Painstaking biography covering the first half of the noted African-American writer’s life, through his acceptance of the National Book Award in 1953.
Ellison (1914–94) grew up in Oklahoma City. His beloved father died when Ralph was three; thereafter he shuttled from address to address with his mother, whose ferocious self-respect made both employment and housing opportunities precarious. The intelligent boy’s struggles with poverty and racial strife were mitigated by exposure to a good library, a visionary music teacher, and exceptional local jazz. Later, he won a scholarship from Tuskegee Institute's prestigious music school to study trumpet and conducting. The need for money led him in 1936 to New York, where he was introduced to Langston Hughes and within weeks had shifted his orientation to literature and left-wing politics. With Hughes as his mentor, Ellison launched himself in literary and political circles both up- and downtown. He served as editor of The Negro Quarterly and consolidated his reputation as a critic with his advocacy of Richard Wright's Native Son. Jackson (English/Howard Univ.) illuminates the complicated ways in which Ellison's career was shaped by his relationship with Wright, with whom he shared a rural background, modernist tastes, and an ambivalent relationship with the Communist Party, and whose success spurred Ellison's desire to write fiction. After WWII, his second wife Fanny's income and companionship allowed him to concentrate on the protean novel that eventually became Invisible Man, the masterpiece that catapulted him to fame in 1952. Jackson's scholarship is thorough, his insights valuable, but his prose, marred by idiomatic blunders and muddy sentence structure, is only just adequate to convey the complex temperament of his subject. Ambitious, original, dedicated, and lucky, Ellison seems at once isolated from and excessively dependent on his professional milieu; despite the biographer’s emphasis on effort and integrity rewarded, sadness and desperation haunt this life.
Gracelessly written, but indispensable to students of Ellison, Oklahoma City in the 1920s, or Harlem in the ’40s.