A Tribe of His Own

Ralph Ellison: A Biography BY Arnold Rampersad. Knopf. Hardcover, 672 pages. $35.

The cover of Ralph Ellison: A Biography

In early April 1968, Ralph Ellison took part in a literary festival hosted by the University of Notre Dame, where he joined the likes of Norman Mailer, Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller, and William F. Buckley Jr. on the program. When he took the stage on the evening of the sixth to deliver his remarks, the moment could not have been more charged. The nation was in crisis: Two days earlier, Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated; across the country, cities had exploded in scenes that seemed uncannily to mirror the apocalyptic final sections of Invisible Man, still one of the handful of truly indispensable American novels. But there would be no resounding statement or mournful eulogy; instead, Ellison talked about the function of the novel in American democracy.

It was a signature Ellisonian gesture, perhaps too modest for the hour, but forceful in its way. Fifteen years before, he had put his invisible man down a hole in an attempt, he said in his 1953 National Book Award speech, "to return to the mood of personal moral responsibility for democracy which typified the best of our nineteenth-century fiction." Throughout the '60s and '70s, as intellectuals and writers clenched their fists and took to the barricades, Ellison appealed hopefully to America's literary past as a way to transcend the country's racial fractures and ferocious contests of identity.

His stubborn faith in that tradition was breathtaking. Some were baffled by what they saw as his scholarly aloofness; others were outraged. (During his life, he was accused of all kinds of things: of not writing protest fiction à la Richard Wright, of being too cozy with whites, of spurning the civil rights movement.) But to Ellison, being engaged did not mean marching in the streets. Operating in the higher frequencies of culture, Ellison, in scores of essays and talks, commemorated the synthetic genius of the American vernacular style and the moral vision of a cherished group of writers—Mark Twain, Herman Melville, Stephen Crane—who both nourished his growth as an artist and provided the seeds for democratic renewal. Whatever America's social and political strain, the work of Ellison's literary heroes pointed beyond the impasse. "These writers," he said, "suggested possibilities, courses of action, stances against chaos."

As essayist, cultural theorist, and novelist, Ellison would return again and again to these concerns. And the trajectory of his life—his Oklahoma boyhood, his passage to the Deep South as a student at the Tuskegee Institute and then northward to Harlem during the '30s, his toil on his masterpiece, his literary celebrity and legendary failure to complete a second novel—is itself a remarkable, contradictory study in courses of action and possibilities, many realized, others unfulfilled.

Robert Penn Warren, Eleanor Clark Warren, Robert Motherwell, Ralph Ellison, and Nancy Lewis, Bethany, CT, 1962.
Robert Penn Warren, Eleanor Clark Warren, Robert Motherwell, Ralph Ellison, and Nancy Lewis, Bethany, CT, 1962.

Given that Ellison published only one novel in his lifetime, the amount of material confronting his would-be biographer is enormous. One could write a book on just the particulars of the years leading up to Invisible Man, when the young writer was a disciple of Richard Wright and active in Harlem's communist literary circles, as Lawrence Jackson did in Ralph Ellison: Emergence of Genius (2002), an intellectually rigorous first attempt at an Ellison biography. Still, that approach has a way of letting the triumph of Invisible Man blot out other achievements. Ellison died in 1994, and he published many of his greatest essays in the decades after his literary debut, all the while trying to harness the unruly pages of his second novel. With Arnold Rampersad's Ralph Ellison: A Biography, Ellison now has a life in full, though perhaps not the one he deserves.

Rampersad, a respected scholar of black literature and the author of a definitive, two-volume biography of Langston Hughes, casts Ellison in a tragic light, as a man, unmoored by personal instability, whose hard-won literary integration came at the expense of his aesthetic vision and whose prickly views on other black political and cultural figures cost him dearly. "That critical instinct," writes Rampersad of Ellison's fierce intellectual bravado, "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.)"

Ralph Waldo Ellison could be downright arrogant, but, as he saw it, his choice of inheritance was never an either/or proposition. Hybridity was his natural inclination, his birthright. Growing up in Oklahoma City, where he was born in 1913, sharply honed his creative outlook. Though his father died when he was three and his mother toiled as a domestic worker, Ellison looked back fondly on his years in Oklahoma—"the Territory," as he called it, in homage to Twain and to the region's freewheeling mixture of black, Indian, and white idioms. Segregation was a reality, and Tulsa saw some of this country's worst antiblack violence, but Jim Crow had not set hard. (For descendants of freed slaves, Oklahoma was a "territory of hope," Ellison wrote.) A trumpeter in his high school band, Ellison came at writing through music—this would form a central connection in his aesthetic. As a young man, he bopped around Oklahoma City's thriving blues and jazz scenes and soaked up black church music, tutoring himself in a free-for-all of conflicting styles.

Against Ellison's almost nostalgic regard for this time, Rampersad stresses his angry vulnerability and poverty, which would prick at him when he attended Booker T. Washington's Tuskegee Institute on a music scholarship. Ellison chafed at the school's provincialism and battled with his teachers, but his transformation from musician to writer had begun. A librarian became a mentor. Steeped in black musical and literary traditions, Ellison pointed out again and again in his writings that Twain, Dostoyevsky, Faulkner, Malraux, Hemingway, and T. S. Eliot were no less decisive in his formation. Like the narrator of Invisible Man, Ellison was a specialist in perception; he had a gift for seeing around corners. He wanted the hidden connections between styles revealed. For Ellison, there was only a short distance between jazz and "The Waste Land."

A search for a summer job led the chronically hard-up Ellison to Harlem in 1936—he would not return to Tuskegee—and into the hubbub of big-city life. There, Ellison met Wright (an encounter brokered by Langston Hughes), who would prove a major influence. Wright, who headed up the Daily Worker's Harlem bureau, encouraged Ellison to review books, steered him to the ferment of left-wing politics and black cultural nationalism, and got him a gig with the New York City Federal Writing Project researching black life. Drawn into the orbit of the Communist Party, Ellison became, at least outwardly, a rather doctrinaire Stalinist and began contributing to the communist weekly the New Masses, where he published some of his first efforts in criticism and social commentary.

Later, Ellison's feelings toward Wright would be marked by an ambivalent respect, but Wright's impact on him was profound. In Wright, he found a kinsman. "Hating racism, both men were also haunted by what would soon be called a sense of existential chaos in life," notes Rampersad. "Both were hungry for fame, in love with art and ideas, and adoring of Western learned culture. Both Wright and Ellison admired and yet had also grown more and more critical of black culture. They had become especially disdainful of its political and religious leaders."

More than 1940's Native Son, which Ellison praised, the publication of Wright's 12 Million Black Voices in 1941 hit him with the force of dynamite. A documentary hymn to black America, it unleashed a torrent of powerful emotion in Ellison. To Wright in the year of its release, he confessed bitterness and rage in a letter of searing frankness: "I know those emotions . . . which tear the insides to be free and memories which must be kept underground, caged by rigid discipline lest they destroy, but which yet are precious to me because they are mine and I am proud of that which is myself."

It's an extraordinary statement, dipping low, rising into a Whitmanesque crescendo, bursting with many of the themes Ellison would pour into his essays and fiction. (It's almost a prophecy of Invisible Man.) Discipline was a key concept for Ellison, referring both to the techniques imposed by the artist, who must master and shape his materials, and to the carefully modulated repertoire of attitudes Ellison saw in black life. These different psychological registers—ironic, forbearing, indifferent, mocking, contemptuous—formed a protective bulwark against political and social oppression.

From the mid-'40s onward, charged by Wright's example, Ellison would spin out considered (if sometimes pedantic) essays on black culture and begin his turn toward Invisible Man. In "Richard Wright's Blues," an appraisal of Black Boy, and in other pieces, Ellison elaborated a wide-ranging theory of black life that went beyond racial cheerleading. America's racial predicament could never be reduced to a simple equation of white oppression = black suffering. For the pragmatic Ellison, it was important to acknowledge the way black people, despite this predicament, had built a fully human culture that most whites either diminished (he jabbed at well-meaning whites who subscribed to the "'Aren't-Negroes-Wonderful?' school of thinking" that reduced blacks to simple, happy primitives) or refused to see at all. "Men have made a way of life in caves and upon cliffs," he wrote in 1944. "Why cannot Negroes have made a life upon the horns of the white man's dilemma?" In a whole range of black cultural expression—jazz, blues, Negro spirituals—Ellison located a certain paradoxical freedom "implicit in the Negro situation." For both him and Wright, the blues, "an autobiographical chronicle of personal catastrophe expressed lyrically," were a way of getting beyond the tempting certainties of communism.

At the same time, he put American culture on the couch. Lamenting the white denial of Negro humanity, Ellison began to develop a powerful countermyth to the narrative of white supremacy. From 1776 to 1876, "there was a conception of democracy current in this country that allowed the writer to identify himself with the Negro," he wrote, invoking a pantheon of his heroes—Whitman, Twain, Emerson, Thoreau. (For Ellison, Huck's raft symbolized a lost racial fraternity.) Only after the tawdry betrayal of Reconstruction "was the Negro issue pushed into the underground of the American conscience and ignored." As a result, America had become a "nation of ethical schizophrenics," unable to deal with its racial situation, a vital segment of its humanity cut off, anesthetized by a steady drip of "hypnotic ritual and narcotic modes of thinking." Despite all this, Ellison found—or made up—a homegrown tradition he could identify with. He wanted to find a place in the total American scheme, a project that would become his lifework.

All this feverish speculation spurred Ellison's growth as a writer of fiction. Indeed, the publication of Invisible Man can be seen as the explosive culmination of a decade's worth of theorizing and emotional turmoil. Whatever his ideological fervor—his zeal was, in part, a career move—Ellison never fully submitted to the rigid categories of Marxism and black nationalism. Always seeking to make connections between traditions, Ellison imbibed the tricks of modernism. Taken with the aesthetics of surrealism, he made an advance toward fulfilling his vision in "King of the Bingo Game" (1944), probably his best short story. In this harrowing study of bewilderment in the city, a black migrant from the South who chances everything in a bingo parlor sees his luck turn viciously against him. "You've written some kind of crazy thing there, man!" Wright told him. Still, for all his admiration of his mentor, Ellison did not want to follow the elder writer's path in his own attempt at a novel.

Inspired by literary critic Kenneth Burke, another key influence, Ellison drank up myth and symbol criticism in his attempt to discipline the riot of material that would go into Invisible Man: memories of his past, bits and pieces of black folklore, blues ditties and jazz notes, the migration of African-Americans from rural South to industrial North, the disorienting experience of the city (Invisible Man is, among other things, one of the great novels of urban life), and the collision between personal judgment and ideological necessity. Ellison's range of allusion provided a secure foundation for experimental daring. To "K. B. the liberator!" Ellison later wrote Burke. "One of the most important things I learned . . . was the possibility of creating depth and resonance in my fiction by taking the gambler's chance of alluding to things I'd read in the Bible, in literary classics, scientific works, folklore, or to anything else that might be conveyed through the written word—And you made me feel that this was possible even when it seemed unlikely that the reader would suspect the presence of such allusions in the work of an Afro-American writer."

Ellison had set out to write a World War II novel staged in a Nazi prison camp, but he could not keep submerged an insistent voice in his head. In Vermont as a guest of the critic Stanley Edgar Hyman, sometime in 1945 he was tapping on his typewriter when the line "I am an invisible man" suddenly barged its way onto the page. On the eruption of this underground man with an all-American twist, Ellison mused, "I was most annoyed to have my efforts interrupted by an ironic, down-home voice that struck me as being irreverent as a honky-tonk trumpet blasting through a performance, say, of Britten's War Requiem." But like a good jazz musician, he went with it, and the rest is literary history.

As visionary and inventive as early Pynchon, as angry and protesting as the best of Wright, a bildungsroman crossed with an existential "screw you," Invisible Man, which appeared in 1952, changed American culture forever. For Ellison, it was a savage declaration of independence. He wouldn't be straitjacketed by the terms of black writing—or of any other category of literature. With the first-person voice of a mocking, caustic, self-lacerating, tragicomic unnamed everyman who lives in a brightly lit hole in a "border area" near Harlem—he pilfers electricity from Monopolated Light & Power—and proudly dubs himself a "thinker-tinker" in the great American tradition of Franklin and Ford, Ellison managed to tell a universal story through scrupulous fidelity to black life. Like his hero Melville, there was no verbal register Ellison couldn't hit. Sentimental and hard-hitting, satirical and affirming ("I denounce and I defend and I hate and I love"), the invisible man chronicles self-understanding after a long journey through bafflement and counterfeit liberation. A political novel that transcends politics, the book is a vital contribution to the literature of ideological exhaustion.

In a mind-bending variation on the old story of the country boy who comes to the city, the invisible man bounces around like a pinball, the unwitting tool of various tendencies—black accomodationism and white paternalism in the South, where he's a student at a Tuskegee-like college, and communism in Harlem, as a member of the Brotherhood—that Ellison brilliantly personifies in a series of unforgettable characters: Dr. Bledsoe, the power-mad president of the college; Mr. Norton, the white philanthropist who reduces the narrator to an abstraction, a means to gratify his do-gooding; and the terrifying Brother Jack, the one-eyed leader of the Brotherhood. To all of these manipulators, the narrator is indeed invisible, a mere cipher.

Driven into his hole, where he plans his next move and talks a lot of bull, the invisible man issues almost hysterical assertions of his individuality. "Look at me! Look at me!" he explodes in a crucial epiphany before his descent. "Everywhere I've turned somebody has wanted to sacrifice me for my good—only they were the ones who benefited." He falls back on the gimcrack contrivances of the self (such as they are) and makes up an existence—here was Ellison's tribute to jazz and the "the play-it-by-eye-and-by-ear improvisations which we invent in our efforts to control our environment and entertain ourselves" that he identified at the heart of the American aesthetic.

The novel won the National Book Award and propelled its author to the center of the literary establishment. He geared up for a new novel—to his friend the critic and novelist Albert Murray, he wrote about a plan to scout the Southwest. "I've got to get real mad again, and talk with the old folks a bit. I've got one Okla. book in me I do believe." He racked up friendships with Saul Bellow, an important ally; Robert Penn Warren; the poet Richard Wilbur; and others. He became a much-sought-after speaker and intellectual. Happy to parse the traditions that formed him, he resisted labels: "All novels are about certain minorities," he told the Paris Review in 1955. "The individual is a minority. The universal in the novel—and isn't that what we're all clamoring for these days?—is reached only through the depiction of the specific man in a specific circumstance."

By the end of the '50s, Ellison was seemingly in a good place, garlanded with literary baubles, endowed by fellowships, poised to forge ahead. But the next two decades, though he lectured, served on committees, and became a grand old man of letters, would prove trying for him. He struggled with his next novel—it kept growing and growing, as he burrowed deeper into his past—and defended himself from assaults by younger black writers and other critics who questioned his slant on art and culture. Ishmael Reed mixed it up with Ellison, who hardly acknowledged Reed's deft mastery of vernacular prose. In his battle with Irving Howe over the proper stance of the black writer in 1963, Ellison had to declare his independence as an "American Negro novelist" all over again. "As he strains toward self-achievement as artist (and here he can only ‘integrate' and free himself)," he wrote in "The World and the Jug," one of his most powerfully argued essays (first published in the New Leader), "he moves toward fulfilling his dual potentialities as Negro and American."

Dapper, sporting a finely clipped mustache, Ellison was a man of old-fashioned elegance and bearing. A party of one, he often found himself isolated from new trends in literature and culture. A lover of jazz, he disliked Charlie Parker and "that poor, evil, lost little Miles Davis," as he looked back to prebop greats like the guitarist Charlie Christian, a fellow Oklahoman. He loathed the sexed-up antics of Norman Mailer, who thought Ellison an "essentially hateful writer." (About hipsters, Ellison complained, "I'm damned sick of these 'white Negroes' trying to tell me what it is to be a black Negro.") Many of Ellison's friends detected a barely concealed anger beneath his regal poise. It was rumored he carried a knife. Said Murray, "You really didn't want to mess with Ralph Ellison."

Though heartened by Brown v. Board of Education, which confirmed his optimistic faith in the Constitution, he distanced himself from the more radical elements of the civil rights movement. Black Power repelled him, as did those who looked to Africa. "The African content of American Negro life is more fanciful than actual," he said in 1960. (Long after semantic fashions had changed, Ellison insisted on Negro to describe his orientation to the world—"the term 'Negro' tells me something about the mixture of African, European and native-American styles which define me. . . . I emphasize Negro because it refers specifically to American cultural phenomena.") The successes of other black writers rattled him, and he seemed to go out of his way to disparage them. He had no use for Chester Himes and cooled to Wright. He accused James Baldwin of trying to "inflate his personal problem to the dimension of a national problem." However, when William Faulkner, another hero, said in an interview that he would shoot rioting blacks in the streets, Ellison maintained a disciplined respect in the face of an outrageous provocation. "I refuse to let his statement destroy the meaning which his works hold for me," he wrote an editor at Random House.

For Rampersad, there is a direct correlation between Ellison's artistic powers and his links to the currents of black life. Because Ellison drifted away from "the black social reality around him" in the '60s and '70s and into a white-dominated literary world, he sacrificed something essential in himself. On the whole, Rampersad is a thorough, respectful biographer and an able guide to the making of Invisible Man and to Ellison's maturation as an intellectual figure, but he makes some unfair claims about his rise in the literary world.

Since Ellison was often the only black writer at a literary function, especially in the years just prior to Invisible Man, Rampersad suggests he, "albeit with little choice if he wished to succeed," participated "in a version of Jim Crow." So Ellison was proud of his friendships with Warren and Bellow—should this be held against him? Such relationships sprang from a shared literary vision—Ellison championed The Adventures of Augie March, while Warren's perspective on the South complimented his own—not out of tokenism or patronizing motives. But for Rampersad, the price of Ellison's integration was high—too high. By the '70s, hundreds of pages into his new novel (some of which had been lost in a fire in 1967), Ellison was adrift. "As a novelist, he had lost his way," Rampersad concludes. "And he had done so in proportion to his distancing of himself from his fellow blacks."

There is a question of authenticity here, though Rampersad doesn't quite put it that way. But for Ellison, there would never be any such concern. "I've always written out of a sense of the group experience as filtered through my individual experiences, talent, and vision," he said in 1970. If anything, the problems that bedeviled Ellison's "Okla. book," a part of which appeared posthumously as Juneteenth in 1999, had less to do with his estrangement from his roots than with his strangulation by them. Oklahoma became more and more a territory of his dreams, a key to all his elaborate mythologies of self. "Anything and everything was to be found in the chaos of Oklahoma," Ellison wrote in the introduction to his 1964 essay collection, Shadow and Act. In a sense, Ellison became lost in that chaos and could not find a way out.

The kinetic music of Juneteenth makes clear that Ellison was immured in a clamorous babel of church oratory, rhetorical one-upmanship, and the down-home riffing that had filled his ears as a child. Ellison's discipline failed him; he could not bring this story home. Yet the novel, assembled from fragments by Ellison's literary executor, is hardly the travesty its critics said it was. The story, about a black preacher who raises a light-skinned orphan who flees and reinvents himself as a racist senator, is a pessimistic variation on the very kinds of transformation Ellison thought explained the genius of American culture. There is a lot of doubt lurking in all the verbal fizz. The book carries the poignant dedication "To That Vanished Tribe into Which I Was Born: The American Negroes," and one cannot help but wonder whether in these words Ellison was writing an elegy for himself.

Matthew Price is a frequent contributor to Bookforum.