Ralph Ellison is justly celebrated for his epochal novel Invisible Man, which won the National Book Award in 1953 and has become a classic of American literature. But Ellison’s strange inability to finish a second novel, despite his dogged efforts and soaring prestige, made him a supremely enigmatic figure. Arnold Rampersad skillfully tells the story of a writer whose thunderous novel and astute, courageous essays on race, literature, and culture assure him of a permanent place in our literary heritage. Starting with Ellison’s hardscrabble childhood in Oklahoma and his ordeal as a student in Alabama, Rampersad documents his improbable, painstaking rise in New York to a commanding place on the literary scene. With scorching honesty but also fair and compassionate, Rampersad lays bare his subject’s troubled psychology and its impact on his art and on the people about him.This book is both the definitive biography of Ellison and a stellar model of literary biography.
Rampersad's new biography sweeps every cobweb out of every nook and cranny of the life of Ralph Ellison (1913 1994), author of one of the seminal works of 20th-century fiction, Invisible Man. Rampersad, a professor of humanities at Stanford and biographer of Langston Hughes, was given unprecedented access to Ellison's extensive correspondence, and it shows: he seems to leave nothing out, including every cold Ellison ever came down with, though the details often add nothing to the developing portrait. The details will make this the definitive biography for now, but work remains to be done, because Rampersad fails to address the lasting question of Ellison's legacy: why he could never produce a second novel in his lifetime. (The biographer doesn't cover the posthumous publication of Ellison's unfinished Juneteenth.) Ellison never truly embraced the Civil Rights movement, quietly supporting the fight from afar while maintaining that his writing would represent his contribution to the cause. Still, Rampersad does plot how Ellison drew on his experiences in Jim Crow America to produce his groundbreaking novel. He reveals Ellison to have been prickly, short-tempered, self-absorbed and chronically bad to women, but also charming enough to win over influential people. Rampersad provides a wealth of material about Ellison, but synthesizing it all will be up to readers to do for themselves. 24 pages of photos. 40,000 first printing.