An Interview with Arnold Rampersad
James Baldwin called Ralph Ellison the angriest man he knew. That line is particularly memorable if only because Baldwin knew just about everyone. Under his formulation, the famously restrained Ellison is angrier than Norman Mailer. He’s also angrier than Malcolm X.
And that anger seems ever-present in Arnold Rampersad’s Ralph Ellison, the first biography of the author to cover his entire life. Ellison told a white reporter, decades after his mom died under the care of a black physician, that a black doctor who wishes to have blacks patronize him because he is black without mastering his craft “is immoral and he leads to the destruction of life.” He turned on some his earliest benefactors, Langston Hughes and Richard Wright, and he rarely fostered the work of younger black writers. He was jealous of Toni Morrison’s success and he couldn’t understand why anyone liked Miles Davis or the Beat Generation. He spent the last 42 years of his life, after writing Invisible Man, trying and failing to perform a second act.
When Malcolm X shouted he had the satisfaction of feeling that the tides of history were with him. Ellison found himself adrift in a world he couldn’t fully comprehend. To the younger generation, his eloquent complaints often sounded like the whine of an impotent old man.
Still, he was a genius. In the tradition that goes back to Mark Twain and up to Philip Roth, Ellison was one of America’s great sit-down comedians. Invisible Man seems to be replayed every few years, be it in the Tyson-Holyfield match in 1997, the riots in Cincinatti in 2001, or in today’s farcical debate over whether or not Barack Obama is “black enough.” When a work of high tragedy survives it’s impressive. When a savage racial comedy first published in 1952 still makes us laugh, it’s devastating.
Rampersad, a professor at Stanford University, has previously written biographies of Hughes and Jackie Robinson. He also collaborated with Arthur Ashe on his memoir. We spoke by phone on June 18.
You mention your meeting with Ellison toward the end of the book in which you call yourself a young Langston Hughes scholar. You’re there to interview him for your research and you have a mischievous aside in which you say he ended up using that meeting as an excuse for a $25 tax deduction.
Oh, no, no. That was just a joke on my part. It did happen, but I didn’t read anything into that at all. If anyone thinks I was out to expose him as a tax cheat… No, that’s not the point. I was just amused.
I was very appalled by the way I was treated by him. His hostility was evident from beginning to end. Even more disturbing was that he was very hostile to Langston Hughes. I had spent a long time delving into the private papers and public papers of Langston Hughes. I didn’t think he was a figure to be treated with contempt. But clearly Ellison felt contempt for him. Therefore my entire enterprise as I sat there talking to Ellison was being called into question. Its moral fiber, if you like.
It was beyond severity. When you begin a question, “Langston Hughes traveled a great deal…” and the person tells you, “Yes, almost as much as some Pullman car porters,” meaning that he’s learned nothing from his travels… that’s pretty damaging material, more damaging to Ellison than to Langston Hughes, even though it was intended to hurt Langston Hughes.
Did that experience color you at all when you started writing this book, or did you feel you could put that aside?
Well, I think I’m old enough and was even then old enough that I could put things in perspective. And I can prove that by pointing to those parts of Volume II of my biography [of Hughes]. Wherever I talked about Langston Hughes and Ralph Ellison, I never attacked Ellison, and in fact I supported Ellison against Hughes. I would say, “Hughes was sniping at Ellison because Ellison had no interest in black writers, but Ellison had lofty goals and an exacting sense of the role of the artist,” and so on. So I always seemed to take Ellison’s side. And it is true that in the second half of his life, in the ’50s, although Langston Hughes did some very good work, he was also, as he called himself, “a literary sharecropper.” He was taking on a lot of jobs and the quality of his work was not consistent. So when I started work on Ellison, though there was this lingering memory of this contemptuous attitude, it’s fair to say I went in with a relatively open mind. I knew that it would be absolutely wrong strategically and ethically, if you like, from a scholarly point of view to go into a project like this knowingly prejudiced against my subject.
The last line of Invisible Man is “Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?” When I first read this book 10 years ago -- it may have been a sign of narcissism -- I assumed he was speaking to the white reader. When I read it again in preparation for this interview, I still had that lingering feeling. From reading your biography it seems that he was consciously writing for a white audience.
Well I would say he was writing for both audiences. Most black writers at that time wrote for a white audience. You write for the people who buy books. And by and large, if you’re writing a novel in America, up until very recently, you hope to have something that will appeal to whites. But that’s not the only reason. That’s a pragmatic reason, an almost opportunistic reason.
He wanted to write a book that would resonate internationally, that would appeal to both blacks and whites. He wanted a hero who was at one and the same time a black everyman, as well as just an everyman, which means in some respects that he would have the same reality of every white man. He felt the most profound problems faced by the Invisible Man, the problems of identity, the problems of the relationship between a person who wants to do the right thing and the powers of cultural nationalism and totalitarianism and so on, are problems faced by human beings all over the world in one guise or another. So he had a sense of a double audience in that sense.
He was also consciously writing a book for his ancestors and his ancestors -- he made very clear -- were Dostoevsky, Melville, Mark Twain [and] T.S. Eliot. He said his relatives were Richard Wright and Langston Hughes and he said they meant almost nothing to him from the point of view of literature. [With that in mind,] you would have to say he was speaking to a primarily white audience.
It’s a bit strange that Ellison, having written a book that was so experimentally new, found himself deriding so much of the ’50s avant-garde. He hated Norman Mailer, Lolita and “poor, evil, lost little Miles Davis.” He saw his book, in contrast, as being a part of an American artistic tradition, but it was so clearly a break with that tradition.
Well, I think it does represent a break with the American artistic tradition up to a point. He loves Hemingway, but Invisible Man cannot be confused with any Hemingway novel. He loves Faulkner, but the same thing could be said of Faulkner’s work. With his interests in the surreal, the almost magic realism parts of Invisible Man -- you would have to place him among the postmodernists and even the avant-garde. That’s how he was perceived by the reviewers in 1952 and many of them didn’t like the book at all.
So for me it was very ironic that, shortly after publishing this book, which was hailed in this particular way, he should be turning on musicians that were carrying on his own styles and approaches to art. [The musicians, as well as Ellison] all had a relatively iconoclastic way of probing and moving away from traditional forms, [of] looking for [an] odd fusion. It’s another way in which Ellison was a complicated person. It’s very hard to understand why he could not come to terms with the jazz musicians after 1942, with people like John Coltrane, Charlie Parker and Miles Davis. Why couldn’t he come to terms with them considering they should not have presented any kind of challenge, much less a rebuke, to the author of Invisible Man? They were part of what he was writing about.
Like many black writers of his time, many of Ellison’s friends and patrons were Jewish, which he didn’t seem to mind.
As far as I’m concerned he had one patron, Ida Guggenheimer. He was advised and supported intellectually but not financially by Stanley Edgar Hyman. And he was supported socially by many Jews in New York, especially those on the Left, in the late 1930s and early 1940s. When he writes about that question, he acts in the spirit of Richard Wright in “Blueprint for Negro Writing,” in which he says rather openly that black writers must come to an accommodation with the white world and must learn from the major white writers. I think Ellison believed that wholeheartedly.
It’s interesting to me that socially, at a certain point, he seemed to become interested in WASP patronage. In that respect, I don’t think he’s that different from certain Jews. In the book I [call it the] “platinum card of social prestige” associated with WASPs like Robert Penn Warren.
One thing that could be said about Ralph Ellison and Jews is that he remained loyal to what he regarded as the best of Jewish culture to the end of his life. He never surrendered to any kind of anti-Semitism, even though his social climbings took him out of the world of Jews to the world of highly cultivated and wealthy WASPs. When Mrs. Guggenheimer, the person to whom he dedicated Invisible Man, died, he made a distinction between younger Jews and older Jews, who had known more suffering, who had greater difficulty in negotiating the territory between foreignness and Americanness and the old ways and the new ones. And he came down for the older people, who had paid a higher price for that negotiation of the American territory. That’s not a bad reflection on his part. It’s something a lot of people would sympathize with in seeing American Jewry.
Philip Roth may be one of Ralph Ellison’s sons. When The Human Stain came out, Roth made a point of noting Invisible Man’s influence. Ellison defended Roth very early on in 1962 at a gathering at Yeshiva University where he was being attacked by the students over Goodbye, Columbus. That isn’t in your biography, but I’d be curious to hear your take.
Well, I’m sorry it’s not in my biography, because it should be. It’s a significant moment. I don’t know all the details of the particular incident. He had a kind of sympathy for younger Jews who are interested in moving away from what they considered the provincial to the more universal while not turning their backs on the grand Jewish tradition. I would imagine that he saw Roth in that context. On the other hand, he had no time for Mailer. With Ellison, you have to look very closely as to why he supports one person and not another. Often it has to do with material connections to a publishing house or to an editor, or simply even to talent. Maybe he just saw a pure literary ability that he believed that younger folk didn’t have a proper appreciation of.
He made some questionable literary choices, alignments in his lifetime. He [eventually] came out against Bellow, certainly coming out against Lolita for what is considered more pedestrian work. It’s very hard to figure out after awhile what he was passionate about in literature as opposed to what he was genuinely passionate about in what he saw in the American culture unfolding in the long aftermath of the Second World War with the Civil Rights Movement, the Black Power movement and so on.
You write that he was weirdly contented with being the one “token black” on many white-dominated committees and clubs.
He saw no reason why there should be a second black on some of these committees. He probably didn’t think he knew of a qualified black equal to himself. I suppose it is in many respects a rather elitist attitude.
Was that a form of racism?
He would say he was against affirmative action, even though some of those positions he held were because of a form of affirmative action. He believed you had to deserve the place in order to have the place. He believed he deserved everything he got. He wasn’t about to help anyone who didn’t measure up in the same way. Of course, for many blacks and for many whites too, this was a peculiar spectacle: keeping women and blacks out of the Century Club and other places that were virtually white except for the presence of Ralph Ellison.
He sounded like a proto-Clarence Thomas.
A proto-Clarence Thomas. (pause) That’s an interesting formulation. I don’t think I would accept it at all. I’m trying to muster my argument against it.
Here’s a man who was literally for Lyndon Johnson, who was not about to appoint a Clarence Thomas. And he was on the whole a liberal Democrat, with certain conservative elements. He refused to attack the Vietnam War, but a lot of that had to do with loyalty to Johnson’s extraordinary acts of Civil Rights legislation. So I think if you look at Ellison’s political attitudes and actions, you cannot equate him in any way with Clarence Thomas. I think I’ve come to a strong position. When you first said it, I was startled and thought maybe you had something there. No, what he had was a mild form -- it could be toxic, but relatively harmless -- of selfishness, snobbishness and a lack of generosity. No, I don’t think he possessed the problems that I associate with Justice Thomas.
He never stopped using the word “Negro.” He felt the word encompassed the full range of his ethnic background from Oklahoma.
It really was a case of Semantics, as people would have readily said at a certain point. It was foolish on his part to be insisting. He may say he didn’t insist that much, he just insisted up to certain point. Still, why cling to the term?
What he did mean to cling to was a definition of American blackness that he thought was in danger of being assailed or made obsolete by Black Power and its kindred forms of social activity. He believed black people had endured Jim Crow and horrible kinds of social oppression. But [they] had produced, in response to the horrible capacity of whites for violence, but also out of an almost instinctive cultural respect for the family and the church, a very stern discipline. He thought being black involved a very stern discipline. It did not involve being rude or brash or hysterical or violent or insulting of other people. It involved self-control, quiet acknowledgement of the power of the white man [while] not allowing the white man’s hatred of you to define you. Also, it was a realization that you possessed artistic powers that surfaced in blues or jazz that couldn’t be taken from you. He saw this as the greatest achievement of black people. He called it Negro culture.
He did not believe that anything [valuable] was added to it by what went on in the ’60s, in terms of the addition of cultural nationalism to that very stern discipline. I sometimes think that he was right in a way, but the fact is, after the 1960s and ’70s, most younger blacks could both believe many of the fundamental ideas espoused by Ralph Ellison about internationalism, cosmopolitanism and the need for beautiful high standards of art, as well as the need for a measure of cultural nationalism, that reinforced the sense of the integrity of the black human being, the black American. So they saw a need. He didn’t.
“Who wills to be a Negro?” Ellison says. “I do. I will to be a Negro. I’m proud to be a Negro.” Well, he should have recognized that many blacks could not say that and really mean it. I think he meant it. He believed in it. But they needed the therapy of the Black Power and black arts years in order to get a firmer grip on their sense of themselves and their belonging to America, even though there was a great deal of destructiveness that took place at that time. And I think, personally, that many people lost their way and might have been better served by being closer to Ellison’s definition of blackness or Negroness than the more volatile definitions that were emerging in the ’60s and ’70s.
You write that as Ellison grew older he found himself identifying more and more with Dr. Bledsoe, the cynical head of the Tuskegee-like school in Invisible Man. I don’t think anyone who reads Invisible Man, certainly not the first time, recognizes Dr. Bledsoe as a sympathetic character. Was he misreading the message of his own novel?
It’s very possible he was misreading the message of his own novel or he had created a character in a certain light and then he began to look at this character and say, “This character has a certain wisdom that I didn’t see in 1951 or 1952,” or whenever he created him. But it happened early on when he said, “You’re misreading Bledsoe if you think this book is an attack on the Bledsoes of this world. They’re not perfect, but they’re legitimate responses to the realities of Southern oppression.” Bledsoe is a fundamentally unattractive character. He believes in power. He rules his black community tightly. But he and they are in an extraordinarily tight place, easily crushed by the white world. But as far as Ellison’s concerned he’s referring to that very stern discipline that doesn’t always lead to virtue, that pragmatism that often looks like opportunism. Over the years, especially as he was attacked as being a toadie of the whites or too involved with pleasing white people, he began to sympathize with people like Bledsoe. [Bledsoe] could see his institution fail or to see the institution succeed and nurture young people. Of course, Bledsoe doesn’t appear to be that interested in nurturing young people. He says flatly that what he’s interested in is maintaining his power. Perhaps Ellison was forgetting his own text in some respects.
Hilton Als, in his review of your book in The New Yorker, pointed to Ellison’s homophobia as indicative of his discomfort with sex in general.
Well, Ellison had issues with sex, no doubt about it. I don’t know how unusual his homophobia was.
Well, he was born in 1913.
I think many people are as homophobic as Ralph Ellison, but not nearly as bizarre, as strange, I should say, in the contours of their sexual history. One thing that always surprised me about Ralph Ellison was how he flirted and how he danced and how physical he was in certain ways. But, according to reports, apart from the two extramarital affairs that I documented, he never seemed that interested in having affairs with women. I don’t know why. Maybe he was just principled. Maybe it had something to do with his relationship to his mother. But many people had complicated relationships with their mothers and it leads to licentiousness or sexual adventurism. There’s no formula, no easy way of understanding Ellison’s attitudes to sexuality, to women.
In part of Juneteenth, the novel we’re presented with after his death, you see some beautiful passages involving men and women. But if you look at Invisible Man, which is so singularly loveless, so unromantic, so undomestic and so dismal, you have to wonder out of what chill heart it came. (laughs) Ellison would have said, “To create a love story, that’s not what I was about. That would have been relatively easy. I was trying to deal with certain mythic effects, certain symbolic effects, and so on. It so happened that what a conventional love story had to offer had nothing to contribute to the story I was trying to build.”
You quote Robert O’Meally, who was my professor in school, as saying Ellison lacked elementary racial sympathy.
It depends on the time. For the time [in the ’70s], when he was dealing with O’Meally, the expectation of racial sympathy among blacks was fairly high. In contrast to that, Ellison seemed to lack elementary racial sympathy. No one should think that he hated black people. He hated the black bourgeoisie and their counterparts or representatives in the volatile world of the Black Power, black arts, Civil Rights Movement. A young black graduate student at Harvard could easily set Ellison’s teeth on edge, whereas an assistant barber in Harlem may not bother him at all. He may have some elementary racial sympathy for one and not the other. But I think both deserve the sympathy. And someone like O’Meally, a graduate student who is writing his dissertation on Ellison, deserved more respect than Ellison gave him. It wasn’t so long ago that I could relate to what O’Meally was intending to do. And when I describe myself going to Ellison’s apartment and the cold treatment I received, I’m in a sense a replication of what O’Meally had himself to go through in dealing with Ellison. Prof. O’Meally is correct in saying that.
The artists who may owe Ellison the greatest debt and who may not realize it, are stand-up comedians. Dave Chappelle has one routine: He goes to a restaurant in Mississippi and before he can say anything the server says, “You want the chicken.” And the worst thing, Chappelle goes on, is that it’s true. He does want the chicken. The amazing thing is that there’s a monologue in Invisible Man that tells the same joke, except the food is…
(laughs) Pork chops. I don’t know if [black comedians] owe anything to Ellison, but it’s possible that they and Ellison owe something to a tradition of black humor, of which Ellison was very much aware. Historically, [black comedians] may be less aware of it, but they’re part of that tradition too. [Ellison] was an elitist in many ways, but that did not prevent him from knowing the culture, the jokes of the culture and various forms of the expressions of the culture. I see him as part of a continuum and [black comedians are] a part of it also. [M]any black writers [don’t] draw on what Ellison saw as a rich tradition that could provide material for serious fiction writing. In the hands of the few masterful black comedians who come along from year to year, if you want to be charitable, it could serve as material for comic invention. So I see them as linked in that way, as being from a tradition they’re drawing on, consciously or unconsciously.