Ralph Ellison began his life in Oklahoma in 1913, an area far removed from the cultural changes happening in America and an area that, despite its promise of a new life, still held blacks in the throes of Jim Crow racism. As a child, Ralph desired more from the America he grew to love and respect, and he would reach new heights through an unwavering love for the arts, especially jazz; he saw musicians like Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington as heroes because they made it into the heart of American society, despite their skin color (later, in his novel Invisible Man, Ellison’s unnamed narrator would also find solace in Armstrong’s music).
Ralph would eventually get there. His life ended in 1994 as a man who overcame odds against him as a kid to become a literary icon whose novel Invisible Man is still revered today. He was a man who always set the bar high, and despite accomplishing much in his life, he never finished the second novel he always promised would be a novel about the African-American experience that would rival Faulkner and Melville. In many ways, Invisible Man became that novel, and Ellison’s short stories, essays and literary criticism would become standards for reading America and American literature.
It was the second novel that would always weigh on Ellison’s mind. With his heightened expectations, the novel would fall under the weight of prestige and fame. Ellison also became the victim of time, and the longer he waited to bring his novel out, the more America–and, therefore, Ellison’s expectations of America–changed. He would blame everything from writer’s block “as big as the Ritz,” the changing cultural expectations of black writers, and a house fire in 1967 that Ellison claimed destroyed the majority of his novel.
In Ralph Ellison: A Biography by Arnold Rampersad, the myths surrounding Ellison is finally rebuffed. Rampersad’s biography digs deep into every event surrounding Ellison’s career, and strikes a balance between his personal demons and his public persona without placing the writer on a pedestal. Ellison is shown not only as an intelligent voice for his generation, but also as a man prone to anger and a man who stubbornly stuck to what he knew to be true.
Rampersad begins his story by looking into Ellison’s tumultuous childhood in the segregated Oklahoma City, where his mother raised him and his younger brother Herbert with the help of neighbors and friends (his father died early in Ellison’s life when a shard of ice stabbed him in the stomach after lifting a block of ice). He recalls the difficulties of Jim Crow in Oklahoma; at one point, Ellison’s mother was turned away from the city zoo with both her sons, embarrassed by the white security guard. Rampersad does not just focus on Ellison’s career, but shows how Ellison’s early years helped shape his literature.
When Ellison grows up and heads to college, Rampersad shows a life that closely reflected Ellison’s fiction, especially his most famous novel Invisible Man. Ellison’s time at Tuskegee, and his reasons for leaving the institution, shape how the narrator of Invisible Man will form his own identity. Rampersad sweats the small details, showing the progression Ellison took as he moved to Harlem in the 1930’s and became a writer. Writers such as Langston Hughes and Richard Wright directly influenced Ellison’s desire to write a great novel, even though Ellison would later distance himself from these writers due to his changing political beliefs. Rampersad also tracks Ellison’s political evolution, from Communist sympathizer in the 1930’s to moderate Democrat in the 1960’s and beyond. In Invisible Man, Ellison’s narrator would make a similar political change, albeit on a smaller level. Indeed, Ellison’s fiction was often closely linked to his own changes.
Rampersad’s exhaustive research also reveals a man who was prone to arrogance and, as a result, was often viewed as out of touch with modern American literature, especially in the ever changing 1960’s. While Ellison worked night and day on the novel that would rival Faulkner (that he ultimately never finished), a new perspective on race relations, especially among blacks, emerged. Ellison was stuck between two conflicting worlds: a white America that accepted Ellison and allowed him to move up in society, and a black America that accused Ellison of being an “Uncle Tom.” Ellison never backed down; despite younger writers seeing him as out of touch with the struggles of the modern world, Ellison always believed that race relations were more complex than black versus white, and that African-American culture was distinctly American. As he aged and black radicalism subsided, many young scholars turned back to Ellison’s words, and his view of America endures today.
Perhaps the most interesting section of Rampersad’s biography is his mention of the 1967 fire that destroyed Ellison’s Plainfield, Mass. estate. What is interesting about this event is how minor it truly was. As Ellison continued to labor away with his novel-in-progress, he would claim to those who asked him that most of it was destroyed in the fire, and therefore spent years trying to re-write the novel from memory. The truth, according to Rampersad, was that Ellison lost only a small portion of the novel, since most of the novel was left at his home in Harlem. The novel was never finished or published during his lifetime because Ellison fell under the weight of it, as it grew to be well over 1,000 pages long without any real direction. Later, a portion of the novel would become Juneteenth, published posthumously (the rest of the novel is supposed to be published later this year).
Rampersad ends his biography with Ellison’s 1994 death. Suffering from pancreatic cancer, Ellison went peacefully at his Harlem apartment. While listening to a Louis Armstrong song, Ellison signaled to his wife Fanny that the song was perfect, suggesting that Ellison, even on his deathbed, still regarded jazz as one of the most important experiences of his American adventure.
Ralph Ellison: A Biography is an excellent look at a man and a career that, despite its ups and downs, deserves respect. Although he faced his critics (sometimes head on) with a bullish attitude, it was done because of his true belief that America would endure. Although he never finished the second novel he always promised, Invisible Man and his collections of literary and cultural criticism have become classics. Rampersad’s exhaustive research leaves nothing behind, revealing a conflicted man who still knew what he ultimately wanted, an integrated America that recognized a multiplicity of views, and in many ways, he got just that.
Originally published at Blogcritics.org: http://blogcritics.org/archives/2008/02/21/144546.php