The Good American

19 06 2007

Ralph Ellison

By Dax-Devlon Ross

Biographies are usually hit or miss. So much depends not on the life the subject led, but on how the storyteller presents it, which, of course, depends on how intimately he or she has lived with the subject, which, ultimately, depends on how much of a paper trail the subject left behind for the storyteller, which, finally, depends on whether the subject thought his or her life was worth preserving at the time he or she was living it.

Following this brand of home-spun logic, Ralph Ellison, his wife, Fanny, and their friends and correspondents evidently knew a biographer would want to investigate the puzzling, charmed, but unmistakably heartbreaking life of the author of Invisible Man one day; for the breadth, depth and range of sources Arnold Rampersad canvassed to piece together this significant biography is staggering. On the surface Ellison could very easily be (and has been) dismissed as an elitist, an Uncle Tom, a one-hit wonder, a token Negro; just as easily he could be lauded as a genius, a tribute to his race, the standard bearer of black American literature. But in Rampersad’s hands he is nothing short of a man worthy of unyielding compassion. Lest we forget, Ralph Ellison was a black man who in the middle of this nation’s troubled twentieth-century aspired for entry into the privileged American society through art and, for all intents and purposes, achieved just that with his first book. Without ever having tried his hand at a novel, Ellison devoted nearly seven years – practically his entire thirties – to writing Invisible Man. Chew on that for a moment. Just let it sink in. He had that much belief, that much faith, in himself at a time in our nation’s history when blacks had all but lost their faith in American democracy. And the literary world validated that faith with the highest honor given to an American novelist, the National Book Award. Besting the likes of his literary hero, Ernest Hemingway, Ralph Ellison became the first black author to win the award in 1953, a year before the Brown decision, two years before the Rosa Parks would refuse to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus.

Read the full review on Dax’s blog, The HNIC Report

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