We remember Ralph Ellison, novelist of a modern classic

By Erica Kornberg
Updated April 29, 1994 at 04:00 AM EDT

Ralph Ellison, whose plaintive and premonitory 1952 novel, Invisible Man, chronicled the struggles of an unnamed black everyman in Harlem and the segregated South, died on April 16 of pancreatic cancer at his home in New York City. He was 80 years old. Invisible Man spent 16 weeks on best-seller lists and instantly catapulted Ellison into the pantheon of literary immortals.

Today Invisible Man is a modern classic whose poetic power is captured in its famous first lines: ”I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids—and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.”

In the years following Invisible Man, Ellison wrote stories, essays, and reviews, but the completion of his long-awaited second novel eluded him. Says his Random House editor, Joe Fox: ”He wanted to get it exactly right. He worked on it every day.” (The manuscript’s fate will be determined by Ellison’s widow, Fanny.)

Award-winning novelist (Philadelphia Fire) John Edgar Wideman says Ellison ”found ways to include African-American speech, folklore, and history in a way that was accessible. Invisible Man is a monumental achievement. It speaks to those issues which to a large measure will determine whether or not this country has the imaginative resources to make it through the next century intact.”

Shadow and Act (1964) Essays that explore the complex relationship between black subculture (in music, art, literature, and folklore) and mainstream white society.

Going to the Territory (1986) Reprises themes from his 1964 essay collection, with tributes to Richard Wright, Duke Ellington, and painter Romare Beardon.