Ralph Ellison's Endless Blues

Why did the acclaimed author of the classic Invisible Man never publish another book? Stanley Crouch on the tortured brilliance of Ellison’s unfinished work and how America failed to appreciate him.

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Ralph Ellison was given the National Book Award in 1953 for his first and last finished novel, Invisible Man. Ellison was also the first Negro American writer to receive such a high level of recognition and it preceded nearly every citation of excellence being overwhelmed by or selling out to the politics of race, class, sex, and sexual preference, including the Nobel Prize.

Those forces continued to multiple in such numbers that, by the end of the 1960s, Ellison had become a marked man because of several things. The novelist had betrayed the national ethos of money and self-obsession expressed through career ambitions. He had not built upon his book award by writing more books, which greatly limited his career success, and he had become the sort of man Americans love to hate.

Like it or not, no white writers on the level of Faulkner or of Hemingway have come along since World War II, and Ellison remains where he began—in the front of the pack.

Ellison did not join the furious black propagandists in believing that protest was right as long as the target was in the wrong. The writer believed in the craft of fiction and was dedicated to unraveling the snarls of cultural yarn that made it so hard for Americans to comprehend themselves, their interconnected national identity, and the deeper meanings of their shared history. So Ellison was hated by certain white people because he knew much more about America and much more about Western literature than they usually did; and he was also hated by leftist ethnic nationalists who brought their narrow ideologies to the circumstances of race and class, where anything almost always goes, from the academy to the media.

Ellison emerged when American literature had been bequeathed a large measure of formal possibilities by William Faulkner in particular, because the Southern novelist was more taken by the meanings and the epic complexities of ethnic conflict than anyone since Herman Melville or Mark Twain. Faulkner saw the peculiar aesthetic possibilities of ethnic conflict in our unavoidable democratic context, and attempted to make use of the turbulent history of the South, where so many Indian tribes had made their presence felt, where African slaves had lived as highly prized chattel who influenced the nation so indelibly, and where all of the great battles of the Civil War had been fought, with the exception of Gettysburg. Faulkner understood the hysterical blindness that came with the defeat of the Confederacy and recognized how it allowed white Southerners to dehumanize themselves, the white lower class, and the Negro.

There is never anything more unforgivable in the United States than good taste and imposing, undeniable talent. Ellison never lacked heat; he just had better judgment and more talent than any black writers of his generation and perhaps any since he came to power as a novelist. In conversation, following a memorial for the embattled writer, the great Joseph Frank and his wife, Marguerite Straus Frank, took the position that Ellison was superior to all of the writers who arrived after 1945 because his was actually what became known as a “world class talent.”

One of the burdens of our moment is that supposed generations have come to believe that they “deserve” the same things had by previous generations, including an equal number of the enormously gifted. There were those who believed that a writer of Ellison’s abilities would come forth during the 1960s if only they wished hard enough, and that this writer would make sense of the imbecilic ideas they had about race and about an Africa that neither existed then nor had ever existed at any time in the past. Obviously, they were terribly wrong and the very frustration felt by those black writers who were so demonstrably inferior, swelled until Ellison was the target of so much of their venom.

Believing that everything is rigged somehow, they wanted Ellison to embrace and promote them and were quite angry when he did not. As one “high I.Q. moron” said to me, “We don’t know that Shakespeare is better than Langston Hughes. He may have just had a better support system that gave him his big-assed reputation.” That is how bad it was and still is.

In our commercial culture of false celebrity, that problem extends across ethnic, religious, and sexual lines. Like it or not, no white writers on the level of Faulkner or of Hemingway have come along since World War II, and Ellison remains where he began—in the front of the pack. But he only wrote one novel and the many speculations as to why he did not produce more do not put books of Ellison fiction on the shelves.

Now John F. Callahan and Adam Bradley have published a version of the 2,000 pages of unedited manuscript that Ellison left behind. It is a firm corrective to the weak and thin Juneteenth, which Callahan cut from the voluminous number of pages and set before us as a novel, which it was not. Callahan made an educated but bad guess of the sort that cannot be made when the writer is as talented as Ellison was. Since his intentions were unknowable, and even if they were made quite clear through copious notes, the kind of inspiration that might well have come to him while editing and rewriting are beyond even the knowledge possessed by eternity.

That is why Saul Bellow and the formidable literary scholar Nathan Scott were greatly disappointed by Juneteenth and were sure that it would harm Ellison’s reputation. They were wrong. Ellison’s reputation is as invincible as Hemingway’s was after the 1940 For Whom The Bell Tolls, which was his final major work, the rest arriving over the last two decades were little more than well meant fluff.

But striking passages do not a novel make, exactly the reason why Three Days Before The Shooting cannot be read as the sort of long fiction we think of as a novel. It is proof, in far more than a few places, of Ellison’s greatness and is an inescapably sorrowful testament of how much he and readers lost because Ellison did not push through to the end, take his inevitable lumps from the critics, and move on to what would quite probably have been even greater works.

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Ellison’s trouble is obvious in what we have before us now. He knew much too much and was much too conscious of what he wanted his novel to do and achieve. He could neither bunt nor swing for a base hit. Only a grand slam would do, bases loaded and the ball leaving the enclosed field on the way to a landing in the parking lot, where it would be lost under the uncountable cars covering almost every inch of the asphalt. Whenever that did not happen to his satisfaction, Ellison sullenly returned to the bench and brooded until his inspiration brought him back to the plate. That seems to have been his tragedy.

Ellison appears to have wanted his piece of the crown worn only by two novelists before him, Melville and Faulkner. Moby Dick was the bridge between Tristram Shandy and Ulysses, while Faulkner’s reaction to the territory opened up first by Melville and followed up by Joyce was beyond exceptional. Faulkner took the American novel to heights no one has had the ability to breathe in since. Faulkner was a purely American genius of the sort so unexpected and equally unexplainable, yet truest in the victories against formal limitations and academic preparation. That is how large and comprehensive his talent was, which was equaled by a taste for risk and a sense of structural bravery that has never been challenged.

Ralph Ellison may well have been up to the challenge that Faulkner threw down because his experience was broad enough to create a reasonable distrust of the academy, although he became, as an inarguably splendid intellectual, a symbol of the academy at its best. He knew how to put historical facts together with lasting ideas and the new conceptions of modern life that were continually changing while adhering to deathless, classical concerns.

Ellison was suspicious of the right and the left, the capitalists and the Marxists, the corporations and the workers, the whites and the non-whites, the rich and the poor, the religious and the atheists, and every other human variation. He was aware of how often those of any persuasion had been wrong as long as the day goes on. This meant that the Ellison vision was fundamentally tragic.

A sense of tragedy always puts one out of step with ideologues of all persuasions because, feeling forced to have an answer, they tend to substitute sentimental overstatement for true emotion, or howl with naive frustration at the frailties of human life. Whenever Ellison experienced the results of those frailties, they never came as shocks because he was well aware of their perpetual presence.

His grasp of human nature made that possible. That did not fail him though his technique could and did, as the unfinished manuscript proves, often enough to make clear that it is largely a huge draft with peaks of first class narrative, description, and superbly rendered dialogue. In its best sections, this mysterious draft is full of wit, satire, and the chaos that Ellison concluded was so central to the ongoing surprises of American life and for which the United States was uniquely prepared to handle, improvisation by desperate or even surreal improvisation.

That sense of the importance of improvisation beyond measure was written into the founding documents and appeared over and over in the national life and the national response to need or threat. If the chaos is sufficiently epic, so must the improvisations be if anything close to an actual “solution” is to be achieved. That is the fundamental tension at the center of the national life, and Ellison’s fundamental sense of American life.

Ellison’s basic idea was that human frailty determined what happened far more often than human idealism, but that idealism continued to live because—whenever it actually came through!—the results were so monumental that a naive optimism grew. The speed with which clarity is obscured or misinterpreted is Ralph Ellison’s favorite blues because it is so old that it remains forever new.

Those familiar with Invisible Man or his many peerless cultural essays will recognize that Ellison remained at home with his demons and his inspirations. His ongoing variations on the decoys and deceptions that arrive through politics and conventionally make it so hard for Americans to clearly perceive where they are and how they got there are riotously and chillingly presented.

The multitude of ancestors and their progeny are a metaphor for the mysterious identity of the American, whom DNA is presently slapping awake. The music, the wit, the dance, the religious practices, the food, and the many maskings used by Negroes as much for fun as deception arrive again and again as they did in Ellison’s fiction and non-fiction work or his autobiographical writing. Ellison remained taken with the complexities of origin when writing about Oklahoma, Harlem during the 1930s and 1940s, and what he discovered around him while living in uptown Manhattan for about half a century.

It is not at all disturbing to see how far off he was at times, how inarticulate an unpolished section might be, or how stupendously corny some of his reactions could be to what he considered his literary enemies. Even so, Three Days Before The Shooting is uplifting to read just because of how close the novelist came to getting right on the beat he was seeking in order to bring the level of the swing to his moment at the plate. The bat that Ralph Ellison carried was cobbled together with genius but was made, as those he was born among loved to say, from “shit, grit, and mother wit.” That might be a messy recipe to some, but Ellison understood exactly why it is just right for all occasions, public and private.

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Stanley Crouch's culture pieces have appeared in Harper's, The New York Times, Vogue, Downbeat, The New Yorker, and more. He has served as artistic consultant for jazz programming at Lincoln Center since 1987, and is a founder of Jazz at Lincoln Center. In June 2006 his first major collection of jazz criticism, Considering Genius: Jazz Writings, was published. Next year the first volume of his long-awaited biography of Charlie Parker will appear.