By Arnold Rampersad
Alfred A. Knopf / 657 pages / $35
"The blues is an impulse," Ralph Ellison explained, "to keep the painful details and episodes of a 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. As a form, the blues is an autobiographical chronicle of personal catastrophe expressed lyrically."
Ralph Ellison is a bluesy biography of the brilliant writer who won the National Book Award in 1953 for the incomparable Invisible Man - and never published another novel. A professor of English at Stanford University and the distinguished biographer of Langston Hughes and Jackie Robinson, Arnold Rampersad is the first scholar with access to all of Ellison's papers. He uses them, masterfully, to paint a powerful, painful, and poignant portrait of a tormented genius, who distanced himself from civil rights activism and young black writers and became "a clubbable monster," at home in the Century Association, the American Academy of Arts and Letters and Lyndon B. Johnson's White House.
Born in Oklahoma City, Ellison matriculated at the Tuskegee Institute, where he played the trumpet and conducted the student band. He decided on a whim to spend the summer of 1936 in New York City, living on the $119.02 the state of Oklahoma belatedly sent for the academic year that had just ended. He never returned for his degree. With encouragement from Langston Hughes and Richard Wright, Ellison began to write reviews, short stories, and sketches of Negro life for the Federal Writers Project. And he became active in the radical politics of Harlem, perhaps joining the Communist Party.
Ellison drew on these experiences in Invisible Man, a first-person narrative, surrealistic and existential, by an unnamed character. With penetrating portraits of Bledsoe, the black college president, Norton, the white benefactor, Ras, the destroyer, and Rinehart, the modern-day Melvillian confidence man, the novel ends, famously, with "Invisible" ready to embrace his own black humanity and return to the world. As he leaves his hole - "I'm coming out, no less invisible without it, but coming out nevertheless" - he realizes that all people, in some sense, are invisible to one another: "Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?" Reading Invisible Man, Norman Mailer exclaimed, "is like holding a live electric wire in one's hand."
After he won the National Book Award, Rampersad maintains, Ellison became an "institution," with honorary degrees and lucrative lecture fees. Every white man's favorite black man, he pontificated, on higher frequencies. And his views on race became frozen in place. Rampersad gives Ellison a little credit - perhaps too little - for remaining "unabashedly an American integrationist" long after it had become unfashionable to be one. He mentions, in passing, Ellison's defense of black youth, his sponsorship of the Emergency Black Survival Fund and his endorsement of the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson's presidential run in 1984.
Nonetheless, he emphasizes that Ellison avoided civil rights activism in favor of "more exclusive - or reclusive - self-display" as an artist. When Ellison spoke out in the '50s, Rampersad claims, he denounced communists, not segregationists. In 1963, he "gave no thought" to joining the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s March on Washington. Throughout the '60s and '70s, he "persisted in stressing" that race had become an excuse for blacks to refrain from taking a hard look at themselves - and evinced "little sympathy" for victims of Jim Crow.
The assassinations of King and Malcolm X and Ellison's elitist estrangement from the struggle for racial justice, Rampersad suggests, forced him to revise - and postpone - his optimistic novel-in-progress, a revival of the "tragic mulatto" genre, dismissed by Toni Morrison as "not really a story anybody needed to hear again."
Rampersad's Ellison is self-absorbed, restless, irritable and obstinate. He is oblivious to the sacrifices his mother makes to keep him in college. When he has an affair, he blames his wife, who catered to his every whim: "You are a good woman who helped create that which caused you pain, when you might have held yourself in reserve and overcome the situation without stirring up all the limitations of our relationship." Worst of all, in answering the siren call of celebrity, he sacrifices his novelistic discipline and his capacity for self-examination.
Rampersad is relentless - and merciless. For decades, he reveals, Ellison opposed admitting women to the Century Association and "seemed almost as opposed, in practice, to admitting other blacks." Rampersad doubts that Ellison lost hundreds of manuscript pages in the fire that destroyed his house in Plainfield, Mass. And he feels compelled to expose Ellison for declaring to the IRS a $25 expense for entertaining a professor doing research on Langston Hughes, even though he had served neither food nor drink during the visit.
It may well be true, but it's a bit too much. In taking the measure of his man, Rampersad reveals the frightening truth articulated a century ago by Oscar Wilde: "Biography adds to death a new terror."
Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.