At a Loss for Words
Ralph Ellison and alienation: It would seem an obvious pairing. After all, he won his initial acclaim for extending the most fashionable affectation of the 1950s onto black America. Yet he may be better remembered (more esteemed, certainly, in certain circles) for his strenuous advocacy of inclusion, association, interconnection. The paradox is but one of many in a man for whom paradox too often has been mistaken for profundity: a writer who did not write, the expositor of "complexity" whose ideas were simple when not simplistic, the delineator of "chaos" whose commentary was a compendium of complacency, the advocate of social fluidity whose vision was frozen in times past, the proponent of aesthetic discipline whose work is marked by formlessness and lack of control, a "race man" who disdained his race, the critic of sociology whose own novel has been distorted into a sociological cliché, the proponent of individualism whose career was propelled at every step by an astonishing array of selfless supporters, an artist all the more honored the less he produced, a public presence as an invisible man.
"Why couldn't all those things be done at one and the same time?" Ellison asked; why couldn't he be "like all men...ambiguous, limited in circumstance but not in possibility"? His solution adds yet another paradox: The alienated man withdrew even further. As the distinguished scholar Arnold Rampersad suggests in his compassionate yet devastating biography, Ellison's quest to discover "how I can cling to that which is real in me" led him to seize fantasy ("Fiction became the agency of my efforts to answer the questions: Who am I, what am I, how did I come to be?") and, pivotally, to reject identification with his race ("the greatest difficulty for a Negro writer was the problem of revealing what he truly felt, rather than serving up what Negroes were supposed to feel, and were encouraged to feel"). With the subtle insight, painstaking scholarship and elegant presentation that graced his previous biographies of Langston Hughes and Jackie Robinson, Rampersad illuminates the "almost leprous insecurity" that caused Ellison to fall silent as a novelist after the sensational debut of Invisible Man in 1952 until his death in 1994, at the age of 81. "As a novelist, he had lost his way," Rampersad writes. "And he had done so in proportion to his distancing himself from his fellow blacks."
That distance was enormous. "The remarkable series of shrewd cultivations of whites on which Ralph, eager to succeed and optimistic about human nature, would build much of his success" began as early as his senior year in high school. From his affiliation with the Communist Party in the '30s and '40s, through his connections with the New Critics in the '50s (principally Robert Penn Warren, who "quietly, graciously, starting in 1953...had led Ralph to one honor and opportunity after another, as well as to a variety of important relationships with other leading whites in Rome and at the Century, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Yale, and elsewhere"), to the appointments to various official boards and commissions in the '60s and '70s, Ellison was, as Warren and his wife, Eleanor Clark, called him, with affection balancing irony, "every white man's favorite black man."
Ellison's rebuttal, one that has made him a touchstone for contemporary black intellectuals, was that his artistic dedication precluded social activism: "I have no desire to manipulate power. I want to write imaginative books." Rampersad documents why that dog won't hunt. As long as the cause was not black, Ellison was eager to be counted. He was "more than willing to contribute to the work" of the Committee for Cultural Freedom, to join Partisan Review's plea to the Polish Writers' Association to resist "Stalinist terror," to sign open letters of protest against the repeated jailings of the dissident Yugoslavian writer Milovan Djilas and the Chinese invasion of India. "Against racism in America," Rampersad writes, "he signed practically nothing." Even in 1963--the year of the Birmingham church bombing, the March on Washington, the year that saw more than 10,000 public demonstrations against racism--Ellison refused to join "a wide range of artists and religious figures" who signed an open letter to John F. Kennedy calling for action on civil rights.
His aversion did not stop at the border. Offered a trip to Africa in 1955, Ellison rejected the journey made by Richard Wright and James Baldwin: "I said I had no interest in it, no special emotional attachment to the place. I don't read much on Africa nowadays. It is just part of the bigger world picture to me." ("If Ralph ever wrote to or was visited by an African," Rampersad says, "the evidence apparently doesn't exist." Ellison's expensive collection of African art evidently was inspired by reading André Malraux.) In the late 1950s, when Langston Hughes helped collect books to send to Ghana, he reported that all "of the prominent contemporary writers of color in the U.S.A. to whom we wrote" donated volumes--except Ellison. ("He identified himself with the defense of Hungarians, Bulgarians, and other victims of oppression," Rampersad writes, "but was quiet about Africa.") Visiting India in 1957, Ellison attributed Calcutta's poverty to the natives, not European colonialism: "The British simply couldn't have created all of that."
Paradox yet again: No black writer benefited more from the civil rights revolution than Ralph Ellison. In the 1940s, the Communist Party boosted him to counter the increasingly estranged Richard Wright, its former black literary star; the party organ, New Masses, emblazoned Ellison's name on the cover. Arguably, Ellison's race won him the National Book Award for Invisible Man; indisputably it proved his principal social asset, when "invitations arrived at a brisk pace as hosts and hostesses found the Ellisons an engaging, unusual couple with their prestige, poise, intelligence, good looks, and freshly fashionable (in some white circles) brown skins." In the '60s, "civil rights crises across the South led to a dramatic jump in the demand on Ralph for appearances," and "in certain official circles," he became a spokesman: "He was a Negro, he was superbly accomplished, and he was moderate"--so moderate that even speaking at Notre Dame two days after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., "he did not talk about King's death," instead keeping to his text on "The Function of the Novel in American Democracy." (Ellison's opinion of King "had been mixed," Rampersad writes, "especially so after King criticized Johnson's Vietnam policies." King's "morality was too simplistic," Ellison declared.)
Most of all, he wasn't James Baldwin, the scold of America's conscience. In 1964, with an eye on the success of Baldwin's The Fire Next Time, Ellison's publisher had brought out a collection of his pieces, Shadow and Act: "an antidote to the more hysterical proclamations coming from the pens of James Baldwin and LeRoi Jones" was a representative reviewer's comment. The next year, when a poll of 200 authors, critics and editors conducted by the New York Herald Tribune's literary magazine, Book Week, named Invisible Man the best novel of the last two decades, his ascension was confirmed.
The rewards were considerable: membership in the Century Association and the American Academy of Arts and Letters; fellowships at the American Academy in Rome and at Yale University; appointments to the National Council of the Arts, the American Revolution Bicentennial Commission, the Carnegie Commission on Educational Television (followed by a trusteeship of the National Citizens' Committee for Public Television as well as of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts) and the board of Colonial Williamsburg; countless academic offers (in 1974, Harvard offered Ellison a tenured professorship at the highest salary on its arts and science faculty), including nine years in "one of the most prized academic positions in the state, if not the nation," as Albert Schweitzer Professor in the Humanities at New York University; honorary degrees from Wesleyan, Harvard, Williams, Tuskegee, Rutgers, the University of Michigan; France's Chevalier de L'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres; the Medal of Freedom, from Lyndon Johnson in 1969; the first National Medal of the Arts given a writer, from Ronald Reagan in 1985; even an invitation to Truman Capote's fabled Black and White Ball--"a cascading flow of honors such as no other African-American writer had ever enjoyed." This was Ellison the "clubbable monster," in Houston Baker's acidly accurate characterization, who, "when Civil Rights and Black Power became American--indeed global--realities...reclined in butter-soft seats at exclusive Manhattan clubs, explaining to whites why he could not take any active part in the Liberation Politics of black Americans."