Ralph Ellison Ralph Waldo Ellison was born the grandson of slaves in 1914 in Oklahoma City. He is the author of The Invisible Man (1952), one of the most important and influential postwar American novels. "I blundered into writing," admitted Ellison in a 1961 interview with novelist Richard Stern. From the time he was eight years old, when his mother bought him a used coronet, he wanted to be a musician. He cut grass in exchange for trumpet lessons and worked as an elevator operator for two years at eight dollars a week to save tuition money.
When he was finally awarded a music scholarship to Tuskegee Institute, he was unable to afford train passage, so he hopped freight trains all the way from Oklahoma City to Alabama. (1) In 1936, Ellison traveled to New York, where he tried unsuccessfully to find work to earn his senior year's tuition. It was here that he met Richard Wright, who encouraged him to try his hand at writing. (2) His very first piece was a book review which was published in Wright s magazine, New Challenge. For a time, Ellison would continue to pursue music, and even experiment with sculpting, but in 1937, his mother's sudden passing away changed Ellison's life forever. He traveled to Cincinnati to keep her company through what he thought was a minor illness, only to find her near death.
"She was in such pain that she knew no one," he wrote to friends, "It was the worse thing that has ever happened and I can't explain the emptiness." (4) It was this Ellison, alone and distraught in a strange city, that started trying to write. He was befriended by one of the first black lawyers in Dayton, Ohio, Lawyer Stokes (as Ellison referred to him as), who saw him sitting each day in a corner of the local coffee shop writing stories. The friendship grew and in time, Lawyer Stokes offered Ellison the keys to his law offices. It was here, after hours, that Ellison wrote his first shor stories and 100 pages of a later abandoned novel. (3) Writing and music were always linked for Ellison, who once admitted that he secretly still regarded himself as a musician, and who applied the hard lessons of his musical training to his writing. His work is often hailed as resembling jazz composition, with its "structuring of emotion" and rhythmic qualities.
(3) Ernest Hemingway was Ellison's most profound literary influence, whose prose he writes "could distill the great emotion from the most... understated effects." Ellison applied this clarity of emotion in his own way to the Negro experience, noting that "the greatest difficulty for a Negro writer is the problem of revealing what he truly felt, rather than serving up what Negroes were supposed to feel, and were encouraged to feel." It was this dedication to communicating the American Negro experience that became the core theme of Ellison's fiction, culminating in the 1952 masterpiece, The Invisible Man. (4) For more than forty years before his death in 1994, Ralph Ellison lived with his wife, Fanny McConnell, on Riverside Drive in Harlem in New York City. His work is currently undergoing a revival with the 1996 publication of a collection of early Ralph Ellison works, Flying Home and Other Stories and the publication of his novel Juneteenth, released in June 1999.