“You are hereby warned,” Ralph Ellison wrote to his friend Albert Murray in 1951, “that I have dropped the shuck.” After years of struggle and doubt, Ellison had finished “Invisible Man,” his epic of midcentury African-American life. The novel would win the National Book Award. His life was about to change.
An essential new book, “The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison,” presents this writer in all his candor, seriousness, outrage and wit. Nearly all of these letters are previously unpublished. What brings them alive is that while they brood on the largest of issues — identity, alienation, the political responsibilities of the artist — they’re earthy and squirming with all the vital things of everyday experience.
You move from the cascade of Ellison’s thinking about art and ideas, for example, to one of the funniest and warmest letters I’ve ever read. It too is to Murray, the influential critic; these two men found something deeply congenial in each other. It’s about the problem of finding the ingredients Ellison needs to cook pigs’ trotters while a fellow at the American Academy in Rome in 1956. He misses home cooking amid all the highbrow pasta.
“I went into stores and did everything from inventing new dances to standing on my head and pulling out my pecker trying to make them understand pickling spice and they dragged out everything from tomato paste to embalming fluid — everything and anything except pickling spice,” Ellison wrote. “Never in the history of the world did a mess of pigs’ feet cause so much exasperation. I returned to the academy beat to my socks and prepared to assassinate the first person who spoke to me and fortunately no one did.”
He prepares them anyway, “but they weren’t right, man. They were the saddest and I threw most of mine in the garbage.”
Ellison (1913-1994) was born in Oklahoma City, the grandson of slaves. His father delivered ice and coal. He died when Ellison was 3, and his mother worked odd jobs to hold the family together. Ellison attended Tuskegee University in Alabama as a music major, and his letters home were typical collegiate ones: He tended to need money or a new pair of pants. He played the trumpet, and thought he might become a composer.
Ellison moved to Harlem in 1936 and fell in with a bohemian crowd that included the writers Langston Hughes and Richard Wright. (In this book’s later letters, Ellison works to disentangle his legacy from Wright’s.) He began writing “Invisible Man” at a friend’s farm in Vermont.
Ellison’s Vermont letters could be a little book of their own. “When the poison of Harlem mixes with this pure mountain air anything’s apt to come out of my typewriter,” he wrote. In another letter he wrote that birch trees “show like girls in light summer dresses.”
In Vermont he was often without a car, miles from a grocery store, and he begged friends to send items like coffee and sharp cheese. Ellison suffered throughout his life from what appears to be irritable bowel syndrome, and many letters lay bare his gastric distress after consuming things (onions, garlic) he perhaps should not have.
He wrote with ardor about literary process. To Wright, he said: “It isn’t the prose, per se, that worries me; it’s the form, the learning how to organize my material in order to take the maximum advantage of those psychological and emotional currents within myself and in the reader which endow prose with meaning.” He added: “It’s an uncertain battle on a dark terrain.”
To the literary critic Kenneth Burke, he wrote: “Let me ask you a question: How will a Negro writer who writes out of his full awareness of the complexity of western personality, and who presents the violence of American culture in psychological terms rather than physical ones — how will such a writer be able to break though the stereotype-armored minds of white Americans so that they can receive his message?”
“Invisible Man” found so many white readers that, in a later letter, Ellison thanked Murray for turning more black readers onto it.
The great question that hangs over Ellison’s career is, of course, this one: Why didn’t he publish a second novel during his lifetime? (“Juneteenth,” finally issued in 1999, was a 368-page condensation of a much longer manuscript written over 40 years.)
These letters offer more than a few clues. Fame struck Ellison like lightning after the publication of “Invisible Man.” He was invited everywhere to speak, and he mostly accepted. A single letter from 1957 mentions Rome, Karachi, Tehran and Hong Kong.
He recalls adventures in Rome with John Cheever in Cheever’s Fiat. He attended Robert Penn Warren’s black-tie parties. He lived for a while in Saul Bellow’s upstate New York house. He drank and argued with Norman Mailer and Dwight Macdonald.
Ellison taught at Bard and New York University and elsewhere. He wrote essays, many of them about music. After a while, lines like this one, from a 1958 letter to Bellow, begin to crop up: “I’ve got a natural writer’s block as big as the Ritz and as stubborn as a grease spot on a gabardine suit.”
This collection has so many incidental pleasures that I nearly always felt lucky to be reading it while the rest of the world had to make do with Twitter. He writes about his love of hunting, his anxiety over going bald, how to cope with aggressive cats. (To Bellow: “I know about dogs; but how, pray, does one kick a cat’s ass?”) There’s a sorrowful letter about pulling porcupine quills from his beloved dog’s snout.
His writing about music is nearly always sublime. “Bessie Smith singing a good blues may deal with experience as profoundly as Eliot,” he wrote. About Herman Melville: “Been rereading ‘Moby-Dick’ again and appreciating for the first time what a truly good time Melville was having when he wrote it. Some of it is quite funny and all of it is pervaded by the spirit of play, like real jazz sounds when a master is manipulating it.”
There’s too much of John F. Callahan, Ellison’s literary executor and co-editor of these letters, in this collection. His introductions to each decade of letters are overly long, not especially perceptive and spill too many details.
Collections of letters, like biographies, build narrative momentum — how will Ellison get out of this jam? — momentum that Callahan dashes by too often emerging in the narrative to tell you what is going to happen and to pre-empt the best lines.
“The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison” contains so much fine human stuff, however, that the indelible line from “Invisible Man” reverberates over it: “Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?”
Source: Read Full Article