RALPH ELLISON PUBLISHED JUST ONE novel in his lifetime. But no one would dismiss him as a minor author. His 1952 book Invisible Man is the introspective, eloquent story of an anonymous black man who travels from the segregated South to New York City, where he lives in embittered obscurity. “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me,” says the character in the book’s prologue. When Ellison, 80, died on April 16 of pancreatic cancer at his home in Harlem, attended by Fanny, his wife of 47 years, he was revered as a gentle man of American letters.
Ralph Waldo Ellison was born in Oklahoma City, the son of Lewis Ellison, a construction worker, and his wife, Ida, a domestic who brought her son classic works borrowed from the houses she cleaned. Although Ellison attended Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute on a music scholarship, a library job introduced him to the works of Twain, Faulkner and Melville, and in 1936 he quit school to move to New York City and write short stories.
After serving in the Merchant Marine during World War II, Ellison spent seven years writing Invisible Man, traveling each day to an office incongruously located at the back of a jewelry store on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue. The book, called a “brilliant individual victory” by Nobel Prize-winning author Saul Bellow, has been translated into 17 languages.
Acclaim gave way to anticipation as Ellison began a second novel in 1955. But a fire at his Plainfield. Mass., summerhouse in 1967 destroyed most of the work in progress. The event prompted Ellison “to close in on himself somewhat,” says writer Albert Murray, a close friend. For years, Ellison valiantly struggled to reconstruct the book, which friends say was nearly complete at his death. The long-awaited work is a sweeping, fantastic tale about a light-skinned black man who passes as white and becomes a white supremacist.
Though Ellison inspired many African-American writers, he was also criticized by black nationalists for his belief that great literature has no racial identity. For him, it was essential to be simply known as an American writer. “You don’t write out of your skin, for God’s sake,” he said. “You write out of your imagination.”