Book Reviews - Winter 2020

Visible Man

An intimate view of a great American writer

By Randall Kenan | December 2, 2019
Ralph Ellison in 1950, when he was at work on the novel that would make him a literary giant, Invisible Man. He published no other novels during his lifetime. (Everett Collection)
Ralph Ellison in 1950, when he was at work on the novel that would make him a literary giant, Invisible Man. He published no other novels during his lifetime. (Everett Collection)

The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison edited by John F. Callahan and Marc C. Conner; Random House, 1,072 pp., $50

There is something mysterious about how Ralph Ellison became an enduring literary giant on the strength of one award-winning novel, Invisible Man (1952), and two collections of essays, Shadow and Act (1964) and Going to the Territory (1986). How the legend of his long-awaited second novel grew in fame with every year it was not published. And how after his death in 1994, the redaction of that novel, Juneteenth (1999), by John F. Callahan, cemented his reputation as a great American dreamer whose dream was deferred. (In 2010, we literary nerds were joyous to receive the full, overlong, and sometimes confusing manuscript from which Juneteenth was compiled, Three Days Before the Shooting …, also edited by Callahan, which ran a whopping 1,136 pages.) One would be hard-pressed to find another literary figure, aside from Ralph Waldo Emerson (after whom Ellison was named), who rose so high on the basis of so few publications.

Now we have Ellison’s selected letters, yet another posthumous doorstopper. Reading it, I was reminded that the early novels of the Western canon—Pamela, Clarissa, even Dangerous Liaisons—were epistolary, and why they were. Letters reveal and conceal. They are the height of self-presentation, indicating how we wish to be seen by others. This vast acreage of communication forms a narrative and a grand character study of Ellison’s epic life, though his epic task, ironically, was to write an epic.

In this collection of letters, we see how Ellison grew from a dutiful son and brother to a bookworm and wannabe musician who made the sweeping journey from Oklahoma to Tuskegee to New York, where he met Langston Hughes, Romare Bearden, and perhaps most important for his later success, Richard Wright. Then on to the merchant marines, to Rome, and to literary greatness and the life of a celebrity writer and distinguished professor—all the while trying to finish what he (and his friend and fellow novelist Saul Bellow) thought would be his magnum opus. Not a bad plot for a novel. From humble and always thoughtful letters to his mother and brother, to his second wife, and to his closest friend, novelist and former fellow Tuskegee classmate Albert Murray, we take in the great arc of Ellison’s life. (In 2001, editor Callahan published Trading Twelves: The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray, which traces the two men’s friendship and correspondence beginning in the 1950s.)

Ellison’s letters tend to be prolix (often several pages of carefully wrought prose), even in a time when long letters were the norm. One sees over time a difference in his tone, at once stately, direct, unimpeachable.

We come away knowing how important Oklahoma was in making him and how he viewed Europe, where he seemed to live the high life for two years. (Ellison received the Rome Prize in 1955.) We also learn how his friendship with Wright, toward whom he initially felt so brotherly—those early letters are downright sweet—later soured just before Wright’s death in 1960, causing Ellison to write, “the controversy over my relationship with Dick Wright has been so annoying. … I realized that I had been cast into that fantasy world.” About novelist Norman Mailer, he wrote to Bellow, “he avoided clashing with me on the White-Negro crap he’s been selling—even though I gave him several opportunities. … Mailer is a nut of considerable charm, which he uses as he uses his adolescent shock techniques.” Ellison was an early supporter of essayist and short-story writer James Alan McPherson, who would become a close friend, and of novelist Leon Forrest, to whom Ellison wrote a letter of praise that later became the foreword to Forrest’s first novel, There Is a Tree More Ancient than Eden (1973), edited by Toni Morrison. Of William Faulkner, he wrote, “He was quite friendly … and his voice is soft, southern and courteous.”

Writer Chester Himes was apparently not political enough for Ellison’s tastes, which must strike us as odd, for the narrative about Ellison in the 1960s and ’70s was that he believed in eschewing politics. These self-portraits put a different spin on that ball, which Ellison’s biographer, Arnold Rampersad, has gone to great lengths to set right.

Ellison was a novelist of ideas. Many arresting things happen in Invisible Man, and like the work of André Malraux and Jean-Paul Sartre, the novel juggles a great many intellectual agendas. His letters likewise reveal a man of weighty thoughts. His exchanges with Murray rise to the level of the essay. There is also much reporting of goings-on and the stuff of business. The amount of space given to the 1967 fire in his home in Plainfield, Massachusetts, is surprisingly sparse, given that part of his interminably delayed second novel was “destroyed with it.”

To read these miniature essays is to be reminded of the Arna Bontemps–Langston Hughes Letters, 1925–1967, the new Flannery O’Connor collection, Good Things Out of Nazareth: The Uncollected Letters of Flannery O’Connor and Friends, or perhaps most fittingly, Winston and Clementine: The Personal Letters of the Churchills, one of the greatest autobiographies of a love story ever written. These collections typically provide readers with both sides of the exchange, whereas the editors of this volume are perforce giving us only Ellison’s initiations and responses. To do otherwise would have produced an unwieldy tome of tomes. Ellison’s style was somewhat formal long before he evolved into a grand old man of letters. An exception is his correspondence with his long-suffering wife, Fanny.  One such letter, written from Rome in 1957, speaks directly to some anguish in their relationship involving another woman. With Murray, he tended to be jazzier—“I wished I had your remarks concerning Ray Charles at hand at the time because he’s excellent proof of how vital the old voice remains.” In all cases, as ought be expected, Ellison’s insights can be piercing, his observations astute.

Insights into his specific writing woes, however, are fleeting, despite long passages about his intentions in his letters to Murray.

Little in this volume surprises, with the possible exception of the Who’s Who of literary greats and celebrities with whom Ellison associated in the final two decades of his life, from Harold Bloom to Jacques Barzun and John Hersey to Jimmy Stewart (the powerful black Oklahoma politico, not the actor). But for those seeking a keener understanding of one of the previous century’s most celebrated novelists, this collection is a vital contribution.

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