Ralph Ellison: A Biography
by Arnold Rampersad
Knopf, 657 pp., $35.00
Invisible Man has never been out of print. Acclaimed when it appeared in 1952, the novel’s reputation has only risen since. For a long time black audiences could admire this indisputably great work, but were unable to embrace Ralph Ellison, because he seemed so determined to be unavailable to them. In 1953, Ellison received the National Book Award, which gave him one of the worst cases of Negro Firsterism in postwar US history. His time coincided with that of fellow stars of integration, Jackie Robinson and Ralph Bunche and Thurgood Marshall and the astonishing Leontyne Price. Yet Ellison was splendid as a brilliant, boldly pro-American Negro writer who declined to believe that another black person could write or had written a novel as deserving as his of a place in the front rank of modern American literature. He became something of a grand old man early on, while still in his fifties, so hoisted up was he by his literary achievement. He was beautifully dressed, elegant in manner, but a man’s man; someone welcomed in the highest academic circles and sought out by presidents. However, his desire to stand apart from, if not above, other black writers meant that he had to pretend he wasn’t worried some African-American was going to come along and top his performance before he had had the chance to outdo himself.
In Ralph Ellison: A Biography, Arnold Rampersad refers to an article published in Ellison’s lifetime in which he is grouped with Henry Roth and Harper Lee as writers who did not publish a second novel after the tremendous success of their first. But Ellison didn’t decide to give up fiction; his eventual problem was that he couldn’t stop working on his second novel: he kept adding and adding and not letting go. Juneteenth, published posthumously in 1999—Ellison died in 1994—and edited by his able literary executor, John Callahan, is only a portion of the manuscript he left behind. For decades, his second novel was known only through the few chapters that appeared in anthologies or small literary quarterlies. In the interviews that he gave, Ellison himself raised expectations, making his unfinished novel something of a topic, a scandal, on the order of Harold Brodkey’s A Party of Animals. Though his mask was generally flawless, Ellison could be defensive about the work as the years went by, Rampersad reports, and his friends learned not to ask. A certain defensiveness on his behalf seeps into Rampersad’s tone as well after a while, though the aim of his biography is to reconcile Ellison, the cultural conservative, with the black America that came of age in the Sixties, the period he was so out of touch with.
Zora Neale Hurston would have adored knowing his white folks. Rampersad makes it clear that Ellison was very much in step with the white America of the 1960s that asked him to sit on the boards of the Ford Foundation and Colonial Williamsburg. After all, it was he who wanted the country to realize that in essential aspects of life—friendships, language, music, literature—segregation had never been as victorious as everyone else for some reason had said it was. Ellison, a donor to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund most of his adult life, admired Lyndon Johnson as a champion of civil rights, the enforcer of Brown v. Board of Education, and he was in favor of the Vietnam War and some form of mandatory national service.
In other words, Ellison held views common to most middle-class black veterans of World War II at that time, though he certainly did not associate with the black middle class. He was a guest at the White House; he went to Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball. He flourished during the years of Johnson’s Great Society, not only because he was a black intellectual who did not bite white people’s heads off, but also because in sharing the values of the white majority, he went so far as to give what he called the Negro American character credit for the strength of what he described as the nation’s respect for individualism, and he held this ground against all comers. “Our fate is to become one, and yet many.”
Rampersad writes as though the nation has at last caught up with Ellison’s rugged pluralism and now admires the man who stood up against black militants and was vilified for his positions that ran contrary to their anti-establishment, anti-integration mood. Never mind that such confrontations might have been welcome, that the hurt of being misunderstood was also the pain of election. What Ellison was most out of touch with was the freedom of the generation of black writers who emerged as Black Power waned, the generation of Ann Allen Shockley, Toni Morrison, Ishmael Reed, and Charles Johnson, writers who, while opposed to the dogma of the Black Aesthetic—the argument that art by blacks was inherently revolutionary, that it needed to be de-Americanized, was not addressed to whites, and therefore could not be evaluated by white critics—were still more influenced by the rediscovery of a black cultural nationalism that Ellison had no sympathy for. By asserting that their work is all somehow descended from Invisible Man, Rampersad seeks to reconcile Ellison to the black novelists he showed little interest in when they were at the beginning of their writing lives in the 1970s. Meanwhile, although his book was always at the top of lists of the best American novels, not just novels by black writers, the moments in Rampersad’s biography when Ellison feels competitive with a white writer are tellingly few. He once introduced himself as one of Faulkner’s children to Faulkner.
It’s hard to avoid clichés of race psychology when looking back at Ellison, his pride now seems so transparent. The mask was in place so that no one would see that he had suffered; the discipline of his mask was the sign of his triumph over his early suffering. His father died when he was three and embodied for him forever afterward the uncompromising spirit of the black veterans of the Spanish-American War. In his essays, Ellison offers an idealized version of his childhood, stressing the cultural richness of Oklahoma City, where he was born in 1913. He speaks of the social fluidity of his upbringing on a frontier, and of the wide range of music and literature he was exposed to out there in the territory. Unlike Richard Wright, Ellison would not make his poverty a subject, although it was as severe as what Wright had known in Mississippi. According to Rampersad, his mother later told him that his father’s body had begun to rot in the heat before she could find the money to bury him. She went into service, working as a maid or janitor for the rest of her life. She remarried three times. To help out his mother, Ellison took his first job, as a shoeshine boy, at age twelve.
In 1931, after he’d graduated from high school, Ellison hitchhiked forty miles to try to enroll in Langston University, a black school. Langston’s president had been a friend of his father’s, but because Ellison’s family had opposed Bill “Alfalfa” Murray, the racist governor responsible for appointing Langston’s president, he refused to help. Ellison’s desire to be in college was so overwhelming that in 1933 he jumped freight trains to get to the Tuskegee Institute. It was dangerous for young black men to ride the rails in the Depression. In 1931, the nine black youths known as the Scottsboro Boys had been arrested and nearly lynched in Alabama, falsely accused of raping two white girls. But also in 1931, the Philadelphia Orchestra had toured the country, performing William Grant Still’s Afro-American Symphony, and Ellison’s ambition to be a great black composer made him master his fear.
Ellison praised Tuskegee in his essays, but privately he was bitter about his college experience. Rampersad reveals that a dean of students exploited Ellison’s financial desperation and coerced him into sexual acts. Moreover, William Levi Dawson, whom he had come to Tuskegee to study music with and whose “Negro Folk Symphony” Stokowski would conduct in 1934, proved remote as a teacher. Ellison’s money problems never ceased; often he couldn’t afford the extra costs of the music program. He got a job in the library where the young librarian was sympathetic and let him read the copy of Ulysses that Tuskegee kept locked up. He came under the sway of an inspired English teacher and soon placed his hopes in literature. Hard pressed by the Depression, Tuskegee’s administration made plans to cut its music program. In 1936, Ellison left the South for New York, where he would give up music for sculpture before putting both aside for writing. He never returned to Tuskegee to take a degree.
Around the same time, Ellison’s mother was leaving her last husband and Oklahoma for good, settling with Ellison’s younger brother in Dayton, Ohio. The letters between Ellison and his mother that Rampersad quotes from make for sad reading. He held her responsible for the state of his clothes and never showed that he understood what a sacrifice it was for her to send the small sums she did. He was cold to her, perhaps because he couldn’t help her. He forgot her fiftieth birthday; he talked continually about himself. Rampersad says that Ellison loved his mother, but he refused to read between the lines of her brave letters. He arrived in Ohio the day before she died in 1937. “This is the end of childhood for us,” he wrote about himself and his brother. In the winter following her death, they slept for a while in a friend’s Ford and survived on doughnuts and milk that they got on credit. Ellison coped by throwing himself into his work on a novella and short stories.
Back in New York, Ellison found a job with the Federal Writers’ Project and a measure of security. He contributed high-flown Marxist reviews and more relaxed reportage to New Masses, worked in the Daily Worker offices, attended Communist-dominated writers’ conferences. He was being groomed by New Masses to take the place of Richard Wright as the leading black contributor, since Wright was becoming more alienated from the Party the more he found himself as a writer. Ellison stayed loyal, through the Moscow trials, the expulsion of Trotsky, the Hitler–Stalin Pact. “Ralph would remain something of a Stalinist for years to come,” Rampersad writes, and he speculates that Ellison was a Party member. The Party and the Writers’ Project were a continuation of his education, and also provided him with outlets for his writing, even while he, like Wright, continued to read widely and freely.
When Germany invaded the Soviet Union, he didn’t make the switch to the new pro-war line. Because Moscow was more interested in getting the US into the war than it was in battling the race problem in America, New Masses had less use for Ellison and gradually he withdrew from Party activities. Where Wright’s break with the Party was international news, because of his fame, Ellison was scarcely known outside Party circles. His involvement with the Federal Writers’ Project also came to an end. He joined the merchant marine in 1943, but for medical reasons was reclassified as ineligible for service and spent much of the rest of the war haunted by depression.