964: Shadow and Act; teaches at Rutgers & Yale  
1968: house fire destroys over 360 pages of second novel  
1969: receives Medal of Freedom  
1970: awarded Chevalier de l'Ordre des Artes et Lettres by France; becomes Albert Schweitzer Professor of Humanities at NYU  
1975: elected to the American Academy for the Arts and Letters; Ralph Waldo Ellison Library in Oklahoma City  
1980: Southwest Fiction  
1981: theater piece,"Ralph Ellison's Long Tongue,"performed in New York  
1984: receives NY City College's Langston Hughes Medallion  
1986: Going to the Territory  
1994: at the age of 80,dies of pancreatic cancer on April 16  
1996: Flying Home: And Other Stories is published (after being discovered in his home)  
1999: John Callahan edits Juneteenth for posthumous publication 




Study Questions

Invisible Man

  1. How does Ellison use the idea of invisibility in relation to his search for identity?
  2. In your own opinion, why do the critics say Ellison is not writing in the style a black man would? (Keep in mind the time period in which Invisible Man was published.)
  3. How does Ellison view the role of the black man in society in relation to the history of America?
  4. Ellison uses a lot of symbolism. Locate at least three examples and explain what they symbolize.
  5. How does the epilogue differ from the prologue? Or, how are they similar?
  6. How does the orgy in the bar relate to the riot in New York?
  7. Consider the references to dolls in the novel. Who are the dolls or are we all dolls?
  8. Consider the exchange between Mr. Norton and Trueblood. How are these men different and how are they alike?

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Updated 11/9/1999 | | Mark Canada, 1999 | University of North Carolina at Pembroke