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Ralph Ellison: A Biography Hardcover – Deckle Edge, April 24, 2007

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

On the strength of just one novel, as well as a series of lasting essays in cultural criticism, Ralph Ellison stands as one of the major literary figures of the last century. The novel, of course, is Invisible Man, and much of the drama of Ellison's life, as told by Arnold Rampersad in the first major biography of Ellison, is twofold: how Ellison came to write his masterwork, and how he failed to write another. Given complete access to Ellison's papers, Rampersad tells the story of Ellison's long apprenticeship as a musician and writer and his long life, full of honors and frustrations, after the great success of Invisible Man, capturing the complexities, to use of one of Ellison's favorite words, of his elusive subject, at once passionate and patrician, fiercely critical of his country's racial divisions and stubbornly hopeful about its democratic possibilities.

Questions for Arnold Rampersad

One of the leading scholars of African American literature and the author of major biographies of Langston Hughes and Jackie Robinson, Arnold Rampersad is an ideal biographer for one of the great figures of 20th-century American writing. We asked him a few questions about Ralph Ellison.

Amazon.com: Ralph Ellison came from Oklahoma--the "Territory," as he liked to call it--and in his essays he wrote evocatively of the conditions there that nurtured his creative life (although he rarely returned as an adult). What was Oklahoma like for an ambitious but poor young African American like him?

Rampersad: Ellison, who spent the first 20 years of his life in Oklahoma, was intensely aware of the pioneers, white and black, who had migrated toward the end of the 19th century, from the South especially, into what had been demarcated as "Indian" territory. These pioneers had come first as homesteaders, then as founders of the state of Oklahoma in 1907, six years before Ralph's birth. For the rest of his life he carried with him a keen, precious sense of Oklahoma as an extraordinary American site, one that captured much of the complexity of America as it had been shaped by frontier life. Oklahoma City meant excellent jazz and the blues--black culture in its artistic exuberance--as in the pioneering jazz guitarist Charlie Christian (who played later with Benny Goodman) and the equally famous blues singer Jimmie Rushing. But Ellison also knew Oklahoma as a place where Jim Crow was a disturbing, often ruinous force. Moreover, his father had died there when Ralph was only three, and the result was that his mother was forced to toil in humble jobs that sorely embarrassed a proud boy.

Later overlooking the slights and snubs he experienced as a youth, and dwelling especially on his various friendships with fellow students at the local "colored" schools, Ellison cherished his memory of Oklahoma as a region of almost mythic proportion and magical charm. He took immense pleasure in going back home--but he went home only after he had become famous and could command the respect and attention he had craved in his bittersweet youth.

Amazon.com: Ellison spent a long and varied creative apprenticeship before writing Invisible Man. What did he learn along the way that allowed him to make such a stunning debut?

Rampersad: Ellison's many years of training as a musician (on the trumpet) as a youth served him in good stead when he committed himself (influenced first by his friends Langston Hughes and Richard Wright) around 1937 to become a writer. He was then 24 years old--pretty late as a start for most important fiction writers, but not too late for a man of enormous drive, wide reading, and restless intelligence. As Ellison served his apprenticeship, he kept his major literary masters close at hand. They were Dostoyevsky for his distillation of the turbulence, vitality, and tragic gloom of Russia in the 19th century; Hemingway for his terse, virile elegance; Richard Wright (although the competitive Ellison would play down his influence) for the gritty American realism that sought to expose and redress American social injustice; Andre Malraux, for combining in an often breathtaking way the life of radical action and the life of the mind; and in some ways above all, T.S. Eliot, whose landmark poem of 1922 The Waste Land encouraged Ellison in his mature commitment to modernism, a pervasive if mild surrealism, jazzy improvisation, and cosmopolitan learning.

Ellison was a sometimes crudely Marxist writer until about 1942, when he began a zealous conversion away from the literary and political left. Three years later, he started Invisible Man. By that time, after years of hard work as a reader and a consciously apprentice writer, he was fully committed to an esthetic based in liberal humanism, with a particular passion for explorations of American literature and culture.

Amazon.com: The great question with Ellison is, of course, what happened after Invisible Man? Why do you think he struggled so with his second novel?

Rampersad: In some ways, the winning of the National Book Award in 1953 for Invisible Man, and not the mere publication of the novel itself, transformed Ellison's life for better and for worse. This prominent award to a young black man (who beat out Hemingway for the prize) set in motion a flood of honors, big responsibilities, and financial rewards. These tokens of professional success steadily combined with Ellison's proud perfectionism to make it increasingly hard for him to offer the world anything less than a work conceived and executed on a scale that reached grand--perhaps impossibly grand--heights of excellence. Committed to a literature of myth, symbol, and surrealism, instead of the literature of everyday life, he found himself often entangled in fiction writing that drew on techniques borrowed from James Joyce and on Faulknerian myths and fables about race, miscegenation, social injustice, and American culture. He also prized improvisation, which called for powers of organization and discipline that proved finally to be beyond him as a novelist. And he was not helped by his principled refusal to allow himself to be comfortable with the many African Americans who were attracted, starting in the 1960s, by black cultural nationalism and black power. Although he believed in African American culture, he became increasingly and painfully isolated in ways that led him away from the completion of vivid fiction set largely in that culture. He liked to blame his writing problems on the fire in 1967 that destroyed his country home in Massachusetts, but the facts about the fire do not support this claim.

Amazon.com: You've written major biographies of Langston Hughes and Jackie Robinson as well. How did Ellison's public path through the mid-century compare to theirs?

Rampersad: Langston Hughes was the polar opposite of Ralph Ellison in many ways. Hughes loved the masses of black Americans unconditionally; he believed in world travel and in varieties of friendship that covered almost the entire social spectrum; he was almost compulsive in his desire to help younger artists, especially younger black artists; he wrote consistently in a variety of forms of which poetry, drama, and fiction were only the most conspicuous; he also cared little for esoteric art and Olympian esthetic standards.

Ellison was a different man. He traveled little; guarded his resources zealously and believed that young writers should make their way by their individual efforts as he believed he had done for himself; he didn't hesitate to criticize black leaders when he thought they were abusing their authority, which was often, as far as he was concerned; and he set the highest esthetic standards for himself and others. He stuck to writing fiction and essays, and his total output is dwarfed by that of Langston Hughes--except, Ellison would say proudly, in terms of quality. Hughes paid, in the 1930s and through the 40s and early 50s, for his once deep attachment to radical socialism; Ellison quietly shed similar attachments in the name of a complex patriotism. In doing so, he escaped the rough treatment meted out to Hughes and others.

Jackie Robinson was by far the most famous of the three, and no doubt had the greatest impact, as a force for desegregation, on American culture. While he was not an artist or intellectual, he was drawn to politics especially after the end of his baseball career. He was a moderate Republican; the others were Democrats, although Hughes was more critical of party politics than was Ellison, who was befriended and advanced by President Johnson. Both Johnson and, later, Ronald Reagan awarded Ellison the prestigious Presidential Medal of the Arts.

Amazon.com: Invisible Man is one of only a few novels from its era that has kept its power and popularity for readers in later generations. Has it had a similar influence on younger writers? Ellison's prickly relations with his successors may have discouraged immediate followers, but can you see his influence today?

Rampersad: Young writers today, black as well as white, have many sources to draw on and many beacons of inspiration to guide them. And yet Invisible Man is in many ways as admirable, fascinating, and complex today as when it was first published. Among novels by black Americans, its only true rival in terms of quality of craft might be Morrison's Beloved, and the wide range of effects in Ellison's novel is probably unmatched by any other black novelist. Ellison, we should remember, set out consciously to write a novel that was simultaneously about a black man and about an Everyman who transcended race, and to a surprising extent he succeeded in doing so. His novel continues to appeal to blacks and whites alike, and especially to men. Moreover, in writing so brilliantly about race, which remains and probably will remain the most challenging topic in American culture, he practically guaranteed the continuing resonance of Invisible Man.

The superiority of Shadow and Act, his 1964 collection of essays and interviews, to virtually every other book on the subject of black art and culture is evident. Its only serious rival in this respect is probably Du Bois's The Souls of Black Folk (1903). But Shadow and Act lives while much, although not all, of Du Bois's classic book is dated. Shadow and Act continues to serve as a primer for younger black writers who are seriously interested in questions of literary craft and race in America.

From Publishers Weekly

Rampersad's new biography sweeps every cobweb out of every nook and cranny of the life of Ralph Ellison (1913–1994), author of one of the seminal works of 20th-century fiction, Invisible Man. Rampersad, a professor of humanities at Stanford and biographer of Langston Hughes, was given unprecedented access to Ellison's extensive correspondence, and it shows: he seems to leave nothing out, including every cold Ellison ever came down with, though the details often add nothing to the developing portrait. The details will make this the definitive biography for now, but work remains to be done, because Rampersad fails to address the lasting question of Ellison's legacy: why he could never produce a second novel in his lifetime. (The biographer doesn't cover the posthumous publication of Ellison's unfinished Juneteenth.) Ellison never truly embraced the Civil Rights movement, quietly supporting the fight from afar while maintaining that his writing would represent his contribution to the cause. Still, Rampersad does plot how Ellison drew on his experiences in Jim Crow America to produce his groundbreaking novel. He reveals Ellison to have been prickly, short-tempered, self-absorbed and chronically bad to women, but also charming enough to win over influential people. Rampersad provides a wealth of material about Ellison, but synthesizing it all will be up to readers to do for themselves. 24 pages of photos. 40,000 first printing. (Apr.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 672 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; First Edition edition (April 24, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375408274
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375408274
  • Product Dimensions: 6.7 x 1.6 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (16 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #795,896 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

14 of 16 people found the following review helpful By Miss Nancy on May 20, 2007
Format: Hardcover
This was a really good book--but it was very long. Rampersad conveys:

* The good, bad and ugly of Ellison's time at Tuskeegee.

* The cantankerous personality of Ralph Ellison--his opinionated personality, his love of the Western intellectual tradition, his male chauvinism and his love of WASPishness and aristocracy. Ironically, Ellison was not only a symbol of macho intellectualism, he was also a victim of it when he's confronted by "Black Power" students during that era. Black nationalists criticized him for being silent regarding oppression of Blacks and subservient to rich white society people; Ellison criticized young Black nationalistic writers (in a blanket characterization) for poor or unhoned literary skills and putting message ahead of craft. After reading this book, now I can see that both sides were partially right. (The most painful for me of Ellison's silence was his cheery participation on the board of Colonial Williamsburg in an era where they used the term "servants" but not "slaves" or "slavery".)

* The gossip about prominent intellectuals was interesting. If you think rappers are hostile to each other, they have nothing on the intellectuals of Ellison's era who had grudges against each other, hurled essays at each other, alliances, and played politics with the awarding of club memberships, board positions and literary awards. Pretty funny.

*The devotion of Ellison's wife who supported his writing career (before Invisible Man was published) by working full-time, then coming home and doing all of the cooking.

By the end of this book, the burden of the work-in-progress was paining me as much as it was Ralph Ellison. If only he could have completed it!

I still have not read Invisible Man. I might, I might not. But I will never forget the personality of the man as evidenced in this bio.

Ralph Ellison had a fascinating life and this book captures the journey!
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Sean Robin on November 14, 2007
Format: Hardcover
Ralph Ellison was a magical writer. A look at his bio only partly explains how he was able to accomplish "Invisible Man," a surrealist existential odysey through Harlem during the Jazz Age. I agree with an earlier reviewer that, now that two extant biographies exist, the previous written by Lawrence Jackson, the two must be looked at side by side. The first, by Mr. Jackson, was written with the much more warm tone of an admirer. Admiration brings one close to the subject in a way that a critical view doesn't. Jackson seems to understand the very jazz rhythms that underpin the prose of Ellison. Rampersad's Ellison is much more petty and pompous. I'm sure both views reflect some of the reality of this complex figure. But as an admirer of Ellison myself, I thought Jackson's book was far more generous and insightful of the man, and the times that gave birth to his masterpiece.

Ellision is also somewhat of a tragic figure, and Rampersad certainly draws this out - he was never able to publish a second novel. Rampersad highlights the mythical fire that at each recounting consumes more and more of the would-be manuscript of a second work of fiction. Rampersad's book is meticulously researched, rich in detail about the later half of Ellison's life. I also agree with earlier reviewers that the essays Ellison produced during this second phase of his career are quite significant, and perhaps not sufficiently appraised by this biographer.

I feel Rampersad is a bit unfair to Ellison in his harping on how much he didn't do during the Black Power era. This is a judgment call - not every African American was wearing a dashiki during those days, and Ellison shouldn't be raked over the coals for this on every other page.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Shalom Freedman HALL OF FAMETOP 1000 REVIEWER on May 20, 2007
Format: Hardcover
Ralph Ellison did not have an easy road to literary greatness. Orphaned at three his mother forced to work as a domestic he suffered the injuries and insults of poverty and racism. Ramperad tells the story of Ellison's childhood , early development, his school years his apprenticeship in the world of music, the background of the world he knew in Oklahoma City and later on a student Tuskegee in Alabama where he learned much but never got his degree. The years in New York and the relationships with Richard Wright his true literary patron, and jazz trumpeter Al Rushton form too part of the background to the creation os his masterpiece. While his second wife Fanny worked and supported him it took Ellison six years to put together the mythic, symbolic, realistic masterpiece ' Invisible Man'.
Rampersand then tells the story of the long frustration, of the long- awaited, long- worked on second novel which never chrystallized as it could not come up to Ellison's own strict standard of the greatness he sought.
He tells of the intellectual Ellison's world of friendships, and his often strained relation with the black community. He tells of the many influences of his reading from Eliot's 'Waste Land' to Dostoevsky, Faulkner and Richard Wright. He speaks of the deleterious effect of the many honors Ellison received on his writing.He too gives a picture of an aloof, and less than kind and helping person of someone who did not extend himself to help young black writers and suffered from criticism of many in the black community.
He explores Ellison's identity as American writer and his complicated understanding of the exclusivist higher culture he sought to belong to and redefine.
He also tells the story of a husband who rewarded the wife did everything to help him with infidelity and abuse.
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