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Invisible Man | Study Guide

Ralph Ellison

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Ralph Ellison | Biography


The grandson of freed slaves, Ralph Ellison was born in Oklahoma City on March 1, 1914. Although he grew up poor, Ellison earned a scholarship to Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute (now Tuskegee University)—the country's foremost black college. He studied music and hoped to become a composer, and his love of improvised jazz music clearly influenced his writing style in Invisible Man.

Although deeply involved in the civil rights movement, Ellison not only rebuked Tuskegee president president Booker T. Washington's belief that African Americans should remain subservient to whites but also rejected the violent separatist beliefs of Marcus Garvey, leader of black nationalist and Pan-African movements. Despite the popularity of both movements, Ellison did not believe it was possible for blacks to live "separate but equal" from whites. Ellison recognized that the two cultures were tangled together, impossible to separate. As an artist, he believed it was his responsibility to show, in his words, "the unity of [the] American experience beyond all considerations of class, of race, of religion."

After moving to Harlem, New York, Ellison worked alongside such black writers and social activists as Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, and Richard Wright to encourage African Americans to embrace their cultural heritage. The novelist Richard Wright particularly influenced Ellison's literary works. Wright's black characters were typically uneducated Southerners oppressed by their white counterparts. In contrast Ellison wanted to present an educated, thoughtful, and ambitious black man. Wright wrote protest novels (works of fiction that address current social problems) about the black experience, and Ellison wanted to extend this focus by capturing humanity's struggle against limitations from social attitudes, self-doubt, and the challenges presented by life itself. Ellison portrays all of these in Invisible Man. Perhaps because of its success, Invisible Man would be the only novel Ellison published in his lifetime. He died on April 16, 1994. His much anticipated follow-up, Juneteenth (1999), which he worked on for nearly 40 years, was heavily edited and published after his death to disappointing reviews.

A chronological list of Ellison's book-length works includes the following:

  • Invisible Man (1952)
  • The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison (1995)
  • Flying Home and Other Stories (1997)
  • Juneteenth (1999)
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