Ralph Ellison, one of the most famous black writers of the twentieth century, was virtually unknown as a writer when, in 1952, his novel Invisible Man won the National Book Award and made him an instant celebrity. Ellison later discovered that his father, who had died when he was three years old, had often told people he was raising his boy to be a poet.
Ellison was born on March 1, 1914, in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, a relatively progressive town during the 1920s in which black and white people mingled freely. Although he spent most of his childhood poor and fatherless, Ellison grew up believing that life offered limitless possibilities; like the narrator of Invisible Man, Ellison arrived at college full of naive optimism. He spent three years at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, studying literature and pursuing his serious interest in music as a composer and trumpet player.
At first Ellison appeared headed for a career as a jazz musician, but upon moving to New York City in 1936, he was befriended by another renowned writer, Richard Wright, who became his mentor. With Wright’s help Ellison began contributing pieces to Common Ground, Cross Section, Direction, New Challenge, New Masses, Negro Quarterly, Negro Story, and Tomorrow. While serving in the Merchant Marine Corps at the end of World War II, he received encouragement from a publisher to begin work on a novel. Between 1945 and 1952 he worked steadily on Invisible Man, pausing only briefly to write a novella that was never published.