Born in Oklahoma City in 1914, Ellison's career brought accolades and awards, including the National Book Award and the Prix de Rome. In 1969, President Lyndon Johnson bestowed the Medal of Freedom on Ellison.
A devoted fan of jazz and the blues, Ellison wrote as if he were composing music. New York City's Harlem was his laboratory and home. An interviewer once asked Ellison why he didn't do what other black artists of his generation had done: leave America and go to Europe.
"I have to live close to other Negroes. I need to hear the language," said Ellison. "There is a Negro idiom and I have to keep hearing its sounds. It's almost an Elizabethan language, always referring back to the past. I don't know when I might hear something that will make some piece of fiction."
Ellison's new novel, Juneteenth, is the story of a black preacher and his foster son, who appears to be white, although we're never sure of his race. The boy grows up to become a racist U.S. Senator. When he is nearly assassinated, the senator calls the preacher to his bedside where the two men retrace their mutual histories.
The eloquence and vision of Ellison's new novel are generating critical acclaim. Nobel laureate Toni Morrison calls Juneteenth "a majestic narrative."
Ellison worked on his second novel over four turbulent decades, through the Civil Rights Movement, riots and assassinations of national leaders. In 1967, his only manuscript was destroyed in a house fire and Ellison had to start over.
He never finished, but Albert Murray, his friend and fellow author, says it wasn't a case of writer's block.
"My impression is just the opposite of that," says Murray. "That he was constantly coming across new things that excited him, new people that he was bringing in. And he would see where they were going. And then they would get out of hand."
Fanny Ellison, the author's widow, selected John Callahan, an English professor and family friend, to cull from thousands of pages of manuscript. It was a daunting and delicate task, and some critics question Callahan's choices.
"I was trying to do what Mrs. Ellison asked me to do, which was to do the best that I could with what Ralph, in fact, had left," says Callahan. "Ralph had a defiant mind and a defiant, wonderful sense of complexity. And a wonderful sense that, very often, what's most important is what is unseen, what is invisible. And those things need to be cherished And secondly, he had a sense of the indivisibility of American culture and personality, as personified by our common identity as Americans, whether we would like it or not."
Juneteenth began in Galveston, Texas on June 19, 1865. That's when Union troops announced that all slaves in Texas were free. Casting off their shackles, the ex-slaves celebrated. It was freedom. But it was freedom delayed. This week in Galveston, the 134th anniversary of Juneteenth was marked with church services, a beauty pageant, and rehearsals for a play recalling that historic moment.
Ellison scholar Robert O'Meally of Columbia University in New York says the power of Juneteenth is that it transcends race.
"This metaphor of delayed freedom, again, certainly applies to blacks who are still struggling and applies to all Americans as we try to figure out what it means to be free, what it means to cooperate with other people," says O'Meally.
Last week, they were celebrating Ralph Ellison and Juneteenth in Harlem as neighbors and friends raised money for a Ralph Ellison Memorial. The sculpture will stand below the window where Ellison lived and worked as a testament to a modern writer whose work endures.
"I think Juneteenth is going to be on the shelf with those books in American literature that are essential to an understanding of the American predicament, the American experience, and those novels that give us a great deal of pleasure and inspiration," says Callahan.
We certainly haven't heard the last of Ralph Ellison. A scholarly edition of Juneteenth is in the works, with Ellison's entire manuscript, so readers can savor every word.