Saturday, December 01, 2007

Books now read in ’07: 112
Title: Ralph Ellison
Author: Arnold Rampersad
Genre: Biography
Date Completed: 12-1
Pages: 566

And so we enter the final month of reading in 2007. Why do I feel as if 112 books just isn’t enough?

Arnold Rampersad is a splendid biographer as he demonstrated in 1997 with his biography of baseball pioneer (and book of the same name) Jackie Robinson and again 10 years later with Ralph Ellison.

I confess that I have not read Ellison’s groundbreaking novel, Invisible Man. Rampersad’s thorough and thoroughly readable biography has not necessarily moved me to do so, but – should I read it – I will know a hell of a lot about the author.

Ellison was a complicated man. (He evokes Whitman for me: “I am large. I contain multitudes.”) He was not necessarily a likeable man. In the vernacular of the time, Ellison was excessively enamored of the Establishment. He embraced LBJ, any number of Establishment appointments, commissions and boards and jealously guarded his status as the sole “Negro” (a word he preferred) representative thereof.

Perhaps most distressingly, Ellison did little – hell, he did nothing – to advance the cause of young Black writers, who he always found lacking. His disregard, for example, of Toni Morrison is but one example.

Rampersad’s strength is in his balance. He demonstrates Ellison’s greatness as a pioneering Black novelist, but does not hesitate to display his shortcomings as a man and, especially, as an African American.

From the publication of Invisible Man until Ellison’s death, Rampersad also makes clear that the single, inescapable tragedy of Ellison’s life – and I do not think that to strong a word – is his failure to write a second novel. He worked continuously (more than 35 years) on a second novel, but was never able to complete it; in part, Rampersad suggests, because Ellison’s standards were to high.

Most instructive (and illustrative of my thinking as I read this biography) is Rampersad following observation:

Perhaps it is therefore both a touching memento and a mocking suggestion of what might have been if Ralph had managed his career differently. 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 and removed his burden of failed expectations. (p. 556)

I am not a fan of lengthy biographies, preferring the shorter version (less than 200 pages) of Penguin Lives and the current Eminent Lives series, but I liked this work. It is readable, balanced and superbly researched.

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