Ralph Ellison: A Biography.
Ralph Ellison: A Biography By Arnotd Rampersad (Alfred A. Knopf, 2007) 657 pp.; $35.00
IN 1976 OR 1977 I ATTENDED A LECTURE in Manhattan by Ralph Ellison, the distinguished man of letters and author of the landmark novel Invisible Man. During the question-and-answer session the debonair, dapper, and deft writer was asked what he thought of Alex Haley's Roots, which was then a phenomenal bestseller. "I knew I would be asked that" Ellison said. "I haven't read it. I just hope it's positive" At the time I simply assumed that he really hadn't read Roots or that he had and was too polite to castigate what was essentially a potboiler. But readers of Arnold Rampersad's absorbing but maddening new biography might well conclude that under Ellison's poised, polished public personality he was seething with bitterness and jealousy over the incredible success of another black writer.
From my vantage point Ralph Waldo Ellison (he was named for the Sage of Concord) led an amazing and mostly admirable life. Ellison's parents were Southern blacks (their son preferred to use Negro, even as an adult, because of its historical-familial lineage) who moved to Oklahoma City for a better life. Ellison was born in 1913 (not 1914 as he would claim). When he was three his beloved father died in a freak accident, leaving him, his mother, and his younger brother impoverished. "The emotional cost was incalculable," Rampersad writes, "and in all matters involving money the change was a disaster. Ahead lay years of shabby rented rooms, hand-me-down clothing, second-rate meals, sneers and slights from people better off, and a pinched, scuffling way of life." Rampersad's research indicates that for Ellison Oklahoma City was far from the romanticized locale the writer would describe in later years. Nonetheless he fell in love with books and music (classical, jazz, and religious) and aspired to become a trumpet player.
In 1933 Ellison, two years out of high school, was admitted to the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, a prominent black college, because "its band and orchestra desperately needed a skilled first trumpeter" Lack of money forced him to hobo his way to the school, an extremely dangerous proposition for a black at that time. Rampersad's investigations show, again, that despite Ellison's later fond recollections of Tuskegee, he was unhappy there. Though he continued to study music and read voraciously, he was apparently forced to grant sexual favors to a male dean who could bestow or withhold jobs. I say apparently because the book is ambiguous on this point. At the very least, unwelcome sexual demands ("I was hounded out of college by a homosexual dean of men," Ellison told a friend years later) and other discontents prompted Ellison to leave Tuskegee without a degree after three years and move to New York City. It was 1936, the Great Depression still enervated the nation, and Ralph Ellison brought absolutely nothing to his new home except brains and ambition (as a character says in Invisible Man, "All it takes to get along in this here man's town is a little shit, grit and mother-wit").
However the city's cultural and class lines must have been more fluid than they are now. Ellison, all of twenty-three and the quintessential man-on-the-make from the provinces, sampled New York's artistic bounty and befriended artists and writers like Langston Hughes and Richard Wright. It was the latter who first persuaded Ellison to write professionally. Ellison also gravitated toward the Communist Party. I knew about his stint with the Communists--he talked about it in interviews--but reading Ralph Ellison, I was startled by how zealous a Stalinist he was: "He probably became, at least for a while, a dues-paying Party member." Because Ellison was smart he eventually wised up. Part of his unhappiness with the party was due to its abandonment of civil rights agitation in favor of prodding the United States to enter World War II after Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941. His disillusionment can also be traced to the Communist penchant for insisting that the only worthy writers were those who churned out party propaganda. Ellison had been a steady contributor for a few years to Communist publications. There's nothing like writing for philistine ideologues to make an author with even a tittle of self-respect loathe cant and cherish artistic freedom. In Invisible Man Ellison would excoriate the Communist Party.
Once the United States entered the war in December 1941 Ellison served in the merchant marine, which he believed was preferable to the segregated Army. After the Allies defeated the Third Reich and Imperial Japan in 1945, the United States was the most powerful nation in the world, and Ellison shared in his country's postwar exuberance. He married his second wife, Fanny, and saw his reputation rise in intellectual circles. Political and judicial decisions made it seem likely that the United States was on the verge of introducing momentously salutary changes for its black citizens. In this heady atmosphere Ralph Ellison set out to write a great novel.
Invisible Man, published in 1952, isn't great but it is surely one of the most entertaining of the classic American novels (up there with The Great Gatsby and The Sun Also Rises). The book, a bildungsroman, recounts the Dantean journey of an unnamed young black man from the Deep South to Harlem in the 1930s. The novel is a flamboyantly surreal show, an ebullient, extravagant tour de force by its ingenious writer-performer. James Joyce invented new styles; Ellison manipulated extant styles, but with a flair that turns readers on. (He wrote in the book's thirtieth anniversary introduction: "... being uncertain of my skill I would have to improvise upon my materials in the manner of a jazz musician putting a musical theme through a wild star-burst of metamorphosis.")
Invisible Man made Ellison a star and he remained a star for the rest of his life. The novel was a New York Times bestseller and won the esteemed National Book Award in 1953. (That last achievement, I must say, seems a bit problematic, as two members of the committee that granted the award--Alfred Kazin and Saul Bellow--were friends of Ellison's.)
Ellison became a member of many prestigious institutions and task forces, including the Carnegie Commission on Educational Television, probably the major catalyst in creating public television in this country. He taught at major colleges, lectured widely, and published two collections of essays, Shadow and Act and Going to the Territory. The lectures and essays (and his many interviews) explore fiction, music, history, and the influence of blacks on white America (and vice versa). They defend the independence of the artist, criticize black separatism, whether political or cultural, and insist on the profound intricacy of American society (and life in general). Throughout, they offer insights on the American scene that are wonderfully astute, acute, and commonsensical.
What Ralph Ellison didn't do between the publication of Invisible Man and his death from pancreatic cancer in 1994 at the age of eighty-one was complete a second novel. A pronounced mystery-mystique surrounds this subject. Hold that thought.
Arnold Rampersad, a professor in the English Department at Stanford University and the author of biographies of Langston Hughes and Jackie Robinson, writes smoothly and with authority. His research on the whole is exemplary (sadly neither Ralph nor Fanny Ellison could be interviewed). Ellison is fairly well delineated in this biography and it's fun to read about episodes in his life (such as his swiftly abandoned job in a paint factory) that ended up in Invisible Man. In light of Ralph Ellison's virtues it is particularly regrettable that it contains a number of factual errors, errors that also incriminate the book's editors and proofreaders. For example, the East River separates Manhattan from Long Island City, not Long Island; William Shawn was not in charge of the New Yorker in the 1940s; Sidney Hook was not a sociologist; Martin Luther King Jr. wasn't at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma Alabama on Bloody Sunday in 1965, when the police brutally attacked civil rights marchers; James Meredith didn't try to integrate the University of Mississippi: he did integrate it; and Jonathan Jackson, the brother of the Soledad Brother George Jackson, did not kill a prison guard.
If Rampersad the researcher-chronicler is praiseworthy for the most part, Rampersad the assayer of behavior engenders some questions. As other reviewers have noted, the author comes off as disdainful of his subject. He doesn't discuss why this is so--he obviously should have--but the antipathy runs through Ralph Ellison and it mars the book. The most fraught instances of this are Rampersad's accounts of Ellison's relations with black writers (particularly those younger than he was) and the reason why he never published another novel. Here are two passages concerning the post--Invisible Man Ellison:
Ralph was surely under no obligation to help anyone, but he was stirring up a growing dislike of him among younger blacks [writers] that added to his sense of isolation and made the task of creating art more difficult that it already was. [Ellison's] inability to create an art that held a clean mirror up to "Negro" life as blacks actually led it, especially at or near his social level, was disabling him as a writer. As a novelist he had lost his way. And he had done so in proportion to his distancing himself from his fellow blacks.
Rampersad's animadversions are undermined by his scrupulousness as a biographer: the book makes clear that Ellison did praise young black writers and help some of them obtain grants. But I agree with one aspect of the above statements: Ellison was under no obligation to lend a hand to anyone--and I suspect that he had sound reasons for assisting or not assisting a given individual. I don't think it's inapposite to point out that nobody seems to care whether Philip Roth and John Updike look out for Jewish or Christian writers.
As for Ellison's alleged "isolation" and "distancing himself from his fellow blacks," there is no deliberation underlying these sentiments, no proof presented to buttress them. I defy anyone who has read extensively in Ellison's work (including his interviews) to maintain that he was estranged from black culture or the black community. Under the circumstances I think that Arnold Rampersad is unjustly harsh toward Ellison.
Back to the topic of his fiction, why did Ellison only finish one novel? It's clear from Juneteenth, the posthumously published "novel" excerpted from the mammoth work-in-progress that he had labored on for four decades, that the muse of fiction had deserted him after Invisible Man, that he had run out of gas. Why? I don't know and neither does anyone else--it's an unanswerable question. Moreover, I think Ellison probably had too much integrity and too much pride to publish a book that he didn't feel was first-rate. If that was indeed the case, more power to him. Who or what would have benefited, after all, if he had published a mediocre work (or works) after his first novel? Certainly not his loyal fans or his reputation.
Apropos of the purported unfinished-novel conundrum, I will end by allowing Ralph Ellison to say something on the topic. Around 1990, a few years before Ellison's death, my friend, the novelist Irvin Faust, was a guest at a dinner party also attended by Ellison. They chatted amiably for a while and then Ellison suddenly said, "When are you going to ask the question?"
"You mean" Faust said, "about your second novel?"
"Yes," Ellison replied. "What do people want from me? I wrote a good novel. Why can't that be enough?"
Howard Schneider is a writer and editor in New York City.
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Nov 1, 2007|
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