- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 28, 2007

What’s in a name? The father of novelist Ralph Waldo Ellison (1913/14-1994) obviously had expectations for his son, but he died when the boy was only three years old, leaving the family in abject poverty. Ralph’s mother worked all her life at menial jobs that could not support their son’s ambitions.

The only way Ralph got to college was by literally riding the rails from Oklahoma to take up an invitation to play the trumpet in the Tuskegee Institute band. When he often couldn’t pay the fees, he was excluded from classes there and found refuge in the library. In 1936, the future author of the astonishing “Invisible Man” left Tuskegee without a degree to seek a new life in New York City.

With access to voluminous correspondence, Arnold Rampersad, a noted Stanford University professor, has fairly told all in Ralph Ellison: A Biography (Knopf, $35.00, 675 pages, illus.). This is an important book — far more detailed than the casual reader would wish, but compelling and insightful. It’s the last word on an accomplished but tragically unsatisfying life.

Once in New York City, living hand-to-mouth, Ellison embraced Stalinism for a time, met other ambitious black writers including Richard Wright, worked for the Federal Writers’ Project, did a stint in the merchant marine and spent seven years writing what became his masterpiece.

Mr. Rampersad notes that “Invisible Man” is not autobiographical, but the protagonist, like Ellison, was for a time involved with communism. The main influence on the novel, the author says, is Melville, who also used a first-person narrator and suffused “Moby-Dick” with surrealism.

Ellison was also strongly influenced by jazz and the blues, which combined “to orchestrate the sometimes surreal nature of much of what makes up modern African-American urban consciousness.” Mr. Rampersad adds, “At some level, Ralph was living a life that was not unlike that of the hero of his novel. In his search for identity, Invisible had learned to shun most of the blacks about him.”

Publication of the novel and its selection for the National Book Award in 1953 (beating out Hemingway’s “Old Man and the Sea” and Steinbeck’s “East of Eden”) made Ellison an instant celebrity, but success went to his head. He had already shed his first wife, Rose, and married Fanny, who accompanied him to Rome where he went to take up a prestigious fellowship. There he met other celebrated writers and artists who became, at least for a time, his friends. Fanny took advantage of all that Rome had to offer, but Ellison worked at a new novel and had a fling with another man’s wife.

Once the Ellisons returned to America, the work-in-progress continued to dominate their lives, as Ellison piled up honorary degrees and memberships in tony clubs and on prestigious commissions while hobnobbing with the literary and social elite. Editors were happy to publish essays and excerpts from his “novel,” but as Mr. Rampersad indicates, Ellison declined, for most of his life, to participate in the momentous civil rights movement of the mid-20th century, or to assist other black writers. Having made it to the top, he pulled up the ladder after him.

Toward the end of this book the author summarizes what might have been if Ellison had not spent most of his life maintaining that he was concentrating nonstop on a second novel: “One or two books of autobiography, two or three collections of short stories, his two published books of essays, and his masterpiece Invisible Man, even without a second novel, might have given his career a sense of wholeness it never possessed and removed his burden of failed expectations.”

In 1836 the United States received an unprecedented gift — a bequest of more than $500,000 from an Englishman who had never set foot in America. The gift had a specific purpose: the establishment of an institution in Washington “for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.” This grant, huge for its time, became the basis of today’s Smithsonian Institution.

We know remarkably little about our benefactor, many of whose papers were destroyed in a 19th-century fire at the Smithsonian. But Heather Ewing, a New York-based architectural historian, has done a remarkable job in reconstructing Smithson’s peculiar career from such sources as are available (The Lost World of James Smithson: Science, Revolution, and the Birth of the Smithsonian, Bloomsbury, $29.95, 416 pages, illus.).

Smithson was born in France in 1765, the illegitimate son of Hugh Smithson, who later became Duke of Northumberland, and Elizabeth Hungerford Macie, a wealthy widow. According to Ms. Ewing, Smithson “took a small inheritance from his mother, and, through a lifetime of shrewd management and investment, turned it into the largesse that was bequeathed to the United States.”

Smithson attended Oxford, where he developed an interest in science; he graduated in 1782. Ms. Ewing notes that Smithson appears to have been raised “in the tradition of the Whig aristocracy, with a great love for all things French, a penchant for travel, and a belief in progress.”

Although Smithson’s money opened some doors in English society, his father, the duke, never acknowledged his son. Smithson insisted, “My life will live on in the memory of men when the titles of the Northumberlands … are extinct or forgotten.” But Smithson never married, and there would be no decendants.

Smithson had a genuine interest in the pursuit of knowledge, and his inquiries into the composition of ancient Egyptian paint led to his election to the Royal Society at age 22. He became noted for his mineral collection, acquired in travels all over Europe. He was intrigued with utilitarianism, and he made notes on the windmills of France and each town’s source of water.

But Smithson was a bit player in the scientific world of his day. Ms. Ewing writes that his “earnest and well-intentioned publications on how to build a balance or enhance the workings of a blowpipe hold appeal mostly for their quaintness.”

Smithson, whose health was never robust, died in Genoa, Italy, in 1829. He bequeathed the income from his estate to his one nephew, Henry Louis Dickinson. The estate itself was to go to Dickinson’s children or, if he were to die childless, to the United States government for the establishment of an institution of learning that would bear his name.

The author concludes, “It is a very sweet twist of fate that Smithson’s last grasp for posterity — the leaving of his fortune to the United States in a secondary clause in his will — gave birth to a legacy greater than he could have ever imagined.” But there were other benefits as well, for the Smithson grant triggered a surge of philanthropy in the United States, with universities, libraries, and museums being financed by wealthy patrons.

Where there are gaps in Smithson’s own story — and there are many — the author discusses the world of the British intelligentsia in such a way as to provide a seamless narrative. Ms. Ewing’s gracefully written book may represent the last word on James Smithson and his world.

John M. and Priscilla S. Taylor are writers in McLean, Va.

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