The grandson of enslaved people, Ralph Ellison was born in 1914 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, and was raised largely in Tulsa, Oklahoma. His father was a construction worker, and his mother was a domestic servant who also volunteered for the local Socialist Party. As a young man, Ellison developed an abiding interest in jazz music; he befriended a group of musicians who played in a regional band called Walter Page’s Blue Devils, many of whom later played with Count Basie’s legendary big band in the late 1930s. Ellison himself studied the cornet and trumpet, and planned a career as a jazz musician. In 1933, he left Oklahoma to begin a study of music at the Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama. The Institute, which is now called Tuskegee University, was founded in 1881 by Booker T. Washington, one of the foremost black educators in American history, and became one of the nation’s most important Black colleges. It later served as the model for the Black college attended by the narrator in Invisible Man.

Ellison left the Tuskegee Institute in 1936 and moved to New York City, where he settled in Harlem. As an employee of the Federal Writers’ Project, Ellison befriended many of the most important Black writers of the era, including Langston Hughes and Richard Wright. Ellison also became friends with the eminent jazz writer and sociologist Albert Murray, with whom he carried on a lengthy and important literary correspondence, later collected in the book Trading Twelves. After a year editing the Negro Quarterly, Ellison left for the Merchant Marines, in which he served during World War II. After the war, Ellison won a Rosenwald Fellowship, which he used to write Invisible Man. The first chapter appeared in America in the 1948 volume of Magazine of the Year, and the novel was published in its entirety in 1952.

Employing a shifting, improvisational style directly based on Ellison’s experience of jazz performance, Invisible Man ranges in tone from realism to extreme surrealism, from tragedy to vicious satire to near-slapstick comedy. Rich in symbolism and metaphor, virtuosic in its use of multiple styles and tones, and steeped in the Black experience in America and the human struggle for individuality, the novel spent sixteen weeks on the bestseller list and won the National Book Award in 1953. Achieving one of the most sensational debuts of any novel in American history, Invisible Man was hailed by writers such as Saul Bellow and critics such as Irving Howe as a landmark publication; some critics claimed that it was the most important American novel to appear after World War II.

Invisible Man was heavily influenced by the work of a number of twentieth-century French writers known as the existentialists. Existentialism, whose foremost proponents included Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre, explored the question of individuality and the nature of meaning in a seemingly meaningless universe. Ellison adapted the existentialists’ universal themes to the Black experience of oppression and prejudice in America. He also engaged powerfully with the tradition of African-American social debate. In the character of Dr. Bledsoe, the novel offers a vehement rejection of the philosophy of Booker T. Washington, which advocated that Black Americans should work toward economic success as a means of achieving racial equality. It also critiques, through the character of Ras the Exhorter, Marcus Garvey’s philosophy of Black nationalism.

Read more about existentialism in the context of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea.

Despite–or possibly due to–the overwhelming success of Invisible Man, Ellison never published another novel in his lifetime. Though he published two books of essays–Shadow Act in the 1960s and Going to the Territory in the 1980s–Ellison spent much of his later decades laboring on a vast novel that he never finished. Upon his death in 1994, Ellison left behind an incomplete manuscript of more than 2,000 pages. In heavily abridged and edited form, this manuscript was published five years after his death under the title Juneteenth, to generally unfavorable reviews. Ellison’s later lack of productivity in no way diminishes the power or the enduring importance of Invisible Man, however. Nor is Ellison is only well-known author who didn’t succeed in following up a massively influential first work. He shares that distinction with Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird) and many others.