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At a Loss for Words

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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.

About the Author

Michael Anderson
Michael Anderson is writing a biography of the playwright Lorraine Hansberry.

"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."

Racial treason is a charge inherently ugly as well as intrinsically cheap, all the more when applied yet again to Ellison; as the scholar Jerry Gafio Watts has pointed out, "Ellison has had the rare honor of being attacked by black leftists and black nationalists"--along with influential friends, Ellison had the right enemies. "Much of the criticism directed against Ellison is personal, oversimplified and often not based on an analysis of the man's work and ideas," in the summation of, ironically enough, that most talented of theoreticians in the Black Arts Movement, Larry Neal. Rampersad does not seek to indict him. Rather, along with reckoning the cost, he probes the cause.

The defining event in Ellison's life happened when he was 3 years old: His father died. The child was making the rounds with the elder Ellison, a deliveryman, when a block of ice perforated his ulcerated abdomen. "I had watched, holding on to the cold white metal of the hospital bed as they wheeled him away," Ellison would recall. "I had only a glimpse, then we were past." Sixty years later he would remember, "I was so far from accepting the reality of his death that I was still telling myself that any day he would reappear to take his place as the head of our family." None did in his mother's two subsequent marriages; Invisible Man records a series of encounters with failed father figures. He was frozen emotionally--"I have had to rigidly control my thawing, allowing the liquid emotion to escape drop by drop through the trap doors of the things I write, lest I lose control"--and frozen existentially: In his fiction and essays, Ellison strove to escape time and history (think of the apotheosis of the Invisible Man), to return to what was irrevocably lost on that fearsome day in 1916; "haunted," as he said, "by a sense of uncertainty," he would struggle his entire life to quiet what he called "chaos" (his "single most compelling term," as Rampersad writes, "the most burdened word in his cultural vocabulary"). A childhood friend from Oklahoma City remarked: "Ralph's the same way he was when he was a boy. He ain't changed." (Perhaps this is why Rampersad consistently refers to his subject by his first name.) No wonder he always complained he had trouble writing "transitions": "The problem for me is to get from A to B to C."

The immediate consequences of his father's death were devastating. "The new life of poverty started almost at once," Rampersad writes. "Money was always scarce." His widowed mother worked as a maid or a janitor to provide for Ralph and his younger brother, Herbert; at one point, the family was reduced to "a diet of worm-infested beans and day-old milk and bread discarded by a dairy and bakery." They came to depend on the charity of Oklahoma City's black upper crust; its accompanying condescension ("the teachers who made you ashamed and the professionals who thought Herbert and I weren't good enough to play with their children") exacerbated by Ellison's later experience at class-conscious Tuskegee ("a bunch of small minded niggers who won't be satisfied unless they show how important they are.... If I get away from here I am through with negro schools") was at the root of Ellison's rage against the black bourgeoisie, "what he saw," Rampersad writes, "as its shabbily run institutions, its materialism and Philistinism, its snobbery and self-hatred."

In the trajectory familiar from Invisible Man, Ellison came to New York in 1936, trading Tuskegee for the Communist Party. Rampersad is particularly penetrating about this crucial decade in Ellison's career, about which "he would never be frank in public" but which set his character for the rest of his life. After the trauma of his childhood and his stinging failure to win distinction as a music student at Tuskegee, he found the basis of his desired identity in the party: a rigid structure to ward off the threat of chaos; social solidarity, particularly with white comrades; a puffed-up reputation of an intellectual, the gift of authority, with which he proclaimed that black writers constituted the vanguard that would allow the masses to "possess the conscious meaning of their lives"; even a mate--Ellison met his first wife in the home of the Communist couple who had provided him shelter. The man who "depended on safety nets--the certitudes of radical ideology and the defensive interests that patrolled it" had found safe harbor. "He probably became, at least for a while, a dues-paying Party member," Rampersad says, but most definitely he remained "something of a Stalinist for years to come," his journalism tortuously following the twists of the party line (as has been documented by the scholar Barbara Foley), standing fast "even when virtually every one of his leftist literary heroes, including Mann, Hemingway, and Malraux" abandoned the party in the wake of the Hitler-Stalin pact. Ellison left the party carrying one of its central Popular Front tenets--"that cultural interchange between the races represented a defining feature of the American experience," in the words of historian Mark Naison--and a style that remained constant, though the principles flipped. If now, as Rampersad writes, "his rhetoric reached new heights of patriotic fervor" ("It is a big, wonderful country," he told Time in 1953), if his worshiped triad had changed to Kenneth Burke's "purpose to passion to perception," even as he celebrated "an ideal, interracial American history that really had never been," Ellison remained "self-conscious, solemn, ideological, and ponderous," someone who "searched with the zeal of an autodidact for bits and pieces of knowledge that bolstered his sense of himself as an intellectual."

Though Ellison declared, "The break with the c.p. has allowed me to come alive," once again he was existentially unanchored, defenseless against chaos. The evidence is plain, even if too often overlooked, in Invisible Man. Perhaps the supreme paradox is that the novel of a man who never tired of excoriating sociological explanations of black life has lent itself to a sociological cliché. "Negroes, in America, are 'invisible men,'" Library Journal wrote in 1952; by 1965 Robert Penn Warren could report, "The title has become a key phrase: the Negro is the invisible man." Such a misreading seems to answer a deep need for white America: Even when invisible, all black people look alike.

Ellison's protagonist, with his giddy naïveté, psychological shallowness and sketchy background, is the least representative black figure in American literature--"less a full-blooded character than a convenience of an often symbolic, occasionally surreal plot," as the critic Morris Dickstein has put it. In fact, one of the novel's major flaws is that Ellison's black Candide suddenly shows signs of flesh and blood once he becomes involved in the Brotherhood; the prose loses its ironic lightness and assumes shades of anguish ("At what point do we stop? Is this the new definition, is Brotherhood a matter of sacrificing the weak? If so, at what point do we stop?") and despair ("Only in the Brotherhood had there seemed a chance for such as us, the mere glimmer of a light.... And even that was without meaning"). It is not until he feels betrayed by the Brotherhood that he declares himself invisible, "invisible," as Rampersad points out, "to everyone, black or white."

In his astute commentary on Invisible Man, Rampersad, who teaches English and the humanities at Stanford, notes Ellison's technical mistake: "He gives the Brotherhood no plausible reason for deserting the cause of black rights." In life, of course, it was because the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union caused the party to sacrifice black rights in favor of American war efficiency. (Black hard-liners stood fast; for example, three months after the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union, the Harlem Communist leader Benjamin Davis Jr. was claiming that "the CP is disturbed by the increasing struggle of Negroes for jobs in defense plants." The party opposed A. Philip Randolph's proposed March on Washington, the Rubicon for Ellison and many other blacks--though he would publish "ultra-Marxist criticism under a pseudonym even as he was abandoning the radical left." Editors at New Masses told Ellison to "soft-pedal this Negro thing. We've got to get production going." Perhaps to placate him, the magazine also started paying him for his articles; as Rampersad notes, "Ralph and black intellectuals like him were more important than ever.") Conspicuous in its absence, the sense of racial betrayal--"If only we had some true friends, some who saw us as more than convenient tools for shaping their own desires!"--makes Invisible Man a document of black anti-Communist disillusionment, the fictional analogue to another persistently misread book, Harold Cruse's The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual.

The novel is also a response to Richard Wright. Almost upon Ellison's arrival in New York, Wright had elevated the Oklahoma yokel through the heady atmosphere of black Communist literary life, commissioning his first book review and first piece of fiction, discussing and recommending books, sharing his own writings. The former lonely, fatherless child who had lost himself in books--the segregated branch of the Oklahoma City library had been "a boon to Ralph," Rampersad writes; "Novels fed his chronic daydreaming" ("I read Last of the Mohicans ten times")--found a soul mate in another once fatherless (through desertion, not death) and solitary child, who recalled, ''Whenever my environment had failed to support or nourish me, I had clutched at books." Is it any surprise that Ellison so closely modeled his early attempts at fiction on Wright's that Wright responded, "You have copied my ideas, my words and my structure"?

"The sons must slay the fathers"--Wright's other protégé, James Baldwin, even more sadly orphaned than Ellison (his father unknown, himself shamefully illegitimate), spoke for the two of them, case studies in the anxiety of influence. Indeed, both sought to slay Wright, as a cultural figure (Baldwin strove to be a moraliste in the French manner; Ellison succeeded in becoming a cultural mandarin American-style) and as a fiction writer; each created his own version of that specter haunting black American literature, Bigger Thomas. As in his efforts to be an extra-literary figure, Baldwin failed, with Rufus Scott in Another Country; Ellison subversively turned Bigger into a comic figure in Invisible Man.

For all its disparities in style, tone and theme, Ellison's novel shares striking similarities with Wright's Native Son, not only in plot details--each protagonist suffers excruciating sexual temptation from a white woman, each spurns a speech exhorting him to join a social movement, each flees police over rooftops, each takes an automobile ride with Communists, each rejects a maternal figure--but also as a description of an individual consciousness (the tirelessly repeated allegations, including many by Ellison, that Wright wrote partisan propaganda ignores his authorial insistence on Bigger's individuality: "He looked at the other black people near him. Even though black like them, he felt there was too much difference between him and them to allow for a common binding and a common life''), one that rejects imposed social identities and attempts its own definition of authenticity. (Both novels also share drastic flaws in structure, with some episodes threatening to unbalance the whole; and both suffer from what Baldwin proposed was the void at the heart of black novels, that violence resided where sex should be: Bigger's sexual stirrings are followed by two murders, the Invisible Man's by the Battle Royale and the Harlem riot.) For all his denials, Ellison obviously took his main image from Wright's novella The Man Who Lived Underground ("the first time," Wright wrote his agent, "I've really tried to step beyond the straight black-white stuff"). And Ellison's pastiche style, his self-conscious literary allusiveness--"the possibility of creating depth and resonance in my fiction by taking the gambler's chance of alluding to things I'd read in the Bible, in literary classics, scientific works, folklore, or to anything else that might be conveyed through the written word"--had its predecessor not only in Ellison's oft-cited reading of The Waste Land but closer to home, or the Harlem office of the Daily Worker, where Wright labored over his first effort at a novel. "Modernist in its bleak, despairing tone," Rampersad writes, the book, posthumously published as Lawd Today!, "bristles with devices lifted from contemporary writers such as James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Theodore Dreiser, and James T. Farrell."

Both Bigger Thomas and the Invisible Man proclaim that they have achieved identity, each in what could be argued is a nihilistic victory--but what a contrast in tone! Bigger shouts, "I didn't want to kill! But what I killed for, I am!" Surrounded by his 1,369 light bulbs, the Invisible Man says smugly, "I am one of the most irresponsible beings that ever lived.... And wait until I reveal how truly irresponsible I am." As Ellison so often and so proudly announced, he was not a protest writer; what could be considered the most metaphysically despairing opening line in American literature, "I am an invisible man," is said not in revolt but with pride.

As Rampersad emphasizes, Ellison was not writing biography in Invisible Man. Instead, he was creating his own myth: a black youngster, innocent and idealistic ("I visualized myself as a potential Booker T. Washington"), cruelly victimized by a cynical black college ("You're nobody, son. You don't exist--can't you see that?"), deracinated in New York ("coming North was a jump into the unknown"), given prominence by the Communist Party ("I found that most downtown audiences seemed to expect some unnamed something whenever I appeared"), only to feel betrayed once again--not only by the party but by the indifference of the masses ("It didn't matter because they didn't realize just what had happened, neither my hope nor my failure. My ambition and integrity were nothing to them") and forced to confront his barely suppressed dread of existential annihilation ("the traitor self that always threatened internal discord"). In the riot that engulfs Harlem, the Invisible Man is presented with a vision of senselessness--"The world in which we lived was without boundaries. A vast seething, hot world of fluidity"--and the ultimate temptation is surrender, a temptation that Ellison named Rinehart: "Rine the rascal was at home. Perhaps only Rine the rascal was at home in it." As Rampersad writes, the Invisible Man has become "chaos incarnate."

"A crisis of spirit and technique haunts this last section" of Invisible Man, Rampersad writes. "The book was not finished. Ralph needed to add something in order to reassert a final measure of control over his epic." The novel's epilogue imposes a meaning not justified by what precedes it; Rampersad joins a host of previous commentators in pointing out how undefined are the "infinite possibilities" the Invisible Man claims for himself. How could they be? This lack of definition was what Ellison called "complexity" ("Ralph was ever so fond of the word 'complexity,'" his friend the poet Richard Wilbur told Rampersad. "I think that his favorite expression was the 'complexity of the American experience'"); yet for Ellison "complexity" was the flip side of "chaos." It was where he found his creative freedom--as he wrote of Rinehart, "His world was possibility and he knew it. He was years ahead of me and I was a fool"--yet it also carried his deepest emotional danger: "Creative experience," he wrote to Albert Murray, brought "only a fighting chance with the chaos of living."

A final paradox: In the end Ralph Ellison was alienated even from the wellspring of his creativity. His muse pulled him toward the sort of creation ("Despite the historical past and the injustices of the present," he once said, "I have to affirm my forefathers and I must affirm my parents or be reduced in my own mind to a white man's inadequate--even if unprejudiced--conception of human complexity") his will and his psyche would not permit him to sustain. Though the sections of Invisible Man dealing with the Brotherhood are the most emotionally felt, the ones with the greatest artistic power--Trueblood with his ribald tale of incest, the mental patients in the Golden Day, the nightmarish Harlem riot--describe a world gone mad. Norman Mailer, in his notorious "Quick and Expensive Comments" on his fellow writers, hit a bull's-eye when he judged that "Ellison's mind, fine and icy, tuned to the pitch of a major novelist's madness, is not always adequate to mastering the forms of rage, horror, and disgust which his eyes have presented to his experience, and so he is forever tumbling from the heights of pure satire into the nets of a murderously depressed clown." That Ellison was not fitted for the art he professed to admire is his pathos. He sought to be the black T.S. Eliot when he could have been the black Beckett.

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