The apartment is in Washington Heights, he is careful to point out, not in Harlem, although a block away the scene looks murderous and mean enough and the cabbie snorts his scorn at this distinction. There is no doorman at the entrance to the old apartment building. In the medieval gloom, in the museum silence of the empty lobby, the walls are peeling. The elevator rises slowly to the eighth floor.
Ralph Ellison is waiting in the hall with cool and watchful dignity, an elegant reserve and an air of soldierly resignation shading his face.
He is 68, a short, compact man, with the spare traces of a gray mustache. He punctuates his sentences with the dry husk of a laugh, as if the delight in it had evaporated and left only its shell behind. He smokes a long slim cigar as he sits in the living room of the apartment in which he and his wife have lived for 30 years. The apartment faces the river, a slow procession of boats and barges moves past his window.
The apartment is quiet. There are no signs of current celebrity, little to suggest that here is a man who wrote a book that rocked the lives of three generations of readers, touching them in ways that continue to resonate; a milestone, a talisman, to which many return every few years in order to learn again its lessons, to feel again the force of its emotions, to remember.
His name invokes a large measure of awe among those who have read "Invisible Man"; he is a legend in his lair. Yet Ralph Ellison has dealt himself a different destiny, it seems, from the ones that might have been his--glib commentator on the times and their trends, keen observer of the American scene, authoritative voice, exhibitionist liver of a variegated life, or any of the other forms of egomaniacal expressionism that modern America often urges on its writers. Instead he remains elusive.
"I never had an ambition to be a celebrity," Ellison says in a dry Oklahoma drawl. "I have my retiring side. I took part in the conferences abroad, I did the lectures, I got the honorary degrees, 14 or 15 all together. But you finally realize there's a persona out there, or an image, that isn't you. So you maintain your privacy," says Ralph Ellison, "and try to keep within your limitations."
When "Invisible Man" was published, it seemed that only the sky could define those limitations. A first novel by an unknown writer, the book was 16 weeks on the best-seller list, won the National Book Award and established its author among the first ranks of American writers. In 30 years, it has never been out of print.
It was not the book he had set out to write. He was staying at a Vermont farmhouse, working on a novel about a black fighter pilot taken prisoner by the Germans during World War II, when a new voice insisted on being heard, and the now famous first line, "I am an invisible man," demanded to be written. In the beginning, he writes in the foreword to the 30th-anniversary edition, "I was most annoyed to have my efforts interrupted by an ironic, down-home voice that struck me as being as irreverent as a honky-tonk trumpet blasting through a performance, say, of Britten's War Requiem." It took him seven years to write "Invisible Man." It was, he writes, "a most self-willed and self-generating piece of fiction."
But there has been no second novel.
In the meantime, he has published a book of essays, "Shadow and Act," he has taught at a number of universities, he has served on the boards of foundations and commissions, but still, there has been no second novel. Not yet.
He answers with some irritation. "It would be easy enough to write other fiction, to put out several books. You don't--I don't--write to satisfy other people. You do certain things and then you do other things, and you don't always publish what you write."
He rises at 6, goes to work at the marble-topped desk in his study at 9, works until 4. He says the manuscript is enormous now, despite the fact that he lost at least 300 pages of the second novel in a fire at his summer home in the Berkshires more than 10 years ago. "You never quite know when something is a part of it the new book or not. It's a wasteful way, I guess, but you discover as you go along."
That is the end of it. That's all he wants to say.
Still the question is asked, whenever Ellison's name is mentioned.
Here, after all, is one of the first writers to explain the black experience in a way that provoked a shock of recognition of earthquake proportions; for whites, the title alone was enough to bring them up against their own prejudice. There were those who rushed from the last page to the card catalog only to find out that they had just devoured the entire Ellison oeuvre, and there are those who have been waiting ever since to find out what else he has to tell them.
Still there is something wrong with the impatience: Why, it might be asked, can't Ralph Ellison write one brilliant novel and be done with it? Perhaps there is a kind of machismo that operates here, a public endorsement of the Hemingway thesis that a writer proves his manhood by going the distance. "Americans look upon the novel as some kind of athletic contest," E.L. Doctorow, the author of "Ragtime," has said. To secure a reputation, it is necessary to write not just well but often. It is as if otherwise, the talent is only a fluke, an aberration.
So what about that second novel?
"I will not talk about the novel," Ralph Ellison says, and flicks a reluctant ash from the remains of his cigar.
The Comic Goulash
But he will talk about the first. The nameless narrator is described in the new introduction as "a blues-toned laugher-at-wounds who included himself in his indictment of the human condition," his odyssey a search for identity, through blood and background, shame and pride, madness and meaning. Tragic and dramatic, it is also wildly comic: "Given the crazy goulash which is American society, if you're not going to be overcome by its contradictions, its sheer outrageousness, you damn well better learn to laugh at it," says Ellison. "Humor has been the great binding ingredient in this society."
It is not so much an angry novel, he says, as an ironic one. "I get terribly angry about things, but I don't think that's enough. I think you need distance, and I think the form of the novel itself can give you a distance. A way of looking with a certain objectivity even at your enemy. You put yourself in his place; at least you keep the argument human by trying to understand what's going on. It doesn't mean you're going to accept the position, but at least you're dealing with a human being and not a stereotype."
Still, the book placed its author in something of a bind. The reviews give some hint of the paradox: "The most impressive work of fiction by an American Negro I have ever read," said Orville Prescott in The New York Times. "When one has finished it," wrote the poet Delmore Schwartz, "one is tempted to say:'Invisible Man' is not merely a story about being a Negro . . . It is truly a story about being a human being, any human being and all human beings." "Ellison has talent and so far he has managed to stay away from being first a Negro, he is still first a writer. I think that he will go far," said William Faulkner.
There was always the question of definition: Ever since the book was published, Ralph Ellison has had to fend off the attempts of those who would label him, force him through the narrow straits of race and define to him his course of action demanding that he be more black, less universal in his vision.
In the '50s it was Richard Wright, the author of "Native Son" and "Black Boy," whom some of the critics wanted him to be, using the novel as a weapon, a bludgeon. In the late '60s it was the militants of the separatist movement who questioned his activist credentials, condemned his integrationist philosophy.
"There was a kind of madness loose," he says now. Some of the people who were attacking me knew that I had been an activist in the '30s and the '40s. These were people who had their own view of society and they wanted to impose it on me. Well, I'm not easy to impose upon. I had grown up out in the Southwest. I had seen the Depression out there and in Harlem and in Alabama. I had grandparents on both sides who were ex-slaves. So I have a different scale to judge by as far as change is concerned. I am a novelist, and it does not solve my problems as a writer to emphasize my race.
"You can look at me. I am obviously an American Negro. Maybe if you saw me in Egypt you would think I was something else but once I spoke or once you saw me walk, you'd know I was an American." He shrugs. It's over now. "No period lasts longer than 10 years in this country. Then we have a different set of slogans and a different set of goals."
On the Frontier
Ellison was born in Oklahoma City in 1914, when the trappings of statehood were still fresh, pinching the frontier town like a pair of new shoes. " . . . We were Americans born into the 46th state, and thus, into the context of Negro-American post-Civil War history, 'frontiersmen,' " he has written of his boyhood there. "Gamblers and scholars, jazz musicians and scientists, Negro cowboys and soldiers from the Spanish-American and First World wars, movies stars and stuntmen, figures from the Italian Renaissance and literature, both classical and popular, were combined with the special virtues of some local bootlegger, the eloquence of some Negro preacher, the strength and grace of some local athlete, the ruthlessness of some businessman-physician, the elegance in dress and manners of some headwaiter or hotel doorman."
His father, a construction worker, died when he was 3, and Ellison was raised by his mother, a strong-willed woman who was thrown in jail when she protested the housing laws. He went to Tuskegee University in Alabama, wanted to be a musician, dreamed of composing operas by the time he was 26, as Wagner had done. He never graduated--he went to New York City the summer after his junior year, decided to write. "By the way," he says now, "I was never invisible. As a kid, I acted in operettas, I was first trumpet in the orchestra, I was student director of the Tuskegee band. I wasn't popular, I wasn't one of the stars, but I was not in the background."
In 1936, he came to Harlem and dove into its dark, glittering waters. "It was quite exciting. Harlem was going through the ravages of the Depression, but on the other hand, the jazz was thriving, the Savoy Ballroom, the Apollo Theatre, there were many dance halls, many places of entertainment. Jazz itself had not heard that we were in a decline." It was, he says, "an American form of Paris."
Now the Apollo is closed, and the Savoy as well, and the moan of trombones and the sound of silken voices no longer rise above the low and evil murmur of the street. Now, he says, "it pains me to go back down to Harlem. I haven't been back to 125th Street in over a year. It's become so dismal, there's so much neglect." But on the other hand, he says, there have been revivals of many of these neighborhoods, you won't have what was there then, but perhaps something just as exciting. I've seen these things happen. I've seen them go down, and I've seen them go up."
The poet Langston Hughes introduced him to Richard Wright, and they talked long into the night about writing. Wright published Ellison's first book review in a magazine he edited briefly, and encouraged him to write his first short story. The magazine went under before the story could be published, but Ellison continued writing, for the New Masses, in its best days, a brash and often brilliant journal of the American Left, and for the Writers' Project. During the war, he went to sea with the Merchant Marine until he was sidelined by an injury. He began writing "Invisible Man" in 1945. It was published in 1952.
Thirty years ago: "You ask me about the changes, well, you can see the changes. The world is the world, after all. On the level of civil rights, if you want to speak of that, we've gone through a period of great optimism and now we seem to be in an era similar to that of the post-Reconstruction wherein a great number of advances made in the late '50s and '60s now seem threatened, a concerted effort seems to be in progress to limit if not rescind some of those gains."
And then he states what he calls " 'Ellison's Law'--There seems to be some vague law in this society wherein what happens to blacks will ultimately happen to whites." He mentions the forced exits of Rep. Frank Thompson and Sen. Harrison Williams from Congress, comparing them to Adam Clayton Powell's downfall, the way in which white students' literacy rates seem to be taking the same downward trend that black students' have. Now, he says, "there is a certain pessimism on the part of Afro-Americans which I don't think the country can afford, since by some strange quirk of American fate it is the Afro-American who has sustained the nation's optimism. If we can be optimistic down at the bottom of the social pyramid, then everyone else can afford to look and say, 'If they still believe, what the hell are we complaining about?' "
Now, he says, "we're going through a period of confusion or at least disarray." Confusion, he says, because "we have sought to break certain lines of continuity which are ambiguous, they contain some good things and some bad things; and we try to get rid of the bad things absolutely, without realizing that the good has its twin, which we call evil, confusion or whatnot. We try to inspire the young with daring, we entice them with ads and jingles and with every damn thing else, but somehow along the way we forgot to teach them, and we forgot ourselves that certain restraints placed upon the human instincts are not simply there because there were some bluenoses who lived a few years ago, but because we deal with powerful instincts which, if not given some sort of order, make for social chaos.
"We have to pay something for change, we pay in terms of sacrifice. What has happened in recent years as discrimination has lessened, Afro-Americans and women have become more competitive and a lot of people don't like that. There are tensions now between Negroes and Jews, tension about quotas. It strikes me as hypocritical, because I've been part of an excluded quota since the beginning of the country. And a hell of a lot of people were able to start a little higher up on the rungs of American social hierarchy. I don't hold anything against them for that, it's the way history dealt it out, but I don't want them to pretend that my mother or grandfather had it as easy as they did. That's all wrong. So to the extent that they want to impose that kind of image on me, invisibility is still a factor in human life."
The afternoon is ending, his wife, Fanny, has just come back from shopping, and he is anxious to conclude. There is just one last thing: He refers to himself as a Negro. "I prefer it because my parents were so identified. It's an honorable term. We fought to make it used. I see no particular magic in changing the designation. People don't respect me anymore by calling me black. The term Negro is resonant with associations, positive and negative, it's an American term for an American people.
"Ergo," says Ralph Ellison, "I am a Negro."