Born in Oklahoma City, Okla. Originally a jazz musician, he moved to New York City and became friends with Richard Wright. His earliest published writings were reviews and stories in New Masses magazine. His literary reputation rests almost completely on one novel, Invisible Man (1952). A classic of American literature, it draws upon the author's experiences, detailing the harrowing progress of a nameless young black man struggling to live in a hostile society. Ellison also published two collections of essays, Shadow and Act (1964) and Going to the Territory (1986). His collected essays were published in 1995, and a volume of stories appeared in 1996. A second novel, sections of which appeared (1960–77) in magazines, was uncompleted at Ellison's death. Condensing the sprawling mass of text and notes written over four decades, his literary executor assembled the novel Juneteenth, which was published in 1999.
See his selected correspondence ed. by B. E. Sydow (1962); biographies by F. Niecks (2 vol., 1888, repr. 1973), H. Weinstock (1949), and A. Walker, ed. (1966); studies by André Gide (1949), D. Branson (1972), and J. Samson (1985).