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Ralph Waldo Ellison

Updated on June 26, 2016

Ralph Ellison's Background information

Ralph Waldo Ellison was born in the year 1914, March 1, to parents Mr. Lewis Alfred and to mother Ilda Millsap Ellison. This family of four settled in Oklahoma. Both the parents saw it necessary to move to Oklahoma, which was a newly formed state. The state was well known for freedom, and since Ellison’s parents desperately wanted their children to be brought up in a state where they could have freedom, they decided to settle in Oklahoma. Ralph Waldo Ellison was named after Ralph Waldo Emerson, a famous poet just like the latter. Ellison’s father, Lewis Alfred, worked as a coal and ice deliverer. He was an entrepreneur as well. Lewis loved his children so much, but unfortunately, he was not able to see them grow up for a long time. Lewis died in 1916, three years after the birth of his son, Ralph. The demise of Ralph’s father left the family at the hands of his wife, Ilda Ellison. Ilda worked as a custodian, domestic worker and flight attendant at the Chapel Afro-Methodist. She was able to take care of Ralph Ellison and his younger brother, Herbert (Bloom).


Ralph Waldo Ellison

Ralph Ellison
Ralph Ellison | Source

Ralph Ellison's Profession

At an early age Ellison showed his passion for reading and music. His enthusiasm for reading was greatly encouraged by his mother who continuously brought home magazines and books from the chapel. A law at that time banned the blacks from having access to the library services. A black Episcopal priest however highly disputed this. This led to the opening of the Chapel’s library and therefore, Ralph Ellison could use it. This was a great mind and eye opener for Ellison and added to his passion for reading. Out of his extensive cultural exposure, Ellison and his friends proclaimed themselves as a combination of frontiersmen as well as Renascence; this is as recorded in his book, Shadow, and Act. Individuals who were hell-bent to break the racial barriers via the study of art as well as thought. Ellison picked up the cornet at the age of 8. He later comes to pick up the trumpet in high school and was under the spectacular stewardship of Dr. Ludwig Hebestreit, who happened to be the founder as well as the conductor of the Oklahoma Symphony Orchestra. Ludwig’s lessons contributed profoundly to Ellison’s great understanding of the varied and complex structure of artistic forms. Music at this point was Ellison’s principal means of expression; it is, however, worth noting that he greatly loved reading. In his high school life, he was introduced to some of the famous writers of the Harlem Renaissance. In addition to music, Ellison also showed a lot of interest in sports, theater, photography, as well as other forms of art (Thomas).

Ralph Ellison was later accorded a scholarship to study music at the Tuskegee Institute Alabama. He greatly aspired to be a great musician as well as composer. His aspiration was in line with the agreement he had made with his classmates to become renaissance men; he had initially picked music to be his art. At the Tuskegee Institute Alabama, he majored in music. However during the summer of 1936, due to insufficient funds, Ellison decided to go to New York to work for money to cater for his college expenses. He hoped to do this temporarily with a mindset of going back to college. However, he ended up relocating to New York and lived in Harlem. Ralph was greatly influenced by the New York’s vigorous and vibrant culture of the 1930’s and 1940’s. He enjoyed staying in New York. During his first visit to the city, Ellison had wanted to study sculpture from a legend artists, Richmond Barthe. However, his passion and interest in studying sculpture waned with time, and he decided to embark on music. It was during this period he met Richard Wright, a writer, and this marked the start of Ellison’s literary career. Some of his famous works include; Going to the Territory, Invisible Man, Shadow, and Act, Cadillac Flambé, Tell It Like Its Baby, In a Strange Country, Haying Home and Slick Going to Learn, among others (Henry Louis Gates jr).

Ellison’s works significantly focused and revolved around the African American tradition and the racism they faced especially during those times. He also sought to tackle the issue on ethnic identity. He requested to see the reestablishment of the way the white people viewed the black people. Consequently, he attempted to change the way the black people saw themselves. His book, “Invisible man,” goes to a great extent to establish how the blacks viewed themselves. The book shows how a black American civil rights worker continuously becomes alienated from the people due to the society. The alienation occurs due to the continuous racism he encountered in the course of his works in New York. He also employed various techniques of writing such as macabre humor, irony, Gothicism, and sarcasm as a way to hide the faces of both the black and white worlds. This is clearly depicted in his short story works of 1944, “Flying home” and “King of the Bingo game” In this two short story books the theme was about a young black man who was attempting to control his destiny within the impersonal surrounding in the northern city (Ellison).

Ellison officially kicked off his writing career after meeting with Wright, who requested him to write a short review on Turnip’s “These small grounds.” Ellison thought these to be an absurd idea as he never wrote. He, however, took up this challenge and wrote the review. Ellison continued to be a regular contributor to the Negro Quarterly and the New Masses. During this period, World War II had erupted and due to his inability to join the Navy, he enlisted with the merchant marine. The war greatly influenced most of Ellison’s writings such as “In a Strange Country” which is set up in the prisoner-of-war camp of the Nazi’s. It describes the struggle of a black pilot in achieving the highest rank among other fellow Allied prisoners. It is also during this period that saw the inception of arguably his greatest literary works, “Invisible Man,” discussed below (Ellison).

Ellison got his preliminary ideas for his authorship of the “Invisible Man” when he visited a friend’ farm in Waitsfield, Vermont. Published in the year 1952, the book has been honored greatly by various scholars and has received numerous awards such as the National Book Award, a high and rare accolade for a first time novel. As prior mentioned, the book is about the shifting of the perspective of how white Americans thought about black Americans. It was also to shift how the black Americans perceived and thought of themselves.

“Invisible Man” received numerous critics among both the black and white people. The Black thought of the book as too difficult to comprehend, while the white critics disregarded the text claiming that they could not accept the work of a black writer who didn’t write as a result of direct anger towards the Whites but as a consequence of the conceptions of his mind, creativity, and ingenuity. He countered this by saying that one does not write out of the color of one’s skin, but rather you write out of the ideas and quality of one’s mind. Despite all this, the book has gone on to live for long and is still a big hit up to date. It is still majorly being used in literary works as well as studies. His book gives a paradigm shift whereby reality appears as dreams, and the reality seems as frightening thoughts (Bloom).

The book, “Invisible Man”, instantly becomes a runaway hit for the next coming weeks. It was and still is considered as a groundbreaking meditation on racism as well as marginalized communities all over the world especially in America. One the most impacting statements in Ellison’s book are; “I am an invisible man… I am a man of substance, flesh, and bone, fiber and liquid – and I might even be said to be a posed mind. I am invisible; understand simply because people refuse to see me… When they approach me they only my surroundings, themselves, or a figment of their imagination- indeed, everything and anything except me (Wells).

Through writing the novel, “Invisible Man,” Ralph Ellison helped various people see themselves through the story of a man who wished to be invisible. The title of the book, “Invisible Man”, however, does not imply the literal meaning of a man being invisible. The narrator of the book introduces himself as being invisible, but it does not mean he cannot be seen. The narrator is just regarded as a mere black man and nothing more beyond that. He is not seen for whom he is, and that is why he terms himself as ‘invisible.' The book covers various themes including Racism, Identity, Lies and deceit, Power, Ambition, Love, and Admiration. Various stylistic devices are used in Ellison’s book to bring out the uncertain significance of the story. For instance, symbolism, allegory, and imagery are utilized in the novel (Ellison).

Ellison's Office

Ellison surrounded by books.
Ellison surrounded by books. | Source

Conclusion

Ralph Ellison, born on March 1, 1914, in Oklahoma City, studied music and later moved to New York City and started his writing career. He was an African-American writer and writing the novel, “Invisible Man” made Ellison famous. His book remains on the best seller list and already won National Book Award. Ellison started writing the book while at a friend’s farm and when he later moved to New York and encountered racism, he became alienated and that inspired him more to write the book. “Invisible Man” narrates a story of a man who regards himself as being invisible. The narrator is not invisible but uses the word ‘invisible’ to imply that he is not perceived the way he should by the white man. The book was published in 1952 and is still among the American highly regarded works. Ralph Ellison died of pancreatic cancer in 1994 and his short stories, essays and a book he had been writing before his death released later after his death (Bloom).

A Biography of Ralph Ellison

Ralph Ellison's Monument

Ralph Waldo's monument in front of the 730 Riverside Drive
Ralph Waldo's monument in front of the 730 Riverside Drive | Source

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    • essaygirl profile imageAUTHOR

      Diannah Debra 

      2 years ago from Nairobi, Kenya

      Thanks a lot Frank Antanacio catch up with me for more top-notch pieces.

    • Frank Atanacio profile image

      Frank Atanacio 

      2 years ago from Shelton

      a very well written piece here essaygirl

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