Review by Choice Review
Offering a biography of Ellison that is neither exalting nor doctrinaire, Rampersad (Stanford) makes no excuses, appreciates where permissible, and is negatively critical when necessary. This is a carefully and minutely researched, inductive reaction to a writer who produced a masterpiece, Invisible Man, early on and little else after of such stature. Being a black writer, Ellison could not escape into the shelter of eccentricity as did J. D. Salinger. Rampersad places biographical material side by side with the critical praise for Invisible Man that neglects to mention the failed expectation, the public and professional persona versus the elitism adhered by Ellison--a perfectionist author who left at his death only a fragment of a second novel. Ellison cast himself as a follower of Emerson and Melville, and he received deserved honors that in the long run categorized him as an integrationist who denied separate-but-equal status. However one looks at it, two possible flaws are at work here: the more obvious condemnation of race and the glory train of academic honors that prevented further fiction. Including a generous sampling of photographs, this book is rich in anecdotal material of the literary world to which Ellison belonged. Summing Up: Essential. Upper-division undergraduates through faculty; general readers. A. Hirsh emeritus, Central Connecticut State University
Copyright American Library Association, used with permission.
Review by New York Times Review
RALPH ELLISON burned out as an artist under excruciating circumstances. His failure to complete a second novel after his landmark book, "Invisible Man," exploded onto the scene in 1952 was already a source of pain just six years later, when he wrote to Saul Bellow about having a "writer's block as big as the Ritz." His suffering intensified as the years rolled by and contemporaries like Bellow (Ellison's onetime housemate), John Cheever and Bernard Malamud all capitalized on their talents and moved on into prolific maturity. His predicament was worsened by the feeling that he had failed not only himself but the broader black society whose aesthetic he had hoped to champion in a great book that would rival "Moby-Dick." Ellison's sense of himself as the literary deliverer of an entire race was, at first, merely naïve. It turned poisonous as his powers drained away and African-American successors began to appear on the horizon. By the 1970s, he had evolved, or declined, into what one of those successors, Toni Morrison, stingingly described as "a black literary patrician." He lectured from on high about the art he himself struggled to practice even as he passed harsh judgment on black writers he either feared might eclipse him or who had simply strayed onto what he regarded as his turf. By demeaning those writers, he was turning back the clock to a time when he was still young and productive - and regarded by the white literary establishment as the only black writer who mattered. This posture cut him off from black people in general, and especially from younger black writers who might have shown the way out of the corner into which he had painted himself. Ellison occasionally said his novel, perpetually in progress, was in the home stretch, as he promised in 1994, not long before his death at the age of 80. He was either lying to himself or vamping for time until he could steal away into the grave. Thanks to Arnold Rampersad's illuminating and richly reported new book, "Ralph Ellison: A Biography," we can now see that Ellison had been trapped for decades in a shape-shifting monster of a novel he must have known deep down he would never bring home. Rampersad, a professor of English at Stanford, is uniquely qualified to examine the Ellison case, having brushed up against it while writing his celebrated biography of Langston Hughes, Ellison's onetime friend and mentor. This book places its subject in his historical and literary context and traces Ellison's trajectory from his beginnings in segregated Oklahoma City, where he grew up with American apartheid still firmly in place. Arrogance and hauteur were family traits that burned brightly even in Ellison's aunt Lucretia, who worked as a laundress. His father, Lewis, kept the wolf from the family door by delivering ice and coal in a horsedrawn wagon. He was lifting a large block of ice when it shattered, sending a shard into his stomach. He died at the age of 39, leaving his wife and two children too poor even to bury him. The corpse had begun to rot in the Oklahoma heat by the time Ralph's mother, Ida, found the nursemaid's job that paid for the burial. Ida, who warned her son often against the sin of Ellison pride, later worked as a hotel maid and janitor. The young Ellison endured "years of shabby rented rooms, hand-me-down clothing, second-rate meals, sneers and slights from people better off, and a pinched, scuffling way of life," Rampersad writes. He read widely in high school but performed erratically in the classroom and was in no position to expect entry to college. Even so, he fantasized about attending Harvard or Juilliard and dreamed of becoming a classical composer who would carry black musical idioms into the wider, whiter world and be praised by other blacks "as a credit to the race," Rampersad says. In Riverside Park, Manhattan, July 1986. Below right: in the 1950s. Instead, Ellison became a skilled trumpet player and enrolled as a music student at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Tuskegee, which had been founded as a vocational school for black people, was hardly the perfect place for a budding artist. Nevertheless, Ellison got a job at the campus library and began to read extensively. He read the moderns and was especially attracted to three 19th-century classics, "Crime and Punishment," "Wuthering Heights" and "Jude the Obscure" - each featuring, as Rampersad notes, "a misunderstood young man, ambitious, tormented, transgressive." These books would directly influence "Invisible Man." Mired in a financial crisis, Tuskegee's administration announced that its curriculum would soon revert to its previous "pattern of practical application," that is, to vocational training. It spelled the end of the music school, so in July 1936, Ellison hopped on a bus to New York and landed conveniently at the YMCA on 135th Street - the living room for what remained of the defunct Harlem Renaissance. The very next morning, Rampersad writes, "good luck appeared in the lobby in the persons of Alain Locke and Langston Hughes," poets who both took a nurturing interest in Ellison. So did Richard Wright, the best-known black novelist of the day, and a Communist; he gave Ellison, who likewise flirted with Communism, his first writing assignment, a book review (of a novel) for a radical black publication, New Challenge. Wright also urged Ellison to write his first short story and helped him to get a job with the New York Writers' Project, part of the Federal Works Progress Administration. Hughes and Wright would both receive less than their due in Ellison's account of his rise as a literary man. In less than a decade, Ellison had gone from an aspiring musician who had never published a line to the cusp of creating one of the most important novels of the 20th century. It told a story of a young black man whose experiences - at a Southern college, in Harlem, in and out of the Communist Party - mirrored Ellison's own. Wildly inventive and even hallucinatory at times, "Invisible Man" expanded the sense of what was possible in a novel. It also provided a vivid and original portrait of black American life at the time. But Ellison lost his literary mojo not long after the novel appeared in bookstore windows. He continued to write important essays - some of them included in the well-regarded book "Shadow and Act" - but no second novel appeared. Why? In later years, he would say his new novel, even more ambitious than the first, had been permanently set back when crucial sections of the book were destroyed in a fire at his country house in the Berkshires in 1967. This was untrue. Soon after the blaze, Ellison wrote the critic Nathan Scott that he'd "fortunately had a full copy" of all the work he'd done before that summer," a period in which, Rampersad adds, Ellison had written little. Seven years later, Ellison claimed he'd lost 365 pages, along with subtleties, rhythms and ideas he suspected he might never recover. He bumped up the damage yet again a decade after that, saying he had "lost some 500 pages" in the Berkshire disaster, though he said he "still had another 1,000." The posthumous shadow of a novel, "Juneteenth," was cobbled together from the vast manuscript Ellison left behind and published in 1999. By then, however, people had speculated for decades about what had caused him to break down. The critic Stanley Crouch, a friend of Ellison's, believed he was paralyzed by the belief that he was obligated to produce an epic work. Bellow blamed the professor and critic Stanley Edgar Hyman, who, though he had helped Ellison give shape to "Invisible Man," had also, in Bellow's view, "encouraged Ralph to be ponderous." Rampersad argues that Ellison had begun to lose the way of seeing that had informed "Invisible Man" as early as 1955, in part because he had come to view everyday life through an obscuring thicket of myths, symbols and archetypes. At the same time, Ellison withdrew from the Harlem community that had served as the storehouse of images and energies for the first book. "Ralph talked about the chaos of 125th Street in Harlem, but he was not writing (as he had in parts of 'Invisible Man') as if he were an insider there," Rampersad reports. Indeed, because of "a growing distance between himself and the black social reality about him," he "was finding it hard to turn that reality into fiction" of any kind. As the decades wore on, with no second novel written, he seemed ever more protective of his position as the ranking black novelist of the day and as the only black person in whatever room he happened to be standing in at the time. After he was elected to the Century Association, the venerable Manhattan club that had made him its first black member in 1964, he opposed the admission of women and seemed, Rampersad observes, "almost as opposed, in practice, to admitting other blacks." HE could be damaging even to black writers he claimed to like. The poisonous letter of recommendation he wrote in support of James Alan McPherson's candidacy for a MacArthur Foundation fellowship reminds one of Saturn devouring one of his children. Baroque in tone but unerringly nasty, the letter resembled a similar one written for the narrator of "Invisible Man" by Dr. Bledsoe, the head of the all-black Southern school that the narrator attends before he is cast out and starts on his journey to New York. Persuaded he is the most significant and most qualified Negro alive, Bledsoe is loath to see his authority diminished by garden-variety Negroes. "I didn't make" the world, he tells the narrator. "But I've made my place in it and I'll have every Negro in the country hanging on tree limbs by morning if it means staying where I am." Most readers see Bledsoe as an unalloyed villain. Ellison viewed him as "the epitome of Negro psychological and even spiritual ingenuity in response to white terror." This appraisal explains a good deal about Ellison's behavior toward other black people during his lifetime, but especially near the end, when he was trying to remain central in a world that was rapidly passing him by. Ellison was trapped in a shape-shifting monster of a novel he must have known deep down he would never bring home. Brent Staples writes editorials on politics and culture for The Times and is the author of "Parallel Time," a memoir.
Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [October 27, 2009]
Review by Choice Review
Review by New York Times Review