Vol. 1 No. 1 2007




Dr. Arnold Rampersad is one of the nation's foremost biographers. His two-volume study of the life of Langston Hughes, his book on Jackie Robinson, and his work with Arthur Ashe on his remarkable memoir are exemplary of his craft and have earned him a number of prestigious awards. Now the tireless professor from Stanford has authored what may be his crowning achievement: an exhaustive examination of the life and legacy of Ralph Ellison (19131994), most famous for his novel, Invisible Man. Rampersad's book was published by Knopf and is scheduled for release soon. This interview was conducted recently by Herb Boyd via telephone with Dr. Rampersad from his home in California.

HB: At the close of this legnthy but superbly researched and written book, you talk about some of the challenges you faced. Can you share some of them with our readers?

AR: Some of the difficulties I faced had to do with my own personal situation. In the middle of my research I became the senior associate dean in charge of the humanities at Stanford. This was for three years and it was far more labor intensive than I ever imagined it would be. And I couldn't switch from that to the biography very easily. Another difficulty I faced was knowing how hard Ralph had been on such writers as Ishmael Reed and Amiri Baraka, both of whom I admire very much. But through it all I tried to be fair.

HB: must have also been rather daunting plowing through all the letters and other material about Ellison at the Library of Congress.

AR: That was the fun part. I loved that part more than anything else. I love being in the library, in the archives with people bringing boxes to you with items that very few people have ever looked at. That was the easy part. Then, of course, there's the writing of it, which is a little more stressful.

HB: Arnold talk a little bit about the process, how you bring it all together.

AR: First, I try to do all the reading of the letters and then the documents. Then I do the interviews, particularly of those people who knew him quite well. At some point I decide I have enough information to begin writing the book. I take notes in a chronological way so that I have a stack of material for every year, and I try to make sense of it.

HB: Let's return to the letters for just a moment. Did Ellison keep carbon copies of the letters he sent to people?

AR: Yes. He, like Langston Hughes and others who were interested in posterity, kept a lot of carbons. I don't think he kept them from early on his life, but for these early years, for example, his mother saved his letters. At a certain point when he began to think of himself as a literary figure perhaps he felt he needed evidence to cover himself. I think he began doing this by the late thirties. The letters hereceived, thankfully, have been carefully cataloged in folders, so that helps a lot. One of the key things about letters is that you have to read them strategically or carefully as though they were part of a conversation. Everyone who writes a letter has an agenda; there is always a purpose and you have to recognize the writer's intentions, ever mindful that the facts may not always be accurate. There's a lot of detective work here, very much like putting together a puzzle.

HB: Are there some examples that come to mind?

AR: Well, when Invisible Man was published, he sent a copy to Richard Wright [his friend and mentor]. Wright sends back a kind of perfunctory note. And then there's silence. Then Wright writes again but only at the very end of his letter is there a compliment, but it's to the novel. Though Ralph doesn't indicate that he's offended, it takes him three months before he responds, thanking Wright for his remarks. From the letters you pick up the tension between them. There's a certain amount of reading between the lines, which we all do.

HB: I would imagine, given the nature of Invisible Man, that it must have been an easy temptation to use it as a guideline to understanding Ellison's life, that is, how much of the novel is really autobiographical.

AR: I didn't use the novel as autobiography, though I do point out that there are connections. For example, Ralph worked at the A.c. Horn Paint Company ...

HB: Much like the Victory Paint Company that appears in the novel.. .

AR: Right, so this, to some extent, is drawn from his life experience. But you don't know how much of it is accurate, how it exactly corresponds. I certainly wanted to understand what was going on in his mind, why he chose, for example, to write about a farmer, an exbluesman, and what were his intentions. Looking for the correspondences between his life and the novel can't be pursued too rigidly because the creative mind is a very mysterious and some of the points can never be resolved.

HB: Ellison often mentioned that "Geography is fate." What do you make of this and is that a significant clue to his literary production?

AR: That's an expression from (Ralph Waldo) Emerson [for whom Ellison wasnamed]. I really don't know what he meant by that. Perhaps he meant that he was a child of Oklahoma, where he was born, but also that he was a child of the South. I think I could have done more in the book to show the extent to which Ralph wanted to be seen as a southerner, as a way of connecting with his father's people in South Carolina. Both the culture of the southwest and the South pulled on him. And then there's the geography of New England, and this plays a major part in inspiring Invisible Man. In fact, the first line of the novel, "I am an invisible man," comes to him while he's living in Vermont.

HB: To what extent was Fanny, Ellison's wife, helpful in completing the project?

AR: I didn't get along that well with Fanny, that is, I never dealt with her that much. It was really (John) Callahan (Ellison's literary executor) who insisted that I do the book since he didn't want to do it. I met with Fanny in 1999, I think, just after I had left Princeton, but she wasn't communicating too well at that time. She was at an advanced age and into her own way of thinking. I never interviewed her about the book.

HB: Arnold, our readers will certainly want to know how and why there was such a great disconnect between him and other black writers. In your book, Ellison throws a big party but his friend Albert Murray is the only black person there.

AR: He seemed to have wanted nothing but the best around him. The best writers, the most prestigious literary cultural folk, and I think Murray was lucky to get in. It was his way of saying I'm goingto live my life the way I want to, paying no attention to those white people who impose notions of race nor to the black people who accept them. The people who matter to me, he appears to say, are artists such as Robert Penn Warren ...

HB: And Stanley Edgar Hyman, Kenneth Burke and what have you .. .

AR: Right, but Stanley Hyman didn't quite make the grade to be invited to some of these parties. He favored a mixture of actual literary achievement, and people who possess a certain amount of social prestige. He's not alone with that. A lot of white people think of White Anglo Saxons Protestants as being at the top of the social ladder and they aspire to this element.

HB: Reading your book, I'm left with the impression that Ellison had little time or love for younger black writers.

AR: I think that is accurate. I don't see how anyone can say differently. That is why it was so difficult to see how absolutely skeptical and rejecting he was of young black writers, particularly younger black women writers. I found it very hard to deal with. By the way, I don't think I'm really friends with Baraka. I do know, however, that one of the most courteous receptions I got from anyone I interviewed about Langston Hughes is still Amiri Baraka. And as a biographer, that's what you're looking for, a kind of sympathy and encouragement. You can't tell people how to live their lives. No one has an obligation to be kind and generous to other people. Ralph would have said "No! I'm an American, an individualist, and if you rise to my level then you're my equa1." This is not the way I live my life or you live yours, but that's the way he lived his.

HB: But how do you explain the disconnect?

AR: I think this topic is important for a number of reasons. I do make a point that it hurt him when he tried to write a second novel. He was disconnected from the community. He wasn't stirring in a common humanity that might have stimulated him. But all of this is beside the point because I continue to believe that Invisible Man is a very powerful novel. And Shadow and Act is a wonderful collection of articles and essays. I don't know of anyone who has written a better collection of essays on African American expressive culture. This feeling is shared by such notable writers as Ernest Gaines and Paule Marshall so I'm not alone. And there's an irony in hi~ disconnect with younger black writers. While he was capable of writing the brilliant essays, giving interviews, and expounding certain ideas that they absolutely shared, he couldn't make the human connection, and this was unfortunate.

HB: Now that the work has been done, how do you feel about Ellison as a person?

AR: As a person, he was unwelcoming. I felt a kind of coldness, there was a forbidding quality about him. I had to struggle with this because you are obliged to be fair to your subject. The only obligation I had was to share the final manuscript with Mr. Callahan, even so I had the final call. And Callahan vigorously contested a number of statements and points I made. I treated his objections with a great deal ofrespect. As a result of this the book is a somewhat more moderate than it would have been. It's also a better book because of this. His job was to stick up for Ellison, and also as a professor of literature to what he regarded the proper standards of biography. It is easy to lose your perspective when you get deeply involved in somebody's life.

HB: I notice that you don't say that much about Juneteenth, Ellison's "second" novel cobbled together by Callahan after Ellison's death in 1994.

AR: In fact, I instructed the indexer not to use the word Juneteenth. I respect what the estate and Callahan did, but that's separate and has nothing to do with what I was doing. He was not writing a novel called Juneteenth. He was writing an untitled nove1. It did not come out in his lifetime. When I make reference to Flying Home, his other collection of essays, I always make it clear that it comes after his death, and something Callahan and his editors put together.

HB: Going to the Territory came out before he died, right?

AR: That's right. It came out in '86 or '87. This is also an important book in that it shows Ralph still being very smart and full of insight on culture and other things. You also have all these younger black reviewers, such as John Edgar Wideman, praising him and his books. And this marks a kind of turning point in his relationship to them because by this time he believed that all the young, black aspiring writers were his enemies. I think it moved him to see how generous these younger people were.

Herb Boyd is a journalist and author of numerous books, including The Gentle Giant with Yusef LateeJ

Return to home page

Go To Current Issue