Ralph Ellison Visible: On Arnold Rampersad’s biography of Ellison

by Morris Dickstein

Review of Arnold Rampersad’s Ralph Ellison: A Biography
657 pp. Alfred A. Knopf, $35

Published in the Times Literary Supplement, May 25, 2007

T. S. Eliot once wrote that there were two ways good writers could court recognition – either by publishing so much they turned up everywhere or by publishing so little that each work, perfectly crafted, would become a literary event. Eliot himself took both courses, writing reams of critical prose (but collecting it selectively), and bringing out poems only at widely spaced intervals, each a marker in a carefully plotted career. Curiously, Eliot did not mention another approach which he would also try: polishing your mystique by not publishing at all. Turning to the stage, he wrote almost no new poetry in the decades after Four Quartets.

Some artists opt out at an early age – Rossini in opera, Forster in fiction – but the more ingenious way of not publishing is to create a buzz around work in progress. By offering tantalizing glimpses of ambitious projects, writers arouse expectations that the books themselves, if they do appear, can almost never satisfy. I recall the long wait for Joseph Heller’s second novel, the gossip that attended Truman Capote’s unwritten magnum opus, the anticipation Norman Mailer stoked around unfinished works, including his novel about ancient Egypt. Harold Brodkey’s reputation never quite recovered from the publication of his long-awaited novel, The Runaway Soul. Henry Roth, legendary for his writer’s block, surprised the world with an autobiographical novel some sixty years after Call It Sleep. But there was nothing quite like the awe surrounding Ralph Ellison’s heroic labors over a successor to Invisible Man – protracted for four decades, right up to his death in 1994 at the age of 81. An almost religious hush descended on interviewers when they questioned him about this work, as if the future of American letters depended on it. Unlike Capote, whose book existed largely in his mind, if at all, Ellison could whip out a tape measure and show the sheer bulk of the manuscript, more than 2,000 pages at one point. Some who heard him read aloud from the book were mesmerized; others were just as convinced it was a dud. I avoided the fragments he published in obscure literary journals for fear of tarnishing my imaginary sense of the book, but also out of disbelief that it actually existed.

It was during these years of incompletion that Ellison became one of the most famous writers in the world, in ever-increasing demand for lectures, panels, readings, and service on boards of every kind. It was one thing for him to serve as a judge of the National Book Awards, which he himself had won for Invisible Man in 1953, or Lyndon Johnson’s National Council on the Arts, which led to the creation of the arts and humanities endowments – the first serious federal support for the arts since the New Deal. It was quite another matter to join the board of the Rockefeller-created Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. This may have appealed to his feeling for American history but it was also his entrée as a black man into some exclusive precincts of American society. The second half of his life – and the second half of Arnold Rampersad’s vigorous but tendentious new biography – is full of such activities, to the point that they almost certainly became ways of not writing, not finishing, not wrestling with his own demons.

Ellison’s travail over his second novel has usually been ascribed to the size of his ambition. Mingling allegory and allusion with autobiography in a vein rich with dark comedy, Invisible Man covered a large swathe of black and American life, including the aftermath of slavery, the folklore of the rural South, the educational mission of Booker T. Washington, the migration to Harlem, and the ferment of black nationalism and Marxism during the Depression. Its success raised the bar for Ellison. In 1965 a poll of writers, critics, and editors designated it as the most distinguished American novel since the war. A poll today would probably lead to the same consensus. His friend and protégé Stanley Crouch put it best: “The tragedy lies in the weight Ralph put on himself. . . . Ralph wasn’t wary enough of the dangers that come with the magnification of things by one’s imagination. Well, the greater the ambition, the greater the failure. The longer the book remained unfinished, the more excruciating the pain. And for a long time, sadly, he lived with a constant debilitating sense of having failed.” (551)

Arnold Rampersad, the biographer of iconic black role models like Langston Hughes, Jackie Robinson, and Arthur Ashe, develops a different explanation. Though the fame of Ellison and his book was growing in the 1960s and 1970s, so were the attacks on him, especially by younger black writers and militants – and so was his comfort level in the white world. The radicalism of the Black Power movement was an updated version of the Garveyite nationalism he had lampooned brilliantly in his novel. As an integrationist, he had little use for their separatism. He despised the usual emphasis on blacks as victims, insisting on the creative adaptations of black culture even under slavery and the crucial role of blacks in the dialectic of American culture. Anticipating the new historiography of slavery, he wrote that “slavery was a most vicious system, and those who endured and survived it a tough people, but it was not . . . a state of absolute repression.” (CE, 284) In a famous exchange with Irving Howe, he wrote that “Howe seems to see segregation as an opaque steel jug with the Negroes inside waiting for some black messiah to come along and blow the cork.” (SA, 123) His refusal to endorse this vision of entrapment and victimization also separated Ellison from the work of his mentor, Richard Wright. Instead he worked out a notion of democratic culture as the great solvent, embracing high and low, rural and urban, black and white. He admired scholars such as Constance Rourke, the author of American Humor (1931), who pioneered the serious study of vernacular culture. In his splendid essay “Living with Music,” he concludes that “in the United States when traditions are juxtaposed they tend, regardless of what we do to prevent it, irresistibly to merge. Thus, musically at least, each child in our town was an heir of all the ages.” (CE, 236)

The phrase “musically, at least” implies an important qualification. Though American music could not be imagined without the cross-fertilization of the races, the barriers to social integration were far greater – but not insuperable, as his own life demonstrated. Ellison was born in Oklahoma City in 1913, not long after the territory became a state. His father died in an accident when Ralph was three, and he grew up in terrific poverty. To support two small boys, his mother worked intermittently as a chambermaid and depended on the kindness of an extended network of family and friends. Ellison’s early gifts were musical, not literary. Offered last-minute admission to Tuskegee Institute in Alabama in 1933, he simply did not have the money to get there, and risked life and limb as a black man hoboing across the country, stealing rides on freight trains. But he made up his mind early on to penetrate white society, to go where he might not be wanted. Invited to his first concert, where he finds himself the only black, he knows people are staring at him but sees it as “an excellent chance to develop poise.” He wanted to be the exception, to seek out the best, which meant going places where few blacks were welcome. Much like aiming for excellence in some branch of art, this required “a very stern discipline.”

“Unlike many other blacks,” Rampersad writes of his early years in New York, “who refused to pay the psychological toll of trying to be friends with whites, [the Ellisons] sought to cement their place in the tiny part of white society that would receive them.” (231) Initially this centered on the world of New York’s Jews but the circle eventually grew much larger. To an unimaginable degree, he succeeded. The drama of the book is in the distance between where he started and what he became. Almost as if it were a personal myth, he lived out the crossover he saw as vital to the dynamic of American social life. But Rampersad insists on the price he paid – in suppressed feelings of rage and insecurity, and finally in the damage it did to his work.

As early as 1954-55, Rampersad begins dropping suggestions of Ellison’s “faltering record” and “eventual decline” as an artist, (313, 98) which he traces to his estrangement from black people, his lack of interest in specifically black literary expression, and, above all, his preference for white friends in elite institutions like the Century Association (the closest equivalent of a London gentlemen’s club) and American Academy of Arts and Letters (which saw itself as a counterpart of the French Academy). In this milieu he was invariably the token black, doing little to bring along others of his race. He took no part in the civil rights movement, arguing that a writer’s duty was to stay at his typewriter and perfect his craft. He rarely yielded an inch when challenged, though at least once he broke down sobbing in public when accused, as he often was, of being an Uncle Tom. He was prepared to tangle with young black interviewers, telling them that “though I lived in the Harlem YMCA, I did not come to New York to live in Harlem, even though I thought of Harlem as a very romantic place. . . . I was not exchanging Southern segregation for Northern segregation, but seeking a wider world of opportunity and, most of all, the excitement and impersonality of a great city. I wanted room in which to discover who I was.” He adds that “one of the first things I had to do was to enter places from which I was afraid I might be rejected. I had to confront my own fears of the unknown.” (CE, 739) A born loner, he relished living on upper Riverside Drive, in a twilight zone very close to Harlem (like the protagonist of Invisible Man) but even closer to the Academy, which is situated anomalously in a poor immigrant neighborhood. He grew prosperous but resisted any move downtown.

Ellison and his wife spent two years at the American Academy in Rome from 1955 to 1957 but he protested when Time magazine coupled him with Wright as expatriate writers. He insisted that black writers in Europe like Wright, Baldwin, and Chester Himes risked losing touch with their material. But Rampersad portrays him in effect as an expatriate in a white world of privilege. Comparing him to his friend Saul Bellow, who “was writing about the world he actually lived in, or he used that solid life as his runway for flights of the imagination,” Rampersad finds that “Ralph, with a growing distance between himself and the black social reality about him, was finding it hard to turn that reality into fiction.” (315) The final verdict in bleak: “His inability to create an art that held a clean mirror up to ‘Negro’ life as blacks actually led it, especially at or near his own social level, was disabling him as a writer. As a novelist, he had lost his way. And he had done so in proportion to his distancing himself from his fellow blacks.” (512-13)

Rampersad is both an able critic and an immensely diligent biographer. He makes good use of Ellison’s papers, especially unpublished letters, to reveal facets of his life and personality, including the inner workings of his marriage, that were completely unknown until now. Ellison himself, in many exemplary essays and interviews, made much of the difficulties of his early years – the death of his father, the struggles of his family to survive, the culture and especially the music that entranced him, the Tuskegee experience, his arrival in Harlem, the months of utter destitution he spent with his brother in Dayton, Ohio in 1937-38, immediately after the death of their mother. Rampersad adds many details about such matters but also about Ellison’s first marriage, about the crisis in his marriage to his second wife Fanny, when he had an affair in Rome with a married woman much younger and taunted her about it, though she had supported him in every way, and virtually effaced herself to do so. At the center of the book, he gives a riveting account of the Ellison’s efforts to complete Invisible Man and the tremendous acclaim that followed its appearance.

Nevertheless, it is clear that at some point Rampersad came to dislike Ellison, despite his respect for his work. With the help of astute comments from observers who knew him well, Rampersad lays bare a vulnerable yet unattractive side of Ellison’s character. Novelist Richard Stern describes him as a “confident, warm, and charming man” who was also “pocked with insecurity, anger, and bitterness” and chronically “countered these feelings with booze.” (383). His anonymous Rome lover, with little sense of his background, tells Rampersad that “he was very angry a great deal of the time” and “was constantly offended by things and incident no one else would notice.” (338) According to the black writer Jervis Anderson, who profiled him in the New Yorker and suffered his slights, he showed “a continuous effort to retain discipline and control over himself, to keep a lid on the volcanic parts of his personality.” (502) Rampersad returns again and again to his friendships with whites, his wariness with ordinary blacks (who may have reminded him of his early poverty), and his failure to help younger black writers who beat a path to his door. In short, he has written a balanced but subtly debunking biography that may darken Ellison’s reputation for years to come, like Lawrence Thompson’s more overtly hostile biography of Robert Frost. In a more intelligent way, it recycles the accusations of snobbery, contented tokenism, and a refusal of solidarity and political activism that Ellison fended off though much of his life. But it also channels them into a diagnosis of his work, even Invisible Man, where they scarcely belong.

Was Ellison really so estranged from blacks? Was his work really damaged by his warm friendships with Robert Penn Warren, John Hersey, R. W. B. Lewis, Richard Wilbur and their wives? To Rampersad, in an unusually tortured formulation, “the price he paid for easy association with like-minded whites was a measure of insecurity only heightened by the knowledge that to many blacks this delight was a form of racial betrayal.” (391) Thus the biographer introduces the notion of “racial betrayal” without taking responsibility for it. It’s clear enough that Ellison as a person could be haughty, self-protective, and ungenerous, but he also had a raunchy, down-home side that shows up in his letters to his closest black friend, Albert Murray. It comes through in his warm-blooded fiction, which bridges the chasm between folk motifs and experimental modernism. It goes to the heart of his essays, especially on jazz, which have become an influential part of his legacy, enshrined by trumpeter Wynton Marsalis in his Jazz at Lincoln Center and by Ken Burns in his documentary history of jazz.

The charge that he was turned his back on his race founders on the shoals of these evocative pieces that celebrate the local roots of jazz, the competitive interplay between the soloist and the group, and the showmanship of performers like Louis Armstrong as clown and entertainer. The very cadence of these essays enacts his infinite affection for black culture and creativity in the wider context of American life. In a piece on Mahalia Jackson, he describes blues and jazz singing as

an art which depends upon the employment of the full expressive resources of the human voice – from the rough growls employed by blues singers, the intermediate sounds, half-cry, half-recitative, which are common to Eastern music, the shouts and hollers of American Negro folk cries, the rough-edged tones and broad vibratos, the high, shrill and grating tones which rasp one’s ears like the agonized flourishes of flamenco, to the gut tones which remind us of where the jazz trombone found its human source. It is an art which employs a broad rhythmic freedom and accents the lyric line to reinforce the emotional impact. It utilizes half-tones, glissandi, blue notes, humming and moaning. Or again, it calls upon the most lyrical, floating tones of which the voice is capable. (252)

This dazzling range of tones is what he sought and achieved in his own writing. He disliked bebop for being too cerebral and thought it expressed contempt for the audience. Like Mark Twain, one of his heroes, he plumbed the expressive register of vernacular culture. He saw the jazz musician and the blues singer as genuine artists expressing individuality through a mastery of technique. Accordingly, the jazz riff became the model for his writing, though he undoubtedly lost control of it in Juneteenth, the section of his second novel published in 1999. He connected jazz improvisation on received material with the polyphony of The Waste Land and the virtuosity of Ulysses, and he himself emulated the weave of allusion that joined Armstrong to Eliot, a linkage unheard of at the time but received wisdom today.

Since Rampersad makes excellent use of Ellison’s archive, I would have expected the latter half of his book to trace the stages of his work on his second novel, still largely unpublished, since it took up so much of his literary life. Instead, convinced that it is a dead loss, misconceived and out of touch, the biographer disposes of it in a few pages, dealing only with the published sections. He takes due note of each of Ellison’s essays, which show him at the top of his form, but spends too many pages on the distractions of club life, the Academy, and his many other public activities, as if they accounted for Ellison’s deeper failure. Yet paradoxically, this was the time Ellison ceased to be controversial and won almost universal acclaim, including an ardent following of younger black writers and intellectuals. With the exhaustion of Marxism, nationalism, and crude protest writing, they all became Ellisonians. As he turned into a plaster cast of himself, his cosmopolitan vision of American cultural interdependence, with its inescapable black contribution, carried the day, though it may have been an optimistic myth that reflected his own needs. Rampersad pays tribute to this humane vision while casting a shadow over the man who conceived it – in the teeth of his detractors’ hostility, his own insecurity, and the demands of a fierce, almost superhuman effort of self-discipline.

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