Ralph Ellison: A Biography

By Arnold Rampersad

(Alfred A.. Knopf, 657 pp., $35)

It is a ritual of American publishing that the distinguishedliterary dead are exhumed three times. First, unfinished drafts,long buried in the drawer or the hard drive, are rushed into print.Second, an official biography exposes the remaining secrets of thegreat writer's life. And third, intimate letters are collected andoffered to a curious public. In 1999, five years after the death ofthe African American novelist and essayist Ralph Ellison frompancreatic cancer at the age of eighty-one, his devoted literaryexecutor patched together the fragments of Ellison's second andendlessly delayed novel, called it Juneteenth, and ushered it intoa brief and anticlimactic shelf life. Now, Arnold Rampersad, theauthor of well-received chronicles of Langston Hughes and JackieRobinson and a biographer of remarkable skill, has completed acrushingly revealing life of Ellison, and done it so well that nofurther such tombstone will be needed. It is only a matter of timebefore Ellison's letters--lively and nasty, judging from theextracts in Rampersad's biography-- will come to light as well. Theauthor of Invisible Man is becoming all too visible.

Exposure, as it happens, is the great theme of Ellison's life andwork. No passage in his exuberant novel is more memorable than itsopening, when the unnamed black narrator (whom Rampersad weirdlyinsists on calling "Invisible," as he calls Ellison "Ralph") hasretreated underground in a "border area" of Harlem. "Now, aware ofmy invisibility, I live rent-free in a building rented strictly towhites, in a section of the basement that was shut off andforgotten during the nineteenth century." The narrator, aself-styled "thinker- tinker" in the line of Ford, Edison, andFranklin, siphons off electricity from Monopolated Light & Power."My hole is warm and full of light," he writes. "Yes, full oflight. I doubt if there is a brighter spot in all New York thanthis hole of mine, and I do not exclude Broadway. Or the EmpireState Building on a photographer's dream night. But that is takingadvantage of you. Those two spots are among the darkest of ourwhole civilization." He lights his lair with 1,369 lights--"notwith fluorescent bulbs, but with the older, more-expensive-to-operate kind."

All the flashbulbs went on at once when Invisible Man won theNational Book Award in 1953, beating out Steinbeck's East of Edenand Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea. The judges could hardlyhave been better stacked in Ellison's favor. Saul Bellow, AlfredKazin, and Irving Howe--all three of whom were eager to deal a blowto the old dispensation--gave him a majority of the five votes, anda trade editor concurred. (Howard Mumford Jones, a Harvard professorand the lone dissenter, voted for Hemingway, who had to settle forthe Nobel Prize the following year.) A major work of literature isso unlikely an event under the best of circumstances that it isalmost pointless to count the potential obstacles to its creation.And yet it is hard not to feel that the National Book Award wasmore a curse than a blessing for Ellison, increasing theexpectations for a second novel that might top the considerableachievement of the first.

There is a poignant passage in Ellison's fine essay on CharlieParker, "On Bird, Bird-Watching, and Jazz," which appeared tenyears into the wait for what he called his "novel-in-progress (verylong in progress)." Mulling over the strange spectacle of Parker'sefforts to hold it together onstage despite his spiraling descentinto drugs and mental instability, Ellison sums up the strangeallure of self-exposure:

While he slowly died (like a man dismembering himself with a dullrazor on a spotlighted stage) from the ceaseless conflict fromwhich issued both his art and his destruction, his public reactedas though he were doing much the same thing as those saxophonistswho hoot and honk and roll on the floor. In the end he had noprivate life and his most tragic moments were drained of humansignificance.

That last sentence--a death sentence--is painfully appropriate forEllison's own career. For as he achieved increasing exposure on thespotlighted stage, Ellison's imaginative hoard seemed to shrink,like Balzac's wish-granting wild ass's skin, down to nothingness.

Ralph Waldo Ellison was born in 1913 in Oklahoma City. The name, thetime, and the place all came to seem auspicious. Ellison's father,who migrated from South Carolina and worked in the building tradesin the new land of opportunity of Oklahoma, named his son afterEmerson. "After I began to write and work with words," Ellisonlater reflected, "I came to suspect that he was aware of thesuggestive powers of names and of the magic involved in naming." TheArmory Show, when modern art first came to America, was held in NewYork in 1913, introducing Duchamp, Matisse, and Picasso to Americanartists and writers still in thrall to realism. And Oklahoma, theold Indian Territory that became a state in 1907, was as ethnicallydiverse as New York City. Part black, part white, and "a wee bitCreek," Ellison tenaciously held on to the mixed strains of hisorigins.

Ellison was three when his father died in a freak accident: ahundred-pound piece of ice that he was carrying slipped andperforated his stomach. Ellison's mother, who worked as a janitorand hotel maid, could barely support Ellison and his slow-wittedbrother, and relied on the charity of friends. In addition tochurch and school, there was another significant institution for theblacks of Oklahoma City: the dance hall. Ellison grew up knowingthe innovative jazz guitarist Charlie Christian, a classmate of hisbrother's, and the gorgeous voice of the local singer JimmyRushing; he later wrote movingly about them both. Ralph's owntalents as a musician, on trumpet and piano, were recognized early.He hopped freight trains to travel to Booker T. Washington'sTuskegee Institute in Alabama; there he studied composition andplayed first trumpet in the school orchestra.

Disappointed with the response of the music teachers at Tuskegee, hestrayed into literature. "Three novels above all gripped Ralph,"Rampersad reports: Crime and Punishment, Wuthering Heights, andJude the Obscure. Extreme mental states are at the heart of allthree novels, as well as, in Rampersad's words, "a misunderstoodyoung man, ambitious, tormented, transgressive." Among Ellison'sown torments at Tuskegee--a school where one found, as he wrote inInvisible Man, "shoes shined, minds laced up"--were the unwelcomeadvances of the dean of men, one of the factors that contributed tohis abrupt departure, without a degree, in 1936.

Ellison, who had earlier hoped to go to Juilliard, headed for theHarlem YMCA instead, where, by a stroke of good luck, the poetLangston Hughes also happened to be staying. Hughes gave him a copyof Malraux's Man's Fate, generous encouragement, and some personaladvice: "Be nice to people and let them pay for meals." Ellison,who had taken art classes at Tuskegee, tracked down the young blacksculptor Richmond Barthe, becoming his first pupil and then hisroommate in an apartment in Greenwich Village. It was throughBarthe that Ellison got a job for five months as a receptionist forthe pioneering psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Harry Stack Sullivan,who placed particular emphasis on interpersonal relationships."Under his quiet questioning I learned to relax and talk quitefreely," Ellison wrote, though he suspected "that my real functionat lunchtime was to break some of his loneliness."

Hughes, Barthe, and Sullivan were gay. "A curious aspect of Ralph'slife that vital fall, given his critical although tolerant attitudeto male homosexuality," Rampersad remarks, "was that he was workingfor a gay or bisexual man and living with one who was openly gay."Rampersad seems confident that Ellison's relations with Sullivanwere "almost certainly circumspect," and Ellison himself claimedthat Hughes "never once revealed" his homosexuality in hispresence. With Barthe, however, of whom Ellison had nothing to sayin later life, things "might have been more complicated" andEllison may have "had something sexual to hide."

If Barthe offered Ellison entry into the gay world of GreenwichVillage, Richard Wright introduced him to a different"brotherhood," the term Ellison used for the Communist Party-likeinstitution in Invisible Man. It was Wright, a formidableintellectual presence, who steered Ellison toward his first writingassignments with leftist magazines such as New Challenge and NewMasses. Rampersad gives a scrupulous account of Ellison'sinvolvement with the radical left. Though he seems never to haveformally joined the Communist Party, Ellison was for a time an avidfellow traveler--his copy of a communist pamphlet is inscribed"Your comrade, Mike Gold"--and he tried unsuccessfully to join theAbraham Lincoln Brigade fighting Franco's forces in Spain. Heremained a staunch supporter of the Soviet Union until 1942, whenhe followed Wright out of the party over its refusal to oppose JimCrow laws. As his ardor for collective solutions cooled, Ellisonadopted a half-joking new motto: "Workers of the world mustwrite."

It was at Wright's urging that Ellison first tried writing fiction,using his experience hopping freight trains to Tuskegee as rawmaterial. The first story he wrote, heavily indebted to Hemingwayand Sherwood Anderson, was called "Hymie's Bull." Narrated by ablack hobo, it tells of his terror when "an ofay bum named Hymiefrom Brooklyn" kills a member of the sadistic railroad securitydetail (the "bulls"). "Is Hymie Jewish?" Rampersad asks withoutventuring an answer. "If so, why?" I would think that the answer tothe first question is obvious, but not the second--solidarity,perhaps, between black and Jewish victims, but then why the ethnicslur? One of Rampersad's surprising revelations is that Ellison hada comfortable command of Yiddish, having picked it up, apparently,from clients of his mother's in Oklahoma City.

Ellison shared Wright's scorn for most African Americanintellectuals and cultural leaders, finding in them a "mammy-madeprovincialism." Rampersad believes this attitude was firstliberating and then crippling: "That critical instinct freed him toascend, without inhibition, the heights of the Euro- Americanartistic and intellectual tradition (but it may well have been adecisive factor in his eventual decline as an artist, because ittook a toll on his imagination and morale)." Ellison found theliterary provocation that he needed in Malraux, Dostoevsky's NotesFrom Underground, and Eliot's "The Waste Land." He discerned inEliot and Joyce, and in the work of the critic Kenneth Burke, a newway to think of the "folk" materials in black life, and how theyhad served, in Burke's phrase, as "equipment for living" duringdifficult times.

The blues, Ellison wrote in a review of Wright's Black Boy, "is animpulse to keep the painful details and episodes of brutalexperience alive in one's aching consciousness, to finger itsjagged grain, and to transcend it, not by the consolation ofphilosophy but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near- comiclyricism." Determined to write something that would appeal tosophisticated readers of all races and nationalities, Ellison wantedto write of the resilience of black experience as somehowrepresentative of American existence as a whole. The transitionfrom feudal life to industrialism, experienced by every blackperson who had migrated north, including himself, seemedtypical--on a more drastic scale--of modern life generally.

It was during the 1940s that Ellison began to formulate his bedrockconvictions about race in America, ideas that would undergird boththe novel that he planned to write and his mature essays. The firstconviction, drawn from his memories of Oklahoma, was that black andwhite culture were so inextricably intertwined that it wasinaccurate to speak of one apart from the other. Giving full honorto his middle name, Ellison persuaded himself that the classicpre-Civil War writers of New England shared this view of thecentrality of the fate of blacks in the larger fate of the nation,what Ellison called "the total implication of Negro life in theUnited States." Ellison had little use for abolitionist writerssuch as Garrison or Whittier or Stowe; he was after aestheticpower, not just progressive views on race. He drew from Melville'sambivalent novella Benito Cereno an epigraph for Invisible Man:"'You are saved,' cried Captain Delano, more and more astonished andpained; 'you are saved: what has cast such a shadow upon you?'" Heexpected readers to know the Spanish captain's traumatized answer:"The negro."

After the abandonment of Reconstruction, in Ellison's view, writersfollowed legislators in suppressing the tragic nature of blackexperience. With a few significant exceptions--Mark Twain, StephenCrane, William Faulkner--American literature became morallyimpoverished in its flight from representing a racially mixedsociety. Hemingway, Ellison's idol turned bete noire (or beteblanche), had narrowed the moral reach of his fiction by purging itof black experience--Huck without Jim. Hemingway's obsession withbullfighting was, in Ellison's interesting formulation, a displacedresponse to racial violence in America. "Otherwise he might havestudied that ritual of violence closer to home, that ritual inwhich the sacrifice is that of a human scapegoat, the lynchingbee." The challenge for black writers, he argued in a famousexchange with Irving Howe, was not to erect a freestanding blackliterature, but rather to restore to American literature its moraland cultural "complexity," a favorite word of Ellison's.

All these ideas went into the writing of Invisible Man. Everyoneknows that the best writing in the book comes in the first twohundred pages, when the narrator introduces himself in his clean,well-lighted place underground, then takes us back to thehumiliations of his southwestern childhood, his time in a southernblack college modeled on Tuskegee, and the shock of his arrival inNew York City. These sections recapitulate Ellison's own trajectorywith a hallucinatory admixture of surrealism and dream, while alsotracking the epic migration of rural blacks to the northerncities.

The section in which the narrator is asked to drive the visitingwhite trustee named Norton into the Alabama countryside has anextraordinary tragicomic charge. They encounter a blacksharecropper named Trueblood with two women, his wife and hisdaughter, the latter of whom he has made pregnant. Truebloodexplains at ingenious length how this came about: "The gal looksjust like the ole lady did when she was young and I first met her,only better lookin'. You know, we gittin' to be a better-lookin'race of people." Norton is so horrified to discover such a fateamong the blacks he has sought to lift up that he becomescatatonic. The narrator takes him to a speakeasy ironically calledthe Golden Day (the title of Lewis Mumford's book on Emerson,Thoreau, and other classic American writers), peopled byshell-shocked vets and whores from New Orleans; things get rapidlyworse. In later chapters, the relentless urban imagery of subwayand skyscraper, crowds and riots, becomes monotonous, and oneceases to care whether the narrator's allegiances tilt towards theBrotherhood or the Marcus Garvey-like Ras the Destroyer.

Unlike many biographers, Rampersad can do his own literarycriticism, and he is an astute reader of Invisible Man. He is rightthat Ellison's terrific essay "Harlem Is Nowhere" is an excellentguide for the novel. That essay, unpublished until 1964, when itwas included in Ellison's landmark collection Shadow and Act, wasoriginally written to accompany photographs by Gordon Parks, at atime when Ellison himself was doing serious professional work inportrait photography. The essay explores a neighborhood inhabitedby people for whom it was possible literally "to step fromfeudalism into the vortex of industrialism simply by moving acrossthe Mason-Dixon line." While the results of the move could beheartening--"Here a former cotton picker develops the sensitivehands of a surgeon, and men whose grandparents still believe inmagic prepare optimistically to become atomic scientists"--theycould also be devastating in "a world so fluid and shifting":

Hence the most surreal fantasies are acted out upon the streets ofHarlem; a man ducks in and out of traffic shouting and throwingimaginary grenades that actually exploded during World War I; a boyparticipates in the rape-robbery of his mother; a man beating hiswife in a park uses boxing "science" and observes Marquess ofQueensberry rules (no rabbit punching, no blows beneath the belt);two men hold a third while a lesbian slashes him to death with arazor blade?.

It is this kind of surrealism of the quotidian that Ellison capturedin the best sections of Invisible Man. Reading the novel today, oneis reminded less of Wright's Dreiser-inspired naturalism than ofCeline or Nathanael West. In his essay "Change the Joke and Slipthe Yoke," Ellison commented that the narrator's mode in InvisibleMan is "confession, not concealment." The polyphonic and oneirictexture of the novel recalls "confessional" poetry such as the"dream songs" of Ellison's fellow Oklahoman and almost exactcontemporary John Berryman, which also take their inspiration from amixture of white and black voices. Despite Ellison's sneeringremarks about the Beats ("They have strange problems in bed"),Invisible Man--"one long, loud rant, howl and laugh," according toEllison"--also resembles Allen Ginsberg's long poem "Howl," from1956, in its attempted fusion of jazz and European intellectualculture.

Fatherless, without a college degree, and wearing his failure at asecond novel like a scarlet letter of shame, Ellison, who stammeredwhen he was nervous, concealed his "almost leprous insecurity"behind a dignified and increasingly pompous facade. He was touchyand testy and quick to take offense, often when none was intended.He left dinner parties in a huff, leaving the puzzled guests toguess at what stray remark had so grievously wounded him. When hedrank heavily, which he did often, his suppressed belligerencebroke out in frightening ways; he was reputed to carry a knife. "Hewas ready to fight, to come to blows," wrote his friend AlbertMurray. "You really didn't want to mess with Ralph Ellison."Sharing Bellow's decrepit mansion near Bard College in 1961,Ellison was outraged when Bellow allowed as how Ellison's pedigreedblack Labrador retriever, Tuckatarby of Tivoli, might be persuadednot to shit on the carpets. Indignant, Ellison complained to JohnCheever, who, as Rampersad wryly remarks, "perhaps noted the ironyof a black man complaining to a WASP that their friend, a Jew, didnot appreciate purity of blood--in a dog."

After the success of Invisible Man, Ellison sought elite refugeswhere he could nourish in safety his own sense of billowingprestige. He spent two years at the American Academy in Rome, wherehe began forging friendships with Robert Penn Warren and AllenTate--both southerners who had repudiated their former allegianceto segregation but shared his aristocratic sense of the disruptionsof the rural American South. Back in New York, he lobbied hard to beaccepted into the Century Club, and then lobbied just as hard tokeep women out of it. During the 1960s, a decade of extraordinarypublic recognition for Ellison, he served on powerful committees inWashington and had a role in the founding of the National Endowmentfor the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and PublicBroadcasting. He was so grateful to another southern white man,Lyndon Johnson, for his patronage that he wrote an admiring essaycalled "The Myth of the Flawed Southerner." He could never bringhimself to oppose the Vietnam War, and sounded a theme familiar tothis day: "We have certain responsibilities to the Vietnamese andthe structure of power in the world." He supported Johnson'sprotege Hubert Humphrey instead of Robert Kennedy. Increasingly thetarget of militant blacks--he considered Black Power the flipsideof white supremacy--he broke down sobbing when he was accused ofbeing an Uncle Tom.

Ellison was lucky in his marriage to a professional woman willing tosupport him financially and emotionally while his own career waslimping along. Fanny McConnell Ellison, trained as an actress andarts administrator, was attractive and articulate and popular withEllison's white friends. Ellison, who retained a document from theMargaret Sanger Research Bureau testifying that his semen was"normal in every respect," never let her forget her failure to bearhim a child. What pleasure he took in other women was in confessinghis own often paltry transgressions to his long-suffering wife. Themarriage almost foundered when he insisted, after an affair with ayounger married woman in Rome, on conveying to Fanny every intimatedetail.

What does all this matter if the work was good? From kindredhumiliations, transgressions, aristocratic pretensions, andconsumption of alcohol, Faulkner wrote novel after great novel.Holed up in Oxford, Mississippi, where his local pomposities had asmaller stage and an audience less eager to expose his personalfailings, Faulkner got his work done. Rampersad has written neitheran attack nor an apologia, and he weighs the evidence withimpressive impartiality. He admires Invisible Man and the lyricalessays, and finds virtue in the integrity and the consistency ofEllison's political views, especially his commitment to interracialdemocracy and his optimism about the resilience of black culturalforms. He makes no effort to defend Ellison's hysterical oppositionto bebop and other forms of modern jazz ("castrated and flat ?gutless and homo"), his "muted" response to Martin Luther KingJr.'s assassination, or his stinginess and even outright hostilityto younger black writers.

In perhaps his most significant critical judgment of Ellison as aliterary figure, Rampersad regards him as finally a regionalwriter, in the sense in which Twain and Faulkner were rooted in aparticular region. Ellison never put down emotional roots in NewYork; his consistent view remained that "Harlem Is Nowhere." Bitinginto a buttered yam in a Harlem street, the narrator of InvisibleMan, overcome by homesickness and "an intense feeling of freedom,"has a delirious moment reminiscent of Proust's madeleine: "It wasexhilarating. I no longer had to worry about who saw me or aboutwhat was proper. To hell with all that."

The further in time and space that Ellison traveled from Oklahoma,the slimmer became his gift. The failure of acknowledgment that heaccused white society of inflicting on blacks (the ostensiblesubject of his second novel) was precisely what he ultimatelyinflicted on the embarrassments of his own childhood. In hispreference for the respect of the wealthy and powerful, he wasguilty of a version of white flight; for him, as Toni Morrisonwrote, "the gaze of the beholder remained white." In his mostluminous passages, he momentarily overcame his own fear ofexposure. "And how it carried!" he wrote of Jimmy Rushing's voiceon a summer night in Oklahoma City.

Heard thus, across the dark blocks lined with locust trees, throughthe night throbbing with the natural aural imagery of the blues,with high-balling trains, departing bells, lonesome guitar chordssimmering up from a shack in the alley--it was easy to imagine thevoice as setting the pattern to which the instruments of the BlueDevils Orchestra and all the random sounds of night arose,affirming, as it were, some ideal native to the time and to theland. When we were still too young to attend night dances, but yetold enough to gather beneath the corner street lamp on summerevenings, anyone might halt the conversation to exclaim, "Listen,they're raising hell down at Slaughter's Hall, " and we'd turn ourheads westward to hear Jimmy's voice soar up the hill and down, aspure and as miraculously unhindered by distance and earthboundthings as is the body in youthful dreams of flying.

Ellison wanted--oh, how he wanted!--to be that ideal native, and inunhindered passages such as this one, for a fleeting instant, he gothis wish.

Christopher Benfey is Mellon Professor of English at Mount HolyokeCollege. A selection of his essays, American Audacity, will bepublished by the University of Michigan Press in the fall.

By Christopher Benfey