Ralph Ellison by Arnold Rampersad
Novel & Novelist
by Arnold Rampersad
Knopf. 657 pp. $35.00.
There are no second acts in American lives, the meteoric F. Scott Fitzgerald observed, lamenting his own fleeting glory and prolonged desuetude. Arnold Rampersad reflects on that remark in his new biography of the writer Ralph Ellison, whose 1952 debut novel Invisible Man made him the most visible black artist in American history, but who spent the rest of his life trying and failing to complete a second novel that would outshine the first. Rampersad, a Stanford English professor best known for his two-volume biography of the poet Langston Hughes, has written a distinguished but unforgiving life of Ellison, in which his second-act failures as man and artist weigh rather more heavily than his sterling success.
Ralph Waldo Ellison—the high-toned literary name would dog him until he finally grew into it—was born in Oklahoma City in 1913. His father, a coal and ice delivery man, died when Ralph was three, and the family would struggle thereafter to make ends meet. From the age of twelve Ralph worked as a boot black, bread-and-butter boy, and short-order cook, but even in the Jim Crow world of Oklahoma he dreamed of great things. As he would write in the introduction to Shadow and Act, his 1964 essay collection:
We felt, among ourselves at least, that we were supposed to be whoever we would and could be and do anything and everything which other boys did, and do it better. Not defensively, because we were ordered to do so; nor because it was held in the society at large that we were naturally, as Negroes, limited—but because we demanded it of ourselves. . . . Hence it was no more incongruous, as seen from our particular perspective in this land of incongruities, for young Negro Oklahomans to project themselves as Renaissance Men than for white Mississippians to see themselves as ancient Greeks or noblemen out of Sir Walter Scott.
The young Renaissance man believed his future lay in music, as a classical composer. Short on money, he hopped freights like a hobo to get to the Tuskegee Institute in rural Alabama, where he was sure his talents would blossom. But despite one nourishing friendship and the benefits of a good library, he found Tuskegee a disappointment—a homosexual dean hounded him, and evidently exacted sexual favors—and he headed off to New York without taking a degree.
New York was the place he had been made for. At the YMCA he met Langston Hughes, who befriended him instantly, lending him novels by André Malraux, taking him to a party at Duke Ellington’s. He found work as a receptionist for the noted psychiatrist Harry Stack Sullivan, dabbled in sculpture, haunted the used-book stores, learned about leftist politics. The black Communist writer Richard Wright convinced him to try writing a short story for the magazine New Challenge; the story, based on Ellison’s experience riding the rails to Tuskegee, was accepted, but the magazine folded before it could be published.
When Ellison’s mother died in Dayton, Ohio—a doctor had misdiagnosed her tuberculosis of the hip, enraging Ellison at what Rampersad calls “black bourgeois incompetence”—he lived there for several months with his mentally slow brother, Herbert, sleeping in a friend’s car in the dead of winter. But he had begun to write in earnest, and when he returned to New York—he left Herbert behind, and would not see him again for 26 years—it was with a new resolve. “workers of the world must write!!!” he declared in a note to Wright.
He caught on as a reviewer, essayist, and fiction writer for New Masses, and soon the Communist literary world, smiling upon his boilerplate, saw him as Wright’s successor. Stalinist claptrap beguiled him; he clung to the party line as if by suction, defending the Moscow show trials (a just response to “wide-spread sabotage and wrecking”), the party’s proposal to establish an autonomous black state in the American South, and Stalin’s 1939 pact with Hitler. Only in 1941, when the wartime Nazi peril to the Soviet Union prompted the party to court the white Southern masses and ignore black civil rights, did Ellison finally break with Communism.
He probably started Invisible Man in July 1945. “The break with the [Communist party] has allowed me to come alive,” he told Wright. Jazz, the blues, and the work of European writers like Kafka were, according to Rampersad, the new life-giving influences on Ellison’s art. Excerpts from the novel began appearing in esteemed literary journals in 1947, but Ellison’s ambition was to produce the best book he could, which made the writing a slow and painstaking process. When the result was finally published in 1952, it was abundantly clear that the pains had been worth it.
Most white reviewers of Invisible Man, including Delmore Schwartz, Irving Howe, and Saul Bellow (writing in COMMENTARY), were emphatically praiseful. The National Book Award for fiction, conferred by a panel that included Bellow, Howe, and Alfred Kazin, who preferred Ellison’s novel to Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea and John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, certified the triumph. Black reviewers, however, composed dire rants, accusing Ellison of moral hate crimes against his own people. (A dissenter from the chorus was Richard Wright: “You’ve entered the ranks of literature,” he enthused in a letter, “and there is no doubt about it.”)
In writing Invisible Man, Ellison drew on his experiences of Jim Crow Oklahoma, Tuskegee, Harlem, and Communist politics. In the characteristic manner of the Bildungsroman, or novel of education, the book demonstrates the many ways a serious man must go wrong before he can manage to find his true course. It takes the narrator from the humiliations of the racist South, where as a boy he participates in an especially vicious free-for-all boxing match with other black youths for the entertainment of the town’s white grandees; to his beloved college, from which he is expelled for taking a white trustee to visit an incestuous sharecropper and his family, the shame of all respectable black folk; and to Harlem, where a spontaneous tirade at white injustice leads for a time to a leftist political career.
The narrator shares the common condition of American blacks in that era, and to a degree perhaps in our own:
I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. . . . When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination—indeed, everything and anything except me.
But his most desperate plight is that, for much of the book, he is invisible to himself. Only by a series of jolts does he become aware that he possesses a true self, which his upbringing has occluded. A revelation comes when he joyfully eats a bunch of hot buttered yams on a Harlem street corner—the kind of food, like chitterlings and pig’s ears, he has been taught to despise as unbefitting a Negro of refinement. “What and how much had I lost by trying to do only what was expected of me instead of what I myself had wished to do?” The question of appropriate sustenance then swells into the largest human questions: who am I, and how am I to live?
These questions the novel will leave unanswered. More serious trials lie in store, particularly to do with the Brotherhood, an organization essentially indistinguishable from the Communist party whose magniloquent stooge the hero becomes, and from which he breaks in the end. But even in the end he is still unfree and unfinished, finding refuge in a literally underground existence.
Invisible Man undoubtedly belongs among the outstanding American novels of the past century. To surpass or even to equal such an achievement was a tall order, and, try as he might, Ellison was never up to the task. Two-thousand manuscript pages yielded only an unvanquished behemoth, of which a fragment was published posthumously as Juneteenth, a dog’s banquet of (as Norman Podhoretz has pointed out) spurious Faulknerian eloquence.
To fill the void of this uncompleted work, Ellison drank, cheated on his beautiful and heroically loving second wife, and brawled—verbally, at least by his own account, though he was known to tell literary enemies he carried a knife. James Baldwin, whom he treated with contempt, called him the angriest man he knew. Ishmael Reed, whose 1972 novel Mumbo Jumbo celebrates the joyous spontaneity of black culture, violated Ellison’s stricture that cultural achievement can only be the result of iron discipline, wresting order from chaos. At an American Academy of Arts and Letters ceremony where Reed was honored, Ellison shouted at the young pretender, “Ishmael Reed! Ishmael Reed! You’re nothing but a gangster and a con artist!”
Ellison tended to give the back of his hand to younger black writers who sought him out; he lived at a level they could not hope to reach. Instead, he became a member of the white liberal establishment, serving on a long list of boards, panels, and commissions and occupying the most prestigious and lucrative professorial chair at New York University. He prided himself on remaining a Negro when the preferred term became black, which to his nose carried an unsavory whiff of radical ideology.
Nobly, and with consummate prudence, Ellison reviled the black separatists of the 1960’s and 70’s, and revered the integrationist Lyndon Johnson. In 1963, he engaged in serious intellectual dispute with Irving Howe, who had championed Richard Wright’s 1940 novel Native Son at Ellison’s expense, and to whom Ellison responded with disdain as one among other “sociology-oriented critics” oblivious to literary excellence and the autonomy of the imagination. But over time he would become more indiscriminate and self-contradictory in his choice of enemies and friends. He attacked noted COMMENTARY writers as “new apologists for segregation”; found Ronald Reagan guilty of “dismantling many of the processes and structures that made it possible for me to go from sleeping on a park bench to becoming a writer”; and supported the presidential candidacy of Jesse Jackson.
In the words of the poet Allen Tate, “When the smoke of battle begins to clear, [Ellison] will be there as the authentic culture-hero.” Not everyone would agree—not even, it would seem, his biographer.
Rampersad cites various authorities on the reasons for Ellison’s post-Invisible Man failure. One of them is Toni Morrison, the first black woman Nobel laureate for literature and a novelist whose achievement, in Rampersad’s estimation, has outstripped Ellison’s. In Morrison’s view, “The contemporary world of late 20th-century African Americans was largely inaccessible, or simply uninteresting to [Ellison] as a creator of fiction. For him, in essence, the eye, the gaze of the beholder remained white.” More convincingly, the black critic Stanley Crouch cites Saul Bellow, who told him Ellison was bedeviled and finally overpowered by the “ethnic desire, on behalf of black or Negro people, to have a black writer create literature at the level of Faulkner, Hemingway, or even Melville.”
For his own part, Rampersad tends to combine Morrison’s explanation with Bellow’s. In assessing not only Ellison’s professional life but also his personal life, he comes down hard on the writer’s “punitive reserve with most blacks (whom he associated with poverty and ignorance) and his ambition to scale cultural heights attained thus far, in his opinion, only by whites.”
Rampersad does not say which black writers, in his opinion, have attained the heights of Faulkner and Melville. But when we gauge the relative merits of Invisible Man, a book that many literary types have called the greatest American novel of the half-century from 1950 to 2000, other, nearer touchstones are at hand. Like his narrator/protagonist, Ellison sees his way into the problems of discovering an authentic self, and brilliantly creates a series of traps insidious as quicksand in which the narrator flounders; yet he cannot really see his way out into the light and air where that self may flourish. In this respect, as in others—the relative energy of the prose, abundance of vivid character, sheer brainpower—Invisible Man, while an undeniable literary triumph of the first order, must finally also be judged a lesser work than Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March, which appeared to great acclaim the year after Ellison’s novel.
Ellison died in 1994, and Rampersad makes even his funeral sound like a bitterly exclusive and excluding affair. In his book, this proud, lonely, and angry man certainly gets his comeuppance. Rampersad’s is the first biography of Ellison, and its stylish comprehensiveness pretty much obviates the need for another any time soon. That is all the more reason why one wishes Rampersad had not so clearly diminished Ellison’s splendid first act, an achievement that has yet to be equaled by any other black writer, or indeed by any but the finest writers of any color.