A biography is a curious thing. Why does a biographer choose a subject? A life-long passion? I’ve read one other Rampersad biography – that of Jackie Robinson. In a certain way, there’s a need for a biography of Robinson. His life had meaning beyond its simple chronology. But why Ralph Ellison? Okay, perhaps he wanted to write a biography of a writer, but why Ellison and not Wright or Hughes (I now see that he did write a 2-volume bio of Hughes)? Had those already been done? I’m not sure.
I think some of the choice had to have been based on the great unanswered question of Ellison’s career. Why just the one novel? But when I try to unpack that question, I run into trouble. Why is just one novel – especially one as monumental and well-received as Invisible Man – such a bad thing? Then I learned about just how much non-fiction Ellison produced (and, during certain periods, had to produce for the sake of an income). Are novels somehow more important than non-fiction? There were other demands on his time. Conferences and symposiums and teaching assignments and boards and social clubs galore that he both wanted and needed. Should I shift the question? Why couldn’t he ever finish the novel (measured, for one interviewer, at 19 inches of manuscript pages)? Would he be the first to have had a great success in his first time out and then had trouble following up? I’ve read many second novels that would have been better off being left in the desk drawer.
Writing a biography requires being something of a psychologist then. What about his childhood, his relationship with women (too often, cringe-worthy), his race and the time period he lived in made him the man he became? And how, if at all, does this connect with his unwillingness / inability to finish the second novel? Rampersad is a great and careful writer, if sometimes a bit too detailed. The constant use of dates sometimes served to remind me of just how little progress I was making in the book. I would have liked an author’s note on why he chose to name one woman Ellison may have had an affair with (Rampersad thinks not) and not name one he did have an affair with. I also found myself drawing a connection that I wish Rampersad would have at least considered. Given that he was so often called to be the expert in certain situations – a safe representative of his race – is it any wonder that he grew increasingly didactic and overconfident?
Is Ellison’s life a case of someone surviving long enough to see his ideas redeemed – his very Americanness was his way of understanding the world, especially during the turbulent times. That was his lens, and that and the arts are what he saw as responsible for the progress in race relations that was made during his lifetime. Where others burned out or were assassinated, his song remained the same, often at the expense of his relationship with those who came after him.
Like others, I was often hypnotized by Ellison, his ideas, his writing, his style. His argument for hanging on to the word “Negro” during the 60s just blew me away. He was well-read, well-traveled, and he helped invent public television.
A thought-provoking if slightly overly long book. I’m still unsure about whether to try Juneteenth. I’d like to find some of his essays instead.