- Frequencies of Memory: A Eulogy for Ralph Waldo Ellison (March 1, 1914––April 16, 1994)
Mrs. Ellison, Mr. Ellison, friends and neighbors of Ralph’s. Michael, you’re taking advantage. I can hear Ralph saying, “For God’s sake, Harper,” with that long melodious round a of his, “don’t set John up like that.” And if he were here, he’d chuckle over being the excuse for a little banter between old friends. He’d be glad there was kidding and laughter giving some relief to our grief. Remember Ralph on the comic in American life. “If we laugh at each other, we won’t kill each other,” he said. Remember Ralph on the blues as a lyrical way to embrace and transcend pain. And remember Ralph on form.
“The characters are good and the stories are good,” he’d say once in awhile about his novel-in-progress. “But Ah don’t know about the damn form,” he’d add, both his formal pronunciation and the hint of a drawl he slipped into every so often, impeccable and complimentary in that complex American vernacular he loved so.
Listening to what the other speakers have said and remembering we’re gathered at Trinity Cemetery on Riverside Drive above the Hudson in sight of the George Washington Bridge, a landscape Ralph loved and put into his writing in so many clear and camouflaged ways, I feel his presence intensely and palpably, as if, passing on, he’s turned into a seabird now swooping in from the bridges out beyond the Statue of Liberty to explore the river. Here and now the memories and images flood in as if borne toward the Hudson on a heroic tide rushing through the harbor from the Atlantic where Ralph made so many voyages ferrying arms to Murmansk and other ports in Allied Europe in his Merchant Marine days during World War II. I hear and feel the touch of his voice, his gestures. Mostly, I hear the rhythms and refrains of his voice:
“For God’s sake.”
“For God’s sake, Fanny.”
(“For God’s sake” was to Ralph what “mother-fucker” was to a later generation, an all purpose phrase: Expletive, term of scorn or endearment, it did duty as noun or verb, conjunction or interjection, though his fidelity to the parts of speech was such [End Page 298] that, unlike a later generation, he rarely used his signature phrase to perform the proper functions of adverb or adjective.)
“So it goes,” he’d say so often to mark a transition, signal the end of a telephone conversation or give cover to a sudden dreamy mood he sought to conceal from his companions.
“Well John,” he’d find some reason to say almost every time we saw each other, “it’s a crazy country.” He spoke those words, another of his signature phrases, with the wonder and mischievousness of a schoolboy as well as a man and a writer of immense gifts and very American ambition. In conversation as well as on the page, Ralph Ellison made certain words his own. Chaos was one, complexity another, not to mention fluidity or possibility, his touchstones for American democratic promise, usually used in relation to what he called the “social hierarchy.” Calling the country—his country—crazy was Ralph’s pledge of allegiance to complexity, his artist’s declaration of independence from the tyranny of ideology, and perhaps his Negro American’s anti-stereotypical Amendment to the Bill of Rights. Like his Invisible Man, Ralph affirmed “the principle” on the page and in conversation, while he resisted the reduction of art, personality or, for that matter, politics, to categories or formulas. With everything he had, Ralph fought any diminishment of personality or the novel, that democratic literary form to which he was so fiercely dedicated that in the last years of his life he sacrificed almost everything to a work-in-progress which, like the crazy country he loved and struggled with, wouldn’t quite be finished.
There will be time, all too much time I fear just beginning to sense the timeless quality Dick Lewis talked...