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BACKGROUND INFORMATION - BIOGRAPHY
RALPH WALDO ELLISON
Ralph Waldo Ellison was born in Oklahoma City on March 1, 1914 and named after the famous American writer and celebrator of self-reliance and non-conformity, Ralph Waldo Emerson.
His parents came from South Carolina. His father, Lewis Alfred Ellison, worked as a construction worker; he died when Ellison was only three years old. His mother, Ida Millsap Ellison, was a strong intellectual and a Socialist. She supported the family by working as a domestic servant, but also canvassed for the Socialist party and was jailed several times for protesting housing discrimination.
The young Ellison studied the cornet under the founder of the Oklahoma Symphony and developed a strong interest in jazz, moving in a circle of friends who later became members of the Count Basie Orchestra. Ellison considered a career in jazz for himself, for he had also become an accomplished trumpet player. In 1933, he began musical studies at the Tuskegee Institute, founded by Booker T. Washington, and then moved to New York.
Once there, he met members of the Harlem Renaissance, including Langston Hughes and Richard Wright, both of who encouraged Ellison to write. Ellison was employed with the Federal Writers Project as a researcher from 1938 to 1942. During this time, he published short stories and essays in various magazines. In 1942, he became the editor of Negro Quarterly, where he served for a year.
In 1943, Ellison joined the Merchant Marines and served during World War II. After the war, he married Fanny McConnell in 1946. He also began to write his novel, Invisible Man, with the help of a Rosenwald Fellowship. It took him seven years to complete the novel, but it was a best seller and won him the National Book Award in 1953.
Because of the attention he received for Invisible Man, he became a professor, teaching at Bard College, the University of Chicago, and Rutgers University. He also traveled extensively and lectured in Austria and Germany, as well as at Yale University and UCLA. He also continued to write and has published two volumes of essays, Shadow and Act and Going to the Territory. In 1963, Ellison was granted a Doctor of Philosophy in Humane Letters from Tuskegee.