NBCC Awards Finalist in Biography: Arnold Rampersad’s “Ralph Ellison”


This is the ninth in a series of blog posts by NBCC board members covering the finalists for the NBCC awards. The awards will be announced on March 6, 2008, at the New School.

Arnold Rampersad, “Ralph Ellison,” Alfred A. Knopf.

For the casual reader of 20th-century American literature, Ralph Ellison is known solely for his 1952 novel, “Invisible Man.”  The casual reader almost certainly classifies the book as a novel about being black in America, written by an African American who probably poured a lot of his real life into the pages of fiction.

As biographer Arnold Rampersad demonstrates in “Ralph Ellison,” the casual reader oversimplifies.

Still, it would seem a biography of a novelist with just one substantial work of fiction to his name would form a thin reed for a doorstop-weight tome.  How many hundreds of pages can anybody write about another writer’s writer’s block, after all?

That the biography turns out to be fascinating and moves briskly is more a testament to Rampersad’s skill as a researcher and stylist than to the life Ellison (1913-1994) chose to experience.

Rampersad, a Stanford University professor who previously published a two-volume biography of Langston Hughes, used his unprecedented access to Ellison’s personal papers wisely.  What emerges is a rich portrait not only of a literary figure, but also of successive generations struggling with societal racism.

The invisible man of the novel’s title grapples with chaotic questions of racial identity.  Reading Rampersad’s account of the novel’s genesis and completion is transporting, almost like experiencing the original. 

Just as Ellison’s novel is sometimes gut-wrenching and sometimes psychologically distressing, Rampersad’s account of Ellison’s life is frequently painful to read.  Not because of Rampersad, who is a virtuoso biographer.  Rather, the pain derives from Ellison’s unlikeable nature.

It is difficult to know just how deeply Ellison’s demons (as opposed to the shriveling of his craft) contributed to what appears to be writer’s block.  For the final 42 years of Ellison’s life, he never published a second novel.  That meant he became what he dreaded all along—famous for being famous, as much for the wrong reason (writer’s block) as the right reason (the quality of “Invisible Man”).

Now Ellison is famous again, however briefly, because he is the subject of a first-rate biography.—Steve Weinberg

Review in New York Times Sunday Book Review.

Review in the Houston Chronicle.