In 1932, at the insistence of his friend Malcolm Whitby, Ellison applied to Tuskegee Institute, where he hoped to join the orchestra (he had been training on the trumpet). Rejected once, he applied again and was accepted.
Ellison had hoped to impress the orchestra leader, W.L. Dawson, who he’d idolized since he conducted the Tuskegee choir at the gala celebrating the opening of Radio City Music Hall at Rockefeller Center. Rampersad explains that Dawson was seldom personable with students and did not offer Ellison assistance for fear of upsetting his superiors. Disappointed with Dawson’s indifference and oppressed by the administration, particularly Dean Alvin Neely, Ralph said of his time at the school, “My trip to Tuskegee was my journey into the ‘heart of darkness.’”
He was frustrated, too, with his meager finances. Rampersad notes that Ellison often curtly wrote to his mother to demand she send money or clothes. However, while he was there, Walter B. Williams, the school’s librarian, and more so Morteza Drexel Sprague, an English professor, fueled Ellison’s interest in literature. A suave aesthete, Sprague centered his curriculum on contemporary writers. Sprague saw potential in Ellison and encouraged him to read challenging texts such as Eliot’s The Waste Land outside of class.
In 1936, following his junior year, Ellison decided to travel to New York in the summer in order to earn money in order to return to Tuskegee in the fall as well as to practice sculpture. On his second day in the city, Ellison met Langston Hughes. Impressed with Ellison, Hughes introduced him to prominent Harlem-based communist writers. It wasn’t until he befriended Richard Wright, in 1938, though, that Ellison pursued a career in writing. Wright, considered the most promising young black writer at the time (his most acclaimed works Native Son and Black Boy were published in 1940 and 1945 respectively), secured Ellison a spot with the New York Writers’ Project and encouraged him to try his hand at fiction. Wright, who eventually distanced himself from Ellison once he perceived him as a rival, would be Ellison’s biggest influence over the next few years.
By 1945, Ellison had published several short stories (some which come from an attempted novel, Slick) as well as numerous critical pieces, and he had served as editor of the ill-fated Negro Quarterly. However, he was reluctant to accept an offer from a young publishing company, Reynal and Hitchcock, to write a novel, but eventually accepted the offer. As Rampersad observes, “He knew how late he had come to writing fiction, how much he had to labor to create stories, and how weak had been his grasp of literary technique.” Still, Ellison pressed on.