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Ralph Ellison: A Biography.

* Ralph Ellison: A Biography By Arnold Rampersad Knopf, May 2007 $35, ISBN 0-375-40827-4

Ralph Ellison: A Biography by Arnold Rampersad is the story of the rise of an African American writer (Ellison, who died in 1994, preferred to be identified as Negro) out of desperate poverty and virulent racism to reign as one of the most sought after intellectuals in America.

Rampersad paints a fascinating portrait of a complex man, who, though highly critical of racism in America, also bore "a chronic distrust" of black groups and institutions. Through the years, mainly white men were Ellison's sponsors of the many distinguished awards he received and the almost frenetic requests from universities for him to speak--Harvard, Yale, Princeton notably among them--and from prestigious literary academies in America and Europe.

Rampersad painstakingly details, however, that while the white world embraced Ellison, the black world was cautious, if not severely critical, of his position on liberal universalism. Rampersad quotes Toni Morrison who says of Ellison: "He got to speak for us but he did not like to be identified with us."

Yet in this magnificent and meticulously detailed biography, Rampersad insists that Ellison was a "race man." Faulkner, Hemingway and Melville were his literary influences, but Richard Wright was his first mentor. For his great work Invisible Man, his choice of the first person narrator is consistent with accounts of slave narratives; and his use of surrealism is the result of his absorption of jazz and the blues. (Ellison had hoped to study the trumpet at Julliard.)

Responding to critics that expediency not conviction led Ellison to disavow Communism, Rampersad tells us that Ellison was angry when the Party changed its focus from civil rights in America to the War after the Soviet Union was attacked by Germany. "Ralph was not a coward," Rampersad asserts. "He created out of his core beliefs, and he did so with a personal integrity of which he was proud."

Ellison published two books of essays in his lifetime, but he never finished a second novel. Rampersad's biography suggests that the principal reasons for Ellison's writer's block were his near obsessive preoccupation with the past, insecurities born out of his experiences in the racist South, the pressures of fame, and the absence of a "crucial element" in the writing of Invisible Man: Stanley Hyman, who had helped him pull together the many threads of the story into a cohesive narrative.

See (*) for BIBR recommended titles

Elizabeth Nunez is the award-winning author of six novels, including Bruised Hibiscus and Prospero's Daughter.
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Author:Nunez, Elizabeth
Publication:Black Issues Book Review
Date:May 1, 2007
Words:422
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