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Ralph Ellison: A Biography

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The definitive biography of one of the most important American writers and cultural intellectuals of the twentieth century--Ralph Ellison, author of the masterpiece "Invisible Man." In 1953, Ellison's explosive story of an innocent young black man's often surreal search for truth and his identity won him the National Book Award for fiction and catapulted him to national pr The definitive biography of one of the most important American writers and cultural intellectuals of the twentieth century--Ralph Ellison, author of the masterpiece "Invisible Man." In 1953, Ellison's explosive story of an innocent young black man's often surreal search for truth and his identity won him the National Book Award for fiction and catapulted him to national prominence. Ellison went on to earn many other honors, including two presidential medals and election to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, but his failure to publish a second novel, despite years of striving, haunted him for the rest of his life. Now, as the first scholar given complete access to Ellison's papers, Arnold Rampersad has written not only a reliable account of the main events of Ellison's life but also a complex, authoritative portrait of an unusual artist and human being. Born poor and soon fatherless in 1913, Ralph struggled both to belong to and to escape from the world of his childhood. We learn here about his sometimes happy, sometimes harrowing years growing up in Oklahoma City and attending Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Arriving in New York in 1936, he became a political radical before finally embracing the cosmopolitan intellectualism that would characterize his dazzling cultural essays, his eloquent interviews, and his historic novel. The second half of his long life brought both widespread critical acclaim and bitter disputes with many opponents, including black cultural nationalists outraged by what they saw as his elitism and misguided pride in his American citizenship. This biography describes a man of magnetic personality who counted Saul Bellow, Langston Hughes, Robert Penn Warren, Richard Wright, Richard Wilbur, Albert Murray, and John Cheever among his closest friends; a man both admired and reviled, whose life and art were shaped mainly by his unyielding desire to produce magnificent art and by his resilient faith in the moral and cultural strength of America. A magisterial biography of Ralph Waldo Ellison--a revelation of the man, the writer, and his times.


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The definitive biography of one of the most important American writers and cultural intellectuals of the twentieth century--Ralph Ellison, author of the masterpiece "Invisible Man." In 1953, Ellison's explosive story of an innocent young black man's often surreal search for truth and his identity won him the National Book Award for fiction and catapulted him to national pr The definitive biography of one of the most important American writers and cultural intellectuals of the twentieth century--Ralph Ellison, author of the masterpiece "Invisible Man." In 1953, Ellison's explosive story of an innocent young black man's often surreal search for truth and his identity won him the National Book Award for fiction and catapulted him to national prominence. Ellison went on to earn many other honors, including two presidential medals and election to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, but his failure to publish a second novel, despite years of striving, haunted him for the rest of his life. Now, as the first scholar given complete access to Ellison's papers, Arnold Rampersad has written not only a reliable account of the main events of Ellison's life but also a complex, authoritative portrait of an unusual artist and human being. Born poor and soon fatherless in 1913, Ralph struggled both to belong to and to escape from the world of his childhood. We learn here about his sometimes happy, sometimes harrowing years growing up in Oklahoma City and attending Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Arriving in New York in 1936, he became a political radical before finally embracing the cosmopolitan intellectualism that would characterize his dazzling cultural essays, his eloquent interviews, and his historic novel. The second half of his long life brought both widespread critical acclaim and bitter disputes with many opponents, including black cultural nationalists outraged by what they saw as his elitism and misguided pride in his American citizenship. This biography describes a man of magnetic personality who counted Saul Bellow, Langston Hughes, Robert Penn Warren, Richard Wright, Richard Wilbur, Albert Murray, and John Cheever among his closest friends; a man both admired and reviled, whose life and art were shaped mainly by his unyielding desire to produce magnificent art and by his resilient faith in the moral and cultural strength of America. A magisterial biography of Ralph Waldo Ellison--a revelation of the man, the writer, and his times.

30 review for Ralph Ellison: A Biography

  1. 4 out of 5

    Charles Matthews

    Confronted with something as messy and complicated as a human life, a biographer can too easily fall into the trap of simplification, seizing on one prominent aspect of the subject’s character and history, the way a caricaturist turns a potato nose or jug ears into the dominant feature in a cartoon. On the other hand, if the life surveyed is long enough and complex enough, the biographer may be tempted just to report the incidents and events and let the reader do the hard work of shaping them in Confronted with something as messy and complicated as a human life, a biographer can too easily fall into the trap of simplification, seizing on one prominent aspect of the subject’s character and history, the way a caricaturist turns a potato nose or jug ears into the dominant feature in a cartoon. On the other hand, if the life surveyed is long enough and complex enough, the biographer may be tempted just to report the incidents and events and let the reader do the hard work of shaping them into a coherent image. What makes Stanford professor Arnold Rampersad’s biography of Ralph Ellison so immensely engaging, so satisfying, is that he steers deftly between these extremes. The temptations are certainly there. Ellison was caricatured during his life as a "one-book wonder" and as an "Uncle Tom." And his life spanned most of the 20th century – he was born in 1913 and died in 1994 – in which black Americans moved from Jim Crow, through the civil rights struggle and Black Power, and into the era of "benign neglect." In his lifetime, Ellison gave us the indelibly powerful novel "Invisible Man" and two volumes of incisive, penetrating essays. He was richly rewarded with fellowships and lectureships and memberships in hitherto whites-only organizations, as well as with a great deal of money. He dined at the White House and counted among his friends some of the most eminent writers and intellectuals. But he also remained aloof from the community of black writers, many of whom might never have found print or voice if it hadn’t been for his pioneering work. As a member of the exclusive Century Club in Manhattan, he made no effort to recruit other black members (and strongly opposed the admission of women to the club). He steadily refused to provide blurbs for the books of younger black writers. When he was appointed to a tenured professorship at New York University, he insisted on teaching American literature, not black literature, even at a time when universities were responding to pressure to introduce black studies courses and departments. (His attitude may have sparked a backlash in black studies courses elsewhere. When the novelist-to-be Charles Johnson asked a librarian in the black studies program at Southern Illinois University for a copy of "Invisible Man," he was told that "Ralph Ellison is not a black writer.") Ellison defied the temper of the times, even resisting linguistic change when "Negro" gave way to "black." He explained, "I’m pretty close to black, but I’m pretty close to brown, too. In a cultural sense, the term 'Negro' tells me something about the mixture of African, European, and native-American styles which define me. … Black, in America, connotes a certain ideological stance. In that sense, I am not black. I am a Negro-American writer. I emphasize Negro because it refers specifically to an American cultural phenomenon." The resistance to ideology is central to Ellison’s approach to the world and his art. He had flirted with communism as a young man, though he never joined the Communist Party, and the experience left him soured. In Ellison’s view of things, after the initial successes of the civil rights struggle, the movement for equality and justice for black people had turned ideological. He remained radically individualistic – he opposed affirmative action programs, for example. In our current polarized political climate, he would probably be labeled a conservative. Although Ellison strongly opposed the cutback in federal social programs that began with the Reagan presidency, as Rampersad observes, "He blamed excessive liberalism for the rise of conservatism under Reagan." But Rampersad is not one to apply labels to Ellison, even the perhaps more stinging one of "one-book wonder." "Invisible Man" appeared in 1952, and for the next 42 years of his life, Ellison was pained by his inability to produce a second great novel and by the public’s curiosity about his work in progress. In 1967, he lost some manuscript pages of this second novel in a fire that destroyed his summer home. At first he downplayed the loss, saying that he had copies of what he'd done. But later, when he was asked about his slowness in producing the book, he began to blame the fire, and sometimes upped the estimate of pages lost to 365 or even 500. At his death, he left some 2,000 pages of manuscript, which were whittled down by his literary executor, John F. Callahan, into the 400-page novel "Juneteenth," published in 1999. His failure to produce elicited scathing comments from some younger writers. The poet Nikki Giovanni said, "as a writer Ellison is so much hot air, because he hasn’t had the guts to go on writing." But Rampersad suggests that Ellison suffered not so much from writer’s block as from an inability to focus, and often from the difficulty of keeping his material contemporary. "Invisible Man" was written out of the experience of a black man in Jim Crow America. But as the role of black citizens in the social and political dynamic of the United States changed in the 1950s and ’60s, reality often outpaced the imagination. At one time, the second novel was to hinge on a political assassination, but the assassinations of John Kennedy, Malcolm X, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. eclipsed Ellison’s fiction. It’s possible that Ellison was not really cut out to be a novelist. One pregnant observation came from Ernest Gaines, who found "Invisible Man" "a cold book. It’s more a collection of essays than a novel." And that may in fact be the problem that Ellison never really comprehended: that he was, like his namesake Ralph Waldo Emerson, essentially an essayist and not a novelist. Rampersad lauds Ellison for his "brave refusal of coarse, destructive forms of militancy, his eloquent embrace of a studied moderation, and his complex patriotism." But he also portrays him as a conflicted man, whose outward elegance – once he could afford it he was always expensively, conservatively dressed – concealed private demons. In his own encounter with Ellison, an interview conducted when Rampersad was working on his biography of Langston Hughes, Rampersad found him "chilly." "James Baldwin called him the angriest man he knew," Rampersad tells us. And after his death, Toni Morrison wrote that Ellison "saw himself as a black literary patrician, but at some level this was a delusion. It was simply his solution to that persistent problem black writers are confronted with: art and, or versus, identity. I don’t see tragedy in his predicament. I see a kind of sadness instead." In Rampersad’s hands, Ellison’s life emerges as one of the essential literary lives of the 20th century, as reflective of the times in which he lived as, say, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s was of the 1920s. Like Fitzgerald’s landmark novel, “The Great Gatsby,” Ellison’s “Invisible Man” is a product of a particular time. "Gatsby" epitomizes the 1920s just as "Invisible Man" is a document of the struggle against Jim Crow, but both are also works that are enduringly transcendent of time and place. Rampersad’s exemplary biography, written with a blend of deep sympathy and cool detachment, splendidly achieves the one true task of literary biography: It illuminates the life so that we may better understand what it produced.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Aberjhani

    THE ENIGMATIC GENIUS OF RALPH ELLISON Invisible Man, Shadow and Act, and Going to the Territory, all books by that quintessential twentieth century literary artist Ralph Waldo Ellison, remain towering masterworks of American literature for their penetrating explorations of racial identity, cultural complexity, and historical consequences in the United States. With Senator Barack Obama’s historic bid for the White House evolving daily into the possibility of an historic win, Ellison’s brilliantly THE ENIGMATIC GENIUS OF RALPH ELLISON Invisible Man, Shadow and Act, and Going to the Territory, all books by that quintessential twentieth century literary artist Ralph Waldo Ellison, remain towering masterworks of American literature for their penetrating explorations of racial identity, cultural complexity, and historical consequences in the United States. With Senator Barack Obama’s historic bid for the White House evolving daily into the possibility of an historic win, Ellison’s brilliantly charged writings, which first catapulted him to fame in the 1950s, are perhaps more relevant now than ever before, making Arnold Rampersad’s detailed biography of the great writer one of the best reads around during these very exciting times. Biographies of high-achieving African Americans have too often in the past fallen into one of two categories: those that romanticized their subjects as cultural heroes and those that condemned them as embarrassing villains. Fortunately, in Rampersad, we have a biographer who assigned himself the demanding task of providing as full and honest a portrait of his subject as he could. He does so with balanced assessments of both the publicly applauded Ellison who became a permanent fixture in world literature the moment he won the National Book Award for Invisible Man in 1953, and detailed sketches of the more private Ellison, who bemoaned his lack of children and wrestled for almost half a century with his inability to follow his initial literary victory with a second completed novel. As one might expect from any capable literary biographer, Arnold Rampersad provides readers with a highly engaging dramatic account of Ellison’s beginnings in Oklahoma City and his subsequent rise from demoralizing poverty and tragedy to international literary stardom. Much of the story of Ellison’s youth and his struggles to give birth to his identity as a writer is already well known, both from Ellison’s essays and Lawrence Jackson’s biography of the author: Ralph Ellison, Emergence of Genius. Even so, Rampersad’s own eloquent placement of Ellison within the greater contexts of American social history, and within such specific cultural movements as the Harlem Renaissance, shine an even more revealing light on the author. Moreover, high school and college students grappling with assignments to write papers on Invisible Man can duly thank Rampersad for his lucid dissection of the surrealistic, historical, and political elements that make the novel the uniquely brilliant American coming of age tale that it is. Because Invisible Man is a celebrated novel that has sold untold millions of copies in different languages around the world for more than half a century, the stories of cultural politics and extramarital dalliances surrounding its celebrity author may not stun readers too much. What might, though, while reading along, is the realization of just how much cultural and political influence Ellison came to wield based on the strength of that one mighty novel and a couple of volumes of essays. With his role as a founding participant in such organizations as the Commission on Educational Television, which in time would lead to the development of public broadcast stations, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Ellison occupied a position in which he could make or break the careers of various writers with his registered approval or disapproval of them. Oddly enough, despite the fact that he benefited greatly from the influence of such Harlem Renaissance giants as Richard Wright and Langston Hughes, he was not as inclined as they to champion younger upcoming black authors based on notions of racial solidarity or mentorship. Nevertheless, Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Ronald Reagan, both of whom awarded him presidential medals, so respected Ellison’s intellectual prominence that they invited him on a variety of occasions for both social and more official purposes to the White House. Such was his stature that he attended when he felt it important to do so but not when he believed other issues (such as a gathering of literary peers as opposed to one of political statesmen) mattered more. Of all the mysteries that may be attributed to the life of Ralph Ellison, possibly none are so beguiling as that of his second novel. As early as 1953, the public began to speculate on and query Ellison about his follow-up novel to Invisible Man, and that speculation continued right up until his death on April 16, 1994. First haunted by the pressure of completing a novel as successful as his first had been, Ellison’s 365-page work-in-progress was destroyed by a fire in 1967. Although he managed eventually to re-write more pages than he actually lost, the remaining four decades of Ellison’s life seemed almost dominated by one of the most enduring and over-publicized writing blocks in history. Yet, as Rampersad illustrates, his prominence did not diminish but continued to increase with teaching positions, speaking engagements, appointments to influential boards, and the ever-growing canonization of his one indisputable fiction masterpiece: Invisible Man. A version of his second novel, Juneteenth, edited by his friend John F. Callahan and reportedly culled from more than 2,000 pages, would not be published until 1999. The serious literary author in 2008 still obtains some degree of notable status when he or she wins a significant award but their influence is generally restricted to academic environments, Internet literary communities, or various geographical regions. It would be virtually impossible for a modern author to achieve the level of prestige and actual power Ellison commanded based on his intellectual gifts and pronouncements alone. (And yet such an observation makes one pay serious attention to the role bestselling books play in the careers of political leaders like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.) For that reason, Ellison’s life is indeed one worth celebrating for many decades to come and Rampersad’s biography of that life is a book that has earned its rightful place among the best and most important in the genre. By Author-Poet Aberjhani

  3. 4 out of 5

    John

    Arnold Rampersad is one of the finest biographers around and with this latest portrait he joins the ranks of Leon Edel, Richard Ellmann, and R.W.B Lewis. He is such a nuanced, elegant and detailed writer but the tidbits, and facts, and anecdotes and dates never feel like simply an accretion of information; you never get the sense this is a biographer that fell in love with research and didn’t know when to stop. Like an intricate tapestry or a complex jazz riff, each detail and story plays off, r Arnold Rampersad is one of the finest biographers around and with this latest portrait he joins the ranks of Leon Edel, Richard Ellmann, and R.W.B Lewis. He is such a nuanced, elegant and detailed writer but the tidbits, and facts, and anecdotes and dates never feel like simply an accretion of information; you never get the sense this is a biographer that fell in love with research and didn’t know when to stop. Like an intricate tapestry or a complex jazz riff, each detail and story plays off, reinforces, animates, reveals anew and reorders some aspect of Ellison’s personality as it converges into a harmonious whole: a stunning portrait of a man that lived for his art – and paid for it.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Anthony D'Juan Shelton

    Perhaps the best biography I've read since Peter Manso's book on Brando (over a thousand pages). The author, Arnold Rapmersad does not let Ellison off the hook by just calling him a genius. He dug into the ugliness of Ellison as well (his selfishness and capacity to be pompous, amongst other things). It almost made me hate Ellison...but it brought me back to life by the end of the book.

  5. 4 out of 5

    SassieFrassie

    The publication of INVISIBLE MAN bisects this biography. Those pages that recount Ellison's life before 1952 are fascinating; the book is a real page-turner in the early chapters. After recounting the publication of Ellison's masterpiece, however, the narrative grows somewhat stale. I do not attribute this flatness to any failing on Rampersad's part (his two-volume biography of Langston Hughes is excellent). Rather, Ellison's social aspirations, his endless awards, his (often token) participatio The publication of INVISIBLE MAN bisects this biography. Those pages that recount Ellison's life before 1952 are fascinating; the book is a real page-turner in the early chapters. After recounting the publication of Ellison's masterpiece, however, the narrative grows somewhat stale. I do not attribute this flatness to any failing on Rampersad's part (his two-volume biography of Langston Hughes is excellent). Rather, Ellison's social aspirations, his endless awards, his (often token) participation on elite committees and boards (inc. Colonial Williamsburg) are among the things that consumed him after INVISIBLE MAN was released. Reading about those aspects of his life was less interesting than learning about his early life in Oklahoma City, his days at Tuskegee or the crafting of his novel. Ellison's achievements as an essayist and his frustration in completing a second novel are the most compelling aspects of the biography's latter chapters. These chapters raise important questions about a writer's craft in general and Ellison's relationship to African Americans and younger African-American writers in particular. I greatly appreciated the care Rampersad took in portraying the evolving relationship between Ellison and his second wife Fanny and was interested to learn about the couple's residences in Harlem and elsewhere. Students of literature should find much to enjoy in this informative, thought-provoking biography.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Babydoll

    Arnold Rampersad has an impressive reputation for creating great works of biographies. He proved his talent with this intriguing and immensely detailed work, capturing the true essence and character of a great American writer.

  7. 4 out of 5

    John

    I'm not sure why just yet, but he reminds me of Fitzgerald. Obviously, both shared the common trait of genius...but I think there's more to it than that...

  8. 4 out of 5

    Kenneth

    I knew that Ralph Ellison, author of the masterpiece "Invisible Man., would be a fascinating person to read about. I read this book right after finally reading “Invisible Man”. What really surprised me is how well this book is written. Arnold Rampersad sure can write a biography. I am so used to writers getting some type of “man crush” on a public figure, drawing a bead on their subject’s life, and worshiping their subject. I like a writer who can discover the subject and portray him in 3-D, the I knew that Ralph Ellison, author of the masterpiece "Invisible Man., would be a fascinating person to read about. I read this book right after finally reading “Invisible Man”. What really surprised me is how well this book is written. Arnold Rampersad sure can write a biography. I am so used to writers getting some type of “man crush” on a public figure, drawing a bead on their subject’s life, and worshiping their subject. I like a writer who can discover the subject and portray him in 3-D, the good and the bad. Ellison was not a ‘simple man”, he was quite complex. He could be generous, open, and helpful, or at other times he could be tight, cold, and removed. Many people came to him for help and guidance, some fared well, and he would take them under his wing, others he would shut the door on. How Ellison became the man that he did, in the face of the odds and from his impoverished background is indeed impressive. He had to work very hard, not quit, and he himself found some very helpful sponsors He did not become embittered and saw the rise of the “negro” as being a path of working into the mainstream of American society, and not forming a separate Black society. I can see where in the 1960’s and 1970’s the State Department loved using him to promote US interests and image overseas. I like to be in the habit of reading the best biography that I can find on fascinating people: Einstein, Steve Jobs, Ulysses S. Grant, Roberto Clemente, etc. . My reading queue is too long, and my time too short to have to read 3 or 4 books on a person to get the real measure of them. Here in this book, I believe that I found the best telling of the story of the life of Ralph Ellison. Arnold Rampersad is a biographer that I place on the same level as David McCullough and Edward Jean Smith. This is perhaps the best biography that I have read in 2018.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Melinda

    I read this biography in preparation for re-reading Invisible Man for book club. I’m glad I read it because it gave me a new and deeper knowledge of Ralph Ellison, the man and the artist. This was one of the best biographies by Rampersad that I’ve read. This is not a book to read if you’re not ready to commit to entering life with Ralph Ellison. It was interesting to read & learn so much of Ellison as the man who gave life to the Invisible Man. It was amazing to learn that he never received a dip I read this biography in preparation for re-reading Invisible Man for book club. I’m glad I read it because it gave me a new and deeper knowledge of Ralph Ellison, the man and the artist. This was one of the best biographies by Rampersad that I’ve read. This is not a book to read if you’re not ready to commit to entering life with Ralph Ellison. It was interesting to read & learn so much of Ellison as the man who gave life to the Invisible Man. It was amazing to learn that he never received a diploma from university at Tuskegee...a fact that bothered Ralph for the rest of his life because his contemporaries, male & female, had college diplomas. The question posed by many of his contemporaries: would he have ever completed his second novel. No definitive answer has ever been made into the public arena. As described by Rampersad, Ellison had difficulty forming friendships due to his inability to befriend someone warts and all. His relations with other Black writers were constantly changing and those with younger Black writers with few exceptions were nearly nonexistent. The cause of that was he had a difficult time accepting the next generation’s style and subject matter. All of his idols in the literary field were white which was an important factor in not being able to develop sustainable relations with the younger generation of Black writers.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Will

    "Cheever, who loved Bellow, as Bellow loved Cheever, perhaps noted the irony of a black man [Ellison] complaining to a WASP that their friend, a Jew, did not appreciate purity of blood—in a dog [Ellison's 'Tuckatarby']."

  11. 4 out of 5

    Derek Shouba

    Solid biography of a great author.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Jesse

    Vastly researched, this fascinatng biography about a writer who defined African-American Fiction for the last fifty years with the publication of his 1952 novel "Invisible Man" shows how Ellison went from a staunch communist to a strict patriotic individualist who defended the Vietnam War and LBJ's policies. He also helped create the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for Humanities as well as help bring about public brodcasting. Yet, even with all his accomplishments, El Vastly researched, this fascinatng biography about a writer who defined African-American Fiction for the last fifty years with the publication of his 1952 novel "Invisible Man" shows how Ellison went from a staunch communist to a strict patriotic individualist who defended the Vietnam War and LBJ's policies. He also helped create the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for Humanities as well as help bring about public brodcasting. Yet, even with all his accomplishments, Ellison could be a frustrating figure. He was a brilliant writer who, in effect, belittled his own race by failing to forgive some of their intellectual shortcomings. To paraphrase Toni Morrison's great quote: he liked speaking for us, but he didn't like being one of us. And that really sums up Ellison as a person. After Invisible Man, he changed in a way that really hurt his chances of completing his long-awaited second novel: he drifted away from, or rather isolated himself from, black culture. And it was that black culture, in which Ellison was immersed, living in Harlem, from which IM mined the specific to convey the universal. Thus, when Ellison pulled away from that culture he began to drift further away from his ultimate goal, writing another great novel. It was disconcerting to read that Ellison actively campaigned to keep women out of The Century (an exclusive New York club), and that he subversively sent a letter to the MacAuthur Foundation hinting at James Alan McPherson's personal unraveling in a subtle attempt to persuade them away from granting McPherson a fellowship (this, eerily reflected Dr. Bledsoe in IM, whom Ellison defended later in life)(and, McPherson got the fellowship and won a Pulitzer). In many respects, and this was mentioned in the book, he behaved as a southern white man would, effectivly saying: 350 years of slavery be damned, if you're not as brilliant as me then your writing deserves to be shunned. Conversely, Ellison could only assume this pose because he really was as smart as those southern whites; and, in ways, that was very inspiring, seeing Ellison's immense effort at self-education. There is another biography of Ellison written by Lawrence Jackson that covers his life up to the publication of IM which I have yet to read and am ignorant of its merits. But if you want a view of his life, as a whole, then this is the book for you.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Pat aka Tygyr

    When I went to College in the late 60's - early 70's, "Invisible Man" by Ralph Ellison was required reading. His novel was about race relations. The different ways people saw blacks vs how they saw whites in society. The book made an impression on me, and when I found this biography I had to read it. From a poor Oklahoma family, to a black college where he felt alone and always in need of money, to New York and his life there, is Ralph Ellison's life story. He never finished college. It wasn't u When I went to College in the late 60's - early 70's, "Invisible Man" by Ralph Ellison was required reading. His novel was about race relations. The different ways people saw blacks vs how they saw whites in society. The book made an impression on me, and when I found this biography I had to read it. From a poor Oklahoma family, to a black college where he felt alone and always in need of money, to New York and his life there, is Ralph Ellison's life story. He never finished college. It wasn't until his late 40's early 50's that he earned a reasonable living, mostly from lectures, serving on literary boards, and even without a diploma he was hired to teach at different colleges or given grants to help him have time to write another novel. His life was rich with the people he met and worked with. He met with Lyndon Johnson and attended a dinner at the White House. Even if you have never heard of Ralph Ellison or read his book, this is a book full of the history of his time and what his life was like going from poor to well-known and what that cost him personally. Some of his own race, in his later days said he was a sell out. He was integrating into the main stream and not being Black. I really enjoyed reading his story. Learning more about him and what influenced his novel. Learning how he lived and who he knew and talked to. Who supported him through his many tough financial times, and how he finally got to be well known. Plus the time of his life was so rich with our own country's history - segregation, civil rights, the difference between living in the South or the North as a Black man, and even how he was treated overseas vs in his own country. Just as I found his novel to have stayed with me all these years, reading the history (some of that history I lived through as well) of his time was very meaningful and educational.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Alfred

    Finished this meticulously thorough biography, a finalist for the National Book Award, at 5:54 am this morning. The line describing Ellison's death on page 565, right near the end, made me cry: "On Saturday April 16, with the music of Bach playing softly, and with Fanny snuggled tightly against Ralph on the hospital bed, Callahan saw a single tear roll slowly down his cheek. Then he was gone." Having been overwhelmed by Ellison's novel, "Invisible Man," in college, I was one of many intrigued by Finished this meticulously thorough biography, a finalist for the National Book Award, at 5:54 am this morning. The line describing Ellison's death on page 565, right near the end, made me cry: "On Saturday April 16, with the music of Bach playing softly, and with Fanny snuggled tightly against Ralph on the hospital bed, Callahan saw a single tear roll slowly down his cheek. Then he was gone." Having been overwhelmed by Ellison's novel, "Invisible Man," in college, I was one of many intrigued by his 45-year saga to finish a second novel. The story of his life, from poor son of a widowed mother (his dad died at age 3) in Oklahoma City, to his rise as amongst the greatest African-American writers ever, is always interesting, but at times as frustrating as Ellison's own artistic constipation. This is less a critique of Rampersad's book, which was very well-researched and artfully told, as the plain facts of Ellison's life. There's way too much stuff in this book to convey in a goodreads review, but I found the artist's relationship with a panoply of fellow artists - Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, Robert Penn Warren, Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, Gordon Parks, and John Cheever, to name a few - most compelling. The theme that most riveted me was Ellison's lifelong desire to keep company with the white, aristocratic American "establishment" and his subsequent contentious relationship with the more aggressive black Civil Rights-oriented operators of the '60s and '70s. Overall, an excellent book, but not for those with a half-assed interest in Ralph Ellison. As for what I learned, well, many things, but naturally there's one lesson that's most glaring - get to work and finish that damn book (or whatever your big life-project is), because at some point beyond your control, you will die.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Dave

    Ellison is one of my favorite writers, and in preparation for my date with destiny (i.e. plunging into Three Days Before the Shooting), I wanted to get an idea of his life beyond what I'd gleaned in my years of studying Invisible Man and his essays. Rampersad doesn't hesitate in presenting the good, the ugly, and the boring. And the boring, I think, is an important component of any trustworthy biography. Most people, including those who merit a professionally authored biography, are not always s Ellison is one of my favorite writers, and in preparation for my date with destiny (i.e. plunging into Three Days Before the Shooting), I wanted to get an idea of his life beyond what I'd gleaned in my years of studying Invisible Man and his essays. Rampersad doesn't hesitate in presenting the good, the ugly, and the boring. And the boring, I think, is an important component of any trustworthy biography. Most people, including those who merit a professionally authored biography, are not always smiting dragons and pushing big red buttons with the word "Danger" superimposed over a mushroom cloud. A lot of life occurs in the minutia of organizations, familial correspondence, and finances. At least, those are three examples from Rampersad's book that stood out to me as I got a glimpse of the curmudgeonly quotidian Ellison. For those reasons, I wouldn't recommend this book for anyone not seriously invested in Ellison's work (although, I can't figure out why anyone not so invested would consider reading this in the first place). But for those few of us who sometimes mumble Ellison quotes in our sleep, this one seems essential reading.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Bookmarks Magazine

    Arnold Rampersad, professor of English and humanities at Stanford, makes the most of his access to the papers of Ralph Ellison. He sifted through mountains of previously unexamined documents for the details that give readers a glimpse__warts and all__of the man behind Invisible Man. Rampersad's experience with biography runs deep, which explains his ability to give us an honest account of Ellison's life. Ralph Ellison is engaging and far-reaching, if long. It also balances revealing anecdotes ab Arnold Rampersad, professor of English and humanities at Stanford, makes the most of his access to the papers of Ralph Ellison. He sifted through mountains of previously unexamined documents for the details that give readers a glimpse__warts and all__of the man behind Invisible Man. Rampersad's experience with biography runs deep, which explains his ability to give us an honest account of Ellison's life. Ralph Ellison is engaging and far-reaching, if long. It also balances revealing anecdotes about Ellison's views on Black militarism and his relationships, for example, with an examination of the author's place in American letters and his lasting influence on generations of writers. Readers may not think as highly of Ellison when they're done, but they will come to know the man.This is an excerpt from a review published in Bookmarks magazine.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Eric

    This dude wrote one of my top ten favorite books of forever( Invisible Man)! So I was sadden to learn how confused and self hating he was! This Bio was a great read but utterly sad. A Great reflection of how America can build a Black person up while destroying them at the same time. Its like Elison wrote Invisible Man and then died, rising to come back to life as the type of Black man that he originally despised so early in his life and that he created in Invisible Man as "college president Dr. This dude wrote one of my top ten favorite books of forever( Invisible Man)! So I was sadden to learn how confused and self hating he was! This Bio was a great read but utterly sad. A Great reflection of how America can build a Black person up while destroying them at the same time. Its like Elison wrote Invisible Man and then died, rising to come back to life as the type of Black man that he originally despised so early in his life and that he created in Invisible Man as "college president Dr. Bledsoe" How ironic

  18. 5 out of 5

    Tishon

    One of the best biographies I've ever read. Unsentimental, the book avoids mythologizing Ellison. Rather, it shows him in all his triumphs and failures. You'll fall in and out of love with Ellison numerous times throughout the book, which, I think, is a testament to Rampersad's ability to avoid romanticizing his life. Highly recommended.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Frank

    I'm teaching Invisible Man this semester again, and I read this book in preparation for doing so. I really enjoyed it. Though some have read this book as an all-out attack on Ellison, I thought that it was pretty fair to him—acknowledging his great achievement and legacy while also casting an unsparing light on his flaws. It will be valuable background for me as I teach the novel.

  20. 4 out of 5

    TKTE

    This is what a great biography should do. It's always tough when one of your heroes are brought down so low. But there's always gotta be a reason that pushes someone toward genius, no? Invisible Man is still one of my favorites though.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Ralphe Wiggins

    Fascinating National Book Award winner for his novel Invisible Man. With the assistance of WPA Ellison lifted himself from poverty in Oklahoma City to being the toast of white American power brokers. As he aged while trying to finish his second novel, I could relate to his struggles.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Melissa

    It was fine. VERY in depth biography. Interesting figure, but I just felt like the story was too long to maintain my attention.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Marcia

    Masterful and incredibly well-researched book on Ellison and his times. At times though, Rampersad seems like he is apologizing for the writer's misogyny, misanthropy and general grumpus-ness!

  24. 4 out of 5

    Doris Raines

    This. Is. A. Great. Book. Said. Doris.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Daryl Grigsby

    just started this - the travails of black writers personified

  26. 4 out of 5

    Ferentz

    I've finally gotten around to this one. Is anyone else out there reading along?

  27. 4 out of 5

    Dewan Keesee

    His account gives a clear look and one of the most complex personalities in American literature.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Dana Vincent

    Just started...

  29. 4 out of 5

    Sarah

    It has been hard to stick to this book, although it reads well and is very illuminating, especially concerning the nuances of the social contexts/constructs Ellison grew under.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Sister

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