Vol. 1 No. 1 2007



REVIEWING



A LIFE EXAMINED

BY JOE JOHNSON


Ralph Ellison: A Biography

By Arnold Rampersad

In a period of middle of the twentieth century, with the publication of Invisible man, Ellison had completed a difficult journey and made an important contribution to American literature of the modern era. Arnold Rampersad faithfully reconstructs Ellison's odyssey. Although Ellison was a stanch individualist, he achieved his goal with the help and cooperation of his fellow American intellectuals, both black and white. He was the product of the interaction of both white and black intellectuals of his day. It is with their encouragement and intellectual insights that he was able to reach the point of his artistic achievement and become a man of letters.

To his credit, Arnold Rampersad meticulously constructs Ellison's evolution. As Ellison's biographer, Rampersad has a distinct advantage; he has written a definitivebiography of Langston Hughes, Ellison's first mentor. Hughes introduced Ellison to Richard Wright. In turn, Wright became Ellison's major literary influence.

Since writing is not a foot race, it would be unfair to say that Ellison goes beyond both Hughes and Wright, but he does adroitly observe their literary and political strategies and takes a different path. In order to understand Ellison's aesthetic and political choices, Rampersad provides a masterful monitoring of the psychology of his subject. He does this by delving in all of the archival material and by having an appreciation and understanding of American literary history.

Ellison, as well as Hughes, understood the importance of their places in American literature and prepared for a generation of biographers parsing their lives and work. Given the abundance of information, both archival and otherwise, Rampersad sustains his objectivity by a detailed portrait and analysis of subject. Not all of his conclusions about Ellison's character are pleasant, but Rampersad is analytical and not judgmental. Rampersad is steadfast about placing Ellison with the cultural and political milieu of his time, and this serves the biographer well. Ellison helped his biographers by supplying many interviews. In each interview, Ellison places himself within the context of American culture and literature. In addition to his call for high literary standards, Ellison states the importance of knowing sources of an American ethos.

As readers, we are given small details about a big life. The fragments fill gaps and humanize a man whose bespoke image was a turn off.

What does the biographer have at stake in the telling of Ellison's life? Rampersad's skill and presence of mind offer the reader the private Ralph Ellison. Within his lifetime, Ellison attained major cultural presence and power, and the style and manner in which Ellison used his power is central to the biography. As a first-class cultural historian, Rampersad develops a balanced, well-timed narrative. He orchestrates and executes.

Rampersad serves as a superb writer of narrative and constructs for himself a considerable amount of freedom to do so. The work is by no means just a psychological study of the writer. What the work does is to pinpoint the cultural, personal dynamic of Ellison's life while his work is in progress. Rampersad's biography embraces Ralph and Fannie Ellison.

In 1964, the young poet Tom Dent worked with Fannie Ellison at the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund. When Tom told me this, we both thought of the possibility of an Ellison interview for our literary magazine Umbra. Umbra was primarily a poetry magazine that was struggling to survive. Although the magazine did not survive, the interview survived and was published. It was through Fannie Ellison that Tom arranged the interview. The other interviewers were James Thompson, Lennox Raphael and Steve Cannon. Fannie set the ground rules.

We all knew all of Ellison's work and had read of all of his influences and in some cases within the original languages, so Ellison was preaching to the washed. The interview, I still believe, was an act of great generosity and trust. It was a clear effort on Ellison's part to reiterate his literary principles. He was deliberate and never guarded with his answers. Fannie entered the room and told us that our time was up, just as we were discussing the character Trueblood. I know we all got a lot of it.

There is an interesting point to make about the interview: it was published about two to three years after it was granted and was thoroughly edited by Ellison. In short, it was his interview, but the spirit of the questions remained intact. We all knew his importance, and appreciated his acknowledgment.

His presence was important to a generation of American writers, especially, African American, who took note of Ellison's exploration of African American culture and shaped it into a highly charged vehicle of selfexpression. Wright's blueprint, minus Marx and Lenin cant, speaks directly to the direction in which Ellison takes his writing. The Wright's blueprint appears to be aesthetic direction that Ellison and a generation of African American writers have taken to both acknowledge their respect for cultural traditions that were, in the main, despised and misunderstood.

Ellison's standard was composed of many influences that shaped world literature. His application of these theories must be seen as creative synthesis that allowed him to bring his cultural vision to the world.

Detailed and candid, Rampersad's portrait is three-dimensional. It is respectful without being cautious. The biography states what the Ellisons wanted said, and it states what the author thinks is worth saying. Ellison's career embodied the values that are incorporated in his art. Thus, the work and the life are complete. Rampersad captures the shadow and the acts of Ellison's life.

Joe Johnson is a critic and a professor of literature at Ramapo College in New Jersey.

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