‘The test of a first-rate mind,” wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald, “is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” No one better exemplified that skill than the novelist Ralph Ellison. Born Negro (the term he preferred) in 1913 in Oklahoma City, where punishing Jim Crow racial laws were still observed, Ellison, in his life and work, was able to understand the crushing effect of those laws and of race prejudice generally and still retain a belief in the rich complexity and endless possibilities America life held out to all. Of those writers and thinkers who dwelt on the subject of race in America, Ellison may well have been the most subtle, the most sensible, and, alas, the most ignored.
He is, of course, best known as the author of the novel Invisible Man (1952). The novel won the National Book Award, at a time when that prize brought great prestige. For Ellison it also brought instant recognition and enduring fame. The sadness of Ellison’s life was that he was never to complete a second novel, though he spent the remaining 42 years of his life attempting to do so. (He died, at 81, in 1994.) He did publish two collections of essays, Shadow and Act (1964) and Going to the Territory (1986). But the refusal of his second novel to reach the finish line has given his literary career, if not his life, a tragic tinge.
Worse luck, a Stanford professor named Arnold Rampersad produced a 672-page biography in 2008 that judged Ellison by strict politically correct standards and found him woefully, deplorably wanting. Rampersad’s bill of complaint is lengthy and includes Ellison’s preferring “harmonious racial integration” over black power and protest, eschewing the notion of black victimhood and with it black militancy, refusing to go out of his way to praise black writers, failing to oppose the Vietnam War, being put off by “exuberant gay culture,” ignoring the fate of the Algonquin and Iroquois nations when living in upstate New York, knocking Miles Davis and Charlie Parker while esteeming Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, finding friendship among such white writers as Robert Penn Warren and Richard Wilbur when keeping his distance from James Baldwin and Toni Morrison… and more, a great deal more.
Rampersad also accuses Ellison of being a bad son and brother, a cheating and often cruel husband, an unreliable friend. He was also, in this telling, an elitist, a snob, a misogynist, ill-tempered and condescending, pretentious, a boring teacher, wanting in sympathy for the young, and just about anything else one can think of with the exception of using a surfeit of plastic straws.
The newly published Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison, a nearly thousand-page collection of Ellison’s correspondence over six decades, from the age of 20 to 1993 (or a year before his death from pancreatic cancer), is a fine antidote to Rampersad’s aspersions. The volume is edited by John F. Callahan and Marc C. Conner, with introductory pages supplied by Callahan before each decade of correspondence. Callahan was a friend of Ellison’s during the last years of his life and has served him well since his death. He helped bring out a posthumous collection of Ellison’s short stories and assembled for publication two different versions of his uncompleted novel. One, titled Juneteenth, is a 368-page condensation of the roughly 2,000 pages of the full manuscript; the other is the full manuscript of the unfinished novel, called Three Days Before the Shooting. Callahan is one of those unknown soldiers of literature who devote the better part of their own lives to bringing forth and promoting the works of others, and Ellison was fortunate in his friendship with him.
Ralph Ellison grew up and came of age under what most might think the double jinx of being Negro under the Jim Crow laws of the South and Southwest and of the depredations of the Depression. Add to this that his father, who was a construction foreman, died when he was three. Ellison, however, didn’t see it that way. Not that life was easy for him. The absence of a father barely remembered was an irreplaceable loss. Money was for many years a serious problem. Race prejudice failed to depart in his lifetime. Yet Ellison never at any time chose to view himself as a victim.
In Oklahoma City, Ralph Ellison found many Negro men—physicians, dentists, pharmacists, plain workers—who gave him models of how a man should live. His mother, Ida, guided and supported the young Ellison in every way. He came to understand and love Negro culture—its music, its special language, its humor, its courage in the face of adversity—and in later years he explained its roots in folklore, its expression through the blues, and its growth under the pressure of race prejudice perhaps better than anyone before or since.
Owing to a want of money, Ellison had to ride the rails to get to Tuskegee College in Alabama, where he went to study music. He played trumpet, and his ambition was to complete a classical symphony by the age of 26 (as did Wagner). At Tuskegee he worked in the school kitchen. A number of his early letters from there are addressed to his mother, asking for shoes, clothes, any spare cash she could provide. At one point he was harassed by a homosexual dean. One of his teachers told him he would do better to study something practical, like agriculture. Such was the economic and other pressures on him that he dropped out in his third year.
But at Tuskegee he also encountered a few gifted teachers who made a marked impression on him. One of them was Hazel Harrison, who had studied music in Paris under Ferruccio Busoni and knew Percy Grainger and Sergei Prokofiev. Walter B. Williams, the college librarian, befriended Ellison and introduced him to European culture. He made a few friendships that were to endure through his adult life. One of these was with Albert Murray, himself later to become a novelist and the correspondent in the Selected Letters with whom Ellison communicates most freely, both about Negro life, its pleasures and flaws, and his own aspirations.
Time and again in his letters Ellison makes plain that, though proudly Negro (“who wills to be a Negro?” he wrote. “I do!”) he is also something more—an American, not to mention a man of the West and thereby of Western culture. His reading, often noted in his letters, gives evidence of the extent of his cultural interests. In 1956, he wrote to Albert Murray: “have been reading Stendhal and rereading the Idiot in a new translation and The Sound and the Fury, [Wylie] Sypher’s book on Renaissance style, etc. etc.” In music he listened to Stravinsky, Webern, Hindemith, though Duke Ellington was his god. The same year, he suggested to the publisher Pat Knopf that for Vintage Books, Knopf’s new quality-paperback line, he include “the Unamuno, the Herzen, the Matthiessen, the Bodkin, the Gertrude Levy, the Ford Madox Ford, the Melville, the Dodds, and the Mirsky.” He later claimed to have been influenced by André Malraux, André Gide, James Joyce, and the essays of Paul Valéry. The black writers Richard Wright and Chester Himes may have been his literary “relatives,” but he felt that Ernest Hemingway and T. S. Eliot were his “ancestors.”
In his letters, Ellison frequently quoted Henry James: “Being an American, Henry James has written, is a complex fate; and being a black American is more complex than even that finely honed mind could have suspected.” Later, in 1987, he told the editor Robert Silvers, who had asked him to review a biography of W.E.B. Du Bois, that the critic Kenneth Burke “was a far more important influence [on him] than Du Bois has ever been.”
Shaking off the idea that Richard Wright was a major influence was an almost lifelong problem for Ellison. He wrote to the critic Stanley Edgar Hyman that he continued “to reject the notion that my Invisible Man was inspired by Wright and insist that my character was inspired by the narrator of [Dostoevsky’s] Notes from Underground.” Ellison met Wright soon after his arrival in New York in 1936, introduced by Langston Hughes. Wright was six years older and soon to be famous as the author of the powerful novel Native Son. Hughes and Wright encouraged Ellison to write, and he soon published his first reviews and a short story in a magazine Wright edited.
Through Wright and Hughes, too, Ellison entered his political, which is to say, his Marxist phase. In 1937, he wrote from Dayton, Ohio, to Wright that he was unable to obtain copies of either the Daily Worker or the New Masses. He later reported that his politics had cost him the friendship of Walter B. Williams, the Tuskegee librarian; in the same letter (to a friend made at Tuskegee named Joe Lazenberry), he reported that, low on funds, he has been sleeping in the Daily Worker office in Harlem.
Yet the artist in the young Ellison never allowed him to give himself over completely to Marxism. He might have reported to Wright that “I’m a better man” for having read his, Wright’s, book 12 Million Black Voices, “and a better Marxist.” Yet he would also convey to Wright “the almost total failure of Marxist-Leninist literature to treat human personality.” At the age of 23, he wrote to Hazel Harrison that an “artist must with objective materials produce a correlative for the particular emotion that he wishes to arouse, and I don’t feel that he can do this successfully unless his intelligence and instinct make him aware of the meaning behind these emotions.” The artistic would always trump the political in Ellison.
This comes through clearest in a polemical exchange between Ralph Ellison and Irving Howe, published in The New Leader in 1964. On that occasion, Ellison responded to a Howe essay, “Black Boys and Native Sons,” that had appeared in Howe’s magazine Dissent. In that essay, Howe argued that Richard Wright’s was the true path for the Negro novelist, and that Wright’s novel Native Son, with its spirit of “clenched militancy,” was the inevitable model for the Negro writer of the day. Howe took after both the then-young James Baldwin, who in an essay of his own called “Everybody’s Protest Novel” had pointed out the artistic limits of the protest novel, and Ellison‚ both of whom, Howe claimed, had abandoned their true literary father, Richard Wright, to write more “modulated prose.”
Ellison went after Howe for elevating politics and ideology over literature and deeply flawed sociology over genuine knowledge of Negro culture. “Evidently Howe feels that unrelieved suffering is the only ‘real’ Negro experience,” Ellison wrote, “and that the true Negro must be ferocious.” He then writes a paragraph that, better than anything I know, sets out his credo:
But there is also an American Negro tradition which teaches one to deflect racial provocation and to master and contain pain. It is a tradition which abhors as obscene any trading on one’s own anguish for gain or sympathy; which springs not from a desire to deny the harshness of existence but from a will to deal with it as men at their best have always done. It takes fortitude to be a man, and no less to be an artist. Perhaps it takes more if the black man would be an artist. It would seem to me, therefore, that the question of how the “sociology of his existence” presses upon a Negro writer’s work depends upon how much of his life the individual writer is able to transform into art. What moves a writer to eloquence is less meaningful than what he makes of it. How much, by the way, do we know of Sophocles’ wounds?
Ellison went on to make plain yet again that “Richard Wright was no spiritual father of mine.” He gave Native Son due recognition but added that “Wright could imagine Bigger [the protagonist of the novel], but Bigger could not possibly imagine Richard Wright.” He added: “How awful that Wright found the facile answers of Marxism before he learned to use literature as a means for discovering the forms of American Negro humanity.”
In this same essay, Ellison claimed he feared “Howe’s ideas concerning the Negro writer’s role more than I do the State of Mississippi.” In this regard, he said: “I found some of the most treacherous assaults against me committed by those who regarded themselves as neutrals, as sympathizers, as disinterested military advisers.” Such people, who wish to portray the American Negro as essentially a victim, and little else, made possible the “the easy con game for ambitious, publicity-hungry Negroes [that] this stance of ‘militancy’ has become.” In his correspondence, he deplored those black writers “who take being black as an excuse for being obscenely second-rate,” and he worried about “the spread of counter-racism among black Americans.” Reviewing a study of the blues by LeRoi Jones (later Amiri Baraka), Ellison compared Jones’s coarse analysis to attempting “delicate brain surgery with a switchblade.”
Owing to his refusal to join the black protest movement, Ellison’s was in some ways a lonely life. His views and opinions made him an outsider during the most vigorous years of that movement. For a starter, as he wrote to Stanley Edgar Hyman, “as you damn well know, I view my people as American and not African.” (To Albert Murray he earlier wrote: “But who the hell wants to live in Africa?”) Early, in 1954, when Brown v. Board of Education was passed, he wrote: “Well so now the Court has found in our favor and recognized our human psychological complexity and citizenship and another battle of the Civil War has been won. The rest is up to us and I’m very glad.”
Ellison kept a constant barometer out for progress in racial matters: “I think we are less patient with inequalities today,” he wrote, “even though we are better off economically and socially than ever before. We feel more intensely than ever precisely because we realize that improvement is more possible than ever before.” But one of the great blocks to further progress was black racism, for which he was ever on the qui vive. In a letter of 1970 to Life magazine defending himself against a hostile review of a collection of his essays, he wrote: “Black racism usually ends up more detrimental to blacks than to whites just as the major victims of black violence are other blacks.”
He thought black studies in universities misbegotten: “It is my opinion that disciplines such as history and literature when taught must include Negro American reality but that it cannot be taught separately since it did not evolve separately.” He compares James Baldwin unfavorably to the singer Bobby Short, recommending Short’s autobiography, “especially to those literary intellectuals who take their ideas of black Americans from such as Pat-of-the-monkey-hand and Jimmy Baldwin. I want the bastards to contemplate, if they can, the wonderful mystery of American experience made manifest in the phenomenon of such an elegant and sophisticated artist as Short emerging from Black Danville [Illinois].”
As his correspondence makes abundantly clear, Ralph Ellison never traveled with the herd of independent minds. This resulted, as he wrote to the critic Kenneth Burke, in “the pounding I took in the Sixties and Seventies.” To John Callahan he wrote: “My problem is to affirm while resisting.” When awards and attention came his way, he wrote to a friend from Oklahoma City that “all of the new attention is somewhat bewildering but nevertheless satisfying when I consider all of the crap I had to take from some of the so-called Black Radicals during the late ’60s and ’70s.” In the end, Ellison was what he described his own former slave grandfather, who became a politician in South Carolina during Reconstruction, as being: “an insider-outsider.”
Ellison the insider, however, was perhaps even more prominent than Ellison the outsider. Soon after the publication of Invisible Man, he began getting teaching offers, first from Bard, Bennington, and the then the newly minted Brandeis; later from the University of Chicago and Antioch College. Invitations to lecture, join in symposia, do stints as visiting muckety-muck were frequent. In 1954, he was invited to the Salzburg Seminars in Austria. The following year, the American Academy of Arts and Letters awarded him the Prix Rome, which meant two years with expenses paid in Rome. He represented PEN in Japan and elsewhere. The Congress for Cultural Freedom cultivated him. He was voted onto the board of The American Scholar. He was invited to President Kennedy’s White House dinner in honor of the centennial of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. President Johnson appointed him to the Bicentennial Commission. He was a founding member of the National Council of the Arts and the same year was named honorary consultant to the Library of Congress. Honorary degrees from the University of Michigan and elsewhere were proffered. He was given the lucrative Schweitzer Chair in the Humanities at New York University. He won a National Medal of the Arts. A branch library in Oklahoma City was named after him.
Did Ralph Ellison look upon all these honors and awards as a form of tokenism, which not a few of them must been? Difficult to imagine that so keen a mind as his did not. A correspondent asked him how he felt about finding himself in so many places where no other Negroes had been. He replied by writing that he had been to many places most whites had never been. Going off the board of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, he wrote to the board member responsible for his membership there that he had accepted the invitation to join the board of this rather aristocratic Virginian institution for three reasons:
As a citizen I believed that I was obligated to serve this country to the best of my ability, and as a writer I believed I should know as much about its affairs as was possible for me to experience; and as an individual who had grown up complaining about the lack of opportunity for Negroes I was obligated, now that you had opened the way, to undergo whatever risks that were involved with what I suspected would be a formidable and hostile bunch of Virginians.
Many of the most touching letters in all his correspondence are those sent to people in Oklahoma City. Some of these are to old schoolmates; some to aged relatives; some to friends of his mother, who seems to have had a noble nature. A few have the aura of coming from the boy who made good. Almost all are lengthy. Apologizing for the length of one such letter, Ellison added that he nevertheless feels “an exchange of news fires memory, keeps important details of the past alive, and helps us gauge the meaning of experience as viewed by those who ‘knew us when.’” He wrote in 1961 to Hester Holloway, a friend of his mother’s, that “thanks to those like you I never had to apologize to myself, or make excuses to anyone, for being a Negro.”
From these letters in particular one gets a sense of how grounded in reality Ralph Ellison always was. This grounding provided him with a fine anti-nonsense detector. Norman Mailer’s once-famous essay on “The White Negro,” for example, he called “the same old primitivism crap in a new package….What a bore.” In a letter to Saul Bellow he added, “Mailer is a nut of considerable charm, which he uses as he uses his adolescent shock techniques, to attract attention to himself. I doubt if he believes in anything seriously anymore except his own ego.” He also saw through James Baldwin, whom he claimed “failed to grasp as much as he might have from the old master’s [Henry James’s] concern with the comic aspect of manners,” adding in the same letter that “perhaps Baldwin might have benefited from a bit of on-scene southern exposure and a more functional knowledge of American experience as it finds expression in Afro-American folklore, humor, and social pranking.”
But playing through this long correspondence is the presence—or, rather, the absence—of that uncompleted second novel, begun in 1951, while Ellison was finishing Invisible Man. In 1956, he wrote to a friend from Oklahoma City days that he was working on it but that writing a book is “like a bad case of constipation.” Two years later, he told Bellow, “I’ve got a writer’s block as big as the Ritz and as stubborn as a grease stain on a gabardine suit.”
In 1967, a fire in his house in Plainfield, New York, destroyed a large section of revised pages of the novel, though Ellison claimed he had them well enough in mind to rewrite them. In 1983, he wrote to Kenneth Burke about his “trouble just making a meaningful yarn out of his novel.…There are all kinds of interesting incidents in it, but if they don’t add up it’ll fall as rain into an ocean of meaningless words.” In another letter, he said that “a writer’s failure to publish doesn’t mean that he isn’t writing,” and in yet another he informed the composer David Diamond, “I’m still toiling away on a rather wild novel, and when it’s done I’ll see that you receive a copy.”
As for what prevented Ellison from completing his second novel, then a third, and many more, no one can say with certainty. Perhaps his great mistake was in writing, in Invisible Man, such a splendid first novel. Kingsley Amis’s first novel, Lucky Jim, was also by far his best, though Amis went on to write several less memorable works, all containing marvelous comic bits but none aesthetically successful. On a somewhat lower level, one thinks of Thomas Heggen and Ross Lockridge, who wrote, respectively, Mister Roberts and Raintree County, two first works that were enormous popular successes; unable to write second novels, each committed suicide, Heggen at 30, Lockridge at 34. Ellison loved life too much to contemplate so dark an end, but the bar for his second novel may well have been set too high by the success of his first.
Even without that second novel, Ralph Ellison’s life ought not to be considered in any way a failure. Along with Invisible Man, his penetrating essays, his personal example of courageous opinion in going against the flood of reverse racism in his day and continuing in ours, and now these letters all serve to remind us that life is richer than the feverish imaginings of people who, in their anger and hunger for social justice, forget that culture is more complex than color, life more amusing and much richer than any distant utopia of their dreams.
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