- Ralph Ellison: Emergence of Genius
Lawrence Jackson's detailed and excellent biography shows the trajectory of Ellison's career, his rise from essayist and editor to celebrated novelist. Unable to publish a second novel after the award winning Invisible Man (1952), Ellison, who died in 1994, was ultimately a reclusive figure. Limited to the period immediately following the publication of Invisible Man, the biography begins with Ellison's family background and a social history of blacks in Oklahoma, particularly Oklahoma City, where Ellison spent his boyhood. Born 1914 and named Ralph Waldo Ellison, after the American poet Emerson, Ellison was exposed to the blues and classical music. His primary intellectual foundations began at Tuskegee, where as a trumpet player he pursued a degree in music.
Minimally concerned with Ellison's personal relationships and marriages to Rose Aramita Poindexter and later Fanny McConnell, Jackson stresses the intellectual [End Page 185] life, especially Ellison's interactions with Langston Hughes and Richard Wright. Ellison's literary and philosophical influences included Hemingway, Freud, T. S. Eliot, and André Malraux, and as a participant in the literary life of New York City during the 1930s and 1940s, Ellison became aware of the international currents of his age. In New York, he initially pursued apprenticeships in the fine arts with such figures as Augusta Savage and Richmond Barthé. Most important, Ellison became a reviewer, essayist, and short story writer before deciding to embark on the writing of Invisible Man. He was associated with the left-wing journal New Masses and Negro Quarterly, the African American publication for which he served as managing editor beginning in 1942. Jackson shows Ellison's maturation and severed alliances with Hughes and Wright, both of whom drifted away from the left, as did Ellison in 1947. Other black intellectuals or writers associated with the left were Theodore Ward, Horace Cayton, and C. L. R. James. Ellison was drawn to the Communist Party and the left for political, social, and intellectual reasons, despite the left's problematic and varying position on black culture and cultural nationalism.
Based in New York, Ellison was exposed to musical developments in jazz. He attended the Apollo Theater, the Savoy Ballroom, and Café Society Downtown, and although he admired such figures as pianist Teddy Wilson, Count Basie, and Duke Ellington, he did not praise Dizzy Gillespie's Bebop, but considered its use of Afro-Cuban influences as a "strategic mistake." Ellison was more concerned with the "homegrown idiom" (359), a point of view held by contemporary writers whom he influenced such as moderates Albert Murray and Stanley Crouch.
The development of Ellison as a novelist, who witnessed the success of contemporaries Chester Himes and James Baldwin, occupies the latter portion of the biography, which details the process of writing the best-selling novel Invisible Man and the generally praiseworthy critical reactions to it, African American and left-wing critics offering less complimentary responses. Because of its limited time frame, the biography leaves unanswered the nagging question concerning Ellison's drought period, although the unfinished second novel Juneteenth (1999) was published posthumously, assembled by John Callahan. Readers might also be concerned with Ellison's stance and reputation during the sixties Black Arts Movement, questions that should be answered in a biography of such an important writer.