Book Reviews - Winter 2020

Visible Man

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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, <em>Invisible Man</em>. 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.

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