AUTHOR ESSAY: Ellison Straight, No Chaser

The New York Times Book Review called Ralph Ellison: Emergence of Genius by Lawrence Jackson ’90 (John Wiley & Sons, 2002) a “rich, meticulous biography.” Jackson talks about writing the first book
devoted to the early life of the renowned author of Invisible Man.

IIn May of 2002, after legal feuds and delays almost killed the project, I published the first biography of the American author Ralph Ellison. Ellison wrote Invisible Man (1952), a novel depicting the existential odyssey of a young black college student, and a book that is undeniably at the center of 20th–century American narrative fiction. For his ground–breaking achievement, Ellison won the National Book Award. Ellison ranks high among other celebrated African American writers who have not received substantial modern biographical treatment (including Paul Laurence Dunbar, Charles Chesnutt, James Weldon Johnson, Gwendolyn Brooks, Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, Margaret Walker, Robert Hayden, Ernest Gaines, Amiri Baraka, John Edgar Wideman, Ishmael Reed, and Maya Angelou). But were he alive, I am fairly confident that Ralph Ellison would want no biography, perhaps the reason his estate resisted the project. As John Updike put it, biography of literary figures is one part gossip and one part stale paraphrase, mixed in the juice of literary essays that people invariably agree are better left to examination by crotchety professors.

But Ellison had other reasons to ward off scrutiny. The second half of his career was particularly bitter. He was expected to publish additional novels and he did not, and he opposed the student radicalism and black nationalism of the 1960s and 1970s. Partly to stymie his critics, Ellison always carefully fended off intrusions into his personal life, and he published autobiographical writings that refuted the widely held notions of degradation and rage thought to lie at the core of black American life.

I became aware of Ralph Ellison as a Wesleyan student in Robert O’Meally’s Introduction to African American Studies, a fascinating course held in the spring of 1987 in a rear classroom of 320 High Street. We met twice a week and we did not read Ellison’s opus Invisible Man, which was probably a good thing, since I spent most of the semester marching silently in a line of six for Kappa Alpha Psi. I read nothing more than 25 pages.

During an undergraduate summer, I got around to reading Invisible Man, and I was fascinated by its descriptions of brawling street–corner life, bluestoned comedy, tragedy, and collusion, that cleanly reproduced my hometown of Baltimore. I was intrigued by the contrast between the novel and what I had heard of its author, who appeared to deny steadily the impact of racism. In my early 20s I believed that racism explained everything, so I suspect it was quite natural for me to become intrigued by Ellison’s perspective of dissent.

My academic advisers at Wesleyan had included O’Meally and Jerry Watts, both of whom published books on Ellison. Writing about the Oklahomaborn Ellison was like contributing to a discussion I had been having with them since my undergraduate days. After a bit of digging, I realized that I might contribute to the conversation by trying to parse historical fact from the legends surrounding Ellison’s youth and early career. I began my graduate dissertation work by visiting Tuskegee, Ala., and then Oklahoma City, Okla., Ellison’s college home and birthplace. I hunted up Ellison’s brother and an old girlfriend in Los Angeles and frequented the home of his college friend Albert Murray. Ellison’s widow denied my requests for an interview. I finished enough of the dissertation to be offered a job at Howard University in Washington, D.C. After the first semester of courses was behind me, I continued to work on the Ellison manuscript.

A young literary agent just starting her practice found a publisher willing to offer a contract to a novice. I wrote the second half of the biography in Baltimore, where I continued to live while teaching at Howard. I spent much of 1999 and 2000 in the rear bedroom of a row house, 10 blocks south of world famous Pimlico Racetrack. Ellison’s life in the 1940s unfolded while my eyes wandered away from the computer screen and out to the young guys from my grandmother’s old neighborhood jogging back and forth to their alley stash of heroin and cocaine. My work on a man considered an elegant “brown–skinned aristocrat” while living in a neighborhood that had seen better days was a condition that certain writers call “Ellisonian,” by which they generally mean a paradox.

But for me, the experience in Baltimore did not only recall the ironic voice of Ellison’s narrator; more remarkably, it paralleled the experiences that Ellison had had as a young writer and political activist. I carried out responsibilities that Ellison had undertaken in the 1930s and 1940s: I spoke at schools and the city jail, wrote editorials for the Sunpapers, and advised grass–roots political campaigns. Both home and Ellison singularly enriched me, and it became quite important to me to recover this part of Ellison’s life.

Writing Ellison’s biography in Baltimore emphasized the deep underlying humanity of people in difficult circumstances and the complex spectrum of black people on the other end of the “middle class.” Ellison’s work is generally seen as an important bridge between blacks and whites, between the narrator hibernating in his cellar and the outside white world. But for me, Invisible Man’s most formidable contribution is to offer, ingeniously, a complex and structured sequence of humanity. Ellison portrays a world of black characters struggling and triumphing against the odds. In viciously segregated Baltimore, it became more fundamentally important for me to understand and rely upon the connections and triumphs that took place between renters and homeowners, heroin shooters and cognac nippers, out–of–work mechanics and teen–age mothers, sick–and–shut–ins and home care providers, community college strivers and disenfranchised parolees, government office workers and 11–yearold corner–boys.

The Ellisonian currents in my life did not end when I left the block for work or research. When I had completed about three–quarters of my manuscript, an internationally celebrated writer was contracted to write a full–scale Ellison biography, with the cooperation of Ellison’s estate. By the summer of 1999 we were sitting side by side at the Library of Congress poring over Ellison’s papers. It was a jarring experience at first, but instead of anxiety and jealousy, I realized that I was moving into a new neighborhood.

My hopes soared for the book, despite the presence of the formidable writer on deck. The periods of Ellison’s life to which I had devoted my research—from 1913 through 1953 (my research strongly suggested that Ellison was born a year earlier than he’d recorded)— had filled me with a sense of urgency and also one of congruence. Ellison and I shared losing a father, earning distinction, a less than fulfilling experience at college, violence and death, alienation and isolation, all of them building to the ultimate struggle for self–defined existence. When it was finished, I found a rare emotional plateau from what amounted to Ellison’s mantra. He inserted himself without fail, and in the face of adversity, he determined not to flinch “before they drew back to strike,” as he told Albert Murray in January of 1952. In writing a book on his life, that’s what I tried to do.

Lawrence Jackson is assistant professor of English at Emory University.