'Ralph Ellison': The literary giant who lost his way

A new biography of the author of 'Invisible Man' portrays Ellison as a romantic haunted by self-doubt.

Ralph Ellison was only three when his father died, leaving him the fatherless son of a cleaning woman in segregated Oklahoma. By the time of his death in 1994, he was counted among the giants of American letters. Yet after achieving success in 1952 at age 40 with his masterpiece "Invisible Man," Ellison's subsequent publications were few and his public persona reserved.

When we think of Ellison today, it is as a class act. He stood for high standards in his craft, belief in a unique African-American culture, and the conviction that all racial and ethnic identities were subsumed by a noble American heritage.

After "Invisible Man," Ellison shrouded himself in the garb of high art, discoursing on literature and jazz, even as he downplayed the influence of sociology and race in creative accomplishments. Faulkner declared Ellison was not "first a Negro, but first a writer." Ellison seemed to embrace the words. He was an artist first; second, an American; last, a Negro. It is not surprising that Arnold Rampersad's excellent new biography Ralph Ellison: A Biography reveals the chinks in Ellison's armor.

Five years ago Lawrence Jackson's biography took Ellison's life up to the publication of "Invisible Man." Both biographies record Ellison's birth in 1913, his struggle against poverty, his determination to educate himself, and his early interest in music, which led him to move to New York and seek out the tutelage of Richard Wright.

Both books note how Ellison's early life mirrors the story of the unnamed protagonist in "Invisible Man." And both explore the literary partnership created by his second marriage, at age 33, to Fannie McConnell Buford. Rampersad's unique contribution is his focus on Ellison's middle-age years and beyond.

Success brought Ellison a variety of high-profile academic positions that involved few duties. He justified these by citing his need to work on "Juneteenth," his second novel, the book which became the monkey on his back – always in progress, never finished, a magnum opus still in pieces at the time of his death.

Urbane and sagacious, Ellison also appears to have been deeply suspicious of younger black writers. He was often the only black permitted through the doors of white institutions and he seemed at ease in this position. Toni Morrison recollects from her years as an editor at Random House, "He was unhelpful when I tried to enlist him on behalf of new or younger writers." The few black writers he did befriend were invariably male.

Ellison's guardedness was undoubtedly enhanced by his inability to finish "Juneteenth." Though a 1967 house fire destroyed a section of the manuscript, Rampersad shows that Ellison exaggerated the extent of the loss.

Rampersad is blunt about Ellison's last years. Ellison "was bedeviled by too rigid ideas about culture and art.... As a novelist, he had lost his way. And he had done so in proportion to his distancing himself from his fellow blacks." Yet for all Rampersad's criticisms, his portrait of Ellison is endearing. He shows us an American romantic haunted by his own high expectations – and tormented, ultimately, by self-doubt.

Darryl Lorenzo Wellington is a poet and critic in Charleston, S.C.

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