He was born in Oklahoma City in 1914. He was named after poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, his father hoping he would grow up to be a poet. His father, who was a construction foreman and small business owner, died when Ralph was three years old, and Ralph didn’t learn of his father’s wish for many years.
Ellison studied music on a scholarship at Tuskegee Institute but was continuously drawn to reading modernist poetry like T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. After his third year, Ellison moved to New York City to study visual arts. It was there he met the controversial author Richard Wright, who encouraged him to pursue writing fiction. Ellison’s first published work was Hymie’s Bull, a short story inspired by hobo train trips with his uncle to get to Tuskegee.
After the success of Invisible Man, Ellison went to Europe to travel and lecture. He settled in Rome and met author Robert Penn Warren. They became close friends.
Ellison started writing a second novel, Juneteenth, when he returned from Europe in 1958. He worked on it for 40 years, wrote more than 2,000 pages, but never finished it. The book was published posthumously in 1999 after editing by his friend, biographer John F. Callahan. It was drawn from the central narrative of Ellison’s planned epic.
In 2010, Three Days Before the Shooting published. It a more complete representation of Ellison’s grand vision. “Set in the frame of a deathbed vigil,” says Random House, “the story is a gripping multigenerational saga centered on the assassination of the controversial, race-baiting U.S. Senator Adam Sunraider, who’s being tended to by “Daddy” Hickman, the elderly black jazz musician turned preacher who raised the orphan Sunraider as a light-skinned black in rural Georgia.”