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Ralph Ellison : a biography

by Arnold Rampersad

  Print book : Biography  |  1st ed

The Enigmatic Genius of Ralph Ellison   (2008-10-16)


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by WorkingScribe_Aberjhani

"Invisible Man," "Shadow and Act," and "Going to the Territory," all books by that quintessential twentieth century literary artist Ralph Waldo Ellison, remain towering masterworks of American literature for their penetrating explorations of racial identity, cultural complexity, and historical consequences in the United States. With Senator Barack Obama’s historic bid for the White House evolving daily into the possibility of an historic win, Ellison’s brilliantly charged writings, which first catapulted him to fame in the 1950s, are perhaps more relevant now than ever before, making Arnold Rampersad’s detailed biography of the great writer one of the best reads around during these very exciting times.

Biographies of high-achieving African Americans have too often in the past fallen into one of two categories: those that romanticized their subjects as cultural heroes and those that condemned them as embarrassing villains. Fortunately, in Rampersad, we have a biographer who assigned himself the demanding task of providing as full and honest a portrait of his subject as he could. He does so with balanced assessments of both the publicly applauded Ellison who became a permanent fixture in world literature the moment he won the National Book Award for Invisible Man in 1953, and detailed sketches of the more private Ellison, who bemoaned his lack of children and wrestled for almost half a century with his inability to follow his initial literary victory with a second completed novel.

As one might expect from any capable literary biographer, Rampersad provides readers with a highly engaging dramatic account of Ellison’s beginnings in Oklahoma City and his subsequent rise from demoralizing poverty and tragedy to international literary stardom. Much of the story of Ellison’s youth and his struggles to give birth to his identity as a writer is already well known, both from Ellison’s essays and Lawrence Jackson’s biography of the author: Ralph Ellison, Emergence of Genius. Even so, Rampersad’s own eloquent placement of Ellison within the greater contexts of American social history, and within such specific cultural movements as the Harlem Renaissance, shine an even more revealing light on the author.

Moreover, high school and college students grappling with assignments to write papers on Invisible Man can duly thank Rampersad for his lucid dissection of the surrealistic, historical, and political elements that make the novel the uniquely brilliant American coming of age tale that it is.

Because Invisible Man is a celebrated novel that has sold untold millions of copies in different languages around the world for more than half a century, the stories of cultural politics and extramarital dalliances surrounding its celebrity author may not stun readers too much. What might, though, while reading along, is the realization of just how much cultural and political influence Ellison came to wield based on the strength of that one mighty novel and a couple of volumes of essays. With his role as a founding participant in such organizations as the Commission on Educational Television, which in time would lead to the development of public broadcast stations, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Ellison occupied a position in which he could make or break the careers of various writers with his registered approval or disapproval of them.
Oddly enough, despite the fact that he benefited greatly from the influence of such Harlem Renaissance giants as Richard Wright and Langston Hughes, he was not as inclined as they to champion younger upcoming black authors based on notions of racial solidarity or mentorship.

Nevertheless, Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Ronald Reagan, both of whom awarded him presidential medals, so respected Ellison’s intellectual prominence that they invited him on a variety of occasions for both social and more official purposes to the White House. Such was his stature that he attended when he felt it important to do so but not when he believed other issues (such as a gathering of literary peers as opposed to one of political statesmen) mattered more.

Of all the mysteries that may be attributed to the life of Ralph Ellison, possibly none are so beguiling as that of his second novel. As early as 1953, the public began to speculate on and query Ellison about his follow-up novel to Invisible Man, and that speculation continued right up until his death on April 16, 1994. First haunted by the pressure of completing a novel as successful as his first had been, Ellison’s 365-page work-in-progress was destroyed by a fire in 1967. Although he managed eventually to re-write more pages than he actually lost, the remaining four decades of Ellison’s life seemed almost dominated by one of the most enduring and over-publicized writing blocks in history. Yet, as Rampersad illustrates, his prominence did not diminish but continued to increase with teaching positions, speaking engagements, appointments to influential boards, and the ever-growing canonization of his one indisputable fiction masterpiece: Invisible Man. A version of his second novel, edited by his friend John F. Callahan and reportedly culled from more than 2,000 pages, would not be published until 1999.

The serious literary author in 2008 still obtains some degree of notable status when he or she wins a significant award but their influence is generally restricted to academic environments, Internet literary communities, or various geographical regions. It would be virtually impossible for a modern author to achieve the level of prestige and actual power Ellison commanded based on his intellectual gifts and pronouncements alone. (And yet such an observation makes one pay serious attention to the role bestselling books play in the careers of political leaders like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.)

For that reason, Ellison’s life is indeed one worth celebrating for many decades to come and Rampersad’s biography of that life is a book that has earned its rightful place among the best and most important in the genre.

By Author-Poet Aberjhani
Author of The American Poet Who Went Home Again
and Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance

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