Ralph Waldo Ellison (1913-1994) was born and raised in Oklahoma City. After twice applying to the Tuskegee Institute, the university founded by Booker T. Washington, he was admitted in 1933 to play trumpet in the orchestra. At Tuskegee he studied classical music, but quickly cultivated a love of modernist literature. In 1936, before completing his degree, he left to move to New York City. There he met Langston Hughes, who introduced him to black literary Harlem and communism. During World War II, after writing and editing for communist publications, he grew disaffected with the Communist Party leadership, as did his friend Richard Wright. Ellison began writing Invisible Man shortly thereafter.
Published in 1952, Invisible Man was identified as a masterpiece and quickly became a best-seller. It is consistently lauded as one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century. The Modern Library ranked Invisible Man nineteenth on its list of the one hundred best English-language novels of the twentieth century. Arguably no other book has been as influential on contemporary American literature.
Invisible Man follows its unnamed narrator as he journeys from the rural South to bustling Harlem, experiencing the barriers created by the color line in twentieth-century American life. The novel borrows heavily from jazz and blues forms as its narrator encounters fictionalized versions of major African American leaders like Booker T. Washington and Marcus Garvey. Alternately comic and tragic, the novel explores the psychological effects of racism across U.S. social institutions, geographies, and social classes.
Despite the critical and popular success of the novel, by the 1960s and 1970s Ellison was criticized by student activists for his approach to social change. He never published another novel in his lifetime, although two versions of his two-thousand-page unfinished manuscript were published posthumously as Juneteenth (1999) and Three Days Before the Shooting... (2010).