Obituary: Ralph Ellison
Monday 18 April 1994
RALPH ELLISON was a great gentleman, indeed a noble man, and the remarkable, mythologising author of a single novel, Invisible Man (1952), which remains the great American Negro novel. The word 'Negro' I use advisedly, for it was his word for himself: because 'my parents were so identified'; because it's 'an honourable term. We fought to make it used.' Because 'Negro is resonant with associations, positive and negative, it's an American term for an American people. Ergo, I am a Negro.'
Just the tone sets that apart: as Ellison was set apart, who lived, as Saul Bellow says, 'remarkably outside of all trends'. For, as Bellow continues, 'He had his own view of the life of blacks in America, and its real centre is the national life, and not any form of separatism. Ralph had no doubt that the neo- segregationism of blacks was bad, and that it had terrible effects. That was what he meant to write. He withdrew more and more inside himself as he tried to write a book about all these questions, and it proved too much for him.'
That book was what would have been his second novel, and he was working on it with increasing persistence in the past few years, convinced that more than 40 years after he had diagnosed the condition of being invisible ('I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me') the world, both black and white, had not understood. By his last years, Ellison had a clearer vision of that invisibility. 'Part of the problem for the invisible man,' he said in 1992, 'was that he was invisible to himself, that he didn't grasp his own complexity.' People, he said, 'will tell me who I am, but they do not bother to find out who I really am'.
That was the last time I saw him. He wanted, greatly wanted, to be among his friends, but he had to conserve his energies for that book, in which many did not believe, so long had it been in the making. Ever a dandy (his close friend Albert Murray remembers him even in youth as a 'slender concert-master in two-toned shoes, bow tie, contrasting slacks, and whatever else the best haberdasher in Oklahoma had to offer'), he wore a dark suit and tie, the wonderful Fanny, to whom he had been married a half- century, was in a little black number. He was bulky and powerful, she slender and hugely alive. The pair of them looked what they were: a couple of well-dressed, respectable people from another age. Their mutual respect, their affection, too, was of another time: courtly.
In her talk there was no nonsense, but frequent laughter. Ralph's tone had gravity. He surveyed the world, and an Old Fashioned, from the lofty point of view of a connoisseur who'd had equal experience of the good and the bad. He could have been a Supreme Court justice or, when he talked about his beloved dogs (he'd bought a Labrador from John Cheever) a countryman who had gone fowling, often: which made him say, that last evening we talked, that when he read Hemingway he felt he understood hunting already. The studied elegance of his speech gave away the lofty intellectual brought up on the best books ('Ralph always aimed at the high shelves,' said another friend) and, as a writer, pitting himself against the masters.
Ralph Waldo Ellison - yes, named after that great preacher-philosopher Emerson - was born in Oklahoma not long after the territory, which was never a slave state but was highly segregated, joined the union. His grandfather had been a minor civil servant in the post-Civil-War reconstruction period; his father was a construction foreman. Ellison did not talk about him much, for he died when the boy was three. His mother, in his own words 'a strong-willed woman who was thrown in gaol when she protested housing laws' was the main influence on the life of Ralph and his brother. He spoke of her often, with an affectionate respect, and appears endlessly in all the wonderful Negro women Ellison poured into his fiction.
I don't think that his life, in its beginnings, was untypical of that of blacks of his generation - he delivered papers, worked as a bus-boy and waiter - he just had a better eye and ear to watch and listen to 'gamblers and scholars, jazz musicians and scientists, Negro cowboys and soldiers from the Spanish- American War . . . some local bootlegger, the eloquence of some Negro preacher.' Or Count Basie, when he played in Oklahoma City. These are all strands of Ralph Ellison's life. He went to the Tuskegee Institute, founded by Booker T. Washington to produce a Negro elite, to become a classical musician. There he took up the trumpet, which I heard him play nostalgically 34 years ago, in an apartment crammed with books and records. What I didn't know then was that almost all that high-fi equipment was of his own making; or that he had once turned up with drill and tools to install book- shelves for Bellow.
Certainly he talked about 'riding the trains'; about how he had bummed about Gary, and how Chicago might be, for a young Negro writer, the equivalent of Europe. But by his mid-twenties he was in New York, he had met Langston Hughes and Richard Wright, not to speak of Andre Malraux: he and Fanny were urban intellectuals, and on serious matters, for all his ease and generosity, Ellison had a hard centre, neither suffering fools gladly nor ever deviating from his position on racial issues: 'I recognised limitations, yes; but I thought these limitations were unjust, and I felt no sense of inferiority which would keep me from getting those things I desired out of life.'
He was one of the contributing editors (together with Arthur Miller, John Berryman and others) of the noble savage, which Saul Bellow and I put out together in the early 1960s, and it is there that appeared one of the first and most extraordinary chunks of his second novel: the one much of whose first draft had burned, along with the house in which he wrote Invisible Man. It is called 'And Hickman Arrives' and it is hyperbolic and alive in a way that is uniquely Ellison: 'Don't talk like I talk,' says preacher Hickman, 'talk like I say talk. Words are your business, boy. Not just the Word. Words are everything. The key to the Rock, the answer to the Question.'
Invisible Man, with its Jungian (picked up from Joseph Campbell and Stanley Edgar Hyman) and its historical substructure firmly in place, stands as readable today as 40 years ago. This tale of New York immigrant Negro, of an absurd activist who lives in a coal-hole and steals his electricity and his music (Louis Armstrong) from the free air, is that of a man seeking his identity and his freedom while surrounded by zealots, fanatics and the oppressive apparatus of 'the Brotherhood' (the Communist Party thinly disguised). Ellison's invisible man finds both in his very invisibility; at the end of the novel he comes out, in the most modern of senses, when he realises that 'even hibernations can be overdone' and that 'there's a possibility that even an invisible man has a socially responsible role to play'.
The second novel, which Ellison repeatedly said, though he could never bring himself to be entirely satisfied, was 'nearly done', was written during 40 difficult years in which Ellison saw American blacks hurtle into the very rage, disorder and separation that he had always feared. He was attacked by the new generation of blacks as a 'white nigger'; his novel was banned in at least one library (because 'Ralph Ellison is not a black writer'): the world was shifting under his feet. 'Once the black-power separatist agenda came along,' Stanley Crouch noted, 'and once white people showed they preferred some kind of sado-masochistic rhetorical ritual to anything serious, Ellison's position began to lose ground.'
Challenged by Irving Howe for lacking outrage, Ellison gave an answer, in 'The World and the Jug', which stands as a testament to his fortitude and intelligence. Some might hold that the true Negro writer should be ferocious, he writes,
But there is also an American Negro tradition which teaches one to deflect racial provocation and to master and contain pain. It is a tradition which abhors as obscene any trading on one's own anguish for gain and sympathy; which springs not from a desire to deny the harshness of existence but from a will to deal with it as men at their best have always done . . . What moves a writer to eloquence is less meaningful than what he makes of it.
This is a noble position: meet, right, just and equitable. With Ralph Ellison's going, that spiritual body of hard work and thought, which moved so many, is now decapitated. Ellison's world, his sanity, his fierceness, his generosity, is now unimaginable. I agree with Bellow that the task was too great for him, and that trying killed him.
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