Dr. Fidel Fajardo-Acosta's

World Literature Website












Ralph Ellison (1914-1994)

Biographical Information

Main Works

Featured Works: "King of the Bingo Game"


Selected Quotations


Biographical Information

  • Ralph Ellison (1914-1994). Black American novelist, essayist, and short story writer most famous for the novel Invisible Man (1952). Ellison is notable for his engagement of issues of oppression and social injustice from a broad human perspective, as well as his rejection of narrow political views and agendas, racial or otherwise.

  • 1914, Ralph Waldo Ellison born in Oklahoma City, USA; named after Ralph Waldo Emerson.

  • 1933-1935, drawn to the study of music, Ellison left Oklahoma to pursue a degree in music at Tuskegee, Alabama, where he experienced southern segregation.

  • 1936, forced to leave Tuskegee, went to New York; in Harlem, he met the poet Langston Hughes with whom he developed a close friendship; Hughes introduced him to novelist Richard Wright who encouraged him to become a writer.

  • 1938-1942, worked as a researcher in the Federal Writer's Project in Harlem.

  • 1939, published his first short story, "Slick Gonna Learn," in the September issue of Direction.

  • 1942, quit the Federal Writer's Project and became managing editor of Negro Quarterly; this move reflects his desire to explore black American culture independently from any political ideologies or agendas.

  • 1944, published two of his finest short stories, "King of the Bingo Game" and "Flying Home" in Cross Section.

  • 1946, married Fanny McConnell, who was Executive Director of the American Center for Burma at the time.

  • 1952, publication of Invisible Man, the novel which is his most famous work and made him an important new voice in postwar American fiction.

  • 1953, Invisible Man received the National Book Award; the jury praised Ellison for having "the courage to take many literary risks."

  • 1960, published story, "And Hickman Arrives," part of a series intended for an ambitious novel on African-American life.

  • 1965, Invisible Man selected, in Book Week poll, as the most distinguished post-World War II American novel.

  • 1967, the 368-page manuscript of the Hickman novel destroyed by a fire.

  • 1969, received the Medal of Freedom from President Lyndon B. Johnson.

  • 1970, Ellison became Albert Schweitzer Professor of Humanities at New York University, a chair he occupied for ten years; appointed "Chevalier de l'Ordre des Artes et Lettres" ("Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters) by France's Ministry of Cultural Affairs, then under the direction of André Malraux.

  • 1975, elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

  • 1986, publication of Going to the Territory, a series of essays on African- American culture.

  • 1994, died on 16 April.

  • 1999, posthumous publication of Juneteenth, novel extracted and compiled by John F. Callahan (Ellison's literary executor) from about 2,000 pages of unfinished work left by Ellison.

Main Works

"Slick Gonna Learn" and "The Birthmark," published in 1939 and 1940, Ellison's initial stories. Set in the American South and revolving around issues of class struggle and oppression, "Slick" deals with the title character's response to being laid off from his job when his pregnant wife requires medical care. "The Birthmark," alluding to a story of the same title by Nathaniel Hawthorne, deals with the idea of black skin indelibly given at birth, never to be removed.

"Afternoon," "Mr. Toussan," and "That I Had the Wings" -- published in 1940, 1941, and 1943 respectively. The stories are about two children, Buster and Riley, and deal with themes of identity, learning, and conflict between generations as well as different attitudes toward the white world. Ellison presents a dual conflict between the boys and the bigotry of the white world, and between the boys and older black figures who attempt to pass on to them a slave mentality.

"In a Strange Country" (1944) deals with a young African-American marine, Parker, who is beaten by a group of white soldiers. The story explores the familiar Ellison theme of a search for American democratic ideals and the reality of racism.

"Flying Home" (1944), one of Ellison's most successful short stories; Todd, a black young cadet training in the Deep South has chosen to become a pilot to prove that he is not inferior; after being forced to crash-land his plane, he realizes that his "blackness" and his African-American heritage are as much a part of him as his acquired skills and training.

Invisible Man (1952), one of the most influential American novels of the post-World War II period; written in the first person, it is a kind of Bildungsroman about an idealistic young Negro who begins as a student at a black college in the South, dutifully hoping to become a "credit to his race"; a naïve error leads to his expulsion and he makes his way to Harlem; there, he experiences a series of bizarre adventures which finally leave him with the realization that he is in fact faceless to others, rendered invisible by his race and historical circumstances.



  • The Blue Devils. An Oklahoma jazz band led by Walter Page. The band was prominent from 1923 to 1934 and included Walter Page, Eddie Durham, Buster Smith, Charlie Christian, Lester Young, Jimmy Rushing, and William "Count" Basie. The name of the band also refers to people who cut barbed wire fences during cattle country range wars and had an outlaw connotation. Their music exhibited freedom within discipline, one of Ellison's continuing themes; their style became a fundamental part of American jazz.

  • Federal Writer's Project. A program established in the United States in 1935 by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) as part of the New Deal struggle against the Great Depression. It provided jobs for unemployed writers, editors, and research workers. Directed by Henry G. Alsberg, it operated in all states and at one time employed 6,600 men and women. Ellison's work for the Federal Writer's Project convinced him that black folk art provided an important key to understanding the African-American experience.

  • American Frontier Thesis. Frederick Jackson Turner (1861-1932), American historian, held that the American character was decisively shaped by conditions on the frontier, in particular the abundance of free land, which engendered such traits as self-reliance, individualism, inventiveness, restless energy, mobility, materialism, and optimism. Turner's "frontier thesis" rose to become the dominant interpretation of American history. This interpretation of the American experience, which is clearly contradicted by the history of enslavement and oppression of blacks in America, was central to Ellison's imaginative attempts to confront the reality of a world that is free only in appearance.

  • Harlem. A district of New York City occupying a large part of northern Manhattan Island and bordering with the Bronx. After World War I, Harlem became the center of the literary and artistic movement called the "Harlem Renaissance."

  • Harlem Renaissance. From 1920 until about 1930 an unprecedented outburst of creative activity among African-Americans occurred in all fields of art. Beginning as a series of literary discussions in the lower Manhattan (Greenwich Village) and upper Manhattan (Harlem) sections of New York City, this African-American cultural movement became known as "The New Negro Movement" and later as the "Harlem Renaissance." The Harlem Renaissance exalted the unique culture of African-Americans and its heritage. Representative figures include Langston Hughes and Alain Locke.

  • Langston Hughes (1902-1967). Black American poet and writer who became one of the foremost interpreters of the black experience in the United States. Hughes enabled Ellison to get in touch with Richard Wright and the works of André Malraux, both of which had a powerful influence on Ellison.

  • Richard Wright (1908-1960) Black novelist and short-story writer who was among the first American artists to protest the white treatment of blacks, notably in his novel Native Son (1940) and his autobiography, Black Boy (1945). He inaugurated the tradition of protest explored by other black writers after World War II. Ellison's friendship with Richard Wright changed Ellison's career from music to writing.

Selected Quotations

  • "A writer isn't concerned with politics but with human beings and the way they live, and the way they move, and the way they dream" (Ralph Ellison)


  • to come

Last updated: July 9, 2013

Dr. Fajardo-Acosta gratefully acknowledges the assistance of Jung-Joon Ihm in the creation of the early versions (2001) of this )page


© 2001-2013 by Fidel Fajardo-Acosta, all rights reserved


This page designed and maintained by Fidel Fajardo-Acosta, © 2001-2013