Ralph Ellison is justly celebrated for his epochal novel Invisible Man, which won the National Book Award in 1953 and has become a classic of American literature. But Ellisons strange inability to finish a second novel, despite his dogged efforts and soaring prestige, made him a supremely enigmatic figure. In Ralph Ellison: A Biography, Arnold Rampersad skillfully tells the story of a writer whose thunderous novel and astute, courageous essays on race, literature, and culture assure him of a permanent place in our literary heritage.
Starting with Ellisons hardscrabble childhood in Oklahoma and his ordeal as a student in Alabama, Rampersad documents his improbable, painstaking rise in New York to a commanding place on the literary scene. With scorching honesty but also fair and compassionate, Rampersad lays bare his subjects troubled psychology and its impact on his art and on the people about him.
In an August, 2007 interview with Jerry Jazz Musician publisher Joe Maita, Rampersad discusses the book many are calling Ellison’s “definitive” biography, as well as a “stellar model of literary biography.”#
“At some level, Ralph was living a life that was not unlike that of the hero of his novel. In his search for identity, Invisible learns to shun most of the blacks about him. Hating the black nationalist leader who confronts him, he flings a spear through his jaw. But Invisible also rejects those who touch his heart, such as Mary Rambo, a black woman in Harlem who offers him motherly love. To some extent, Invisible’s isolation at the end of the novel mimics Ralph’s growing distance from the blacks about him. His sense of difference and superiority expanded even as he continued to want to live among blacks and as he sought to interpret their culture through the lens of fiction.”
– Arnold Rampersad
JJM You wrote, “Even as a young man he was eager to do battle with the circumstances of life.” In which childhood relationships was he able to build his sense of self?
AR First, in a kind of negative way, his memory of his father Lewis is paramount. His father died when Ellison was three, and I don’t think he ever really got over that. Materially his situation changed for the worst, dramatically, but he also had very fond memories of his father, and memories of his father being wheeled away to an operation from which he never really recovered. So his father was important, and his father’s ancestry in South Carolina became almost larger than life. Then there is his mother and their rather complicated relationship, but she surely contributed in some positive aspects of his sense of self. He talked about a man named Jefferson Davis Randolph, in whose rooming house he was born. Randolph was black, but really looked like a Native American. He was a leader in the Oklahoma City community whose family was fairly well-to-do. Another important person was Zelia Breaux, a black woman who was the superintendent of the “colored schools” of Oklahoma City. She was the one who singled him out and led him to think of himself as an artist. She taught music and led an orchestra which he became student concert master of. So she definitely did a lot to help build his sense of discipline and pride, but also a sense of himself as a committed artist.
JJM When did he begin to see the world as a writer?
AR It may have occurred before he realized that he wanted to become a writer, which took place after he got to New York City in 1936. He met Langston Hughes on the second day there, and then met Richard Wright the following year — he was so close to Wright that he was practically seeing Native Son come out of the typewriter. It was Wright who asked him to write a review for a publication, and then to write a short story, neither of which Ellison had ever done before. It was around that time, in 1937, that he dedicated himself to becoming a writer. But it took him a long apprenticeship of many years.
JJM How did his identity as a professional writer begin to take hold?
AR Even though he wouldn’t admit it, initially it was a kind of imitation of Richard Wright, who had published Uncle Tom’s Children, a collection of novellas, and then in 1940 Native Son appeared, which had huge sales.
In addition to Wright, but also connected to Wright, was this sense of himself as a writer connected to the far-left, and he began to publish in New Masses and a couple of other left wing journals — Communist journals, practically. That shaped his sense of himself professionally for a period of about three or four years, and it also gave him a chance to see his name and words in print. Then, in 1942, according to Ellison himself and according to the evidence, he had a conversion experience away from Communism — which Richard Wright did as well — and he began to see himself as a more liberal, cosmopolitan intellectual who took up as his main mentors Fyodor Dostoevsky, Mark Twain, Herman Melville, T.S. Eliot, Ernest Hemingway, and then Andre Malraux.
JJM In contributing to his turn away from Communism, you wrote, “Under Communism, ‘mystery’ and ‘magic’ were virtually forbidden terms — unless used scornfully.”
AR Yes, and I would make one more point about his turning away from Communism. Although he put 1942 as the year in which he made this change away from a Communist aesthetic, he really went back to what he was before, since he was not a Communist or even a far-left sympathizer in his youth. There is no sign of a far-left persuasion during his days at Tuskegee Institute, and Tuskegee was certainly no hotbed of Marxist or any other kind of revolutionary thought. So he returned to what he had been before, except at this time he had great major literary goals in terms of reading and, if he could, making himself an intellectual.
JJM What was his post World War II ambition?
AR Almost to the day, it was to write the “Great American Novel.” Invisible Man has its genesis in the atomic summer of 1945, and I think the end of the war and the explosion of the bombs led to his inspiration. After 1945 he went to work on his novel, and he was writing it in a way that would not have even been possible in American fiction before the war. He was very much a product of the war and the post-war period, as were the Jewish writers Norman Mailer, and to some extent Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud. There was a kind of patriotic ethnicity in American literature in the post World War II period, and Ellison was related to that in some way.
JJM Black and Jewish writers shared some of the same concerns after the war?
AR Yes, at a certain level they did, and one of which was how to remain relatively faithful to their cultural background while also making it big as American writers. Many of the writers like Bellow were definitely interested in transcending their ethnicities while also not denying them. Ellison is part of that — transcending his ethnicity without denying it.
JJM Why was Ellison so fascinated by characters who create and exploit chaos?
AR I don’t know where that comes from for sure, but possibly it is from Dostoyevsky. To some extent, social conditions in Russia in the late 19th Century were not totally unlike the conditions were for blacks in America. There was a strong sense of a divided, antagonistic society. The sense of gloom that comes out of Dostoyevsky comes naturally out of Ellison’s own reading of African American history and culture, since it was dominated by the phenomenon of slavery and then of Jim Crow. There was a sense of ruthlessness and the possibility that disaster is always present. What Ellison did in this respect was to move away from the typical response of a black writer — pretending that there is no problem and writing about nature and trees and life and love — and to face the business of racism and slavery, and try to consciously transcend it.
It is really clear that the major cues come from the musicians. He came out of a very strong jazz and blues culture in Oklahoma City, and when you examine jazz and the blues you saw protest, but in the form of art that didn’t really have any resemblance to protest. And, he said that when he read T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” for the first time, he saw not only the central theme of the poem — that the world is a place of profound sorrow and trouble — but also the improvisational qualities that he associated with jazz. It is true that at the end of the poem we have offered to us the idea that spiritual regeneration is possible, but Ellison was not interested in that part. He was most interested in how the poem emphasized the powerlessness and shallowness of life, and that death and chaos are always at hand.
JJM What were his limitations as a writer as he began work on Invisible Man?
AR By the time he began to work on Invisible Man he had finally hit a certain stride. His first stories are crude, and his first attempts at writing novels are crude, but by 1945 he had finally begun to master the use of symbolism, imagery, surrealism, and even what you could call magical realism. “King of the Bingo Game” is a short story in which he uses all sorts of devices to tell it, and it marks a degree of his maturation, although I wouldn’t want to make too extravagant of a claim for it. So he was ready up to a point, but there were many other things that he had to master. He was never sure of himself as a novelist, and constructing a big work was always a challenge. For example, consider his engagement with pressure and domesticity and women. This was not his strong suit nor his interest, so he had to write about it through trial and error — mainly by error. A character like Mary Rambo embodied the feminine — nurturing, loving, kindness — and for a time he hoped to give her a bigger role in the book, but it kept shrinking because that was not where his heart or head was, and it marked Invisible Man with a kind of barrenness and bleakness concerning relationships between men and women. Ellison had to work through these things to discover what he was really interested in, what he could really write about, what inspired him and what didn’t inspire him, and through a tremendous act of artistic energy and self-exploration, he was able to do so. No wonder, in a sense, that he couldn’t do it in a second novel.
JJM At what point did critics begin to see the potential of Invisible Man?
AR An excerpt appeared in Horizon magazine in 1947, and it just blew people away. In Encounter, the story appears among many others by famous writers, and there seems to be a consensus that Ellison’s piece was the best of the bunch. So, I would think people began to notice him then, but probably not in any big way, because you can’t stake your reputation on any one story.
JJM Do you consider Invisible Man to be among the four or five great American novels?
AR There are the foundational novels, like James Fenimore Cooper’s, although he is held in low esteem, and Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, which reigns supreme in many ways. But I stick to the works of the 20th Century, and one point I make repeatedly is that if you have written a novel about race, you have a head start on significance in America, because race is so much at the core of America, and continues to be so. Race is the most serious question in American culture. The Civil War is connected to race, and the Civil War is probably the number one story in American history. Since Invisible Man is a novel about race, and about Communism and nationalism, it has a head start. But it is also brilliantly imagined for at least the first half of it So, yes, I would list it quite highly when I think about it objectively. I read Theodore Dreiser and I love Sister Carrie, but it is not in the same league as Invisible Man. His American Tragedy is a major book as well, but in terms of literary virtuosity, while they are important and powerful and unforgettable, they are relatively simply constructed, whereas Invisible Man sometimes misses in its affects, but it is absolutely dazzling. Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King is a great work that doesn’t always succeed, and overall I would say that Lolita is a virtuoso performance.
JJM Much of your book deals with his ability to move within the white world, and how this affected his sense of place within the black world, and, ultimately, his ability to function as an artist. There is very clearly some disconnect between Ellison and the black social reality. Was it difficult for him to turn a social reality that he wasn’t very much a part of into fiction?
AR His inability to come to terms with that social reality except in a very distant, almost bookish way is one of my arguments. The fact that he wanted to write about it but wasn’t actually living it and, in fact, felt some estrangement from it presented him with real problems when he tried to create the second novel. I think it made him rely more and more on figures out of other people’s books, especially William Faulkner’s. So, his estrangement from the black world made him rely on factors that seemed literary but did not really fire his imagination as it should have. I don’t mean to say that what he wrote in his second novel was always unimaginative, but I would say that it consistently misses the mark in terms of success.
JJM You wrote, “While young black youths hungered for leadership, the most honored living black American novelist had no young black disciples, students or friends. Asked urgently to nominate some younger Negro writers for university fellowships, Ralph was candid: ‘I am very, very sorry that I am not in touch with any young Negro writers these days and cannot be of assistance to you.'” Did he have an idea about how such disdain would impact young black writers and, ultimately, how he would be viewed by black Americans in general?
AR Ellison had nothing to lose in the white world by disdaining black people. What he had to lose was the full respect of many black people, but he would always have some respect because of his fiction and essays. Did he know that this would be the case? Well, you know, we all know, in a sense, when we are doing wrong, or unpleasant things and continue to do them. Did it occasion any regret on his part? I don’t think he would have ever admitted that he made a mistake in not being more helpful and friendlier. What he did not understand, and what I believe — although it may not be true — is that he did not understand it was hurting his art. When you estrange yourself from the world that you are trying to write about, you are putting yourself in a very difficult position artistically.
JJM Concerning this, Toni Morrison said, “My suspicion was that he considered himself an exception. He got to speak for us but he did not like to be identified with us.”
AR Yes, and based on the way he behaved he carried that through to the end, and never regretted it. That is difficult for a lot of people.
JJM One of the things I find remarkable about Ellison is that he was eternally optimistic about life when it was hard to be anything but pessimistic
AR I think you are totally right to take the conversation in that direction, because it is a necessary direction. He was optimistic, and it is important to remember that there were some solid principles behind his behavior that perhaps led to uncharitable actions. But he did not see them in that way. He talked about Negro life as being a very stern discipline, and he defined his art and Negro culture in terms of discipline, in recognizing white power, creating art out of misery, and so on. He believed also in Americans and their individualism and eternal optimism.
JJM Was he dismayed at how so many black intellectuals and leaders of the time sneered at his optimism?
AR When the sneering took the form of youth protest and youth ridicule of Ellison, then yes, he felt very uncomfortable — as in that scene in Invisible Man, when he breaks down and cries and declares that he is not an “Uncle Tom.” That affected him, surely.
JJM His name became associated with ultra-conservatism. I was struck by the story at Southern Illinois University, whose black studies program didn’t include Invisible Man in the library because he wasn’t considered to be a “black writer.”
AR Well, that was a piece of lunacy and idiocy on the part of the institution, but not uncharacteristic of the times. Yes, he had to deal with those things, but he believed he was doing the right thing, just as he believed that every man needed to fend for themselves, and if they are good enough, they will succeed.
JJM I grew up in the San Francisco Bay area during the 1960’s and 1970’s, at a time when black militancy was admired in many of the community’s white social circles. Concerning this, you wrote, “Almost everywhere, he attracted young whites eager to feel the heat of Negro indignation and young blacks who expected black speakers to fan the fire.” That is a lot of people to disappoint
AR That is a lot of people to disappoint, yes, and I think he paid a price for it. Go through that sort of thing enough and you will need three or four bourbons in the evening, and not only does that not help him forget, it doesn’t help him write, either.
JJM You point out that events like the Brown vs. Board of Education decision and the events of the Civil Rights Movement impacted work on his second book. How so?
AR Yes, he pointed to the fact, kind of ruefully, that these issues didn’t help the work he was doing. For example, he starts off his second novel with a political assassination on the floor of the Senate, in which the story’s hero, the white/black Adam Sunraider, is shot by a black man. This is what he constructs the story around, but then the real events of American life make that story hackneyed because so many people were being shot down — Kennedy and King, Robert Kennedy, Medger Evers, so on and so forth — that it just took the force out of his story. I think that at one point he had to have seen that the ultimate optimism in his story was being questioned and challenged by real events occurring in the country, and he had to have developed certain doubts about his reading of America. Not that he changed his attitude — he was never going to do that or backtrack and become a cynic about the country — but these events definitely undermined him.
JJM In the mid-1950’s, while working on his second novel, Ellison confided in his main literary advisor Stanley Hyman his concern about his reliance on his jazzlike improvisation and hapless “riffing” instead of a tight plot. Did this get in the way of his creative process?
AR Totally. It is one thing to be influenced by jazz and the blues and improvisation, but once you begin to encounter difficulty in producing a novel or a long story and you are relying on improvisation, you are at risk all the time of improvising yourself into a chaotic artistic situation. This is what happened to Ellison. He was interested in the myth and symbol, which in some ways have very little to do with improvisation and jazz, but in fact they are related. Every major plank in his aesthetic platform had the dangers that were exacerbated once he found it hard to control and finish what he was doing. They contributed to his inability to control what he was trying to do as an artist. Wander into those things — myth and symbol — and you are on a banana peel that you can slip on very easily, and he slipped on it.
JJM Another complication regarding the delay in his work on the second novel was the fire that destroyed his New England home. He said that he was “not burned out. I’m just burned up.” There are several inconsistencies about what he truly lost in the fire. How much of an impact did this fire have on the delay of the book?
AR I think it had an effect, but it is hard to measure the impact it had on his work. After all, it is hard to know the psychological devastation that occurs when your 240-year-old house burns down the same year you buy it. It is a terrible thing, but he should have been able to get over it, especially since it was not an arson fire, which eliminated any suggestion of racism. Also, he really hadn’t lost that many pages to the fire. It should have been a blip
JJM Regarding the fire, in 1974 he said, “When you lose 365 pages of a novel, you just can’t reclaim the subtleties, the abstract ideas, the rhythm, even punctuation, and you undergo a traumatic experience, even though you tell yourself you don’t.”
AR Except that he didn’t lose all those pages, he only lost the last of what he had written that summer, and he may have also lost a notebook. By that time, he had been working on the novel for 15 years — since 1952 — and, I don’t know, but that seems like a long time not having written a novel. There was no good reason for him to blame the fire for the trouble he was having with the novel. He was in trouble before the fire.
JJM What effect did his failure to produce a second novel have on his fame?
AR I don’t think it effected it. Obviously, some people would say that he hasn’t written a whole lot beyond Invisible Man, but mention Herman Melville’s name and Moby Dick is what people think about, and if he hadn’t written any of his other novels, we would still be talking about Moby Dick. It is the pinnacle of his life that outstrips his other work. The existence of Invisible Man guarantees Ellison’s fame, especially since it wore so well through the era of Black Power, the riots, and so on. The book seemed reflective of the new culture that Ellison was uncomfortable with. So, I would have to say not having produced a second novel didn’t effect his fame all that much.
JJM And this failure to produce a second novel didn’t seem to weaken his social stature in any way
AR No, it didn’t weaken his social stature in any way at all. He was in a position where he could walk in to virtually any room in the country where there were other authors present, and nobody could say their novel was better than Invisible Man — unless of course Vladimir Nabokov was there, because I think Lolita is off the charts in terms of brilliance. Faulkner could have said that he had written a better novel in Absalom Absalom, but a lot of people could have said that it is not a better novel because they can’t get through it. This was a very powerful position for Ellison to be in.
JJM Did your work on Ellison reveal anything about Langston Hughes that you missed when you wrote his biography?
AR No. One of the points I like to make when people think I may be too hard on Ellison is that whenever I wrote about Ellison in my Hughes biography, I always took the side of Ellison — his elitism, his sense of needing the art to be complex, and so on. I recognized that Langston Hughes — especially the later Langston Hughes — was, as he described himself, a Missouri sharecropper. Hughes was never going to turn a profit on his work — it was always hard work for him. But as far as I am concerned, Hughes was a golden figure. The first half of his life is pure magic in terms of a story as a human being, as an artist going out into the world. His poetry — whatever its limitations — has grown in prestige, and while people can recognize its limitations, they see it as a virtue. Langston’s body of work also comments on race, and it is important there too. In its own complicated avant-garde way, his poetry is required reading — it is a vision of America caught up in racism that people recognize as valuable. But, to answer your question, I didn’t learn anything else about Hughes while doing my book on Ellison.
JJM You met with Ellison while researching Hughes. What was your own experience like with Ralph Ellison?
AR I didn’t write much about it in the biography, but I came away appalled by him. He was so hostile to Hughes, and he got to me by his evident disdain for my project, and, frankly, for me. But it didn’t prevent me from praising him in Volume II of the Hughes biography, which had not yet been written, because it doesn’t take any effort on my part to get past personal, offensive, personal injury in evaluating writers — that is what I am paid to do. But personally, my experience with him was horrible. Subsequently I would see him now and then, and I kept my distance. He wrote me a letter after the Hughes book came out, praising my work. But it never crossed my mind to even acknowledge the letter, and I never did. That was the way I felt about him.
JJM When did you begin considering writing a biography about him?
AR I never wanted to write it until it came to me, offered as a project, and I came to realize it was an opportunity. I didn’t know what I was getting into because I hadn’t read his private papers, but once I got into them I realized that there may be a story there. I wrote a proposal to Alfred A. Knopf about the book, and I said there may not be much of a story here, and not to expect one. But it didn’t quite turn out that way, because his life was quite interesting, featuring very dramatic, painful moments.
JJM What has the critical reception been to your book?
AR A review by a prominent New York intellectual basically wrote that I said Ellison didn’t like black people. In fact, I am accused of saying that Ellison’s love of white people hurt his writing. But I never said that. I do not think that Ellison should love or respect the whites he loved and respected one iota less than he did. That was not the question. The question is, should he have loved black people more? And I suppose on some levels he loved black people, but he should have helped them more, and he should have involved himself in the culture more. That is the point I am making.
I am pleased about the response to the book in general. It has been extraordinary. The best part of it to me are the letters I have received from other scholars, especially African American scholars, who are grateful that the light has been shed on the unfavorable side — as well as the favorable side — of this revered patriarch of the literary culture. Gratitude has been expressed to me that I have put it out there that we don’t always have to be in a mode of high reverence toward him.
While the book is sometimes tough on Ellison, it is really about the price of great art. People think that somehow great art just happens, but it generally happens at great cost to the artist in terms of madness or erratic behavior. The cost is dramatic — the spouse pays heavily for the art, the children pay heavily for the art, and the biographer also pays for it. So, the book is about the human cost of producing great art, and ultimately why art should be cherished, why it should be respected and valued, but you can only value an artist if you know him and know the full price that he paid. Ellison was showered with honors and rewards, but he paid a steep psychological price for his dedication and determination to produce his art.
JJM Your book will likely stimulate an interest in learning more about Ellison
AR I hope so. I hope it will lead people to read Invisible Man in a different light. I don’t believe I have done anything to diminish his stature — quite the opposite; I think by showing the fuller dimensions of his personality and personal history it will increase both the academic and general interest in Ellison. That happened to be the case with Langston Hughes.
Biographies are very important. They are often sneered at, but biography is coming back into vogue. It is absolutely essential to our understanding of artists to have reliable, scholarly biographies of them, and I think biography has a place in literary criticism, even though a lot of the emphasis in recent years has proclaimed exactly the opposite.
JJM In the process of writing a biography, a writer will doubtless uncover things that may be uncomfortable to reveal. With Ellison, for example, it is tough not to imagine the potential impact on American culture if he had made himself more available to young black writers…
AR Yes, I agree. Who knows what other artists could have emerged? It was unfortunate. Writers helped him. Writers created him. Writers nurtured him. And he should have done the same for other writers, although maybe finally that is not that important.
“We must all discover who we are, what we are and why we are, so that we can face reality creatively.”
– Ralph Ellison
About Arnold Rampersad
Arnold Rampersad is Sara Hart Kimball Professor in the Humanities and a member of the Department of English at Stanford University. His books include biographies of Langston Hughes and Jackie Robinson, and he collaborated with Arthur Ashe on his memoir, Days of Grace. He has written for The New York Times Book Review, The New Republic, and The Washington Post, and is an elected member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Philosophical Society. He lives in Stanford, California.
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This interview took place on August 20, 2007
# Text from publisher.