Ralph Ellison Cause of Death: How the Renowned Novelist Died of Pancreatic Cancer

Ralph Ellison was one of the most influential American writers of the 20th century, best known for his novel Invisible Man, which won the National Book Award in 1953. He also wrote essays, criticism, and a second novel, Juneteenth, which was published posthumously in 1999. But how did Ralph Ellison die, and what was his cause of death?

Early Life and Career of Ralph Ellison

Ralph Waldo Ellison was born on March 1, 1913, in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, to Lewis Alfred Ellison and Ida Millsap. He was named after the famous essayist and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson. His father was a small-business owner and a construction foreman, who died in 1916 from an accident involving a 100-lb ice block. His mother was a domestic servant and a socialist activist, who remarried three times after Lewis’s death.

Ellison grew up in Oklahoma and Indiana, where he developed a passion for music, especially jazz. He played the trumpet and the saxophone, and became the school bandmaster at Douglass High School. He graduated from high school in 1931, and worked various jobs to save money for a trumpet. He also received free music lessons from a local musician.

In 1933, Ellison enrolled at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, a historically black college, where he studied music and classical composition. He was influenced by the faculty members, such as Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver, who advocated for the upliftment of African Americans through education and self-reliance. Ellison also became interested in literature, and read works by T.S. Eliot, Ernest Hemingway, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and others.

In 1936, Ellison moved to New York City, where he intended to earn money for his college expenses by working as a musician. However, he soon became involved in the literary and artistic circles of Harlem, where he met writers such as Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, and Alain Locke. He also joined the Federal Writers’ Project, a New Deal program that employed writers to document American culture and history. Ellison began to write short stories, essays, and reviews, and published his first story, “Hymie’s Bull”, in 1937.

Invisible Man and Literary Fame of Ralph Ellison

In 1945, Ellison began to work on his first novel, Invisible Man, which he completed in 1952. The novel tells the story of an unnamed black narrator, who experiences racism, oppression, and alienation in America, and struggles to find his identity and voice. The novel combines realism, surrealism, symbolism, and satire, and draws on Ellison’s own experiences, as well as the influences of jazz, folklore, and modernist literature. The novel was a critical and commercial success, and won the National Book Award in 1953, making Ellison the first African American to receive the prestigious prize. The novel is widely regarded as one of the most important and influential works of American literature, and has been ranked among the best novels of the 20th century by various critics and publications.

After the publication of Invisible Man, Ellison became a prominent figure in the American literary and intellectual scene. He received numerous honors and awards, such as the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the National Medal of Arts, and the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. He also taught at various universities, such as Bard College, Rutgers University, and New York University. He wrote essays and criticism on various topics, such as literature, music, race, and democracy, and published two collections of his nonfiction works, Shadow and Act (1964) and Going to the Territory (1986).

Ralph Ellison Cause of Death: Pancreatic Cancer

Ellison spent the last four decades of his life working on his second novel, which he intended to be an epic saga of American history and culture, spanning from the Reconstruction era to the civil rights movement. He wrote thousands of pages of notes, drafts, and fragments, but never completed the novel. He faced several setbacks and challenges, such as the loss of hundreds of pages in a fire in 1967, the death of his wife Fanny in 1980, and his own declining health. He also struggled with the expectations and pressures of his literary reputation, and the changing social and political climate of the country.

Ellison died on April 16, 1994, at the age of 81, in New York City. The cause of his death was pancreatic cancer, according to Wikipedia. He was survived by his second wife, Fanny McConnell Ellison, whom he married in 1946, and his adopted son, John F. Callahan, who was his literary executor. Ellison was buried at Trinity Church Cemetery in Manhattan.

After Ellison’s death, Callahan edited and published a portion of his unfinished second novel, under the title Juneteenth, in 1999. The novel focuses on the relationship between a black preacher and a white politician, who are revealed to be father and son. The novel received mixed reviews, and some critics questioned the validity and integrity of Callahan’s editing. In 2010, Callahan published another version of the novel, under the title Three Days Before the Shooting…, which included more material from Ellison’s manuscripts, and presented them in a more chronological and coherent order. The novel remains a subject of debate and controversy among scholars and readers, who wonder what Ellison’s final vision and intention for the novel was, and how it would have compared to his masterpiece, Invisible Man.

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