Ralph Ellison: A Biography by Arnold Rampersad, Alfred A. Knopf, $35
Ralph Ellison became famous in 1952 with the publication of Invisible Man, which remained for some 30 years the most widely read and respected novel by an African-American writer. Ellison died in 1994 having never produced the second novel he spent so much of his life working on. Arnold Rampersad, as fine a biographer as is working today, author of the splendid two-volume biography of Langston Hughes as well as a biography of Jackie Robinson, is fully up to answering the obvious question “Why no second novel?” But his book suggests, more interestingly, that it may be the wrong question to ask. The right one would be “How did he manage to write Invisible Man?” For, as Rampersad shows, Ellison’s instincts and core talents were not those of a novelist.
He was cerebral, judgmental, meaning-oriented oriented rather than experience-oriented in his approach to fiction. He had no impulse merely to represent life in its variety, an impulse that, like the urge to chronology, can sustain a fiction writer when all else fails. Crucially influenced in the late 1940s by Kenneth Burke and Stanley Edgar Hyman, Ellison embraced the myth and symbol school of criticism as a program for generating fiction. Idolizing Joyce and T. S. Eliot as well as Hemingway, he seems to have thought that the power of Ulysses and The Waste Land came from their mythic substrata and that if he could summon up mythic resonances, readers would respond. Thus he was deeply upset when a young scholar got the name of one of his characters wrong. It wasn’t Julian Bledsoe. It was Hebert Bledsoe, and “Hebert” was pronounced in the French way, “a bear,” and if you didn’t get that, you didn’t see that the character was an avatar of the bear archetype. Such narrowness, aggravating in an English professor, is deadly in a creative writer. Fortunately for us fans of Invisible Man, Ellison also had a powerful impulse to riff at the typewriter, which countered the effect of his theorizing. Between those two poles of prescriptive literary theory and jazz improvisation was generated his wild, semisurrealistic masterpiece.
Ellison grew up in extreme poverty in Oklahoma City. His father died when he was young. His mother worked as a cleaner. He had a brother, not very bright. He saw himself condemned to ignorance and powerlessness for life, and it turned him angry and bitter. Looking back, he would say it was as though he had two youthful personalities: a street – tough kid, with a snappy wit and a nasty tongue, and a would-be gentleman, with diction, vocabulary, and an overall hauteur he’d learned from romantic fiction and Hollywood movies. Uncomfortable, defensive, ambitious, arrogant, he was not a lovable youth. But his gifts were so palpable that he hardly ever lacked for patrons and mentors. The nature of his gifts, however, was not clear. He was almost too widely talented. As a teenager, he thought of himself as a musician. He played the cornet and aspired to be a composer, imagining himself writing classical symphonies based on black folk music. When, eventually, he made his way to Tuskegee, it was to study music.
His experience at Tuskegee was mixed. He was well instructed in literature by one of his professors and by the school librarian, who became a good friend. His favorite novels featured brooding pessimists: Jude the Obscure, Crime and Punishment, and Wuthering Heights (for him the story of Heathcliff, not of Catherine). But the level of culture at Tuskegee seemed mediocre. The professor of music he went there to study with did not greet him with open arms, but unfortunately the dean of students did—an experience with sexual harassment that left Ellison edgy about homosexuality, though he was destined to have some close gay friends, including Langston Hughes. Money was a huge problem for him at Tuskegee, and Ellison never finished his studies there, leaving in 1936 for New York to study art. He was over 20, but there was still no calling, no vocation.
In New York, the first person he met, in the lobby of the YMCA where he was staying, was the cordial and helpful Langston Hughes. Ellison always seemed to be in the right place at the right time, perhaps an invisible man in his own eyes, but from another point of view a Zelig, standing exactly next to the most useful person to him at that moment. Hughes found Ellison a place to stay and a job with Harry Stack Sullivan, the psychiatrist. He also introduced him to Richard Wright, not yet the author of Native Son, but a politically engaged writer with ties to radical magazines, contacts he would share with Ellison. Wright more than anyone else turned Ellison into a writer, commissioning his first work, a review, which announced a literary credo that echoed Wright’s: new black writing should be rooted in American issues but should strive to transcend them and be international in style. Black writers had to resist insularity and measure themselves against the greats, Hemingway, Faulkner, and Joyce. Encouraged by Wright, Ellison set out to create a view of life, based on wide reading in European philosophy and literature, that could help him represent African-American experience in fiction.
His debut was sponsored to some extent by the Communist Party, but his overall goal—to write African Americans into history by a supreme act of literary art—was Joycean, and his other literary idols were also too bourgeois and insufficiently political to suit the party. So his movement away from Wright and Wright’s Communism seems inevitable. He sensed that although the party had made a play for black artists in the 1930s, it would abandon its focus on black issues as the world situation heated up. Feeling at some level personally betrayed, Ellison would become decisively and centrally anti-Communist. Even before America entered the war, he had evolved from radical socialism to the liberal humanism that he would espouse for the rest of his life, and this political stance played no small part in his success.
The honors that rained down on Ellison in the 1950s and on into the next decades are astonishing. Invisible Man won the 1953 National Book Award over Steinbeck’s East of Eden and Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. (If we need any proof that these awards are representative and political as much as pure testimonies to literary excellence, the fact that Hemingway had not received either a National Book Award or a Pulitzer Prize by this point should do it.) After the National Book Award came other prizes, honors, invitations to lecture, judge, and testify, and membership on important committees, such as those that resulted in the founding of the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. He was a trustee of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and of the New School in New York. He was on the board of directors of the Kennedy Center. He hobnobbed with politicians and philanthropists. He testified before congressional subcommittees. He dined at the White House. Lyndon Johnson was his friend and patron. He even served on the board of directors of Colonial Williamsburg!
America needed a black writer of stature who was actively opposed to Communism. It needed someone who spoke for racial equality vigorously but not threateningly, who could make speeches, write essays, talk on panels, participate actively in the intellectual life of the nation. America needed Ellison, but it didn’t need him to be a novelist. It needed him to be a spokesman, a public intellectual, and that is what he became. In silence and cunning was how Joyce imagined forging the conscience of his race. Ellison’s fate was to be a talking head, beautifully dressed, elegant and articulate, impeccably clubbable—the perfect gentleman he’d seen on screen and imagined in his childhood.
He was also a gatekeeper. In every group he belonged to, he was, almost invariably, the only person of color, and Rampersad provides some evidence that he wanted it to stay that way. He put little effort into bringing other black members into his favorite clubs, the Century and the American Academy of Arts and Letters. There’s an old joke about admitting the first Jew to the country club. Smith and Jones agree they must admit Schwartz, because he owns the whole town, but how, asks Jones, will they keep out all those other Jews once they’ve admitted Schwartz? “Don’t worry,” says Smith. “Schwartz will do it.”
Women didn’t fare well with him either. When the first two women were proposed for membership in the Century Club, Ellison acted to keep them out. One of the women, Betty Prashker, the head of Crown Publishing, told Ellison he had won the battle but would lose the war: women would be admitted to the Century eventually. Ellison replied, “Over my dead body.”
His impulse to exclude is the most unattractive thing about Ellison, and it is at the heart of Rampersad’s understanding of his character. He had a way of describing people whose values and talents were different from his own as “mediocre” and seeing himself as objectively better. He had earned what he had gotten by effort and merit. Others wanted to be given what they didn’t deserve. The beneficiary of incredible luck and historical political momentum, he acted as though he was uniquely qualified for all the honors showered upon him. His scorn for ordinary black culture and black people may have served him well as a younger man, energizing his achievements, but it didn’t serve him well in later life, making him harsh and judgmental, leading him to exhibit an unbecoming absence of sympathy, and perhaps crippling his own imagination.
As America entered the era of civil rights and the style of black intellectuals changed, Ellison became a target of scorn. He was more anti-Communist than he was pro–civil rights, and so he seemed an Uncle Tom and a back number to many black Americans. Contemporary black feeling was better represented by Malcolm X, Eldridge Cleaver, and James Baldwin, who now came into his own as a man of letters—more militant about civil rights than Ellison, more pro-Africa, and, by the way, steadily productive. To Ellison’s credit, he faced sometimes quite vocal and nasty hostility with dignity and never fudged his core beliefs. And while his moderate positions made him seem a traitor to many young blacks, to many moderates he seemed the soul of integrity. Some people predicted that when the smoke cleared, Ellison would emerge a hero. Is that true?
Well, not as the result of this book. Rampersad has respect for Ellison as a writer, especially as a writer of nonfiction, and he has respect as well for his political clarity and consistency, but he doesn’t seem to like him. Frankly, it’s hard to see how he could. We talk about a book being hard to put down, but the personal revelations in this one made me continually want to put it down and get on the phone to tell a friend about some new example of outrageous behavior on Ellison’s part. Some of the stories of his self-righteousness are stupefying. He lived as Saul Bellow’s guest in Bellow’s house near Bard College for a while, and the two writers bachelored it together. Ellison had acquired a dog, which he named Tucka Tarby of Tivoli, a black Lab bought from a breeder who was a friend of John Cheever’s. The puppy, to Bellow’s understandable irritation, pooped in his house and in his herb garden, without Ellison doing anything about it. When Bellow got angry, Ellison’s response (to John Cheever, who recorded it in his journals) was that Bellow had grown up with mongrels and didn’t understand the rights of a pedigreed dog. You’d think he was joking if he hadn’t always been quick to sense natural alliances between himself and other aristocrats, whether they were the WASP gentlemen on the Williamsburg board of directors or a pedigreed Labrador.
Ellison’s wife, Fanny, seems to have been his match in prickliness, defensiveness, and a sense of entitlement, but she certainly paid for it in the way Ellison treated her. Although she supported them for much of his early career and although, on Riverside Drive, where they lived on the edge of Harlem, he was widely considered to be a man kept by his wife, he does not seem to have been especially grateful. In Rome, where he had a fellowship at the American Academy for two years (most of their income still came from Fanny’s work), he had a serious love affair. Not only did he tell Fanny about it, expecting to get her approval for his honesty, he also argued that leaving her for the other woman would be the moral thing to do, because Fanny had been unable to give him children and the other woman could. Fanny replied, “perhaps with another kind of wife . . . your integrity would have been judged as integrity and not sadism.” For herself, she had been prevented by his “volatile nature and acid tongue” from telling him how selfish he had always been. As it happened, they stayed together and grew into a smoothly functioning team, Fanny acting as Ralph’s secretary and personal manager.
It’s important in reading a biography to be aware of what kind of information the biographer had access to and how that shaped the book. The Ellisons seem to have saved every scrap of paper, from tax returns to typescripts, and deposited them with the Library of Congress. This treasure trove of information makes them both seem finicky. We know, for example, that there were 40 drafts of Ellison’s introduction to the 30th anniversary edition of Invisible Man. Fanny typed every one, so naturally she wanted to save them. We know what withholdings lay in all the letters of recommendation he wrote. She saved copies of them, too. We know that when a future biographer came to talk to them in New York, they claimed a $25 deduction on their income tax for entertaining him, but we know, too, from the biographer (who was amused) that they served him nothing. All this detail is addictive. I love knowing exactly how much Ellison spent on stereo equipment and that there was at least one year when he made more money as a photographer than as a writer. But this is not the way you create the portrait of a great mind. It occurs to me that if there had been less material, a more sympathetic view of Ellison could have resulted, a book in which the biographer was less burdened by information and more encouraged to try to convey Ellison’s stature and capture what must have been, after all, his considerable charm. In this way does the urge to self-aggrandizement and self-justification defeat itself. Ellison might have appeared better to posterity had he and his wife enshrined less of him.
Finally, what about that second novel, which was published posthumously in a highly edited, truncated form that satisfied almost no one? If Ellison had never tried to write it, would we have missed the effort? Probably not. He had a full and significant life as a critic, a writer of nonfiction, a teacher and lecturer, a public figure. Arguably, he was the Jackie Robinson of American letters, and his historic role alone merits our interest and respect. But that second novel mattered to him. Hardly a day went by without his trying to write it, thinking he was writing it, making what he hoped was the breakthrough that would allow him to finish it, explaining why he hadn’t finished it and saying that he would soon. But never finishing. And so his biography taps into our perennial interest in people who have failed to live up to their own expectations.
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