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.”