Ralph Waldo Ellison was born in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Ellison’s father, Lewis, a manual laborer who delivered ice and coal, was an avid reader who named his son after Ralph Waldo Emerson and who hoped that his son would grow up to be a poet. Unfortunately he died of a work-related accident when Ellison was three, which left the two brothers, Robert and Herbert, to be raised by their single mother, Ida. The absence of his father would remain a recurring theme in Ellison’s work.
As a young man, Ellison was interested in arts and culture, specifically, music. In 1933, he enrolled at the Tuskegee Institute, a historically black college which offered one of the nation’s top programs in music. During his time at Tuskegee, Ellison gained a reputation for spending long hours in the library, reading heavily from several Modernist writers. Ellison cites T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land as a major influence in his life, inspiring him to be a writer. After college, Ellison moved to New York, where he met influential artist Romare Bearden as well as writer Richard Wright, both of whom were important influences on Ellison’s life. During this time in New York, Ellison began to publish short stories, essays, and book reviews.
In 1952, Ellison published his debut novel, The Invisible Man, a critical best seller which won the National Book Award. The novel vaulted him into the international spotlight as a writer, a position that he did not always embrace. The Invisible Man describes how the protagonist (who is never named and is, hence, “invisible”) experiences various incidents of racism throughout his life after moving from the South to New York. The novel, Ellison’s only one published during his lifetime, has remained one of the most famous and most influential novels in American lit-erature. He spent the remainder of his life working on a follow-up novel. In 1967, he claimed to be near completion of this novel when a house fire consumed his drafts. After his death, his posthumous follow-up was published under the title Juneteenth (1999); later a longer version of this novel was published under the title Three Days Before the Shooting (2010).
Although he never published a second novel in his lifetime, he did publish several essays, including essays about his lifelong love of music. His essay collection Shadow and Act (1964) was named one of the top 100 best non-fiction books of the twentieth century. One of the common themes of Ellison’s work, both in fiction and non-fiction, was the idea of cultural ancestry the idea that our cultural ancestors could be as influential as our biological ancestors. “Battle Royale,” the opening chapter of The Invisible Man, describes the protagonist’s humiliating experience accepting a scholarship from a local civic organization. Although it is the introductory chapter, it has been highly anthologized as a short story.
6.9.1 Selection from Invisible Man
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6.9.2 Reading and Review Questions
- What is the significance of the protagonist’s dream? What does his grandfather’s appearance symbolize?
2. Why do you think the protagonist still gives his speech even after he’s been humiliated?