Friday, May 04, 2007

Rampersad explores depth of Ellison's anger, pride in new biography

“I am an invisible man.”
--Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

Initially, Arnold Rampersad rejected invitations from two publishers to write a biography of author Ralph Ellison. He even resisted blandishments from Ellison’s literary executor. “I thought he was not the subject for me,” Rampersad said, but he finally consented to the project after examining his calendar and discovering “the coming decade was free.”

It’s a line that draws appreciative laughter, but Rampersad is only partially joking. His last book, Jackie Robinson, a biography of the ground-breaking Dodger great, appeared 10 years ago. Now, exactly a decade later, Ralph Ellison is on the shelves and garnering plaudits for Rampersad, a Stanford professor, who has emerged as the foremost chronicler of notable African-Americans. In addition to biographies of Ellison and Robinson, he has written a two-volume biography of Langston Hughes. He also co-authored a book with tennis great Arthur Ashe.

His Ellison biography has been praised for being meticulously thorough, thoroughly readable and, above all, a balanced account of Ellison, whom Rampersad describes as the “most aloof, the most Olympian figure” in 20th Century literature. Ellison, said Rampersad, was “an extraordinarily complicated man.”

Rampersad spoke about his biography Thursday at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. A distinguished man, his graying hair cropped close, he more closely resembles an investment banker than an author or an academic. Rampersad researched much of the Ellison biography at the Library of Congress, the repository of the Ellison archives, which contains more than 46,000 items in the manuscript section alone and much more in the way of photographs and rare books.

Rampersad was the only scholar granted access to the entire Ellison collection. Before agreeing to write the biography, Rampersad made it clear it would not be an “authorized” biography. He said, however, that he agreed Ellison’s widow could review his final manuscript, but would not have the authority to mandate changes.

As a biographer, Rampersad said, his task was to “push past the demeanor, the veneer of command,” that Ellison epitomized. He said he was driven by two questions: Why was there no second novel between the publication of Invisible Man in 1952 and Ellison’s death in 1994? This question consumes the second half of Rampersad’s book. The second question was vastly more provocative: Given his background, how did Ellison come to write a book as sophisticated and complex as Invisible Man?

Ellison was raised in grinding poverty in Oklahoma. Although he attended Tuskegee University, he had a “weak” formal education, Rampersad said, and he was entrapped by a Communist aesthetic that colored his early writing. Ellison was also plagued by overweening family pride, frustration, denial, loss and rage. “His volcanic anger,” Rampersad said, “was in him to the end.”

Rampersad said Ellison’s pride – which grew out of his paternal grandfather’s achievements during Reconstruction and post-Reconstruction, in which he had a position of authority over whites – led to Olympian standards. One reason there may have been no second book, Rampersad speculates, was that Ellison could not bring himself to write inferior stuff.

Ellison reached New York in 1936. He was befriended by Langston Hughes and, later, apprenticed himself, in a sense, to Richard Wright. Despite his friendships, Ellison expressed contempt for Hughes as a writer and a poet, Rampersad said, and he rejected the realism adopted by Wright in his writing. Instead, Ellison strove for “a mythic, symbolic way of writing,” Rampersad said. He embraced a kind of surrealism. Ellison saw his literary ancestors as Dostoyevsky, Twain, T.S. Eliot (attracted by the jazz-like improvisation of The Wasteland), Hemingway (although he had to come to terms with the fact that Hemingway did not write about race and that he wrote only disparagingly of blacks), Faulkner and James Joyce.

Rampersad said, Ellison’s ambition “was absolutely out of this world.”

But that ambition led Ellison to write his masterpiece, Invisible Man. Rampersad characterized Invisible Man not only as a novel of black culture and its interaction with white culture, but as “a universal story.” Ellison, he said, “wanted to create a kind of everyman.” Rampersad said that with the publication of Invisible Man Ellison joined such notable American authors as Saul Bellow, Twain, Melville and Whitman in using the first person to create a significant and lasting literary work.

Book notes

  • Ellison won the National Book Award for Invisible Man in 1953. It beat out Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea.

  • Ellison opposed the idea of Black Power. He did not believe in racial separation. Rampersad said Ellison believed in America and in the idea that Blacks were part white and that whites were part Black.

  • Ellison became a figure of scorn by younger black writers who perceived him as an Uncle Tom.

  • Ralph Ellison by Arnold Rampersad is published by Knopf. It is 657 pages.

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