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Book Review: Ralph Ellison: A Biography by Arnold Rampersad

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In 1945, providing his agent with a rough sketch of his then nascent novel, Ralph Ellison said of its protagonist, “He is something very rare, a true Negro individualist.” Like his unnamed protagonist, Ellison was an individualist. Staunchly opposed to racial divisions, he endorsed integration, setting himself at odds with other black writers and leaders who championed separatism. He was proud of his race and heritage but unwilling to define himself primarily by it. Rather, he sought to affirm himself as an individual through his artistry – a formidable task given many whites’ refusal to acknowledge that blacks shared in their humanity. 

Ellison hoped, though, to craft a novel of such force and scope that the white literary elite could not dismissively praise it as merely fine “Negro literature” but would acknowledge it as one equal to the most celebrated of the American canon. In 1952, with his first (and only finished) novel, the surrealist masterpiece Invisible Man, he did just that.

In his compelling and copiously researched biography, Ralph Ellison (Knopf 672), Arnold Rampersad reveals the complexities of Ellison’s mercurial character as he examines the author’s early influences, his development as a writer, his triumph with Invisible Man, and his vexation at his failure to complete a second novel.

Ellison was born on March 1, 1913, in Oklahoma City, to Lewis and Ida Ellison, and knew suffering early in life. When Ellison was three, his father, a coal and ice deliveryman, died of complications resulting from being pierced in the stomach with a shard of ice while delivering ice to a store. Struggling to sustain herself and her two sons (Ralph’s younger brother, Herbert, was born in 1916), Ida took on a host of menial jobs. Ellison grew to resent his mother’s generosity towards the destitute and rejected her Christian devotion. With little desire to spend much time with Ida or Herbert, Ellison endeared himself to the Slaughters and Randolphs, two wealthy families for whom Ida worked. His time with the families developed in him an affinity for sophistication.

After a failed move to Gary, Indiana (Ida had relatives there), the family returned to Oklahoma City. It was during his time at Douglas School, thanks to his music teacher, Zelia Breaux, that Ellison developed a love of music. She not only taught him music but also instilled in him a sense of what it was to be an artist. Ellison said, “It was Mrs. Breaux who introduced me to the basic discipline required of the artist, and it was she who made it possible for me to grasp the basic compatibility of the mixture of the classical and vernacular styles which were part of our musical culture.”

In 1932, at the insistence of his friend Malcolm Whitby, Ellison applied to Tuskegee Institute, where he hoped to join the orchestra (he had been training on the trumpet). Rejected once, he applied again and was accepted.

Ellison had hoped to impress the orchestra leader, W.L. Dawson, who he’d idolized since he conducted the Tuskegee choir at the gala celebrating the opening of Radio City Music Hall at Rockefeller Center. Rampersad explains that Dawson was seldom personable with students and did not offer Ellison assistance for fear of upsetting his superiors. Disappointed with Dawson’s indifference and oppressed by the administration, particularly Dean Alvin Neely, Ralph said of his time at the school, “My trip to Tuskegee was my journey into the ‘heart of darkness.’”

He was frustrated, too, with his meager finances. Rampersad notes that Ellison often curtly wrote to his mother to demand she send money or clothes. However, while he was there, Walter B. Williams, the school’s librarian, and more so Morteza Drexel Sprague, an English professor, fueled Ellison’s interest in literature. A suave aesthete, Sprague centered his curriculum on contemporary writers. Sprague saw potential in Ellison and encouraged him to read challenging texts such as Eliot’s The Waste Land outside of class.

In 1936, following his junior year, Ellison decided to travel to New York in the summer in order to earn money in order to return to Tuskegee in the fall as well as to practice sculpture. On his second day in the city, Ellison met Langston Hughes. Impressed with Ellison, Hughes introduced him to prominent Harlem-based communist writers. It wasn’t until he befriended Richard Wright, in 1938, though, that Ellison pursued a career in writing. Wright, considered the most promising young black writer at the time (his most acclaimed works Native Son and Black Boy were published in 1940 and 1945 respectively), secured Ellison a spot with the New York Writers’ Project and encouraged him to try his hand at fiction. Wright, who eventually distanced himself from Ellison once he perceived him as a rival, would be Ellison’s biggest influence over the next few years.

By 1945, Ellison had published several short stories (some which come from an attempted novel, Slick) as well as numerous critical pieces, and he had served as editor of the ill-fated Negro Quarterly. However, he was reluctant to accept an offer from a young publishing company, Reynal and Hitchcock, to write a novel, but eventually accepted the offer. As Rampersad observes, “He knew how late he had come to writing fiction, how much he had to labor to create stories, and how weak had been his grasp of literary technique.” Still, Ellison pressed on.

And on. It took Ellison nearly seven years to complete Invisible Man. Rampersad provides an insightful analysis of the novel’s three sections and details Ellison’s approach to composing the book. Influenced heavily by the literary philosophy of Kenneth Burke, the work of masters like Twain, Faulkner, and Eliot, and rich Western folklore and myth, Ellison aimed to tell the story of a modern black man who was also an Everyman: “Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?”

When the novel was published in 1952, it met mostly with strong critical acclaim. In the New York Times Book Review, Wright Morris went as far to say, “The geography of hell is still in the progress of being mapped and [Invisible Man] belongs on the shelf with the classical efforts man has made to chart the river Lethe from its mouth to its source.” More impressively, Invisible Man won the National Book Award in 1953, besting Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea.

In the decades the followed, Ellison continued to reap the success of the novel. Wooed by elite universities, literary institutions, and even presidential councils, he became a prized speaker and teacher and established himself among America’s literary elite. With Ellison earning a substantial income, his second wife, Fanny, who had supported him financially while he wrote the novel, was able to quit working, and the two of them enjoyed an increasingly upscale lifestyle. Still, despite his acclaim and success, Ellison’s failure to complete a second novel would vex him the rest of his life.

Ellison often suggested that the fire that destroyed his home in Plainfield, Massachusetts, in 1967 (the fire destroyed what he’d written of a second novel to that point) stymied his attempt to complete another novel. Rampersad dismisses Ellison’s excuse, providing evidence to the contrary. In 1968, Ellison told Richard Kostelanetz that “[it] has become inordinately long — perhaps over one thousand pages — and complicated.” Throughout the second half of the biography, Rampersad asserts that Ellison’s failure to complete a second novel stemmed from his hobnobbing with white writers and subsequently distancing himself from the black community. “As a novelist, he had lost his way. And he had done so in proportion to his distancing of himself from his fellow blacks.”

Rampersad’s claim seems a bit tenuous. Certainly, Ellison had a host of white friends in the literary community, including Richard Wilbur, John Cheever, Kenneth Burke, Stanley Edward Hyman, and Saul Bellow (at times), but he also maintained relationships with black intellectuals such as Albert Murray and Nathan Scott. Ellison had long preferred the company of those who shared his interests, and many black leaders and writers of the ‘60s and ‘70s, vehemently promoting Black Power and separatism, ridiculed him for his relative conservatism and privileged lifestyle. (Rampersad includes an anecdote that a librarian in the Black Studies program in the late '60s at Southern Illinois University said the library didn’t carry Invisible Man “because Ralph Ellison is not a black writer." While Ellison’s optimism for integration may have been a bit naïve in those chaotic times, one could infer that Rampersad begrudges him for not abandoning his ideals.

Furthermore, Rampersad seeks to bolster his assertion by detailing Ellison’s coldness towards a number of young black writers. It’s possible his coldness stemmed from concentration on his own work and likely an anxiety that, given his extended dry spell, they’d supplant him. Rampersad doesn’t establish cogent support that would demonstrate Ellison consistently showed any favor for young white writers either, though he does make a strong case that Ellison cared little for women writers of the time.

Considering that Ellison had composed over 2000 pages of the unfinished novel by the time of his death, an inability to shape and direct the work, not a dearth of ideas, would appear to be the main reason for his failure. One can only speculate as to why he failed to form the text into a coherent whole. Stanley Hyman, who had helped Ellison revise and hone Invisible Man as Ellison toiled with the novel, died in 1970. In 1982, Ellison said that the swiftness of cultural changes had stymied him. “Part of what’s taken so long is that so many things have changed so fast in our culture that as soon as I thought I had a draft that brought all of these things together, there would be another shift, and I’d have to go back and revise all over again.”

Toward the end of the biography, Rampersad explores Ellison’s legacy. The assessment of his career by contemporary black literary figures ranges from praise to rebuke. Rampersad writes of Charles Johnson’s acceptance of the1990 National Book Award, “his acceptance speech seemed to be one long tribute to Ralph.” Cultural critic Shelby Steele believes Ellison will prevail over his detractors: “…the hostility of many blacks toward Ellison is unexceptional in itself; and if history is any indication, the future will likely belong more to Ellison than to his accusers.”

Ten years after his death, Toni Morrison, one of the writers to whom Ellison was aloof, said that his career had spawned a “spectacular novel; elegant essays; international respect,” but went on to say, “The contemporary world of late twentieth-century African Americans was largely inaccessible, or simply uninteresting to him as a creator of fiction. For him, in essence, the eye, the gaze of the beholder remained white.”

Although some continue to question Ellison’s allegiances and ambitions, few contest the brilliance and perspicacity of his artistry. Even with the specter of an unfinished novel looming over his career (a pared down version of the unfinished manuscript was published in 2000 as Juneteenth), Ellison’s place in 20th century American literature is secure.

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About Jason Middlekauff

  • ILoz Zoc

    That’s an interesting comment about the swiftness of cultural change being a challenge to completing his work. I wonder how today’s atmosphere of blogs and instantaneous thought to word publication would have affected such a challenge? One downside I can think of is the lessening of the thought end of it, which leads to less refinement of idea and technique, and more generic writing that replaces more complicated exposition. Snacks are easier to digest than a more elegant meal.

  • Jason Middlekauff

    “One downside I can think of is the lessening of the thought end of it, which leads to less refinement of idea and technique, and more generic writing that replaces more complicated exposition. Snacks are easier to digest than a more elegant meal.”

    I concur. Incidentally, your comment reminds me of one of Bradbury’s central themes in Fahrenheit 451.

    I think our culture’s ever-growing reliance on instantaneous (and often dumb-downed) expression could affect a writers’ abilities to hone their technique, but I think the effect is far more pervasive among reading public.