April 16: Ralph Waldo Ellison

April 16 marks the 23rd anniversary of the death of Ralph Waldo Ellison, interred at Trinity Church Cemetery. Ellison was a novelist, essayist, and critic best known for his 1952 novel, Invisible Man.

Born in Oklahoma City, Ellison worked a variety of odd jobs before attending the Tuskegee Institute to study music. In 1936 he moved to New York City to earn money for the following semester, but never returned to school. After settling in Harlem, Ellison began work as a writer and researcher for the New York Federal Writers Program, as well as publishing book reviews, articles and short stories. He befriended a number of artists and writers including Langston Hughes, Romare Bearden, and Richard Wright, who also served as his mentor.

After the outbreak of World War II, Ellison served the U.S. Merchant Marine as a cook and began to consider writing a full-length novel. He spent the next four years publishing book reviews to earn a living while working on Invisible Man. The novel was well received, earning a U.S. National Book Award for fiction and an invitation to visit Rome as a Fellow at the American Academy. After two years abroad, Ellison returned to the U.S. to teach at Yale and Rutgers University. 

Ellison continued to publish essays, lectures, and short stories on a wide range of topics including jazz, photography, sports and the black experience. He was also honored with a number of awards including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and served as the Library of Congress’ Honorary Consultant in American Letters.

He worked on a second novel for nearly 40 years, penning 2,000 pages but ultimately leaving it incomplete at the time of his death. Longtime friend John F. Callahan edited the manuscript and published Ellison’s second novel, Juneteenth posthumously.