The Man Made Visible
By Arnold Rampersad
Knopf. 657. $35
"Be nice to people," Langston Hughes advised a young man in 1936, and "let them pay for meals." The young man, Ralph Waldo Ellison, initially took the older writer's words to heart. A few days later he reported back to Hughes: "It helps so very much. Thus far I've paid for but two dinners."
Willful, calculating and more than a little arrogant, Ellison eventually discarded Hughes's counsel about anything, including being nice. Instead of the restrained language encouraging words favored by Hughes (e.g., "The most promising of the younger Negro writers of prose is Ralph Ellison of Oklahoma"), he adopted a style of Olympian declaration that was eminently quotable and completely unforgettable. "It takes fortitude to be a man, and no less to be an artist," he argued in an essay called "The World and the Jug." "Perhaps it takes even more if the black man would be an artist."
That is typical Ellison: intimidating, incisive and pronounced with complete confidence in his vision of the world and how it works. It also neatly reflects the epic African American struggle for order and permanent inclusion that resonates throughout Ellison's masterworks: the novel Invisible Man, as well as his two essay collections, Shadow and Act (1964) and Going to the Territory (1986). As Arnold Rampersad astutely observes in this fascinating, revelatory biography, Ellison's writings took careful note of his fellow blacks' creation of "certain bulwarks against chaos, including religion, folklore, stable families, and a canny knowledge of Jim Crow."
Armed with such perceptions, Ellison waged a resolute -- albeit occasionally wayward -- struggle against the "school of thought that would have the American Negro a race culturally apart from the rest of America." To him, such views contained a painful irony. "The greatest joke, the most absurd paradox, in American history," according to Ellison, was "that simply by striving consciously to become Negroes we are becoming and are destined to become Americans, and the first truly mature Americans at that."
Ellison's synthesis of such elements in his work formed for me a mesmerizing image of the cultural critic as a kind of protean superhero, rippling with sinews, blessed with an all-seeing gaze and possessing an intellect that crackles with electricity. No matter that the source of all this fearlessly iconoclastic wisdom looked less like a muscular middleweight and more like a trumpeter in Duke Ellington's big band -- dapper, compact, sporting an exquisitely manicured mustache and a studied air of savoir faire.
But, as Rampersad convincingly shows, Ellison's carefully applied elegance covered but never completely hid his pugnacious roiling and contradictory temperament. He was, in Rampersad's view, "a somewhat fizzy mixture of pride and vulnerability, joy and despair." Small wonder then, that although he successfully withstood the forces of chaos in his artistic and professional life, his personal affairs frequently teetered on the edge of irreparable disorder.
Born in Oklahoma City in 1913, Ellison launched his pursuit of the artistic life when he came to New York in 1936. He lacked a degree -- he had dropped out of Alabama's famed Tuskegee Institute -- but he almost shivered with ambition. He soon won the guidance and support of several key black artistic figures, including Hughes, the noted sculptor Richmond Barthé and, most significantly, Richard Wright. It was Wright's generous example, Rampersad writes, "that converted young Ralph, between 1937 and 1938, from a near-dilettante into a disciple committed to becoming a writer."
On July 17, 1947, Ellison signed a contract with Random House. Two years before, he "had dedicated himself to creating a novel so rich in its symbolic, allegorical, psychological, social, and historical insight that it would be acclaimed as a masterpiece." He took a little longer than anticipated -- a letter from his wife, Fanny, to Hughes refers to "six agonizing and beautiful years" -- but he succeeded perhaps beyond even his own dreams. Invisible Man, the lyrical, metaphorical tale of a young black man's tussle with questions of race and identity, won the National Book Award in 1953 and has never been out of print.