The Ralph Ellison We Never Knew
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 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.
Atop the literary heap, Ellison had earned what he considered the ultimate prize: "genuine world fame -- not the kind of condescending, provisional compliments that major critics had accorded even the best of African-American writers, including Wright."
But the hard-won acclaim -- and Ellison's own attitude -- distanced him from many of the people who had helped him rise. According to Rampersad, "Even before he became famous, Ralph was not inclined to admit any personal debts," and nowhere is this more evident -- and damning -- than in his relationship with Fanny. She was his second wife (an earlier marriage to actress Rose Poindexter had been doomed by Ellison's "aversion to feelings of obligation or gratitude"), a loving and long-suffering breadwinner whose labors made her husband's literary career possible.
It was a union "seldom free of tension," Rampersad writes, and by 1956 Ellison had added infidelity to his list of cruelties. Ralph confessed to an affair with a woman 20 years his junior. The woman, whom Rampersad declined to identify, told him that the Ellisons' marriage was "really one-way. It was not a sharing marriage. Fanny did everything, and everything was for Ralph."
In response to Ralph's admission, Fanny opened up to her mother: "I stuck it out all these years because in moments when he isn't in the throes of something he is a wonderful companion and I know that I love him and he loves me." But not much later she wrote to a psychiatrist, "Had our marriage been a successful one, or rather had it not been harassed by the particular kind of anxieties that it has, I could have been the calm, objective person. But since I have always doubted that my husband really and truly loved me, naturally I could not believe that he loves me now in this situation. Thus the panic, the hysteria, the despair." Ellison's lover believes that Fanny's infertility -- a source of deep despair for her -- prompted his dallying. "He wanted children. He knew that he could have children, and that Fanny couldn't. I think that's how we got together," she said. Even after the affair ended, Ellison's letters show that he was anything but contrite. "Your butt must be screaming like a child's for a good spanking," he wrote to Fanny. "It's shocking but I guess you'll always be my child-wife -- and what, beyond all the recent trouble, a headstrong, willful, little bitch you are!"
Rampersad's chronicle of the Ellisons' long, turbulent and finally peaceful marriage (it lasted from 1946 until Ralph's death in 1994) ) -- is the most compelling and troubling part of this consistently intriguing, thoroughly researched book. While Rampersad seldom falls into the worshipful tone he occasionally indulged in his fine two-volume biography of Hughes, he appears to struggle with his subject's marital misdeeds. They did "not make Ralph a monster, only a necessarily self-absorbed master artist who would rather lose a wife or lover than surrender his identity as an artist," he writes. "He cherished far more the actual life of the artist, the agony of composition, the promise of eternal fame from the progeny of his craft."
That's nicely expressed but not entirely persuasive. Still, Rampersad wrestles here with the same conundrum we often face when forced to reckon with the sinister sides of great achievers we admire. Do we give them too much leeway when forgiving their sins? If we held these geniuses to the same strict standards as we do ordinary mortals, how many of them could we continue to love?
Considered alone, Ellison's artistic legacy remains unsullied. But his record of insults, feuds and personality clashes continued even as he enjoyed a life of prosperity, snubbed younger black artists and failed to complete a second novel -- and knowing all this complicates our appreciation.
Such complexities probably would not have dismayed Ellison, for whom "true criticism . . . disdains being 'safe.' " On the other hand, he may have come out swinging.
In Rampersad's words, Ellison "could be funny, charming, even loving, but he also could not help inflicting pain." The writer Albert Murray, Ellison's longtime friend and sometime rival, described him as "potentially violent, very violent. He was ready to take on people and to use whatever street corner language they understood. He was ready to fight, to come to blows. You really didn't want to mess with Ralph Ellison."
But Ellison's friend Charlie Davidson, a haberdasher and fellow jazz fan, provides the most illuminating and haunting description of the enigmatic genius: "Ralph was like a drop of mercury under your thumb. Just when you thought you knew him, he showed you something else, something more." ·
Jabari Asim is deputy editor of Book World. His most recent book is "The N Word: Who Can Say It, Who Shouldn't and Why."