Famed author of Invisible Man, winner of two Presidential Medals, and winner of the National Book Award for Fiction, Ralph Ellison has helped shape what we consider literature today.
These contributions emerged from Eillison’s experience at various locations across Manhattan where he lived, worked, and met with other prominent writers of his time. As a result, Manhattan was both a home and a source of inspiration to the author.
Ellison was born in Oklahoma City in 1913. By the time he was three-years-old, his father Lewis Ellison, had already passed down to him his love for literature, before being killed when his abdomen was crushed by a massive block of ice.
The author studied music at Tuskegee University in Alabama. However, to complete his music education there, he needed more money, and so he moved to Ohio in search of a stable income. It was here that he exposed himself to literary classics by authors such as James Joyce and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, studying their craft and their philosophies. He would never return to Tuskegee University but would find inspiration as an author in New York.
After Ellison moved to New York in 1936, he studied sculpting and photography and was introduced to Richard Wright, a prominent African American author, who encouraged him to pursue a career in fiction writing. Over time, he met legendary writers like Langston Hughes, who introduced him to communist literary movements, in part at the 135th street YMCA. It was here that he lectured while trying to survive in New York and it was here that he found inspiration to write and get published his first short story, Hymie’s Bull.
Ralph Ellison, soon became affiliated with the Communist Party of the United States of America, publishing articles in editions of the communist publication New Masses. He was rather quiet about his ties to the party. For example, it is unclear whether he had actually acquired a membership to the Communist Party of the United States or simply shared some of their sentiments.
Regardless, Ellison believed that racial inequality was a result of capitalism, and he subsequently saw communism as a means of making racial treatment equal. This is believe to have been at the forefront of his thinking and the most important reason for his desired to see communism spread. However, during the Second World War, Ellison would become disillusioned with communism.
Slowly, he began to see communism as less relevant to the matter of racial equality and believed that the ideology put class struggle before social equality. It was soon after this revelation that Ellison began writing Invisible Man, a piece of literature with strong allusions to anti-communist sentiment.
While these and other political allusions were clear, the book aimed also to portray the plight of African Americans. In a 1944 book review of An American Dilemma, Ellison wrote about the place of African Americans in American society:
In our society, it is not unusual for a Negro to experience a sensation that he does not exist in the real world at all. He seems rather to exist in the nightmarish fantasy of the white American mind as a phantom that the white mind seeks unceasingly, by means both crude and subtle, to slay.
This idea foreshadows not only what would become an important theme in Invisible Man, the invisibility of African Americans, but also brings up sentiment that would exist in the soon to come African American Civil Rights Movement. During World War Two, he was also the editor for the publication Negro Quarterly, a magazine addressing issues important to African Americans.
Ellison’s life wasn’t all professional, though. He wanted to find a woman who met his set of criteria for a wife and it took him two tries to find the right one.
In 1938, Ellison had married actress Rose Poindexter, who, for Ellison, represented the ideal woman. According to biographer Arnold Rampersad, Ralph Ellison’s ideal woman was one who was beautiful, loving, obedient, and would never challenge him intellectually. They first lived at 312th West 122nd street and after that became too much of a financial burden they moved into an apartment at 453 West 140th street. The marriage ended in 1943 and he would remarry in 1946 to Fanny McConnell. Together, they lived at 730 Riverside Drive, where Ellison would spend the rest of his life.
McConnell would serve as both a wife and as financial support for Ellison as he wrote his most famous novel Invisible Man. Finally, in 1952, his labors as a writer came to fruition when the novel was finally published. The novel received a largely positive reception as a standalone piece, but also came to be view among the great works of African American authors including Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin, Claude McKay, and Richard Wright. In 1954, he spent a summer lecturing in Paris. The following year he was in Rome as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, here he began work on his second novel Junteenth, which he would never complete.
Ralph Ellison went on to teach at universities such as Yale, Rutgers, Bard, and New York University, where he lectured mostly on American and Russian Literature. At New York University, Ellison held the prestigious Albert Schweitzer Chair in the Humanities for eight years.
Ralph Ellison passed away in April of 1994 at the age of 81, his body laid to rest at Trinity Church Cemetery in his adopted home, New York. To honor his legacy, a monument was erected at Riverside Park near his most permanent residence, featuring a silhouette carved in a metal sheet, representing an invisible man. It was after his death that his second novel, Junteenth,was published from the scattered pages that remained after a fire erupted at one of his homes.
Ralph Ellison left behind not only his literary works, but his work as an academic and, despite not being born in New York, his legacy as a literary New Yorker.