Home > Uncategorized > February 9 – Ralph Waldo Ellison

February 9 – Ralph Waldo Ellison

58 years ago today, on February 9, 1953, the National Book Award was given to an African American author for the very first time. His novel, the only one he would ever publish in his lifetime, is considered the most significant American novel since World War II and has been called “the Moby Dick of the 20th Century.”

So who was this author, and for what novel did he win this prestigious literary award?

Ralph Waldo Ellison was born on March 1, 1914 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. His father, who died when Ralph was only 3 years old, had named his son after Ralph Waldo Emerson in the hopes that he would someday become a great poet. But Ellison’s early interests lay in music and art, so in 1933 he began at the Tuskegee Institute on a music scholarship, and later moved to New York City to study sculpture and photography. While in New York, Ellison befriended author Richard Wright, and it was Wright who encouraged/persuaded Ellison to try writing as a career.

For the next decade, Ellison earned a living writing book reviews, short stories and magazine articles while his wife Fanny McConnell supplemented his income by working as a photographer. Those endeavors helped pay the bills and sustain their lifestyle, but all the while, Ellison was focused on his novel…

Finally published in 1952, Invisible Man wowed critics with its unique and skillful handling of complex themes including race, racism, identity, individuality and anonymity. The book’s protagonist, an anonymous African American man, narrates in the first person, telling the story of his life in retrospect. The story, filled with metaphors, imagery and allusions, follows this unnamed man’s journey from the South to the North, and introduces us to the varying forms of racism he encounters. Racism, in all its forms, alienates him and makes him “invisible” because people see him only as a stereotype… not for who he truly is. In that regard, this is everybody’s story.

After winning the National Book Award in 1953, Ellison continued to write essays and short stories, and later he would lecture and teach. He would also receive numerous distinctions throughout his life, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the National Medal of the Arts. But he would never again publish another novel. His second novel, Juneteenth, was edited and published posthumously by his literary executor. It was a 368 page condensed version of a 2000 page manuscript Ellison had worked on for years and left unfinished.

thanks for reading,


America is woven of many strands. I would recognise them and let it so remain. Our fate is to become one, and yet many. This is not prophecy, but description.

– Ralph Waldo Ellison

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