Ralph Ellison: A Biography by Arnold Rampersad

Ralph Ellison won the 1952 National Book Award for Invisible Man, but he never finished another novel before his death in 1994.

He was anointed the most gifted and visionary black writer of his time, but he blanched at the idea of being defined by his race.

He looked down on black writers who sought his help and didn’t develop their own aesthetics, even though he was helped in ways large and small by patrons and mentors black and white.

So it seems perfect that his favorite word was “complexity,” which he was known to enunciate in four dramatically drawn out syllables. For Ellison, author of the landmark novel Invisible Man and the nonfiction collection Shadow and Act, the word described the thorny, labyrinthine nature of American identity and character. It was the favorite subject of this self-fashioned renaissance man from Oklahoma City, and it was never far from his mind.

And as we learn in Arnold Rampersad’s exhaustive new Ralph Ellison: A Biography, there was little simple about him, as a man or as a writer. As his friend Charlie Davidson says in the book, “Ralph was like a drop of mercury. Just when you thought you knew him, he showed you something more, something else.”

The book is unsparing in exploring Ellison’s faults, but it’s hardly a hatchet job. Rampersad respects his subject too much for that. But the book will certainly change the way we think about the author and his work. It includes the good, but it doesn’t flinch from the bad, the ugly, and, of course, the complex. Over the course of 566 pages, Rampersad reveals a visionary, determined but deeply flawed man.

“The idea that he was some kind of superhuman black person is diminished now,” says Walton Muyumba, an assistant professor of English at the University of North Texas in Denton who teaches seminars on Ellison and black intellectual traditions. “He’s a regular human being like the rest of us, and his psychological hang-ups and his anger caught up with him. Maybe they kept him from producing that second work.”

But what a towering first work.

Ellison’s opus, published when he was but 39, remains blisteringly relevant as literature and social criticism 55 years after its much-ballyhooed publication.

Ellison sends his protagonist on a picaresque odyssey of 20th century America. But he can’t be seen by anyone — not by the powers that be at the state college for Negroes (a stand-in for Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute, which Ellison attended but abandoned for the cultural fertility of New York before he could graduate); not by the Brotherhood (a stand-in for the Communist Party, which Ellison supported, then vociferously repudiated); not by the street hustler Rinehart nor the black nationalist Ras the Destroyer.

Each sees Invisible as a pawn, a means to some end or another. And each sees but a color, a shade of black, not a complex human being.

“What Ellison points out is not just that the Negro in the middle of the 20th century can’t be seen by white folks,” says Muyumba. “He’s also saying your brown skin limits your reception in black political and social circumstances. His invisibility becomes a self-born reality, because he has no sense of his own humanity. That’s the real problem of invisibility.”

It’s a pungent metaphor that gets at the very heart of racial stereotypes and pigeonholes. The idea of invisibility applies everywhere you see skin color before the person: the tall black man immediately assumed to be a basketball player; the black woman at a hotel assumed to be the maid; the college basketball team labeled “nappy headed hos” by a radio shock jock. Ellison turned invisibility into a bold symptom of America’s unease with the subject of racial identity.

Then there was his life outside of literature, which grew increasingly strained as the ’50s gave way to the ’60s.

The turmoil and triumphs of the civil rights and black power movements left Ellison a man out of step with the times. “He didn’t think Black Nationalism had anything to offer except chaos and a collapse of black culture on several fronts,” Rampersad says in a phone interview. “He also believed he had made his own way. He thought nobody had helped him, although that was not quite true.”

Ellison fashioned a steadfast individualism that made him reluctant to help or even sympathize with young black writers. Ellison, however, was helped early and often, first by black mentors including Langston Hughes and Richard Wright, who gave him guidance and connections, and later by white novelists including Saul Bellow and Robert Penn Warren. Without Warren’s sponsorship, Ellison would not have received the Prix de Rome fellowship, which sent him to live and write in Italy (where he had a tempestuous extramarital affair).

In his efforts to gain entry to the Century Association, the prestigious arts and letters social club based in New York, Ellison compiled a list of members he knew, including Warren, John Cheever and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. He eventually got in, and spent many an afternoon there sipping martinis in elite company while vocally objecting to granting membership to any women.

At a party hosted by Iowa’s Grinnell College in 1967, Ellison burst into tears when another black man called him an Uncle Tom. But the Ellison that emerges from Rampersad’s pages is less an Uncle Tom than a dashing curmudgeon, an impeccably dressed social climber who slid easily into old boys’ networks and defended tradition whenever possible.

This is part of what so irked the Black Nationalists. At a time when dead white males were under attack, Ellison continued to worship at the altar of greats such as Faulkner, Twain and Melville. To Ellison, these writers cut to the heart of American race relations more directly than, say, Amiri Baraka, the popular Nationalist writer with whom Ellison shared a mutual hostility.

He saw that America was a key component of Western culture, and black identity was tightly intertwined with America. But embracing the radical social change of the 1960s was simply not a part of his character. Addressing a Notre Dame literary conference two days after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, Ellison stuck rigidly to the topic of “The Function of the Novel in American Democracy” while cities burned throughout the country. You could call this stubbornness, principal or inflexibility. You could also say it played a key part in his failure to finish his second novel. Determined to create a work that captured an era, he watched with dismay as the era shifted violently and rapidly into the one thing that scared him most: chaos.

“Almost everyone was thrown into some measure of confusion” by the times, says Rampersad. “But they tried to regain their balance and move on. He wasn’t able to regain his balance, and that’s unfortunate.”

An abridged, posthumous version of Juneteenth was met with generally hostile reviews upon its 1999 release; a more extensive Modern Library version is due out next year. But he never got it done in his lifetime. The biography is filled with variations on the theme “It should be done next year,” or “It’s on the way.”

The fire that destroyed the Ellisons’ New England summer home in 1967 is often assumed to have burned the bulk of the novel in progress, as Ellison argued on many occasions. Rampersad doesn’t buy it; he says the novel should have been completed by that point, and that the losses were minimal.

Ellison’s 1964 nonfiction collection Shadow and Act was no slouch. As Rampersad writes, “Its blending of polemics, reflections, retorts, assertions, and engaging, often lyrical essays showed off his high intelligence, his intricately loving feel for the realities of Negro mass culture, his love of learning, and his love of America.” Ellison also taught at Bard College, Rutgers and New York University. He kept busy. He just never finished his second novel.

In 1955, just three years after Invisible Man, Ellison appeared on a panel about the American novel. His editor, Albert Erskine, commented on the possible debilitating effects of not following up a great first novel. Ellison concurred. “It destroys your integrity,” he says.

Rampersad, like most Ellison followers, is disappointed that the older, distinguished Ellison never followed up Invisible Man. But he’s also amazed that the younger, inexperienced Ellison could write Invisible Man in the first place.

“The first question people ask is why didn’t he write a second novel,” says the biographer. “I say the question you should be asking is, `How did he come to write the first novel?’ He was able to make this mighty effort, to train himself as an intellectual and a novelist. What a personal victory that was in terms of character and intelligence.”

Indeed, Rampersad’s book leaves Ellison with integrity intact. But it also renders him painfully visible.