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Ralph Ellison
Ralph Ellison pauses during a workshop at the American Academy in Rome, Italy, May 1957.

James Whitmore/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

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Ralph Ellison, (1914-1994), an African American author, became famous for his novel INVISIBLE MAN (1952). The book reveals problems that blacks have experienced in their search for responsibility, dignity, and equality in the United States.

INVISIBLE MAN tells the story of a naive Southern black American who wants to take a proper place in society, but others interpret his role and place. In the South, they are defined by his grandfather, his parents, white community leaders, and the president of an all-black college. After being expelled from college, the youth goes to the North. There, he hears new definitions of his role from scientists, a black nationalist, and Communists. All these definitions fail him. However, while escaping from a riot in New York City's Harlem district, he hides in a manhole. There, he discovers for himself that he must use his mind and heritage to develop his own definition of his role. He can return to society with a new awareness of his place in the world.

The novel is a complex work in which Ellison used symbols to explore several themes. One theme is that white Americans refuse to "see" blacks as a basic part of American society, and thus blacks are "invisible." In another theme, Ellison suggested that all Americans must guard against loss of their humanity.

Ralph Waldo Ellison was born on March 1, 1914, in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Several of his early short stories were collected in FLYING HOME (published in 1996, after his death). Ellison also published two collections of essays and other works, SHADOW AND ACT (1964) and GOING TO THE TERRITORY (1986). He died on April 16, 1994. An edited version of an unfinished novel was published as JUNETEENTH in 1999, after Ellison's death.

Nellie Y. McKay, Ph.D., Former Professor of American and Afro-American Literature, University of Wisconsin, Madison.

From THE WORLD BOOK ENCYCLOPEDIA © 2007 World Book, Inc. By permission of the publisher. Visit World Book Encyclopedia for more information on Ralph Ellison and related subjects.

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