Among the reams of print that have appeared recently upon the appearance of the new biography of Ralph Ellison by Arnold Rampersad — all of it justified since Ellison is one of the major novelists of the 20th century — one of the best notices has been Michael Anderson's, which appeared in the May 28 issue of The Nation.
The critic was for a long time an editor at The New York Times Book Review. The bio attached to the review made no mention of this job. It stated only that he is now engaged in writing a biography of the playwright Lorraine Hansberry.
Clearly, his knowledge of the period when Hansberry, author of the classic play Raisin in the Sun, was dominant has helped him assess Ellison, a writer of an earlier generation whose own classic novel, Invisible Man, has come to be considered by more and more critics and writers as the great American novel.
According to Anderson, the theme of Rampersad's biography, as it was of Ellison's novel, is alienation. Though Ellison, philosophically, was a full-fledged integrationist, his novel was about a "hero" who was "invisible," and who by the end of the narrative had gone underground, much like Dostoevsky's earlier, famous subterranean man.
But even more paradoxical for a man who argued for black "inclusion, association, interconnection," Rampersad and Anderson both demonstrate that Ellison, who was championed by white America (and many of his fellow Jewish novelists like Saul Bellow) for his first and, as it turned out, only novel, was a victim of the alienation he so perfectly dissected in Invisible Man.
Wrote Anderson: "As the distinguished scholar Arnold Rampersad suggests in his compassionate yet devastating biography, Ellison's quest to discover 'how I can cling to that which is real in me' led him to seize fantasy ('Fiction became the agency of my efforts to answer the questions: Who am I, what am I, how did I come to be?') and, pivotally, to reject identification with his race ('the greatest difficulty for a Negro writer was the problem of revealing what he truly felt, rather than serving up what Negroes were supposed to feel, and were encouraged to feel'). With the subtle insight, painstaking scholarship and elegant presentation that graced his previous biographies of Langston Hughes and Jackie Robinson, Rampersad illuminates the 'almost leprous insecurity' that caused Ellison to fall silent as a novelist after the sensational debut of Invisible Man in 1952 until his death in 1994, at the age of 81. 'As a novelist, he had lost his way,' Rampersad writes. 'And he had done so in proportion to his distancing himself from his fellow blacks.' "
This brief excerpt provides only a glimpse into the riches of Anderson's critique. I've been waiting a long time for his Hansberry biography to appear, and this piece just reinforces for me why I'll be one of the first in line to purchase the work the minute it hits the bookstores.