- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 12, 2007

RALPH ELLISON: A BIOGRAPHY

By Arnold Rampersad

Knopf, $35, 657 pages, illus.

REVIEWED BY martin rubin

The very phrase “the Great American Novel” has become so shopworn that it is hard to use it without flinching. But if there is a 20th century novel that most might say merits title, it is probably Ralph Ellison’s 1953 masterly “Invisible Man.” What makes this still more remarkable is that it was his first novel — talk about hitting the ground running!

But Ellison’s tragedy as a writer was his inability to finish another one to his own satisfaction in the nearly half century of active and engaged life left to him. It’s not that he didn’t try — he was always writing — but in the case of someone with such high standards, perfection really did seem to be the enemy of the possible.

So the story of how the person who wrote “the Great American Novel” could not really become the great American novelist is a fascinating one and Arnold Rampersad, a professor of English at Stanford University, has done a superb job of presenting Ellison the man and the writer in all his glorious complexity. What a marvelous biography this is, filled with intelligence and understanding of its subject and all the varied milieus in which he lived his long and wonderful life.

And Mr. Rampersad writes so beautifully, so evocatively, that every page of “Ralph Ellison” is a pleasure to read. According to popular legend, Walter Jackson Bate’s heartbreaking description of Keats’ death at the end of his definitive biography was so affecting that the secretaries who typed it could not stop weeping. But Keats died at 25: In making one weep for an elderly man dying in a hospital bed in his own home, Mr. Rampersad has performed a much harder feat:

“From there propped up on cool pillows, Ralph could see his adored shelves of books, his and Fanny’s [his wife] paintings, photographs, sculptures, and other memorabilia. Through the windows he saw the green boughs of trees in early springtime bloom in Riverside Park beside the Hudson.

“As Fanny plunged into the depths of a sorrow and despair from which she would never fully recover, Ralph mainly remained in bed, speaking more and more softly until he couldn’t speak at all. Instructed by Fanny, Callahan[John Callahan, a close friend] barred almost all visitors. When neither he nor Fanny could solve the mysteries of Ralph’s complicated stereo system, with its tangled wires, tricky connections, and studio-quality reel-to-reel tape recorder, Callahan strode up the hill to raucous Broadwayand bought a boom box and some audio cassettes. Following Fanny’s preference, he found one with music by Prokofiev and another that featured Louis Armstrong. Hearing Prokofiev, Ralph nodded his head in appreciation. When Armstrong came on, with his gravelly voice, jazzy rhythms, and vital trumpet, Ralph slowly raised his right hand and made a circle with his thumb and forefinger. Louis Armstrong was perfect. Later that afternoon, John’s daughter Eve, a student at Barnard, played her violin.

“On Saturday April 16 [1994], with the music of Bach playing softly, and with Fanny snuggled against Ralph on the hospital bed, Callahan saw a single tear roll down his cheek. Then he was gone.”

That one tear is heartrending, for there was so much to weep about, to regret. Chiefly perhaps what Ellison once called his “writer’s block as big as the Ritz.” How sad for him and for readers and for literature that there hadn’t been more by the author of “Invisible Man.” But, as Mr. Rampersad shows in this biography, there was much else to regret — hurts received and inflicted, struggles with himself and others, infidelities, all manner of difficulties and conflicts, dashed hopes and disillusionment.

Do not conclude, however, that because all this is painstakingly explored, this biography is depressing: Far from it, because it presents Ralph Waldo Ellison, gifted at birth with a splendid writer’s name and an even more splendid talent, in all his glory as a great artist and a very impressive man. An unexpected detail about Ellison to be found in this exhaustive (but never exhausting) biography is that he was fluent in Yiddish, capable of “sitting on the porch and conversing very easily” in that language, which few but Jews (and few enough of them) speak as opposed to using the odd word or phrase.

And so he would have understood the word “mensch” being applied to him: Literally a human being, it means a decent person, one with all the good qualities we like to associate with the human condition.

Indeed, Mr. Rampersad has produced a rounded portrait of a truly rounded person. Not only a scrupulous writer — too scrupulous perhaps — Ellison was also a scrupulous person, a man of enormous integrity. A committed communist in his early years, he saw through that failed political and intellectual god and went on to become a dedicated if always wary warrior in the struggle for worldwide cultural freedom.

Typically, he opposed the readmission of Hungary to the international writers’ organization PEN after it had been expelled in the wake of the events of 1956. When it came to Africa, he had “no special emotional attachment to the place … The African content of American Negro life is more fanciful than actual … As long as Negroes are confused as to how they relate to American culture,” he said, “they will be confused about their relationship to places like Africa.”

Ellison thought of himself as fundamentally an American writer, but of course his experience as a black man living through most of the 20th century informed his art, as reflected not only in his magnum opus but also in the unfinished, imperfect (in his own eyes and echoed by the critics) posthumous “Novel-in-progress” and many of his short stories. Attacks from blacks for not being “black enough” were irritating enough, but those from whites like Norman Mailer and his followers were intolerable for Ellison, as recounted by Mr. Rampersad:

“An exchange with an admirer of Norman Mailer led to the public accusation that, unlike Mailer, Ralph was leading a self-deceiving life. Days later Ralph still smarted from the attack. ‘This same character told me I was harming myself because I no longer lived with Negroes … And I hung around with too many intellectuals.’ ‘You mean,’ Ralph had shot back, ‘that I’ve stepped out of my place?’ He had given the fellow hell ‘for trying to tell me what my life was like and what Negro life was life. I’m damned sick of these “white Negroes” trying to tell me what it is like to be a black Negro.’”

Throughout this book, Ellison emerges as an exemplary man and writer, and it reminds us about his real achievements as both. Ellison made enormous contributions to the literature and culture of his country, even if it is regrettable that there could not be more. He is fortunate in his biographer: It is hard to imagine anyone more attuned to him, more insightful, more truly sympathetic than Mr. Rampersad, who has written the definitive biography of this great American.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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