In my summer reading post, I mentioned I was reading a biography of Ralph Ellison and would be writing a review of the book for the Main Street Journal. This is the extended version of the review (a shorter version will appear in the June issue of the magazine). One day I may go back and tighten the language a bit.
In 1945, providing his agent with a rough sketch of his then nascent novel, Ralph Ellison said of its protagonist, “He is something very rare, a true Negro individualist.” Like his unnamed protagonist, Ellison was an individualist. Staunchly opposed to racial divisions, he endorsed integration, setting himself at odds with other black writers and leaders who championed separatism. He was proud of his race and heritage but unwilling to define himself primarily by it. Rather, he sought to affirm himself as an individual through his artistry—a formidable task given many whites’ refusal to acknowledge that blacks shared in their humanity. He hoped, though, to craft a novel of such force and scope that the white literary elite could not dismissively praise it as merely fine “Negro literature” but would acknowledge it as one equal to the most celebrated of the American canon. In 1952, with his first (and only finished) novel, the surrealist masterpiece Invisible Man, he did just that.
In his compelling and copiously researched biography, Ralph Ellison (Knopf 672), Arnold Rampersad reveals the complexities of Ellison’s mercurial character as he examines the author’s early influences, his development as a writer, his triumph with Invisible Man, and his vexation at his failure to complete a second novel.
Ellison was born on March 1, 1913, in
After a failed move to
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
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 communist Harlem-based 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-faded 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.
And on. It took Ellison nearly seven years to complete Invisible
When the novel was published in 1952, it met mostly with strong critical acclaim. In the New York Times Book Review, Wright Morris went as far to say, “The geography of hell is still in the progress of being mapped and [Invisible Man] belongs on the shelf with the classical efforts man has made to chart the river Lethe from its mouth to its source.” More impressively, Invisible Man won the National Book Award in 1953, besting Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea.
In the decades the followed, Ellison continued to reap the success of the novel. Wooed by elite universities, literary institutions, and even presidential councils, he became a prized speaker and teacher and established himself among
Ellison often suggested that the fire that destroyed his home in
Rampersad’s claim seems a bit tenuous. Certainly, Ellison had a host of white friends in the literary community, including Richard Wilbur, John Cheever, Kenneth Burke, Stanley Edward Hyman, and Saul Bellow (at times), but he also maintained relationships with black intellectuals such as Albert Murray and Nathan Scott. Ellison had long preferred the company of those who shared his interests, and many black leaders and writers of the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, vehemently promoting Black Power and separatism, ridiculed him for his relative conservatism and privileged lifestyle. (Rampersad includes an anecdote that a librarian in the Black Studies program in the late 60’s at Southern Illinois University said the library didn’t carry Invisible Man “because Ralph Ellison is not a black writer. While Ellison’s optimism for integration may have been a bit naïve in those chaotic times, one could infer that Rampersad begrudges him for not abandoning his ideals. Furthermore, Rampersad seeks to bolster his assertion by detailing Ellison’s coldness towards a number of young black writers. It’s possible his coldness stemmed from concentrate on his own work and likely an anxiety that given his extended dry spell, they’d supplant him. Rampersad doesn’t establish cogent support that would demonstrate Ellison consistently showed any favor for young white writers either, though he does make a strong case that Ellison cared little for women writers of the time.
Considering that Ellison had composed over 2000 pages of the unfinished novel by the time of his death, an inability to shape and direct the work, not a dearth of ideas, would appear to be the main reason for his failure. One can only speculate as to why he failed to form the text into a coherent whole. Stanley Hyman, who had helped Ellison revise and hone Invisible Man as Ellison toiled with the novel, died in 1970. In 1982, Ellison said that the swiftness of cultural changes had stymied him. “Part of what’s taken so long is that so many things have changed so fast in our culture that as soon as I thought I had a draft that brought all of these things together, there would be another shift, and I’d have to go back and revise all over again.”
Toward the end of the biography, Rampersad explores Ellison’s legacy. The assessment of his career by contemporary black literary figures ranges from praise to rebuke. Rampersad writes of Charles Johnson’s acceptance of the1990 National Book Award, “his acceptance speech seemed to be one long tribute to Ralph.” Cultural critic Shelby Steele believes Ellison will prevail over his detractors: “. . . the hostility of many blacks toward Ellison is unexceptional in itself; and if history is any indication, the future will likely belong more to Ellison than to his accusers.” Ten years after his death, Toni Morrison, one of the writers to whom Ellison was aloof, said that his career had spawned a “spectacular novel; elegant essays; international respect” but went on to say, “The contemporary world of late twentieth-century African Americans was largely inaccessible, or simply uninteresting to him as a creator of fiction. For him, in essence, the eye, the gaze of the beholder remained white.”
Although some continue to question Ellison’s allegiances and ambitions, few contest the brilliance and perspicacity of his artistry. Even with the specter of an unfinished novel looming over his career (a pared down version of the unfinished manuscript was published in 2000 as Juneteenth), Ellison’s place in 20th century American literature is secure.