Ralph Ellison: A Biography
A review by Christopher Benfey
It is a ritual of American publishing that the distinguished literary 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 the great writer's life. And third, intimate letters are collected and offered to a curious public. In 1999, five years after the death of the African American novelist and essayist Ralph Ellison from pancreatic cancer at the age of eighty-one, his devoted literary executor patched together the fragments of Ellison's second and endlessly delayed novel, called it Juneteenth, and ushered it into a brief and anticlimactic shelf life. Now, Arnold Rampersad, the author of well-received chronicles of Langston Hughes and Jackie Robinson and a biographer of remarkable skill, has completed a crushingly revealing life of Ellison, and done it so well that no further such tombstone will be needed. It is only a matter of time before Ellison's letters -- lively and nasty, judging from the extracts in Rampersad's biography -- will come to light as well. The author of Invisible Man is becoming all too visible.
Exposure, as it happens, is the great theme of Ellison's life and work. No passage in his exuberant novel is more memorable than its opening, when the unnamed black narrator (whom Rampersad weirdly insists on calling "Invisible," as he calls Ellison "Ralph") has retreated underground in a "border area" of Harlem. "Now, aware of my invisibility, I live rent-free in a building rented strictly to whites, in a section of the basement that was shut off and forgotten during the nineteenth century." The narrator, a self-styled "thinker-tinker" in the line of Ford, Edison, and Franklin, siphons off electricity from Monopolated Light & Power. "My hole is warm and full of light," he writes. "Yes, full of light. I doubt if there is a brighter spot in all New York than this hole of mine, and I do not exclude Broadway. Or the Empire State Building on a photographer's dream night. But that is taking advantage of you. Those two spots are among the darkest of our whole civilization." He lights his lair with 1,369 lights -- "not with fluorescent bulbs, but with the older, more-expensive-to-operate kind."
All the flashbulbs went on at once when Invisible Man won the National Book Award in 1953, beating out Steinbeck's East of Eden and Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea. The judges could hardly have been better stacked in Ellison's favor. Saul Bellow, Alfred Kazin, and Irving Howe -- all three of whom were eager to deal a blow to the old dispensation -- gave him a majority of the five votes, and a trade editor concurred. (Howard Mumford Jones, a Harvard professor and the lone dissenter, voted for Hemingway, who had to settle for the Nobel Prize the following year.) A major work of literature is so unlikely an event under the best of circumstances that it is almost pointless to count the potential obstacles to its creation. And yet it is hard not to feel that the National Book Award was more a curse than a blessing for Ellison, increasing the expectations for a second novel that might top the considerable achievement of the first.
There is a poignant passage in Ellison's fine essay on Charlie Parker, "On Bird, Bird-Watching, and Jazz," which appeared ten years into the wait for what he called his "novel-in-progress (very long in progress)." Mulling over the strange spectacle of Parker's efforts to hold it together onstage despite his spiraling descent into drugs and mental instability, Ellison sums up the strange allure of self-exposure:
While he slowly died (like a man dismembering himself with a dull razor on a spotlighted stage) from the ceaseless conflict from which issued both his art and his destruction, his public reacted as though he were doing much the same thing as those saxophonists who hoot and honk and roll on the floor. In the end he had no private life and his most tragic moments were drained of human significance.
That last sentence -- a death sentence -- is painfully appropriate for Ellison's own career. For as he achieved increasing exposure on the spotlighted 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, the time, and the place all came to seem auspicious. Ellison's father, who migrated from South Carolina and worked in the building trades in the new land of opportunity of Oklahoma, named his son after Emerson. "After I began to write and work with words," Ellison later reflected, "I came to suspect that he was aware of the suggestive powers of names and of the magic involved in naming." The Armory Show, when modern art first came to America, was held in New York in 1913, introducing Duchamp, Matisse, and Picasso to American artists and writers still in thrall to realism. And Oklahoma, the old Indian Territory that became a state in 1907, was as ethnically diverse as New York City. Part black, part white, and "a wee bit Creek," Ellison tenaciously held on to the mixed strains of his origins.
Ellison was three when his father died in a freak accident: a hundred-pound piece of ice that he was carrying slipped and perforated his stomach. Ellison's mother, who worked as a janitor and hotel maid, could barely support Ellison and his slow-witted brother, and relied on the charity of friends. In addition to church and school, there was another significant institution for the blacks of Oklahoma City: the dance hall. Ellison grew up knowing the innovative jazz guitarist Charlie Christian, a classmate of his brother's, and the gorgeous voice of the local singer Jimmy Rushing; he later wrote movingly about them both. Ralph's own talents as a musician, on trumpet and piano, were recognized early. He hopped freight trains to travel to Booker T. Washington's Tuskegee Institute in Alabama; there he studied composition and played first trumpet in the school orchestra.
Disappointed with the response of the music teachers at Tuskegee, he strayed into literature. "Three novels above all gripped Ralph," Rampersad reports: Crime and Punishment, Wuthering Heights, and Jude the Obscure. Extreme mental states are at the heart of all three novels, as well as, in Rampersad's words, "a misunderstood young man, ambitious, tormented, transgressive." Among Ellison's own torments at Tuskegee -- a school where one found, as he wrote in Invisible Man, "shoes shined, minds laced up" -- were the unwelcome advances of the dean of men, one of the factors that contributed to his abrupt departure, without a degree, in 1936.
Ellison, who had earlier hoped to go to Juilliard, headed for the Harlem YMCA instead, where, by a stroke of good luck, the poet Langston Hughes also happened to be staying. Hughes gave him a copy of Malraux's Man's Fate, generous encouragement, and some personal advice: "Be nice to people and let them pay for meals." Ellison, who had taken art classes at Tuskegee, tracked down the young black sculptor Richmond Barthé, becoming his first pupil and then his roommate in an apartment in Greenwich Village. It was through Barthé that Ellison got a job for five months as a receptionist for the pioneering psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Harry Stack Sullivan, who placed particular emphasis on interpersonal relationships. "Under his quiet questioning I learned to relax and talk quite freely," Ellison wrote, though he suspected "that my real function at lunchtime was to break some of his loneliness."
Hughes, Barthé, and Sullivan were gay. "A curious aspect of Ralph's life that vital fall, given his critical
although tolerant attitude to male homosexuality," Rampersad remarks, "was that he was working for a gay or bisexual man and living with one who was openly gay." Rampersad seems confident that
Ellison's relations with Sullivan were "almost certainly circumspect," and Ellison himself claimed that Hughes "never once revealed" his homosexuality in his presence. With Barthé, however, of whom Ellison had nothing to say in later life, things "might have been more complicated" and Ellison may have "had something sexual to hide."
If Barthé offered Ellison entry into the gay world of Greenwich Village, Richard Wright introduced him to a different "brotherhood," the term Ellison used for the Communist Partylike institution in Invisible Man. It was Wright, a formidable intellectual presence, who steered Ellison toward his first writing assignments with leftist magazines such as New Challenge and New Masses. Rampersad gives a scrupulous account of Ellison's involvement with the radical left. Though he seems never to have formally joined the Communist Party, Ellison was for a time an avid fellow traveler -- his copy of a communist pamphlet is inscribed "Your comrade, Mike Gold" -- and he tried unsuccessfully to join the Abraham Lincoln Brigade fighting Franco's forces in Spain. He remained a staunch supporter of the Soviet Union until 1942, when he followed Wright out of the party over its refusal to oppose Jim Crow laws. As his ardor for collective solutions cooled, Ellison adopted a half-joking new motto: "Workers of the world must write."
It was at Wright's urging that Ellison first tried writing fiction, using his experience hopping freight trains to Tuskegee as raw material. The first story he wrote, heavily indebted to Hemingway and Sherwood Anderson, was called "Hymie's Bull." Narrated by a black hobo, it tells of his terror when "an ofay bum named Hymie from Brooklyn" kills a member of the sadistic railroad security detail (the "bulls"). "Is Hymie Jewish?" Rampersad asks without venturing an answer. "If so, why?" I would think that the answer to the first question is obvious, but not the second -- solidarity, perhaps, between black and Jewish victims, but then why the ethnic slur? One of Rampersad's surprising revelations is that Ellison had a 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 American intellectuals and cultural leaders, finding in them a "mammy-made provincialism." Rampersad believes this attitude was first liberating and then crippling: "That critical instinct freed him to ascend, without inhibition, the heights of the Euro-American artistic and intellectual tradition (but it may well have been a decisive factor in his eventual decline as an artist, because it took a toll on his imagination and morale)." Ellison found the literary provocation that he needed in Malraux, Dostoevsky's Notes From Underground, and Eliot's "The Waste Land." He discerned in Eliot and Joyce, and in the work of the critic Kenneth Burke, a new way to think of the "folk" materials in black life, and how they had served, in Burke's phrase, as "equipment for living" during difficult times.
The blues, Ellison wrote in a review of Wright's Black Boy, "is an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of brutal experience alive in one's aching consciousness, to finger its jagged grain, and to transcend it, not by the consolation of philosophy but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism." Determined to write something that would appeal to sophisticated readers of all races and nationalities, Ellison wanted to write of the resilience of black experience as somehow representative of American existence as a whole. The transition from feudal life to industrialism, experienced by every black person who had migrated north, including himself, seemed typical -- on a more drastic scale -- of modern life generally.
It was during the 1940s that Ellison began to formulate his bedrock convictions about race in America, ideas that would undergird both the novel that he planned to write and his mature essays. The first conviction, drawn from his memories of Oklahoma, was that black and white culture were so inextricably intertwined that it was inaccurate to speak of one apart from the other. Giving full honor to his middle name, Ellison persuaded himself that the classic preCivil War writers of New England shared this view of the centrality of the fate of blacks in the larger fate of the nation, what Ellison called "the total implication of Negro life in the United States." Ellison had little use for abolitionist writers such as Garrison or Whittier or Stowe; he was after aesthetic power, not just progressive views on race. He drew from Melville's ambivalent novella Benito Cereno an epigraph for Invisible Man: "You are saved,' cried Captain Delano, more and more astonished and pained; you are saved: what has cast such a shadow upon you?'" He expected readers to know the Spanish captain's traumatized answer: "The negro."
After the abandonment of Reconstruction, in Ellison's view, writers followed legislators in suppressing the tragic nature of black experience. With a few significant exceptions -- Mark Twain, Stephen Crane, William Faulkner -- American literature became morally impoverished in its flight from representing a racially mixed society. Hemingway, Ellison's idol turned bête noire (or bête blanche), had narrowed the moral reach of his fiction by purging it of black experience -- Huck without Jim. Hemingway's obsession with bullfighting was, in Ellison's interesting formulation, a displaced response to racial violence in America. "Otherwise he might have studied that ritual of violence closer to home, that ritual in which the sacrifice is that of a human scapegoat, the lynching bee." The challenge for black writers, he argued in a famous exchange with Irving Howe, was not to erect a freestanding black literature, but rather to restore to American literature its moral and cultural "complexity," a favorite word of Ellison's.
All these ideas went into the writing of Invisible Man. Everyone knows that the best writing in the book comes in the first two hundred pages, when the narrator introduces himself in his clean, well-lighted place underground, then takes us back to the humiliations of his southwestern childhood, his time in a southern black college modeled on Tuskegee, and the shock of his arrival in New York City. These sections recapitulate Ellison's own trajectory with a hallucinatory admixture of surrealism and dream, while also tracking the epic migration of rural blacks to the northern cities.
The section in which the narrator is asked to drive the visiting white trustee named Norton into the Alabama countryside has an extraordinary tragicomic charge. They encounter a black sharecropper named Trueblood with two women, his wife and his daughter, the latter of whom he has made pregnant. Trueblood explains at ingenious length how this came about: "The gal looks just 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 fate among the blacks he has sought to lift up that he becomes catatonic. The narrator takes him to a speakeasy ironically called the Golden Day (the title of Lewis Mumford's book on Emerson, Thoreau, and other classic American writers), peopled by shell-shocked vets and whores from New Orleans; things get rapidly worse. In later chapters, the relentless urban imagery of subway and skyscraper, crowds and riots, becomes monotonous, and one ceases to care whether the narrator's allegiances tilt towards the Brotherhood or the Marcus Garveylike Ras the Destroyer.
Unlike many biographers, Rampersad can do his own literary criticism, and he is an astute reader of Invisible Man. He is right that Ellison's terrific essay "Harlem Is Nowhere" is an excellent guide for the novel. That essay, unpublished until 1964, when it was included in Ellison's landmark collection Shadow and Act, was originally written to accompany photographs by Gordon Parks, at a time when Ellison himself was doing serious professional work in portrait photography. The essay explores a neighborhood inhabited by people for whom it was possible literally "to step from feudalism into the vortex of industrialism simply by moving across the Mason-Dixon line." While the results of the move could be heartening -- "Here a former cotton picker develops the sensitive hands of a surgeon, and men whose grandparents still believe in magic prepare optimistically to become atomic scientists" -- they could also be devastating in "a world so fluid and shifting":
Hence the most surreal fantasies are acted out upon the streets of Harlem; a man ducks in and out of traffic shouting and throwing imaginary grenades that actually exploded during World War I; a boy participates in the rape-robbery of his mother; a man beating his wife in a park uses boxing "science" and observes Marquess of Queensberry rules (no rabbit punching, no blows beneath the belt); two men hold a third while a lesbian slashes him to death with a razor blade.
It is this kind of surrealism of the quotidian that Ellison captured in the best sections of Invisible Man. Reading the novel today, one is reminded less of Wright's Dreiser-inspired naturalism than of Céline or Nathanael West. In his essay "Change the Joke and Slip the Yoke," Ellison commented that the narrator's mode in Invisible Man is "confession, not concealment." The polyphonic and oneiric texture of the novel recalls "confessional" poetry such as the "dream songs" of Ellison's fellow Oklahoman and almost exact contemporary John Berryman, which also take their inspiration from a mixture of white and black voices. Despite Ellison's sneering remarks about the Beats ("They have strange problems in bed"), Invisible Man -- "one long, loud rant, howl and laugh," according to Ellison" -- also resembles Allen Ginsberg's long poem "Howl," from 1956, in its attempted fusion of jazz and European intellectual culture.
Fatherless, without a college degree, and wearing his failure at a second novel like a scarlet letter of shame, Ellison, who stammered when he was nervous, concealed his "almost leprous insecurity" behind a dignified and increasingly pompous façade. He was touchy and testy and quick to take offense, often when none was intended. He left dinner parties in a huff, leaving the puzzled guests to guess at what stray remark had so grievously wounded him. When he drank heavily, which he did often, his suppressed belligerence broke out in frightening ways; he was reputed to carry a knife. "He was ready to fight, to come to blows," wrote his friend Albert Murray. "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 pedigreed black Labrador retriever, Tuckatarby of Tivoli, might be persuaded not to shit on the carpets. Indignant, Ellison complained to John Cheever, who, as Rampersad wryly remarks, "perhaps noted the irony of a black man complaining to a WASP that their friend, a Jew, did not appreciate purity of blood -- in a dog."
After the success of Invisible Man, Ellison sought elite refuges where he could nourish in safety his own sense of billowing prestige. He spent two years at the American Academy in Rome, where he began forging friendships with Robert Penn Warren and Allen Tate -- both southerners who had repudiated their former allegiance to segregation but shared his aristocratic sense of the disruptions of the rural American South. Back in New York, he lobbied hard to be accepted into the Century Club, and then lobbied just as hard to keep women out of it. During the 1960s, a decade of extraordinary public recognition for Ellison, he served on powerful committees in Washington and had a role in the founding of the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and Public Broadcasting. He was so grateful to another southern white man, Lyndon Johnson, for his patronage that he wrote an admiring essay called "The Myth of the Flawed Southerner." He could never bring himself to oppose the Vietnam War, and sounded a theme familiar to this day: "We have certain responsibilities to the Vietnamese and the structure of power in the world." He supported Johnson's protégé Hubert Humphrey instead of Robert Kennedy. Increasingly the target of militant blacks -- he considered Black Power the flipside of white supremacy -- he broke down sobbing when he was accused of being an Uncle Tom.
Ellison was lucky in his marriage to a professional woman willing to support him financially and emotionally while his own career was limping along. Fanny McConnell Ellison, trained as an actress and arts administrator, was attractive and articulate and popular with Ellison's white friends. Ellison, who retained a document from the Margaret Sanger Research Bureau testifying that his semen was "normal in every respect," never let her forget her failure to bear him a child. What pleasure he took in other women was in confessing his own often paltry transgressions to his long-suffering wife. The marriage almost foundered when he insisted, after an affair with a younger married woman in Rome, on conveying to Fanny every intimate detail.
What does all this matter if the work was good? From kindred humiliations, transgressions, aristocratic pretensions, and consumption of alcohol, Faulkner wrote novel after great novel. Holed up in Oxford, Mississippi, where his local pomposities had a smaller stage and an audience less eager to expose his personal failings, Faulkner got his work done. Rampersad has written neither an attack nor an apologia, and he weighs the evidence with impressive impartiality. He admires Invisible Man and the lyrical essays, and finds virtue in the integrity and the consistency of Ellison's political views, especially his commitment to interracial democracy and his optimism about the resilience of black cultural forms. He makes no effort to defend Ellison's hysterical opposition to bebop and other forms of modern jazz ("castrated and flat gutless and homo"), his "muted" response to Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination, or his stinginess and even outright hostility to younger black writers.
In perhaps his most significant critical judgment of Ellison as a literary figure, Rampersad regards him as finally a regional writer, in the sense in which Twain and Faulkner were rooted in a particular region. Ellison never put down emotional roots in New York; his consistent view remained that "Harlem Is Nowhere." Biting into a buttered yam in a Harlem street, the narrator of Invisible Man, overcome by homesickness and "an intense feeling of freedom," has a delirious moment reminiscent of Proust's madeleine: "It was exhilarating. I no longer had to worry about who saw me or about what 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 he accused white society of inflicting on blacks (the ostensible subject of his second novel) was precisely what he ultimately inflicted on the embarrassments of his own childhood. In his preference for the respect of the wealthy and powerful, he was guilty of a version of white flight; for him, as Toni Morrison wrote, "the gaze of the beholder remained white." In his most luminous passages, he momentarily overcame his own fear of exposure. "And how it carried!" he wrote of Jimmy Rushing's voice on a summer night in Oklahoma City.
Heard thus, across the dark blocks lined with locust trees, through the night throbbing with the natural aural imagery of the blues, with high-balling trains, departing bells, lonesome guitar chords simmering up from a shack in the alley -- it was easy to imagine the voice as setting the pattern to which the instruments of the Blue Devils Orchestra and all the random sounds of night arose, affirming, as it were, some ideal native to the time and to the land. When we were still too young to attend night dances, but yet old enough to gather beneath the corner street lamp on summer evenings, anyone might halt the conversation to exclaim,
"Listen, they're raising hell down at Slaughter's Hall," and we'd turn our heads westward to hear Jimmy's voice soar up the hill and down, as pure and as miraculously unhindered by distance and earthbound things as is the body in youthful dreams of flying.
Ellison wanted -- oh, how he wanted! -- to be that ideal native, and in unhindered passages such as this one, for a fleeting instant, he got his wish.
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