Tuesday, May 01, 2007

May Day + Notes on Rampersad on Ellison


Last weekend, when I was in a local bookstore to pick up a book I'd been meaning to get for a while, I found myself near the new non-fiction titles, and one of the first ones I reached for and couldn't put down, for at least half an hour, was Arnold Rampersad's new biography of Ralph Ellison. I do intend to get it soon, but it reminded me that I've never posted any of my notes from Rampersad's short and illuminating keynote talk, which opened the Cave Canem 10th Anniversary celebration at Notre Dame University a few months ago. Though I've read Invisible Man, Ellison's essays, and some of his stories many times and Juneteenth only once, my knowledge of Ellison's personality and personal life remains minimal. None of the older writers I know had ever spoken to me of direct encounters with him, not even Michael S. Harper, with whom Ellison maintained an acquaintance. So some of Rampersad's comments really surprised me.

What I jotted down was that Rampersad had worked on the biography for seven years, and once he'd finished it, he realized that he really did not like Ellison as a person at all. (His feelings about Ellison's wife were similarly negative.) He told the poetry conference audience--which included faculty, students and staff from Notre Dame, as well as South Bend residents--that Ellison did not like poetry for the most part, and also had little interest in Africa. "If you do not love poetry, you do not love literature," was Rampersad's formulation, and he quoted Langston Hughes's 1964 definition of poetry as "the human soul entire squeezed like a lemon or lime drop by drop into atomic words." This led Rampersad to surmise that Ellison probably would not have liked Cave Canem's focus on poetry or its Black-oriented nature.

While he did maintain relationships with some other Black authors, like Langston Hughes (whom he considered one of his "relatives," rather than a peer, and thus less deserving of respect than some White writers) Rampersad supposed that Ellison paid a stiff price for his disdain of and estrangement from most of his Black peers and younger Black artists, many of whom, especially during the period from the late 1950s through the early 1970s when his reputation was at its apogee, were pioneering new possibilities for Black cultural production. He mentioned James Baldwin, Ishmael Reed and LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka in particular, but it's fair to say that many of the major figures in late 20th century African-American literature emerged during this temporal window. There were some White writers and intellectual figures, like W. R. B. Lewis, William Styron, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., with whom Ellison was close, and in the case of Saul Bellow, their friendship led Bellow to provide Ellison with a home in which to write, which Ellison abused by allowing his pure-bred dog to crap and chew up everything in sight. For Ellison, it was only natural that a "pure breed" be given free rei(g)n! (I read in the biography that both appealed to their mutual friend John Cheever, who found the whole flap a bit ironic and ridiculous.) Ellison's investment in elusive mythic substructures and a version of literature that cut him off from both his specific past and from the vibrant Black cultural sphere around him--he did live in Harlem for most of his life--dogged his efforts to complete his second book.

Rampersad made many other coruscating remarks about poetry and the changes that had occurred since the days when Karl Shapiro (a poet little discussed and probably unknown to most younger poets these days) called it a "closed corporation," but I was most interested in the remarks on Ellison. Following up on one other point I noted above, Rampersad clarified that Ellison considered some writers to be relatives: Richard Wright and Hughes, for example, fit this category, and in fact Wright was absolutely crucial in the development of Ellison's career. On the other hand, he consider his "ancestors" to be only the "great" White authors like Fyodor Dostoyevsky, whose influence is evident in Invisible Man. They received the utmost respect and reverence for him. In the book I noted that there were no pictures of him with younger Black authors--save his close friend and acolyte Albert Murray--until very late in life, when he's shown in consecutive photographs alongside two of the leading contemporary African-American literary figures, Toni Morrison and Rita Dove, though I haven't yet read the book to see what he thought of them (and especially Morrison, whose fame and centrality to African-American and American literature had so totally eclipsed his own by the time he died in 1994). Now that I've typed out this entry I realize I'm going to have to purchase this biography soon. As I said, I could not put it down for a half hour the other day.

Update: Here's Phyllis Rose's American Scholar review of Rampersad's biography of Ellison, entitled "An Impulse to Exclude." A quote:

He was also a gatekeeper. In every group he belonged to, he was, almost invariably, the only person of color, and Rampersad provides some evidence that he wanted it to stay that way. He put little effort into bringing other black members into his favorite clubs, the Century and the American Academy of Arts and Letters. There’s an old joke about admitting the first Jew to the country club. Smith and Jones agree they must admit Schwartz, because he owns the whole town, but how, asks Jones, will they keep out all those other Jews once they’ve admitted Schwartz? “Don’t worry,” says Smith. “Schwartz will do it.”


  1. The May 7 issue of the New Yorker has a great review of Rampersad's book. I knew nothing of Ellison's personal life, and I've only read Invisible Man once, but in reading the article, it seems that Ellison suffered from a deep-seated self-loathing and sense of unworthiness, which he expressed through the "snobbery" Rampersad describes. How bittersweet it is that he chose to seek exceptance from a canon that excluded him, rather than finding a way to connect with his contemporaries, and inspire his followers. That inner hatred seems to be what destroyed him, and it doesn't seem that Ellison was ever aware of it either.

  2. Eileen, I actually just got the new New Yorker and read Als's piece, but I appreciate the heads up. I'm curious to see if Rampersad mentions the literary critic Anatole Broyard, another Black man who was so racially conflicted that he passed as white for years, not telling his children until he was basically on his death bed (I knew his daughter Bliss, and she confirmed this); this sustained performance of self-denial took its toll, one of which supposedly was an imaginative block preventing him from a long work of fiction.

  3. I, too, read the Als review in the New Yorker, and am looking forward to reading Rampersad's book. _Shadow and Act_ was a collection I greatly admired when I read it years ago, and the Ellison/Murray letters are quite entertaining...but, yes, even there some of the comments about Tusgeegee and other writers, I can see how cutting they truly are when read by the light of the rest of his life. We've all had less than positive things to say about aspects of black life, but love and are nurtured by our own. For him to increasingly cut himself off...sad.