Ralph Waldo Ellison
Ralph Waldo Ellison, named after the preacher-philosopher Emerson, was born in Oklahoma
in 1914. His father, Lewis Alfred (a construction worker and tradesman), died when he was
three years old, and he was brought up by his mother, who worked as domestic help in white
households in order to support herself and her two sons.
At the age of 19, he won a scholarship to study music at the Booker T. Washington Tuskegee
Institute. In 1936, he went to New York and there met the black writers Langston Hughes and
Richard Wright. He started contributing to the Federal Writers’ Project, set up as part of
Roosevelt’s New Deal, and soon his short stories and articles began to appear in magazines
and journals. In 1943, he joined the United States Merchant Marines, returning to New York
after the war. Awarded a Rosenwald fellowship, he was able to concentrate on his writing
and, seven years after starting it, his masterpiece Invisible Man (1952) was published.
Immediately recognized as a classic in its own time, and described as a “touchstone of the
1950s,” it won the American National Book Award and established Ellison as one of the major
figures of twentieth-century fiction. He also published two collections of essays, Shadow and
Act (1964) and Going to the Territory (1986),