Understanding Ellison

In a new collection of letters, the great Invisible Man author is further revealed.


The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison, edited by John F. Callahan and Marc C. Conner, Random House, 1,060 pages, $50

I first met the American novelist Ralph Ellison in the summer of 1963, when he gave a reading to a small audience at Columbia University. Beside me was the critic Stanley Edgar Hyman, who introduced me to the author. Since I then lived at the southern end of Harlem (as it bordered on Columbia) and Ellison lived in a northwest enclave on Riverside Drive, he invited me to his home.

Few writers visited that apartment—it was off their map, even though it was only a few miles north of Manhattan's Upper West Side, the favored cultural turf for Ellison's literary generation. Overlooking the lordly Hudson, it was filled with art, the latest technologies, and musical instruments, some of which he played for me. On one visit I recall him fingering part of a Brandenburg Concerto on his recorder.

In 1965, when the BBC asked me to do film portraits of New York writers, Ellison was my first choice. A little later, when contracted to do a book of extended profiles of major American artists and intellectuals, it seemed appropriate to feature him alongside John Cage, Reinhold Niebuhr, Robert Rauschenberg, Marshall McLuhan, Glenn Gould, and Herman Kahn.

I particularly admired Ellison's Invisible Man (1952), not only for its rich style but for its intellectual complexity. In lush prose reminiscent of William Faulkner, whose influence Ellison acknowledged, the novel tells of a nameless narrator's life. Its events range from an unfortunate experience at a black college in the American South to the protagonist's disappointments in New York City, where he suffers a terrifying experience in a paint factory and then meets semblances of Communists and black nationalists, all vividly portrayed, before retreating into the artificially illuminated underground cave from which he's remembering his life. Some early readers thought the book autobiographical, which it wasn't. Nor was it meant to "protest" maltreatment of African Americans—one theme in Ellison's own commentary on the book is that the narrator, who doesn't even know his own name, is responsible for his own invisibility. That Invisible Man can be persuasively read in such different ways is a measure of its richness.

I thought I knew Ellison as well as anyone else a generation younger than he, but The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison, now appearing a quarter-century after his death, tells me much that I didn't know. Within its thousand pages is—notwithstanding some repetition as Ellison retells the same stories—a richer portrait of the man than any previous scholar of his work had made.

The first theme of this book is that Ellison got better as a writer. Much better. Formally a music major at Tuskegee College—a degree he didn't complete—he did miscellaneous work around New York City, met the established authors Langston Hughes and Richard Wright, and got married and divorced and then remarried, all before joining the Merchant Marine during World War II. Only after returning home, when he was already in his 30s, did Ellison move to Vermont to concentrate on his writing. Unlike some "born novelists," he was a late beginner; he never took a "writing workshop." If he ever read any British literature, it doesn't show.

Among Ellison's Vermont neighbors were Hyman and his wife, the novelist Shirley Jackson. Here he drafted the scenes that became Invisible Man, and his personal letters got better as well. My own hunch, not shared by Ellison scholars, is that Hyman, not only as a supportive colleague but as a critic with a highly developed sense of structure, helped put the parts together. (Only parts of his second novel ever appeared. Brilliant though they often were, neither he nor anyone else could put them together in his lifetime.)

Ellison's letters incidentally document how close he was in the early 1950s to the novelist Saul Bellow, nearly an exact contemporary, then likewise aspiring and ambitious, with whom he shared a wreck of a house in the Hudson River Valley. They also portray the importance of his early life in Oklahoma City, where he was born and lived until he was 20, never to return. Many of the richest and longest letters went to people from there, some of whom he hadn't seen for decades. Other letters recall at length his early experiences with his younger brother, Herbert.

An additional theme is how minimal was Ellison's contact with New York writers. His closest literary friend was Albert L. Murray, a few years behind him at Tuskegee, who likewise resided in Harlem.

Ellison in his letters gradually becomes more comfortable and adept at writing extended expository prose. Since he didn't do much writing in college (and never went to graduate school), longer exposition was a form he was slow to master. These longer letters in turn reminded me that, while his second novel remained forever unfinished, Ellison wrote some remarkable essays, various in length (and often clumsily structured), usually about African-American culture. One profound theme that recurs in them is that, though white and black America have mostly lived separately and unequally, they have interacted and are entwined in a uniquely American experience.

My own favorite, "The Little Man at the Chehaw Station," describes how Ellison had to go to New York City to discover the truth of his Tuskegee piano teacher's advice that when anyone performs before an audience, he or she must reach everyone within the space. Working around 1935 as a Federal Writers' Project interviewer in San Juan Hill (now the site of Manhattan's Lincoln Center), Ellison hears four large black "coal heavers" in a basement arguing about the divas at the Metropolitan Opera. When he finally asks them how they know so much about sopranos, one explains that they worked a gig there, as the Egyptians in Verdi's Aida.

Another recurring theme is Ellison's individualism. Never would he allow himself or his work to be put into a box containing only African Americans. It wasn't that he disliked his fellow blacks—they were his neighbors—but that he thought literary segregation confined him to a minor league. Especially in refuting the bullying critic Irving Howe and, later, black activists a generation younger, Ellison vehemently refused roles and purposes assigned to him. Indeed, he could be personally truculent.

Other invaluable letters have Ellison responding in detail about his intentions in particular scenes in his novel, which he remembered very well, though he confesses in passing that he didn't reread it. Though he studied European music, he writes only about Americans here, just as he did in 2001's Living with Music, a posthumous book collecting his music essays. I cannot think of another American writer whose culture was so thoroughly indigenous.

The most explanatory messages are directed to the man he chose as his unlikely literary executor, John F. Callahan, a white literature professor at a small Oregon college who'd never before been entrusted with such responsibility. In the years since Ellison's death, Callahan has prepared and published different editions of Ellison's long unfinished second novel, in addition to editing definitive collections of Ellison's essays and shorter fictions. Along with a younger academic, Marc C. Conner of Washington and Lee University, Callahan edited and annotated The Selected Letters.

If you've not read Ellison before, please start with his classic novel, which you won't forget, and then the single volume of collected essays mentioned earlier. (It includes "The Little Man.") Then you can tackle this valuable brick of a book.