Rampersad's detailed look at the once-invisible man
<b>Rampersad's detailed look at the once-invisible man</b>Ralph Ellison's incomparable 1952 novel <i>Invisible Man</i> was a 20th-century masterpiece that personalized racism's moral, political and social impact in such remarkable fashion it simultaneously enhanced and restricted the rest of his life. Acclaimed author Arnold Rampersad's (<i>The Life of Langston Hughes, Jackie Robinson</i>) extensive new volume <b>Ralph Ellison</b> details Ellison's embrace of and problems with celebrity status, his philosophical shift from radical communism to democratic universalism and his ongoing battle to craft a suitable follow-up to <i>Invisible Man</i>. Rampersad's biography not only documents Ellison's background, influences and evolutionary development, but offers a comprehensive look into his motivation and psyche. Readers encounter a complex individual who championed America's ideals and celebrated its potential when others around him, even close friends and colleagues, focused on the nation's ugly failures and mistreatment of its citizens. Rampersad's findings and analysis prove informative, fascinating, sometimes disturbing and consistently compelling.
He cites isolation and poverty as driving factors in Ellison's makeup. Growing up in Oklahoma and losing his father at a young age led Ellison to seek solace and advice from sometimes dubious authority figures, while being poor and frequently abandoned generated a continual desire to be part of some entity or structure. The often bizarre incidents he experienced at the Tuskegee Institute and during his early years in the New York of the '30s were dramatized in <i>Invisible Man</i>. We also see his experience with class conflicts, the lure of (and later his disappointment in) the Communist Party and most importantly the realization that many white Americans he encountered not only didn't view him as an equal, but even failed to acknowledge his existence. Still, Ellison's brilliance as a writer and striking, charismatic personality, coupled with <i>Invisible Man</i>'s stunning success, soon changed things. Suddenly he was socializing with Robert Penn Warren and Saul Bellow, equated with Langston Hughes and Richard Wright, and sought out by academics and writers everywhere.
Yet none of these situations made Ellison completely comfortable, nor enabled him to overcome the periodic writers' block that plagued him in his later years. Rampersad chronicles the increasing alienation Ellison felt regarding the rise of nationalist and militant sentiments within both the black arts world and community, particularly the notions that America was fundamentally flawed and African-American culture stood separate and apart from everything else in the country. There were some painful incidents during the '60s and '70s, among them ugly denunciations of Ellison's work and comments from students and writers angered by what they deemed his detachment from the Civil Rights movement. But none of that dimmed Ellison's love of writing and literature, or his passion for music and other arts, and it didn't alter his faith in the goodness he felt was inherent in America as a whole.
Aided by full access to Ellison's papers, Arnold Rampersad has penned a definitive work that not only illuminates important questions about race, class and values, but also shows how Ellison's approach to them profoundly influenced everything else in his life.
<i>Ron Wynn writes for the Nashville</i> City Paper <i>and other publications.</i>