Edited by John F. Callahan and Marc C. Conner
The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison
(Random House, 2019)
Toward the end of a letter to Albert Murray written from Greensboro on April 9, 1953 while on a Black colleges tour, Ralph Ellison tells his fellow Tuskegee alumnus that his next stop is going to be Fisk University in Nashville. There, he intends to talk about “minority provincialism as a problem for the creative writer.” The idea of the talk comes to Ellison in part as a response to Fisk’s head librarian and writer Arna Bontempts, who, Ellison continues, “hinted in SRL that I had created another stereotype.” Ellison’s goal is to “point out where the so-called new negro boys crapped up the picture.” Clearly, he had no use for them. “I don’t know why those guys want to mess with a contentious Mose like me anyway: I done told them I ain’t no gentleman, black or white,” he writes before closing with his own declaration of artistic independence, “and I definitely ain’t colored when it comes to writing.”
The relationship between art and identity stands at the heart of the hundreds of letters that Ellison’s friend and literary executor, critic John F. Callahan and his co-editor Marc C. Conner, included in The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison, a collection that spans from the early 1930s, when 20-year-old Ellison hoboed on a train to get to Tuskegee to start following his dream of a music career, until June 1993, some nine months before the now celebrated and revered writer died of pancreatic cancer in his adopted hometown of New York City. The letters are organized chronologically by decades, except for the 1980s and 1990s letters that are grouped together. The book includes all but one of the letters that Ellison wrote to Murray, previously published in 2001 with the title Trading Twelves. In other words, the ponderous volume (it stands at well over 1,000 pages) reflects the entire life span of one of America’s most prominent novelists and the most prominent African American one. By so doing, the tome reflects the trajectory of much of American letters in the 20th century, especially if one considers also what’s not in it and what the letters omit. For this reason, it is a spectacular contribution to the Ellison canon and American literary history, especially after modernism, of which Invisible Man might as well be considered its peak and its end at once.
Right from the beginning the letters make clear how, for Ellison, art and identity coincided with the novel and the American experience. In turn, the problem of race at the heart of that experience, which as a Black American he could not escape and never pretended to want to escape, identified the problem of the novel form. Both relationships, he reckoned, are a part and markers of a larger question, the question of modernity, no matter the specificity of Black life and history in America. On the contrary, that specificity confirmed his view, “Thus for all its social, cultural and historical uniqueness, American Negro life is but yet another example of the diverse patterns of American life, and its predicament yet another example of the universal predicament of modern man” he writes in January 1956 to Stanley Israel.
How a young Black man from Oklahoma named Ralph Waldo Ellison became a revered novelist in many ways exemplifies this belief. It also chronicles an essential part of the story of the unfolding of modernity in 20th-century America, beginning with the letters from the 1930s and the 1940s when Ellison attended the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama for three difficult years before moving to New York City. Most of the letters from Tuskegee are addressed to his beloved mother. What characterizes them is the relentless request for money, the increasing dissatisfaction with his life at the institute, including the sexual abuse suffered at the hand of the dean, an experience that would end up in the first section of Invisible Man, and the concomitant desire to detach himself from his native Oklahoma City. The money issue will disappear only later in Ellison’s life when he attained financial well-being with his appointment as Professor of the Humanities at NYU and various other engagements, including several corporate gigs.
The move to New York City, instead, is what opened the door of writing for Ellison. There he encountered Langston Hughes and Richard Wright, and, no less important, thanks to Wright he found employment in the Federal Writers’ Project, a crucial experience for most American writers of his generation that, among other things, occasioned the title of his novelistic masterpiece. New York also occasioned the crossing of the racial and ethnic line. In 1936 he told his mother that among his friends are some Jews. The arrival in New York, the literary acquaintances with Wright, and his involvement in the WPA also brought about his political radicalization, which the letters well document. Repeatedly, Ellison complained to his mother of the attitudes of the American ruling class, revealing his newfound class consciousness and awareness of the intertwinement of race and class division in America and its larger geopolitical horizon. In August 1937 he writes her, “The people of Russia got tired of seeing the very rich have everything and the poor nothing and now they are building a new system. I wish we could live there. And these rich bastards here are trying to take the W.P.A. away from us.” His rage turns into disillusionment in what is the most important letter from this first decade, a 1939 letter to his Tuskegee friend Joe Lazenberry that recapitulates Ellison’s experiences in Alabama, New York, and Dayton, the latter the city where his mother had died before he could get there and where he ended up staying living in abject poverty with his brother Herbert. “Today life in the U.S. seems to offer some pretty bitter experiences, so much so that, unless you’re rich, for the believer in democracy it offers only disillusionment,” he tells his college friend. Yet, the literary achievement of Richard Wright brings him some relief. Thanks to Wright, “we have overcome the cultural and intellectual isolation that has been characteristic of Negro writers.”
There are some prophetic undertones in this line that closes the 1930s and opens the 1940s, which include some of the most intense letters of the entire collection. The 1940s, in fact, register Ellison’s simultaneous commitment to writing fiction and engagement with literary criticism and Marxism, which he discusses especially with Richard Wright, Stanley Hyman, and Kenneth Burke, the three people he corresponded with the most, along with his soon-to-be second wife Fanny McConnell. What’s most relevant about this shift, however, is Ellison’s intellectual independence from the ideology and political positions he wholeheartedly embraced on the basis of his recognition of reality as it presented itself to his eyes, beginning with the crucial question of race and Blackness in American life and his commitment to humanism and democracy. He writes to Wright of the shortcomings of the CPUSA members in acknowledging the “humanist implications of Marxism” that Native Son raises. He questions whether CP leaders “are emancipated from bourgeois taboos.” At the same time, he sees how “nationalistic” Wright’s magnus opus, as well as “NEGRO American lit,” are. At times his political radicalism gets to the point of being naïve, as when he writes Wright, “As for Hitler, I’m hoping he’ll be able to invade England and break the Empire. For in the same stroke, he’ll dig his own grave,” except that had this happened, the führer would have danced on it.
Yet when it comes to the place of Black people and Black culture in Western culture, his critical acumen is as sharp as a newly ironed knife. For example, he connects the Blues to the larger discourse of Western culture because “the experience of the Negroes has been so different from that of whites in this country that common Western concepts are clothed in drastically different forms … In other terms, the Blues are a ritual through which Western values and social proprieties are rejected or, at least, defied.” Midway through this decade, he writes Wright that “there is no answer for Negroes certainly except some sort of classless society.” The intersection of class and race, however, does not include women. Indeed, sexism and homophobia raise their ugly head more than once in this collection, and not solely in the early decades. This personal failure is even more interesting because after all, the narrator and protagonist of Invisible Man receives his political baptism in Mary Rambo’s home.
Whereas his commitment to humanism and democracy never ceased, the same cannot be said of his aforementioned intellectual independence in confronting both institutions. Following the publication of Invisible Man, about which there is, somewhat surprisingly, very little in this collection that concerns its writing and evolution, the letters register an inward movement toward an intellectual rigidity that goes beyond his well-known repudiation of political radicalism and his embracing of American liberalism. What is most striking about this decade’s letters is not so much Ellison’s relentless self-promotion to position himself and Invisible Man within the intellectual liberal establishment of the time, but his refusal to come to terms with the realities that paradoxically he did not fail to recognize, whether politically or artistically. The result of this limitation is the essential provincialism of his newfound Americanism. For a writer who claimed to be exclusively interested in the human condition under modernity, of which the “American Negro life is but yet another example of the diverse patterns of American life, and its predicament yet another example of the universal predicament of modern man,” this is especially troubling. I have no problem with the idea of universalism. Quite the contrary, it is a notion in urgent need to be brought back in the humanities, however reconceptualized. But I do have a problem when it is identified with Americanism at its worst. That is to say, cultural isolationism, lack of intellectual curiosity, and resistance to artistic development, formal as well as ideological.
All of which are in full display, especially starting in the letters from Rome, where Ellison spent two years at the American Academy starting in 1955. This is especially notable in light of his affirmation that in Invisible Man he was writing about “what seems to me to be a common problem of modern man—his confusion as to his identity and as to his values.” The letters from Rome begin with his infatuation with the beauty of some Renaissance places in Tuscany and Umbria that he and Fanny visited, his admiration for Italians, “these quite wonderful people,” their difference from Americans, his intriguing observation about the Moors’ influence on Italian architecture, the poverty of the Southern regions, and his regrettably not-carried-out plan on writing about the “less inviting aspects” of Italy, all markers of his experience in the Federal Writers’ Project. Soon thereafter, however, the letters become an annoying lament typical of the ethnocentric American abroad with their inability to learn another language, and the expectation that people speak English: “There is very little whiskey I can afford, no sweet potatoes or yellow yams, a biscuit is unheard of—they think it means cookie in this town—and their greens don’t taste like greens. What’s worse, ain’t nobody around to speak the language.” Now Romans are “slackassed” and “the only way to beat an Italian businessman is to kick his nasty ass.” Fortunately, he did not have to rent his New York apartment from a now-former American president.
The closing of his American mind is a critical as well as a cultural failure. He questions why Leslie Fiedler “thinks Huck and Jim were practicing buggery on the raft,” which as far as I know, and I should be the one to know, he never said. Or Richard Wright’s interest toward Africa, “he says the American Negro is in the position to help them, which perhaps we are. But who the hell wants to live in Africa?” About a billion people do. The most arrogant remark is when he writes Murray, “There simply is more to do, to see, to hear, and to read in one day” in New York “than in a whole week or month in Rome.” Beside the arrogant ignorance of this statement, the fact is that culturally speaking 1950s Rome was bursting at the seam, as his fellow African American writer William Demby would have explained to him had Mr. Ellison cared to venture into the Rome cultural scene. Perhaps more important, to a great extent the richness of that scene was due to the fact that in the previous 25 years Italy had been inundated with American literature, “classic” as well as contemporary, something that should have alerted him, if not interested him. A short four years before Ellison arrived in Rome, Leslie Fiedler, who had spent two years in Rome as a Fulbright scholar right at the beginning of the decade, wrote in Kenyon Review that “since about 1930, there has taken place in Italy one of the most extraordinary feats of translation and assimilation in the history of culture; hundreds of American books have been turned into Italian, provided with prefaces, critically discussed, and, most important of all, read with a fantastic eagerness.”1 That effort, which incidentally explains the rather quick translation into Italian of Invisible Man, had been the work of all the major Italian writers of the time, many still alive and living in Rome. They had translated and wrote about all the writers that Ellison revered and considered his literary ancestors, from Twain and Melville and Hawthorne to Hemingway and Faulkner and, no less important, Richard Wright.
The resistance to other cultures finds a parallel in Ellison’s resistance to new forms, as in the case of his disdain toward John Coltrane and the Beats. Ellison blasts the saxophonist and his fellow jazz musicians because they are “fucking up the blues,” a statement which ironically recognizes the importance of the Blues for Coltrane and his fellow musicians. The Beats are defined as a bunch of “characters [who] are all trying to reduce the world to sex, man they have strange problems in bed.” For a man who had just recently gone through a lacerating marital crisis because of an affair he had with a woman at the American Academy in Rome, this seems an ungenerous comment. In a letter to Saul Bellow that inaugurates the 1960s, he attacks Mailer for “the White-Negro crap he’s been selling.” Strangely, there is hardly anything about the social and political turmoil of the 1960s, especially the Vietnam War, which Ellison supported without hesitation or regrets.
What gets more space, instead, is the by-now-legendary struggle he experienced in moving forward with his second novel, his critical work that in 1964 he collected in Shadow and Act, and his reiteration, one is tempted to write reification, that the problem of race was for him essentially the problem of the novel. “My best way of expressing my Identity as a Negro is by being a good novelist” he writes Robert Penn Warren and repeats to one Miss Patsy Brill of Florida State University, “The only obligation I feel toward my race is not to be ashamed of it and to be courageous and to affirm its humanity. I do not feel that this is an obligation that should take precedence over my obligation as a novelist.”
This conviction he never abandoned. Again, for an intellectual whose clarity of historical vision is undisputable, never claimed transracialism, and proudly claimed his Blackness, as he should have, this position begs the question as to whether it was the result of the public persona he was carefully building and the way he was positioning himself and his novel within the literary establishment and the established canon. No wonder that with the dutiful exception of James McPherson, these letters do not show any appreciation for any of the new writers that started to change the American literary scene in the 1960s and 1970s. Not once do we find the names of, say, Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo, not to mention Ishmael Reed, Alice Walker, or even John Edgar Wideman. Even a writer like John Barth is completely ignored.
Interestingly, however, the letters from the 1980s and the little over three years he lived in the 1990s seem to indicate, if not regret, let alone a change of heart, at least a reconsideration or an admission that maybe there was more inside him than the the public figure he had been building in the previous decades. In a letter to Callahan discussing patriotism and democratic ideals, in his view “easily dismissed” by some of his fellow Black writers, he writes, “my problem is to affirm while resisting. That is why I joined the Merchant Marine,” thus reiterating his identification of the novel with history and of values with political ideals. In this way, however, he also claimed the need for historical change and linked it to action. In turn, he intertwined the latter and consciousness. It might not be a coincidence that in a subsequent letter he underlines the importance of the WPA folklore projects, which “had turned up far more of our group’s history than several generations of historians.” Or, no less important, that he describes Invisible Man as an attempt “to ‘integrate’ (and consciously ‘Afro-Americanize’) our literature, whether by initiating dialogues with certain master-works of its pluralistic tradition or by using them as model” and make his readers “think; and to compare their own situations as human beings and as Americans with that of my leading character.” This he called an “instruction in comparative humanity.”
In one of the most moving letters of the volume from 1984, a reply to Odette Hines, an old friend in the Federal Writers’ Project, he tells his former colleague turned activist that she had concluded that he had failed her “by not taking part in the marches etc. I regretted but I felt that there was more than one way to fight and that there was more than one front to the war … if nothing else I’ve accustomed quite a number of white folks to exchanging ideas with a Negro. Perhaps those who come after me shall benefit from my little effort at pioneering.” That this has been the case it is uncontestable. It remains one of Ellison’s greatest accomplishments and a public service to his country and the world. Yet, as the history of Mose and the other subaltern, as well as the growing economic, racial, and cultural divide that the nation and the whole world have been witnessing for the last 40 years teaches us, affirmation, even by resistance, is not enough. Or at least not enough to overcome a system of which racism is an integral and, historically speaking, constitutive and founding part. Ellison, who knew so much about our country, knew this too. But he could not bring himself to believe it.
- Leslie Fiedler, “Italian Pilgrimage: The Discovery of America.” In An End to Innocence, Boston: Beacon Press, 1955, 101.