Ralph Ellison: A Biography
There was an interesting article in the New York Times book review section recently. The review discussed Arnold Rampersad’s new book Ralph Ellison: A Biography. Here’s an excerpt and link:
Visible Man by Brent Staples
Ralph Ellison burned out as an artist under excruciating circumstances. His failure to complete a second novel after his landmark book, “Invisible Man,” exploded onto the scene in 1952 was already a source of pain just six years later, when he wrote to Saul Bellow about having a “writer’s block as big as the Ritz.” His suffering intensified as the years rolled by and contemporaries like Bellow (Ellison’s onetime housemate), John Cheever and Bernard Malamud all capitalized on their talents and moved on into prolific maturity. His predicament was worsened by the feeling that he had failed not only himself but the broader black society whose aesthetic he had hoped to champion in a great book that would rival “Moby-Dick.”
Ellison’s sense of himself as the literary deliverer of an entire race was, at first, merely naïve. It turned poisonous as his powers drained away and African-American successors began to appear on the horizon. By the 1970s, he had evolved, or declined, into what one of those successors, Toni Morrison, stingingly described as “a black literary patrician.” He lectured from on high about the art he himself struggled to practice even as he passed harsh judgment on black writers he either feared might eclipse him or who had simply strayed onto what he regarded as his turf. By demeaning those writers, he was turning back the clock to a time when he was still young and productive — and regarded by the white literary establishment as the only black writer who mattered. This posture cut him off from black people in general, and especially from younger black writers who might have shown the way out of the corner into which he had painted himself.