Ralph Ellison: A Personal Perspective
I met Ralph in 1957. He came out to Chicago for a week to talk to my class about his work and theirs. We spent thirty or forty hours together, jocular ones, serious ones, and became friends. I was the junior by fifteen years and scarcely any publication. Ralph didn’t lean on me with years or accomplishment; he had the gift of equality.
Millions of literate people around the world know Ralph’s face, the powerful brow, the fine full lips, the mustache of two opposed crescents, the deep cheek lines. Fewer, but still many, know his rich baritone and terrific all-out laugh.
He was an elegant man. I see him in a double-breasted blue blazer, charcoal slacks and fine shoes. Shoes, he taught me, were exceptionally important for blacks. I introduced him to the marvelous black economist, Abe Harris, who, within sixty seconds, asked Ralph where he’d bought his fine shoes.
The elegance was not superficial but part of a profound self-esteem and construction. It involved Ralph’s being simultaneously worldly and parochial, a citizen of world literature and of streets and corners only he knew and wrote about. Ralph was conscious of being—and wanting to be—a complete man, flower to root. (He may have paid too high a price for the wish, or for realizing it.)
Ralph knew many things, what they were, how to do them. He knew music, symphonic and jazz. He’d studied composition, he played the trumpet. He knew electronics. When, that first week, we recorded an interview in the apartment of the composer Easley Blackwood, Ralph helped Easley adjust the equipment. He knew guns, dogs, mechanics, cities and of course he knew books and writers. His sophistication was as much a part of him as his color, his humor, his good teeth.
That first week, Ralph showed me a Chicago hidden from me in the two years since I’d come. It was a discovery for him too, an incidental gift of his wife, Fanny, who’d come from Chicago, indeed had been famous here as a great belle. Ralph took me to imposing wood-paneled mansions owned by worldly and Chicago-knowing black men. One fine-looking youngish man, wearing not coat and tie but a confident cashmere sweater, had taken over championship boxing from New York’s Mike Jacobs (and run it till that slick wheel of fortune made its inevitable turn).
Closer to home, Ralph found out more about our cleaning woman in ten minutes than I’d known in two years. I hadn’t even gauged her age correctly. When he spoke to a couple of hundred students in the Ida Noyes lounge, he alerted me that he was going to say three or four things to which only black students would respond. He told me to watch the eight or ten in the audience when he winked at me. I watched, he winked, they lit up and laughed when no one else did.
One evening, my wife’s New England parents showed up in Chicago. There was a wine-tasting and dance at the Quadrangle Club, and I remember my father-in-law’s proud delight as he danced with Fanny, perhaps the only time in his life he’d danced with a black woman (and, I suspect, so charmingly intelligent a beauty). An intelligent if parochial man—who’d been turned upside-down by this Jewish son-in-law—he soon gauged the intelligence and grace of the Ellisons. It was a great moment for him, and I thanked Ralph for giving him this second post-graduate course in life and manners.
There were easier, richer meetings. One day I brought Ralph over to Nathan and Charlotte Scott’s house. Nathan had written a marvelous piece about Richard Wright which I showed Ralph. It was the bridge to their wonderful lifelong friendship. (Nathan, an Episcopal priest, as well as a theologian and literary critic, would preside, thirty-five years later, at Ralph’s funeral service.)
Ralph showed me a lot that I’d missed in books I prided myself on knowing as well as anyone. He flipped the pages of James’s Ambassadors and pointed out twenty-odd sentences underwritten by the diction and sentiments of slavery, emancipation and blackness. It would be twenty-five years before critics made careers out of what Ralph spelled out for me that afternoon.
Ralph liked Chicago, and Chicago liked Ralph. He wanted a job here, and I thought that giving a set of powerful lectures would secure an invitation. There was a distinguished University lectureship, the Alexander White Lectures, and Ralph was invited to give them. To my surprise, he arrived without anything on paper. His model was jazz: inspiration would arrive as needed, and, therefore, the lectures would be more powerful, fresh and true.
They weren’t. They were a disaster. Ralph said a few good things, but he stumbled, repeated himself, went off on tangents, and then the tangents of tangents. After the first one, I hinted it might be easier to put something down on paper. He wouldn’t; he thought the lecture had gone well.
There was no chance of an appointment after that. Ralph was surprised and hurt, and when, a year later, his old friend, housemate and rival, Saul Bellow, was appointed to the Committee on Social Thought here, he was, I think, hurt and angry.
During Ralph’s longish stay as the White Lecturer, I noticed another self-subversive element in him. I already knew that this confident, warm and charming man was pocked with insecurity, anger and bitterness, and that he countered these feelings with booze. He came to the house four or five evenings a week, and we drank martinis. He didn’t get drunk, only easy and weary. Then he stuttered, fumbled for words and occasionally turned sarcastic, angry. His vulnerability made me even fonder of him.
Ralph was not one to talk—at least to me—about weakness, uncertainty or difficulties. Even half-boffo, he was on top, or wanted to be. Which didn’t mean dominance, though we had small struggles which could get sharp. We’d walk up and down the sidestreets of Black and Jew, few holds barred: cleansing and revitalizing sessions. Sober, he was generous to my work. If he ran into someone who liked it, he let me know. At a Loop literary party for him, he brought over a young woman who’d told him she’d just read a book that meant a lot to her. “Here’s the author,” beamed Proud Papa Ralph, delighting reader, author and himself.
At least in spurts, Ralph was fatherly, which meant interesting children as well as caring for them. He was especially fond of our four year-old Andrew. He talked to him about staying home alone at that age with his little brother while their mother went off to work as a maid in Oklahoma City houses.
The Christmas Eve he spent with us, he interpreted the diagrams that came with complicated toys, telling me which nut should turn on which bolt and, when I botched an assembly, doing it himself. He never made me feel sorry that he didn’t have his own children. Not at all. He made the best of whatever came along, children or their absence. So taking care of his baby brother in Oklahoma City had developed his self-confidence, and his mother’s menial job was honorable work which opened up her world and his. She brought home magazines—Life, the Saturday Evening Post, which laid the foundation of his world-hunger and ambition.
Ralph’s ambivalence about the opportunities and penalties of being black was part of his originality. It wasn’t easy to handle this ambivalence in art or life, especially as Ralph didn’t want to deny himself any experience that rose from it. All, he felt, would deepen his life and art. Yet this credo, this hunger, led to accepting so many invitations that life sometimes seemed to leave no room for art. Was it his self-made trap? Perhaps, but we won’t know until the two thousand pages he left behind are assembled into a book. Who thinks now of the decades in which Proust was regarded as a brilliant wastrel?
I doubt, though, that Proust suffered as I think Ralph did from the four decades that followed the publication of Invisible Man. Thirty-five years ago, people began hounding him about the second novel. I saw him only occasionally during these years and rarely spoke of it, but it was in the air, an invisible presence, a tremor in his heartiness. The fire which burned the manuscript and his summer home seemed almost as much symbolic as real, the expression of something Penelopian which destroyed as it built. What writer in the age of carbons, let alone xeroxes and discs, kept only a single copy of the work of his life?
After some post-fire years of desperate surrender, Ralph started up again and produced the two thousand pages.
Are they a book? One Friday, a few years ago, I was at Bellow’s when Ralph called him to say the book was finished; he was turning it over to his editor on Monday. How many other times was the book finished?
If it turns out there is no book, only groupings of scenes and stories, some of them surely wonderful, there will still have been Ralph, the very visible man, complex, brilliant, ironic, generous, a bravely secret sufferer, a powerful charmer, the shaper of a richer answer to the American dilemma than anyone else has offered, the writer of one of the very good novels and some of the best essays of the century. That should be enough for anyone.
But there are the two thousand pages, and they may change almost everything.
Copyright © 1995 by the Antioch Review, Inc. This essay first appeared in the Antioch Review, Vol. 53, Number 1, Winter 1995. Reprinted by permission of the Editors.
Richard Stern is the author of such novels as Golk, Stitch, In Any Case (The Chaleur Network), Other Men’s Daughters, Natural Shocks, and A Father’s Words and Shares. His latest books of non-fiction are One Person and Another, On Writers and Writing and A Sistermony. He is Regenstein Professor of English at the University of Chicago, where he has taught since 1955. In 1985, he was awarded the Medal of Merit for the Novel by the National Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.