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Ralph Ellison

Ralph Ellison seated in his apartment in 1972.
Ralph Ellison seated in his apartment in 1972. (Credit: Library of Congress)
Ralph Ellison, the prolific black author and scholar who penned books about the complexities of the African-American experience, conceptualized the idea for his best-known novel, Invisible Man, while at sea.

In 1942, Ellison joined the Merchant Marine. He wanted to contribute to the war effort but had no desire to serve, he said, in a “Jim Crow” army. He spent two years aboard a ship as a cook.

In 1945, Ellison became ill from contaminated water on his ship and was granted sick leave. Ellison decided to use the time to write a novel. He had been planning one for a while, imagining a war-themed plot centered on his own experiences at sea. But when it came time to sit down and write, the words that came out were quite different. As he told an interviewer years later:

Ralph Ellison seated outdoors with his typewriter in Vermont.
Ralph Ellison seated outdoors with his typewriter in Vermont. (Credit: Library of Congress)
"I had come back on sick leave from my service in the Merchant Marine and, after a hospital stay, in the summer of 1945, my wife and I went to a friend's farm in Waitsfield, Vt. Sitting in a lumberman's cabin, looking at the hills, I wrote the first line of the book: 'I am an Invisible Man.'”

While he was recuperating, Ellison spent time reading Lord Raglan’s “The Hero,” which discusses African-American mythical and historical figures. Influenced by Sophocles, Homer, Dostoyevsky, Freud, Jung, Wright, and others, he began to wonder why some black leaders ignored their constituents but often bent over backward to accommodate the white man.

Ellison decided to write a novel about black identity, heroism, and history through the use of the folklore, spirituals, blues, comedians, archetypes, and personal experiences he had gathered over the years.

Ralph Ellison writing amongst the Vermont scenery.
Ralph Ellison writing amongst the Vermont scenery. (Credit: Library of Congress)
One day in 1945, Ellison sat at his typewriter in Vermont, thinking of an ironic joke he had heard from a black-face comedian about his family becoming so progressively dark in complexion that the new baby's mother couldn’t see her. In this vein, he suddenly wrote, "I am an invisible man."

Ellison nearly rejected the idea but was intrigued and decided to give it a try. He spent seven years working on the novel, “The Invisible Man.” The book earned Ellison the National Book Award in 1953.


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