The Good American

by Dax-Devlon Ross

The Good American

Ralph Ellison: A Biography

By Arnold Rampersad


Biographies are usually hit or miss. So much depends not on the life the subject led, but on how the storyteller presents it, which, of course, depends on how intimately he or she has lived with the subject, which, ultimately, depends on how much of a paper trail the subject left behind for the storyteller, which, finally, depends on whether the subject thought his or her life was worth preserving at the time he or she was living it.

Following this brand of home-spun logic, Ralph Ellison, his wife, Fanny, and their friends and correspondents evidently knew a biographer would want to investigate the puzzling, charmed, but unmistakably heartbreaking life of the author of Invisible Man one day; for the breadth, depth and range of sources Arnold Rampersad canvassed to piece together this significant biography is staggering. On the surface Ellison could very easily be (and has been) dismissed as an elitist, an Uncle Tom, a one-hit wonder, a token Negro; just as easily he could be lauded as a genius, a tribute to his race, the standard bearer of black American literature. But in Rampersad’s hands he is nothing short of a man worthy of unyielding compassion. Lest we forget, Ralph Ellison was a black man who in the middle of this nation’s troubled twentieth-century aspired for entry into the privileged American society through art and, for all intents and purposes, achieved just that with his first book. Without ever having tried his hand at a novel, Ellison devoted nearly seven years – practically his entire thirties – to writing Invisible Man. Chew on that for a moment. Just let it sink in. He had that much belief, that much faith, in himself at a time in our nation’s history when blacks had all but lost their faith in American democracy. And the literary world validated that faith with the highest honor given to an American novelist, the National Book Award. Besting the likes of his literary hero, Ernest Hemingway, Ralph Ellison became the first black author to win the award in 1953, a year before the Brown decision, two years before the Rosa Parks would refuse to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus.

What does that kind of success do to a relatively young man, especially one whose roots were as humble and unassuming as Ralph Ellison’s? In what ways does it affect his psychology, not to mention the trajectory of his life? In a certain respect the meat of this biography is an investigation into the trappings of fame, unhinged ambition, uncompromising perfectionism, idealism, and rugged individualism. One wouldn’t be too far off in comparing Ellison’s meteoric rise to literary stardom in the middle of the century to a high school phenom being drafted in the NBA Lottery straight out of high school. One might even say his rise was even more dramatic, seeing as the immediate success of Invisible Man among the white literary elite signaled an unparalleled intellectual achievement in a society that customarily denigrated black intelligence.

But the same sense of individual fortitude that drove Ralph Ellison to the heights of artistic excellence with IM was also what alienated him from the wider issues of his day, and arguably stifled his art-hence the cautionary tale theme that undergirds all of his achievements and awards and accolades.  As Rampersad makes plainly evident through his own conclusions and those of informed insiders such as Saul Bellow and Toni Morrison, Ellison put such tremendous pressure on himself to carry the weight of the entire race via his art – forget simply living up to Invisible Man, which never seemed to be his issue – that he could never finish his second novel. Nothing would ever be good enough for him, and not just because he set his standards for himself so exceedingly high; because he believed that much was at stake. Say what you will about Ralph Ellison as a man (and I had plenty to say about him throughout the often irritable reading of his life story) but he took his craft as serious as any writer who ever lived. To him literature was sacred. In a very literal sense, literature was his religion. Through his art he sought to construct the symbols that gave meaning to the “complex American experience” that he spent his entire professional life post-IM championing. Indeed, one of the prevailing theories surrounding Ellison’s prolonged (to put it mildly) gestation period between novels was that he got lost in the power of “myth, symbol and allusion.”  Of his one-time housemate and longtime associate Saul Bellow once said, “Ralph fell into the trap of seeing himself as an authority on this and that. He did not allow himself to be free and grow.” Another theory, this one suggested by his wife, was that he got too caught up in the comforts of fame. In fact, Rampersad makes it abundantly clear that Ralph Ellison was no anti-establishment bohemian artist. He was a social climber, a status seeker, an acquisitive consumer. Ellison enjoyed the limelight. He reveled in his associations with power. He openly and unabashedly pined for entry into the hallowed halls of the American elite, for he believed in those institutions that celebrated American excellence, and made no bones about excluding anyone, particularly other blacks, who did not measure up to his standards. Following a lecture he once gave in northern Illinois a young white professor asked Ellison how  it felt to “go places where most black men can’t go.” Rather than take offense, Ellison, always with his flair of dramatic irony countered, “What you mean is, how does it feel to be able to go places where most white men can’t go.”

The secret to his success (and his failure some would say) was his sense of himself as an  American. He was a Negro (he deplored the label “black” when it came in to use in the 60’s) and quite proud of that fact. But he considered himself an equal to all men by birth and to the most elite by dent of effort. But he was clouded by his own success. He believed too uncritically that his own rise to prominence could be utilized as an example to other blacks. If he could achieve on his own merit, then why couldn’t every other black person? Why did other black writers need to resort to cheap racial ploys to attract attention to themselves? Why could they not simply hone their craft as he did? The problem with this logic was that Ellison hadn’t achieved on his own. All along he was blessed with backers and boosters – nearly all of them white – who at times literally secured his survival or opened the necessary doors for him to enter. As for Richard Wright and Langston Hughes, both of whom played critical roles in nurturing his pursuits early on, Rampersad’s evidence shows that Ellison grew increasingly critical and combative toward them once he no longer needed their guidance and support. “No, Wright was no spiritual father of mine,” Ellison wrote in the early ‘60s, “certainly in no sense I recognize.”

Indeed, Ellison’s relationship with black people in general was cool at best. He was nostalgic and sentimental about Oklahoma City and the people who populated his memories of youth, but he had absolutely no interest in the newly liberated Africa (aside from collecting African art). He spent the better part of the civil rights era making a good deal of his living by lecturing on race (he was a devout integrationist who denounced the Black Power concept and yet was critical of Dr. King’s style as well) and yet he would never lend his name or support (aside from he and Fanny’s annual donation to the NAACP) to the civil rights movement proper. He was quick to accept writing assignments from leading white publications, but he routinely rejected the requests from fledgling black publications. He supported the Vietnam War despite the fact the young black men were being sent overseas in droves. In spite of its declining condition, the raft of crime and he and Fanny’s financial wherewithal, the Ellison’s categorically refused to leave their Riverside Drive apartment, and yet from the publication of IM on he was increasingly estranged from black Harlem, not to mention everyday blacks in general, a fact which some critics believed stifled his ability to capture the changing social reality of black American in his fiction.

But then, just when you think it’s safe to write him off as a self-hating opportunist, the ever-irascible Ralph Ellison shows you something you didn’t expect. When the socialist critic Irving Howe published the essay “Black Boys and Native Sons” lauding Wright’s Native Son as the standard by which all black fiction should be judged because it expressed what the critic considered authentic black rage, Ellison eloquently dismantled Howe’s essentialist rhetoric in the name of the broad tapestry that is black life. When he was invited to speak to the Panel of Educational Research and Development, he defended black youth and black culture against what he saw as the unfair and uninformed attacks being leveled against it. When Ronald Reagan began dismantling the New Deal structures that had “made it possible for me to go from sleeping on a park bench to becoming a writer,” Ellison became a national sponsor of the Emergency Black Survival Fund.

Hiram Hayden, the one-time editor of the American Scholar, said it best when he described Ellison’s “lonely burden” as that which belonged to “certain black men of a transitional generation…” “Scorned by militants,” Rampersad continued, “too liberal for conservatives, lionized by liberal or calculating whites,” Ellison was a man outside of time, which to some extent mirrored the surrealist style in which the final segment of IM is written. At once he was ahead of his time and behind his time, but never completely in it. At intervals his insistent positions made him the object of scorn and ridicule, as when, in what might be the book’s most touching moment, Ellison breaks down and cries in the arms of a black student leader at a college in Iowa after being verbally assaulted by a young black man who accused him of being an “Uncle Tom” and a “sell-out.” “I’m not a Tom, I’m not a Tom,” wept the deeply wounded author. More often, his convictions made him the subject of adoration, as when he received literally countless awards for his independence and artistry.

No one ever chose his battles for him, and, upon closing this outstanding biography, that is what clearly mattered most to Ralph Ellison. He lived and died on his own terms, with his own demons, shortcomings-what have you. Lesser men would have retreated from public life in the face of unfulfilled expectations (Salinger, for example), but Ellison, as embarrassed as he was by his own lack of productivity, continued to stride toward his destiny, even if clumsily at times. Despite Rampersad’s intimation that at some point Ellison stopped believing he was going to finish the second novel (Juneteenth),  and that he secretly believed it was doomed, he never stopped working on it, never stopped trying to make it measure up to what he wanted it to be. And maybe that is the lesson. That even when we achieve our wildest dreams, the drive toward perfection is never complete; that however much we contribute to the world, we should never be satisfied; that no matter which road we choose there are bound to be thorns, ditches and roadblocks; that the absolute best we can hope for is that our lives are worth writing and reading about long after our time has run out.   

Thank you Mr. Ellison for living a life worth reading about. And thank you Mr. Rampersad for bringing that life back to life.