A superb biography of the noted African-American writer and the tormented times in which he lived.
It is literature’s misfortune that Ralph Ellison (1913–94) never produced a novel after Invisible Man, which took him seven traumatic years to write. As Rampersad (English/Stanford Univ.; Jackie Robinson, 1997, etc.) chronicles, Ellison received accolade after accolade following its publication: the National Book Award, presidential medals, honorary doctorates, “a cascading flow of honors such as no other African-American writer had ever enjoyed.” Success may have ruined Ellison; he developed a taste for the good life, first-class travel, nice surroundings—a far remove from his Oklahoma childhood. Rising from poverty, Ellison trained as a musician and engaged in an activist politics that launched him as a writer. Long afterward, his failure to produce cost him the use of a university secretary, but he had tenure, and plenty of other universities were always trying to woo him away. That failure and the gossip it yielded within the academy made Ellison bitter and hostile, of a piece with his transformation from prewar Communist to postwar conservative, at least of a cultural kind. It is in this second guise that Ellison fought his fiercest battles, waged against the likes of Ishmael Reed and Amiri Baraka, as he “deplored the popularity of black ‘demagogues’ and the habit of idolizing ex-pimps and ex-prisoners . . . which ‘gave many kids the notion that there was no point in developing their minds.’ ” Ellison’s battles with other African-American writers, such as Langston Hughes, led to his alienation from their company, but not from the canon. Rampersad writes of such matters with a mix of amusement and sorrow, noting how they drained Ellison of his energies and clearly wishing that Ellison had found “a way to that second triumph of fiction of which he had been dreaming . . . for almost thirty-five years.”
A revealing exploration of Ellison’s life and work.