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Ralph Ellison: a Biography.

Ralph Ellison: A Biography by Arnold Rampersad, Knopf, 2007, $35.00 cloth, ISBN 0375707980.

Continuing his work chronicling the lives of important African American cultural figures, Arnold Rampersad follows his celebrated books on Langston Hughes and Jackie Robinson with an examination of the conflicted life of Ralph Ellison. Faced with the prospect of creating a balanced biography out of a lopsided career, Rampersad meets the challenge and the result is an exhaustively researched, engaging, but ultimately mel- ancholic portrait of an artist whose grandest literary achievement came early in his career, bringing enduring fame but also crippling expectations.

Rampersad observes that Ellison's "main purpose in writing Invisible Man was to inscribe blacks into history through surpassingly fine literary art." Descriptions of Ellison's fortification of his position in the towers of cultural and political influence ("his Mount Parnassus," as Rampersad calls it) follow the novel's publication, consuming reams of pages in this book. Rampersad details Ellison's collection of accolade upon accolade in his determination to be one of the most honored American literary figures and simultaneously the only African American. The biography continually returns to "two of the main sources of conflict in Ralph's personal and professional life: his punitive reserve with most blacks (whom he associated with poverty and ignorance) and his ambition to scale cultural heights attained thus far, in his opinion, only by whites." Rampersad illustrates Ellison's pride in his position as the "token Negro" who "saw himself eminently qualified for these positions" of cultural power, while "also believ[ing] that very few other blacks were. He was gatekeeper to both blacks and whites." Toni Morrison is more direct about Ellison's conflicted relationship with blacks: "My suspicion was that he considered himself an exception. He got to speak for us but he did not like to be identified with us."

Ellison, thus trapped by isolation on the one hand and the demands of runaway early success on the other, labored unsuccessfully for three decades to finish his second novel. (A version edited by Ellison's literary executor was posthumously published in 1999 with the title Juneteenth.) This, as Rampersad demonstrates, proved embarrassing for the proud Ellison who feared that others saw him as a joke or worse, as a failure. One anecdote suggests that younger scholars may have avoided Ellison during one of his visiting academic appointments as they couldn't be sure that whatever was hindering his work's completion was not contagious. We know how the story ends, but watching the realization that he may not finish a second novel dawn slowly on Ellison imbues the biography with a melancholy tone that is difficult to shake. Rampersad finally proposes that Ellison's "too rigid ideas about culture and art, myth and symbol, allusion and leitmotif," combined with his "inability to create an art that held a clean mirror up to 'Negro' life as blacks actually led it," turned him into a writer who did not develop alongside the country and the people who were the basis for his art.

Ellison's inability to complete more than one novel ends up hindering Rampersad's book by robbing it of reasons to continue in its strongest vein. Although Rampersad is a gifted writer and synthesizer, the book is most effective in the moments of literary analysis. He seamlessly blends the biographical and analytical, providing depth and power to Ellison's already profound works. Even when discussing the less effective moments in Ellison's work, Rampersad is generous, elegant, and firm in his critical assessment. But there are, finally, too few of these moments and the last few chapters of the biography often labor under their own weight. By that point in his life in great demand as a speaker, Ellison gives what is essentially the same lecture--on "the complex nature of the American reality"--over and over. It is a topic on which he had been ruminating since early in his career. One finally begins to anticipate the candy of gossip detailing Ellison's mercurial and self-absorbed personality as actual sustenance.

Nonetheless, Ellison's legacy is secure. Invisible Man has never been out of print and is considered a cornerstone of American literature. In spite of the disdain in which Ellison appeared to hold the black authors who followed him, Rampersad rightly argues that they are all in some way responding to his lead. But what we finally leave Rampersad's biography with is fatigue over Ellison's treatment of others and sadness over the picture of a man who ends up out of touch and isolated, albeit majestic on his cultural Parnassus.
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Author:Kohli, Amor
Publication:Harvard Review
Date:Jun 1, 2008
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