Ellison left us with a book of eloquent, subtle anger

April 18, 1994|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Sun Book Editor

There may never be another literary career as melancholic as that of Ralph Ellison. He gave us one great novel, "Invisible Man." He never finished a second novel, though he labored on it for more than 30 years and several hundred pages of it were lost in a fire in the mid-1960s. When the writer's death was announced Saturday, at the age of 80, his editor said that he had left behind a manuscript of more than 1,000 pages, but did not know if it could be published.

Perhaps no serious American writer had a literary reputation based upon one book as much as Mr. Ellison did with "Invisible Man." (J. D. Salinger never had a second novel published after "Catcher in the Rye," but he did write two collections of short stories.) Mr. Ellison published two good collections of essays, in 1964 and 1986, but it's safe to say that few readers outside of scholars know of them.

Thus, for better and for worse, Mr. Ellison's literary career was inescapably linked to "Invisible Man," his landmark 1952 novel about the intellectual and spiritual journey of a young black man in the 1930s and 1940s. In it, the unnamed narrator moves from the segregated South to the charged racial politics of Harlem; he has brushes with communism and black nationalism before, at the end, retreating to his bunk- erlike New York apartment with its 1,369 light bulbs. He sees his alienation and despair not so much in racial terms but in human terms; over and over, he plays the Louis Armstrong record, "What Did I Do To Be So Black and Blue?"

At times wildly satirical, compelling and profoundly sad, "Invisible Man" brought Mr. Ellison extraordinary recognition, including the National Book Award. In several polls, "Invisible Man" has been picked as one of the outstanding American novels of the century.

Yet Mr. Ellison grew weary of hearing that "Invisible Man" was too dispassionate, too ironic. In particular, some black readers and authors have complained it did not contain sufficient rage, and that Mr. Ellison strove too much to be considered part of the American literary mainstream.

Mr. Ellison always contended that he hated to feel boxed in as a "black writer," and he told the New Yorker only last month: "I am rather passionate about some of the inequities that are part of the country. But why should a writer be different? No one asks a surgeon to be different. He has to be a surgeon first. He has to know the techniques and traditions of surgery. That's how I approach writing."

Willie Morris, the former editor of Harper's magazine, wrote in his memoir "New York Days" of a seminar that he and Mr. Ellison attended at Iowa'sGrinnell College in the late 1960s. At a party on campus, Mr. Ellison was accosted by a young black man who criticized the ending of "Invisible Man," saying it depicted the narrator as giving in to oppression rather than fighting it.

Finally, Mr. Morris writes, the young man said accusingly to Mr. Ellison: "You're an Uncle Tom, man. You're a sell-out. You're a disgrace to your race." The author burst into tears and declared: "I'm not a Tom. I'm not a Tom." Later that night, after Mr. Morris expressed his apologies for the incident, Mr. Ellison answered wearily: "Why be sorry? I've heard that kind of thing for a long time. I'm used to it."

What's curious about this debate is that, at heart, "Invisible Man" is a profoundly angry book. The problem, perhaps, is that it is not an overtly angry one. Mr. Ellison doesn't sermonize about how segregation dehumanizes blacks; he depicts it with stupendous, meticulous care. He shows how men and women were broken and how they coped, whether it was through drink, or religion, or racial politics, or by numbing themselves.

The noted literary critic Irving Howe, a leftist, criticized "Invisible Man" for not having enough social protest, but he did concede: "No other writer has captured so much the hidden gloom and surface gaiety of Negro life." But that's precisely the point: Only a writer burning with anger could have infused "Invisible Man" with so much detail and passion. Writer James Baldwin, a friend, once observed, "If Ralph were any angrier, he could not be alive."

An artist with sensitivity always faces this dilemma: What do you do with outrage or anger? Upton Sinclair wrote movingly about the squalid Chicago stockyards in "The Jungle," but it turned into a socialist tract and lost much of its power.

Mr. Ellison felt, though, that while politics change, human suffering and ignorance and despair do not. Thus he gives no easy answers in "Invisible Man"; it's hard to find any, except, perhaps, for the famous last line: "Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?"

For Mr. Ellison was recalling the famous contention of W. E. B. Du Bois almost 50 years earlier: "The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line." The conclusion of "Invisible Man," no doubt, startled a lot of white readers who had never thought that "the race problem," as it was known then, was really a human one.

In "Invisible Man," the narrator concludes, "I've never been more loved and appreciated than when I tried to 'justify' and affirm someone's mistaken beliefs; or when I've tried to give my friends the incorrect, absurd answers they wished to hear." Ralph Ellison could have turned up the volume if he chose. But he kept it to a whisper, and that is why his book still resonates today.

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