Book Review

On a Tight Rope

In 1957, Ralph Ellison was completing a second year of a prize fellowship at the American Academy in Rome. Still glowing with the success of his first novel, Invisible Man, published in 1952, he worked on a second novel. As he wrote in a 1954 letter, the new project aimed to cast “light on the nature of the American experience,” not as a “‘race’ novel” but as a “novel of ideas.”[1] Ellison’s generous and daunting conception envisioned “a novel of action, an exploration of the mysteries of existence, and the depiction of fabulous, unexpected turns of fortune which I see as typical of America at her best, and of the novel (as form) at its most interesting.” No wonder then that while writing he was also exploring high points of American literature. In a letter to Albert Murray, his fellow African-American cultural critic and novelist, he reports: “Been rereading Moby-Dick again and appreciating for the first time what a truly good time Melville was having when he wrote it. Some of it is quite funny and all of it is pervaded by the spirit of play, like real jazz sounds when a master is manipulating it. The thing’s full of riffs, man; no wonder the book wasn’t understood in its own time.” A musician by early experience and formal training, and all his life delighted to dance, Ellison sees Melville’s great novel through his experience of jazz, and he uses it to capture a dimension of the American classic that you couldn’t find in the established criticism of the 1950s, or now either. Gems like this keep the reader going through his many letters.
Since Ellison’s death in 1994, far more books by him have appeared than came out in his lifetime, along with an outstanding biography by Arnold Rampersad. Ellison was nearly forty when Invisible Man appeared. It made him famous, but he lived another forty-two years without completing his second novel, leaving thousands of pages of draft. From 1960 to 1977 he published eight pieces from the never-titled novel project. He also published many essays in criticism and cultural interpretation, collected in Shadow and Act (1964) and Going to the Territory (1986). Both won admiring reviews, but the ever-anticipated novel dwarfed them.
Finally we knew that no triumphant second act was coming. As lovers of Invisible Man, we shifted our expectations and eagerly read what we could. In 1995, Conversations with Ralph Ellison collected wonderful interviews, and Ellison’s literary executor, John F. Callahan, brought out the Collected Essays, the first of many volumes he has edited. This nine-hundred-page assemblage, including some pieces not previously collected, secured Ellison’s place among America’s most important cultural critics of the twentieth century. In 1996, Callahan presented Flying Home, previously uncollected short stories. Finally, Callahan’s edition of Juneteenth came in 1999, not the fabled second novel but what he characterized as the most ambitious and latest, freestanding piece from the archive. To whet expectations for the release, Callahan also edited for the New Republic a dossier of twenty-one letters, from 1937 to 1990, a tiny teaser for the giant book now reviewed (curiously, one of the twenty-one didn’t get selected for the book). This mountain of print, and more, has grown up around the shrine of a single novel.
Nearly seventy years old, Invisible Man remains electrifying. Ellison, born in 1913, grew up in and devoted his fiction to the segregated America of the Negro. Invisible Man appeared just before Brown v. Board of Education began to transform the country, and therefore Black Power advocates by the late sixties treated Ellison’s work like old bad news. Life magazine, then still an immense feature of American life with over five million subscribers, published in 1970 an essay that affirmed the importance of Richard Wright’s insurrectionary Native Son (1940) and condemned Ellison for his “obsequious bleatings of white appeasement.” Ellison drafted an outraged essay-length letter, now published for the first time. Life did not publish the letter, but Ellison had already published his best defense in his novel.
No one, I think, who reads Invisible Man will share Life’s view. Ellison risks losing his white readers very quickly. The novel’s third paragraph recounts a shocking incident, told by the first-person protagonist-narrator:


One night I accidentally bumped into a man, and . . . he saw me and called me an insulting name. I sprang at him, seized his coat lapels, and demanded that he apologize. He was a tall blond man, and as my face came close to his he looked insolently out of his blue eyes and cursed me. . . . I pulled his chin down sharp upon the crown of my head, butting him as I had seen the West Indians do, and I felt his flesh tear and the blood gush out, and I yelled, “Apologize! Apologize!” . . . And in my outrage I got out my knife and prepared to slit his throat, right there beneath the lamplight in the deserted street, holding him in the collar with one hand, and opening the knife with my teeth—when it occurred to me that the man had not seen me, actually; that he, as far as he knew, was in the midst of a walking nightmare! And I stopped the blade. . . . It unnerved me. I was both disgusted and ashamed. I was like a drunken man myself, wavering about on weakened legs. Then I was amused: Something in this man’s thick head had sprung out and beaten him within an inch of his life. I began to laugh at this crazy discovery. . . . The next day I saw his picture in the Daily News, beneath a caption stating that he had been “mugged.” Poor fool, poor blind fool, I thought with sincere compassion, mugged by an invisible man!


Neither the knife nor the laugh appeases. Black rage at racism springs us rapidly through a brutal action sequence, and then in the middle of the paragraph, the elongated sentence turns with a thought, “it occurred to me.” Next comes the fussy actually, set off by a comma on one side and semicolon on the other. The knife stops, and laughter follows. The novel begins to earn its title by taking us behind the headlines that hide the doer—as novels for centuries and still now claim to tell it truer than the news does. How do these contradictory elements fit together to make a man? How does such a dangerous man come to be telling us his story? Read on and learn. This contradictory pattern of anger and laughter also shines through the letters.
This massive volume of letters, including a valuable, concise chronology at the back, illuminates how Ellison became the author of a great novel, and then what followed. Ellison wrote in 1971 to a schoolmate back in Oklahoma City, “Imagine, some of the young black radicals who know nothing about me treat me as though I was brought up rich and safe and know nothing of the harsh aspects of Negro life.” As he wrote years earlier to another Oklahoma friend, he had “grown up with no possibility of security during that period when I needed it most.” His father, working as an ice-man, died unexpectedly when Ralph was three, and his mother’s long hours of labor as a domestic supported the family, with Ralph bearing much responsibility for the care of his younger brother. His letters from Tuskegee Institute, where his ambition won him a place, sound no theme more constantly than money—lacking it and seeking it to pay for food and clothing and school fees. Yet his mother treasured the letters, and they passed to him when she died in his early twenties, after he had quit Tuskegee and begun living in New York, his home until death. An astonishing biographical fact stands out in Callahan’s general introduction: As soon as Ellison got to New York, age twenty-three, and laid hold of a typewriter, for the rest of his life he kept carbon copies of the letters he sent. This man imagined and then succeeded in writing himself into history.
Ellison writes from Ohio, where his mother has just unexpectedly died, to the “Dear Folks” back in Oklahoma City, the site of abiding early memories: “It is difficult to be grown up.” Like a cinematic wipe, adulthood begins. The next letter opens Ellison’s correspondence with Richard Wright, his closest comrade for the next decade, partner both in literary exploration and also radical politics, in Wright’s case as a member and worker for the Communist Party. Wright’s Native Son made a huge impact when it appeared in 1940, but it toed neither the race line nor the Party line, and the letters show Ellison doing a lot of work to make it understood as revealing “the humanist implications of Marxism.” Wright’s next book struck Ellison even more deeply. 12 Million Black Voices stands in the Depression-Era genre of photo documentary, such as You Have Seen Their Faces, by Erskine Caldwell and Margaret Bourke-White. Edwin Rosskam selected images from the files of the Farm Security Administration, and Wright narrates, in the first-person plural, collective experience from the Middle Passage through slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and the Great Migration. In November, 1941, Ellison wrote:


I know those emotions which tear the insides to be free and memories which must be kept underground, caged by rigid discipline, least [sic] they destroy, but which yet are precious to me because they are mine and I am proud of that which is myself. Usually we Negroes refuse to talk of these things; the fact that I mention them now is an indication of the effect which your book has had upon me. You write of the numbness which our experience has produced in most of us, and I must say that while I was never completely numbed myself, 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.


As with the Invisible Man’s street fight, the emotion didn’t always come out just by drops.
Ellison’s last great published piece, the long essay “An Extravagance of Laughter,” begins from a memory some fifty years old, in his first days of learning New York. He had already met Langston Hughes and benefited from the precious advice, “be nice to people and let them pay for meals.” Next Hughes took him to a Broadway play, the long-running comedy hit Tobacco Road, adapted from the novel by Erskine Caldwell. Ellison confessed to Caldwell in 1983 that, seeing the antics of the poor white Georgia farmers onstage, “I was reduced to such helpless laughter that I distracted the entire balcony. . . . It was a terrible moment, for before I could get myself under control more attention was being directed at me” than at the stage. He thanks Caldwell: “by giving artistic sanction to a source of comedy which in the interest of self-protection I had been forced to deny myself you had released me from three turbulent years of self-restraint.” Isn’t that almost self-contradictory, conjoining “turbulent” with “self-restraint”? In “Song of Myself,” “turbulent” goes with letting it out, not holding it in: “Walt Whitman, a kosmos, of Manhattan the son, / Turbulent, fleshy, sensual, eating, drinking and breeding.” But that’s the tension wound up in Ellison, turbulence restrained, which generated both his great novel and his profound analyses of American culture.
Jazz gave Ellison his crucial model for a complex cultural form, such as Moby-Dick, and he also had much to say about blues, an ancestor, cousin, and component of jazz. He explained to a white poet seeking publication in Negro Quarterly, which Ellison helped to edit in 1942–43, that blues provide “a technique of taking the spell off of the horrible in the Negro situation through the magic of laughter.” This nascent insight he developed more fully in 1945 in his first mature and influential critical essay, “Richard Wright’s Blues,” a review of Black Boy.
The great cultural theorist Kenneth Burke had become a friend and wrote Ellison to praise and discuss the essay. Ellison replied, appreciatively, “I am, as you say, becoming quite at home in that amalgam of sociology, psychology, Marxism and literary criticism” that he had begun to learn from Burke. He continued, “Your method gave me the first instrument with which I could orientate myself—something which neither Marx alone nor Freud alone could do.” After completing the review-essay, Ellison had the chance to spend some time in the Berkshires, summer of 1945, and there he composed the first sentence of Invisible Man, a project he now reports on to Burke: “In my novel I’ve deliberately written in the first person, couched much of it in highly intellectual concepts, and proceeded across a tight rope stretched between the comic and the tragic; but withal I don’t know where I’m going.” Initially at a loss, Ellison found his way across to Invisible Man, but for many years and many pages, the second project kept him on the rope.
Stanley Edgar Hyman played for Ellison a special role. A substantial contributor to literary criticism from the 1940s until his sudden death in 1970, he and his wife Shirley Jackson were good friends to Ralph and his wife Fanny for decades. Beyond sociability, he served also as Ellison’s “intellectual sparring partner,” as acknowledged in Shadow and Act. Ellison’s extended arguments with Hyman in letters over the decades rank second in interest only to the dialogue with Murray (friendship gained but correspondence lost when Murray moved to New York in 1960). The chance to hit back with a counter-statement seems to invigorate Ellison. Hyman had asserted, in an essay on Richard Wright, as Ellison quotes him, “There can be no doubt that Negro hatred of whites is close to universal.” Ellison notes that Hyman, as a scholar of blues, in that form could “readily see . . . ambivalence of emotion and attitude.” When Hyman assesses Wright’s fiction, however, Ellison charges, “you make our Negro American attitudes and emotions toward whites far too simple.” Ellison continues his rejoinder to Hyman by alluding to Henry James’s classic study of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Writing for a British readership, James explained the character of Hawthorne’s America by invoking a litany of absences. He started with the political gravity of “No State . . . [n]o sovereign, no court . . . no aristocracy” and concluded in levity, referring to society sporting events, “no Epsom nor Ascot!” In one of his major essays, Ellison showed that Richard Wright had adapted James as his model for lamenting the “essential bleakness of black life in America.” Ellison would have none of that, and he finds that Hyman, too, has failed to grasp the positive: “You allow us no contempt—a quite different emotion than hate—no irony, no forbearance, no indifference, no charity, no mockery, no compassion, no condescension.” Riffing off James, Ellison affirms the richly nuanced variety of Negro American self-culture, which the man in these letters so exemplifies.


[1] SELECTED LETTERS OF RALPH ELLISON, ed. by John F. Callahan and Marc C. Conner, with introductory essays by John F. Callahan. Random House. $50.00.