The Magazine

Artist as Hero

Ralph Ellison, indivisible man.

Jun 18, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 38 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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Ralph Ellison

A Biography

by Arnold Rampersad

Knopf, 672 pp., $35

The novelist Ralph Ellison grew up, poor and black and (past the age of three) fatherless, in Oklahoma City under the reign of Jim Crow. After working at various servile jobs, he was able to scrimp up enough money to go off--riding the rails, hobo-fashion, to get there--to Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. His first ambition was to become a composer of classical music; he also played trumpet. At Tuskegee he was stymied by lack of funds and a homosexual dean of students who made life difficult for him. He did encounter a few gifted teachers at Tuskegee and a librarian who befriended him and introduced him to the great modernist writers: T.S. Eliot, André Malraux, James Joyce, and William Faulkner were the main figures in his literary pantheon.

Departing Tuskegee without a degree, Ellison moved to New York in the middle of the Depression, where he fell in with men and women connected to the Communist party. He was befriended by Langston Hughes and Richard Wright, both of whom turned his ambitions away from music, and a passing interest in sculpture, and onto literature. He wrote journalism and criticism for The New Masses and other party publications. But literature for Ellison meant the novel. After publishing a number of short stories, he worked for more than seven years on Invisible Man, which he published in 1952, at the age of 39. Invisible Man was the one novel he would complete in his life, a book that was immediately recognized as the powerful and subtle and richly complex work that it is. The novel lent him renown of a kind that he was able to live off for the remainder of his life (he died in 1994, at the age of 81).

The fame of Invisible Man brought Ralph Ellison lucrative university jobs (with little teaching required), gave him an allure as a candidate for membership on boards of various nonprofit organizations from the early National Council on the Arts to the founding of public television to the Williamsburg Foundation. In good part, his attractiveness to the people who made such appointments was that, during the most feverish days of the civil rights movement, he refused to conduct himself as angry or in any way as a victim. Instead, Ellison relentlessly insisted on the complexity of Negro (a word he took and used as an honorific) experience in a pluralist America he hoped would continue along an integrationist path.

Although Ralph Ellison had all the accoutrements of literary and intellectual success--those boards, lots of honorary degrees and other awards, high lecture fees and other emoluments that fall into the laps of the famous--his was far from a happy life. Because of his stand on racial matters, he was often under attack by militant younger blacks, who accused him of being a sellout, calling him an Uncle Tom; in their view he was, as sixties radicals liked to say, part of the problem.

Then there was the blasted question of the second novel, the novel to follow Invisible Man that, like Godot, was long awaited but never arrived. (Some of the parts were assembled after his death by his literary executor and editor, a man named John F. Callahan, to form a disappointing book called Juneteenth.) Invisible Man was Ralph Ellison's first extended work of fiction; Invisible Novel might cruelly be said to be his second. His inability to complete this book had to have been a crushing weight on Ellison, as an artist and as a man.

So what looked from the distance to be a charmed life was, viewed from closer up, a complicated, in some ways even a quite sad, life. But possibly the saddest thing to have happened to Ralph Ellison came after he died, when the assignment of writing his biography was given to Arnold Rampersad. The author of two previous biographies--one of Jackie Robinson, another of Langston Hughes--Rampersad is an academic (a teacher at Princeton, now at Stanford), a writer one thinks of as reverential and hence quite uncritical toward his subjects. But in Ralph Ellison, far from being reverential or uncritical, he is unrelenting in the persistence of his pinpoint attacks on his subject's character and politics and highly critical of much of his writing, only rarely giving his subject the least hint of the benefit of any possible doubt.