Ralph Ellison, rendered visible
Was he independent and indefatigable in pursuing a second masterpiece, or indolent and inept? Intransigent and inhumane toward others, or merely indecisive and inconsistent?
Ralph Ellison, who died in 1994 at 80, wrote Invisible Man (1952), considered the greatest 20th-century novel by an African American until superb books by Toni Morrison and others came to shadow that claim. One can hardly think of a more ideal candidate for thorough, literary biography.
His importance to modern American literature, black, white or color-blind, remains indisputable. For decades, Invisible Man, which won the 1953 National Book Award for fiction over Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea and John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, stood as the supreme literary expression of an African American man’s attempt to rise in American society, an experimental, surrealist triumph that continues to be a staple of high school and college reading lists.
As a result, Ellison spent decades serving—is that the right verb?—elite American cultural life as the preeminent, and sometimes only, black writer admitted to such bastions of the Establishment as Manhattan’s Century Club, the National Council on the Arts, the Board of Directors of Colonial Williamsburg, and other rarefied venues.
At the same time, Ellison, despite a prodigious cocktail-circuit life, remained a controversial, incongruous figure, particularly among fellow African Americans. The story of his failure over 40 years to follow Invisible Man with a second novel took on a life of its own, creating a cloud over his reputation that he bitterly resented.
Ellison’s refusal to participate in the extraordinary solidarity that marks the African American literary and academic worlds also left him unpopular among many who grew up reading his famous book. His much-publicized chumminess with major white writers such as Saul Bellow and John Cheever left him looking unproductive by comparison.
For those who care, Ellison’s life and work raise profound questions about literary success in America. Can a black American writer become “establishment” without losing authenticity? Did the lily-white American literary elite of the 1950s anoint Ellison its chief black peer precisely because his liberal bent, and eagerness to belong, threatened them less than the fiery voices they would ultimately hear from James Baldwin and others?
An efficient Department of Homeland Biography, capable of dispatching the ideal scholarly official to clear up this complicated tale, would have to settle on Arnold Rampersad, professor of English at Stanford University and magisterial biographer of Langston Hughes. Rampersad, who interviewed a reluctant Ellison for his Hughes volumes, serendipitously took on the task years ago.
Now he arrives, wheelbarrow of facts before him, to unravel strands, contextualize anecdotes, and lay bare the childhood and adolescent pain at the heart of Ellison’s difficult personality and career.
Not everyone likes “kitchen-sink” biography. Ellison’s embarrassing tax deductions? Intemperate letters to his wife? It’s all here. Many prefer such stories streamlined.
But the approach is appropriate for Ellison, because of the mystery that overhangs his legacy and his stark centrality to 20th-century American literature. Heaping detail upon detail, always maintaining scholarly balance despite limited sympathy for his subject, Rampersad explains both Ellison’s triumphs and debacles, providing a cautionary tale to all who might share Ellison’s ambitions.
Ellison plainly never escaped the early privations and resentments that fueled his achievement and frequent arrogance toward others. Born in Oklahoma City to a working-class father who died when Ellison was 3 and a struggling mother who became a hotel maid, young Ralph endlessly complained about what Rampersad describes as “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.” Psychologically bruised, Ellison made his mother, Ida, the first of many intimates he treated poorly. (They later included his devoted second wife, Fanny, whom he betrayed and verbally abused.)
At historic Tuskegee Institute, Ellison, then an aspiring musician, grew disgruntled after mentors such as composer W.L. Dawson didn’t treat him as he wished. Taking off to New York City and Harlem in 1936, he immediately received help and a Communist tilt from Langston Hughes and Richard Wright, both of whom he would later criticize as he moved rightward.
Influenced by literary greats foreign (Dostoevsky and Hardy) and American (Eliot and Faulkner), fond of symbolic gestures a la James Joyce, intrigued by the mythic possibilities of literature introduced to him by critics Kenneth Burke and Stanley Edgar Hyman, Ellison disciplined himself over the next two decades. He worked as everything from a lab assistant to a WPA writer to a World War II merchant marine, and produced Invisible Man.
Ellison’s decades after 1953 can be seen as both life at the top of what Rampersad dubs “Mount Parnassus” (“a martini in one hand and a fat cigar in the other”) and a long trip down the other side. Rampersad provides evidence for twin perspectives, explaining that Ellison “surrendered too easily” to distractions. Ellison often told inconsistent tales (well juxtaposed by Rampersad) of how he’d lost hundreds of pages of his epic second novel-in-progress to a 1967 house fire. (A truncated and poorly received edited version, Juneteenth, was published in 1999.)
As he became a respected if not beloved middle-aged and senior literary citizen, Ellison disdained 1960s black militancy, resisted feminist efforts to open up all-male institutions such as his Century Club, and estranged old colleagues. He was capable of writing a negative confidential recommendation letter for a young writer such as James Alan MacPherson. To his credit, he also wrote some astute cultural criticism, gathered in Shadow and Act (1964) and Going to the Territory (1986).
Whether Ellison will retain his current literary status remains unclear. With her Nobel Prize for literature and more impressive corpus, Toni Morrison has already knocked Ellison from his perch as modern American literature’s foremost black novelist. The explosion of excellent black novelists—from older figures such as Paule Marshall and John Edgar Wideman to younger talents such as Colson Whitehead—has itself started to deemphasize the ethnicity of black writers in favor of their Americanness, a common phenomenon when an ethnic group mainstreams into an art form.
Finally, one can argue that Invisible Man, for all its merits, looks increasingly from a distance like a fine existentialist novel draped in black, an exemplar of a genre, rather than a unique masterpiece.
That said, the career of Ralph Ellison continues to teem with lessons for future writers. Two “I-words” can assuredly be retired in thinking about him: inexplicable and inscrutable. Arnold Rampersad has rendered them inoperative.
Carlin Romano is a book critic and columnist at The Philadelphia Inquirer.
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