Live with integrity, respect the rights of other people, and follow your own bliss, these are the words of Nathaniel Branden, a United States psychologist. One person who lived his life by this quote is the American author Ralph Waldo Ellison. Ellison s integrity and respect for others helped him become an important American literary figure. His most famous works reflected the culture and living conditions of African Americans in their fight for equality. In order that one is able to understand the literary significance of Ralph Waldo Ellison, he must have a description of his background, an analysis of his famous work, Invisible Man, and a description of his impact as an American author.
Ralph Waldo Ellison was born on March 1, 1914, in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. His father named Ralph after the nineteenth-century philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson and hoped his son would be a poet. Ralph is the older of two sons of his father, Lewis Ellison, and mother, Ida Ellison. Lewis Ellison ran a small ice and coal business. Lewis Ellison died in 1917 when Ralph was three years old, leaving the family quite poor. So Ralphs mother, Ida, raised Ralph and his brother, Herbert, on her own. Ida worked as a housekeeper and a stewardess at the Avery Chapel Afro-Methodist Episcopal Church. Since his mother was a housekeeper she brought home books and magazines for Ralph to read.
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Ralph Ellison attended Fredrick Douglas grammar school, where he was exposed early to novels such as The Last of the Mohicans, by James Fenimore Cooper and works of the poet Langston Hughes. Despite the early exposure to these literary classics Ellison wanted to become a musician. Ralph Ellison started playing the cornet in his school band when he was eight years old. As Ellison s musical ability and enthusiasm grew, he started taking private lessons from Ludwig Hebestreit, the conductor of the Oklahoma City Orchestra. Ellison paid for these lessons by mowing Hebestreit s lawn. Although Ellison was trained in classical music he loved other music forms, such as jazz.
At the end of his high school years, Ralph Ellison won a scholarship from the state of Oklahoma and decided to study music at Tuskegee Institute, in Tuskegee, Alabama. Before going to Alabama Ellison bought a trumpet for his musical studies, and then realized he didn’t have enough money for the train fare to Alabama. So he decided to hitch rides on freight trains. At Tuskegee, he studied under the composer William L. Dawson and concert pianist Hazel Harrison. A turning point in Ellison s life came in 1935 when he read The Wasteland by T.S. Elliot. For the first time I was caught up in a piece of poetry that moved me but which I couldn’t reduce to a logical system, Ellison wrote in Going to the Territory. After reading this poem Ellison started reading the books that were named in the footnotes of T.S. Elliot s poem The Wasteland. This was the beginning of the transformation of a would-be composer to a novelist.
Ellison left Tuskegee at the end of his junior year due to financial problems. Ellison went to New York to try and raise money for the upcoming year, but he never returned to Tuskegee. In New York Ellison met Richard Wright, editor of the magazine New Challenge. Wright asked Ellison to contribute a book review for his first issue of the magazine. Wright liked his review so much he then asked Ellison to write a short story to be published in the New Challenge magazine. Ellison also worked at New York City Federal Writer s Project from 1938 until 1942. After leaving the project Ellison became managing editor of the Negro Quarterly, which was a review of Negro life and culture. Ellison was rejected by the United States Navy in 1943 and then joined the Merchant Marines, where he worked as a cook until the end of World War II, in 1945.
While serving in the military Ellison published a number of short stories which include: King of the Bingo Game and Flying Home. Ellison published his most famous work, Invisible Man, in 1952. The book was awarded National Book Award in 1953. In 1958 Ellison began a three-year stint as an instructor in Russian and American Literature at Bard College, in New York. After the publication of Invisible Man Ellison s readers awaited a second novel. Then in 1964 Ellison published Shadow and Act, a three-part collection of essays and interviews on literature, music, race, relations, life in the United States, and on Ellison himself. This collection of works established Ellison as an intelligent cultural critic. Then in 1986 Ellison published his second collection of essays entitled Going to the Territory. Ellison died on April 16, 1994, of pancreatic cancer.
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