The Life and Legacy of Ralph Ellison In 1952, Ralph Ellison introduced a new kind of black protagonist: The Invisible Man was educated and self-aware, and had a broad intellectual curiosity. He was invisible, Ellison wrote, but not insubstantial. Arnold Rampersad has written a new biography of the complex writer.

The Life and Legacy of Ralph Ellison

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

In 1952, Ralph Ellison introduced a new kind of black protagonist: educated, self-aware, with a broad intellectual curiosity - the "Invisible Man" -invisible, but as Ellison himself noted, hardly insubstantial. Ellison's legacy is potent and still controversial.

At a time when black nationalists and black arts movement were gaining strength, he was denounced as a militant integrationist and even as an Uncle Tom. But his search for a cohesive and nuanced understanding of black culture and American culture still resonates today.

Arnold Rampersad is a - excuse me - Arnold Rampersad is a leading scholar and biographer of both Langston Hughes and Jackie Robinson. And he has written a new biography of Ralph Ellison, illuminating the complex and ultimately sad life of a brilliant man.

Later in this hour, we'll talk with Alan Schwarz about allegations of racial bias on the basketball court, but first, Ralph Ellison. If you have questions about the life and legacy of Ralph Ellison and "Invisible Man," give us a call, 800-989-8255, 800-989-talk. Email us You can also join the conversation on our blog,

And with us in Studio 3A is Arnold Rampersad. He is the Sarah Hart Kimball Professor in the Humanities at Stanford University and a member of the English department there. His book is called "Ralph Ellison: A Biography." Nice to have you with us today.

Professor ARNOLD RAMPERSAD (Stanford University): Well, thank you. I'm very happy to be here.

CONAN: And as I've mentioned, you've written about a number of revered figures in black culture: Jackie Robinson, Langston Hughes, W.E.B DuBois. Where does Ralph Ellison fit in that pantheon?

Prof. RAMPERSAD: A very interesting question. He doesn't fit absolutely comfortably next to Langston Hughes because - although Langston Hughes had helped him a great deal when Ralph first came to New York in 1936 and supported him for many, many years as a fledgling writer, eventually Ellison, who had Olympian standards that grew only taller, I think, as he became more successful, ultimately came to despise Hughes as an artist, to think of him as unimaginative, repetitive, pandering to the masses.

But if you look at, you know, the achievement of "Invisible Man," it's a considerable work of art. I think it's likely to continue to be read for a long time. As long as race is a problem in America books of this kind and certainly this book, I think, will offer some guide to the minefield of race relations.

He in a way - in a way he supplanted Richard Wright as the number one African-American writer of fiction, and in some ways Toni Morrison has supplanted him. But all of them wrote in works I regard as timeless - "Native Son," "Black Boy," "Invisible Man," "Song of Solomon," "Sula" - you know, there's a place for everyone at the highest table. And while he would have questioned the rights of some of them to be at the table, that's where he belongs, I think.

CONAN: Like Jackie Robinson, he forced Americans to think in a different way. He won - when he won the book award, the National Book Award in 1953 - of course Jackie Robinson was - broke the color line 60 years ago - he would have not enjoyed that comparison either, I don't think.

Prof. RAMPERSAD: I don't think so. But you're right in pointing how - pointing out how the appearance of "Invisible Man" in '52 and winning of the prize, beating out Ernest Hemingway, for example, in '53, is really a part of a pattern of change in American culture that in a sense Jackie Robinson inaugurates in 1947 and culminate when he joins the Dodgers and culminates in '54 with the Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education. I mean, that's the first stage of what will be, of course, a long and sometimes turbulent voyage, you know, of African-American and American history.

CONAN: You were the fist scholar to be given complete access to Ellison's papers. What did you learn that you didn't know?

Prof. RAMPERSAD: Well, I started out thinking that Ellison was sort of squeaky clean, again, an Olympian figure. He placed a great deal of emphasis on authority, his authority, his high standards. What I did not expect to find was the fact that underneath it, very close underneath the exterior was a tremendous rage, hurt, I imagine at times despair, as well as, of course, a tremendous will to succeed, to assert the ideals he believed in that were unpopular, whether they were popular or unpopular, he persisted in supporting and putting them forward.

I was surprised how at every stage of his life - from his birth in Oklahoma in 1913, where he lived for about 20 years and Tuskegee and then coming to New York City and becoming a writer and so on, at every stage - he really fought all sorts of demons, really, and a lot of it having to do with his childhood - the death of his father when he was three, the abject poverty in which he grew up with his mother; and his desire to succeed, to reclaim his father's legacy, if you like.

CONAN: Yeah. And he got out of Oklahoma City by way of the Tuskegee Institute…


CONAN: …and yet this is a place - it's not the - he did pull himself up by his bootstraps but this was a place he absolutely detested.

Prof. RAMPERSAD: He did detest it. You have to say that. For Oklahoma City, he would never have gone back, I think, had it not been the fact that he could go back as a conquering hero, showing the people there that he had succeeded.

Tuskegee - he also went back only after he had won the National Book Award. Again, there he had to be - he had to show them that he had succeeded, which tells you something about the, you know, the tension with which he lived on the daily basis, but also the extent to which his stay in both in Oklahoma City and in Tuskegee was attended by a lot of unhappiness, poverty, misunderstanding, insecurities that unfortunately have to be brought out in the biography.

CONAN: We're talking with Arnold Rampersad, the author, most recently, of a new biography of Ralph Ellison, titled simply "Ralph Ellison: A Biography." If you'd like to join us, 800-989-8255, 800-989-talk. Email is

And let's begin with Angela. Angela is with us on the line from South Bend in Indiana.

ANGELA (Caller): Yes.


ANGELA: Hi. Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

ANGELA: I would just like to say that I read "Invisible Man" after I read "Native Son" by Richard Wright, and I have to say that the effect in reading the books in tandem was - it has a lot of discussion among my friends. But I just think that it's very interesting how on both books, I think, hit on the experience of African-Americans in this country, you know, back in the time period of the '40s and '50s, that context, but also today; it spoke to the black experience today and how are they are just completely different.

You know, in one case I noticed that the character in (unintelligible) Bigger Thomas, he was visible at all times. And I think that added to his pressure in living everyday life in Chicago, whereas of course Ellison's character, who is nameless, is invisible in essence and he's striving to be seen as a human being in his nation and not just as a problem or a worker or a nameless label.

CONAN: Arnold, that's a pretty quick critique there.

Prof. RAMPERSAD: Yeah, quick critique and an excellent one. Yes, I mean, the novels are linked but what jumps to my mind as a biographer is the fact that Wright was the person who set Ellison on the course to becoming a writer, asked him to write his first short story, which was published posthumously - but still, that's how he got started.

CONAN: So he would have written "Invisible Man" fully conscious of what Richard Wright had written?

Prof. RAMPERSAD: Oh, he was very close to Richard Wright for several years -close as you and I are right now. Yes. But also - and at some point, he did not want to write like Richard Wright. He had been writing like that in his fledgling years. He would have found Bigger Thomas too inarticulate a central character for his own novel. He would have found Wright, you know, a powerful but crude. I mean, he did find him, you know, powerful but crude.

Eventually the men - Richard Wright went off to exile, in a self-imposed exile in Paris. Ellison stayed here. Their friendship petered out. Ellison was always quick to deny that he learned much from Richard Wright, but that is not the case. And Angela is right in connecting the two novels because they both come out a common pool of experience as it is represented, you know, by two significant African-American and American writers.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Angela. We appreciate it.

ANGELA: Okay. Thank you.

CONAN: It's interesting that you mentioned the differences between him and Richard Wright. That first short story he wrote was about - based on his adventures hoboing a couple of days when he did, in fact, escaped his home in Oklahoma City on his way to Tuskegee with the help of a sort of hobo mentor. And there's this odd - what did he think of this idea of authenticity? I mean, he certainly was looking for it in that first short story, yet "Invisible Man" - a different take, completely.

Prof. RAMPERSAD: Yes. I mean, I think, there's a gap between the story "Hymie's Bull" that was subsequently published by John Callahan in his edition of Ellison's short stories called "Flying Home." It's a different - that's heavily influenced, I think, by Ernest Hemingway. It has a kind of detached manner and so on.

Ellison had not yet worked through a number of things that he would work through. One would be a pro-communist phase where his aesthetic is dominated by, you know, radical socialism. And then an emancipation from that form of what he would regard as bondage to his - creating much more complicated characters in much more complicated fictional situation. He became very much interested in myth and symbol and allegory.

And what he set out to do in "Invisible Man" - in addition to writing a novel which he hoped would be the great American novel - he also wanted to do two things. One, to tell a story of the black everyman, but as Angela had said, I mean, this is an educated every man. And at the same time, to write a story that was universal, absolutely universal that would resound across countries and so-called races.

CONAN: Our guest is Arnold Rampersad. His new book "Ralph Ellison: A Biography." 800-989-8255, if you'd care to join us. 800-989-TALK. Send us an email,

I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

We're talking today about the great author and intellectual Ralph Ellison with his biographer, Arnold Rampersad. He had unprecedented access to Ellison's private papers for his biography. To read an account of Ralph Ellison's formative years, you can go to our Web site at

And we want to hear from you. Ellison was seen as everything from a visionary to an elitist and ultimately, as an enigma. What's your experience of him? Have you read "Invisible Man"? 800-989-8255 - 800-989-TALK. Email And you can check out our blog,

And let me ask you, one of the things that surprised me in reading about this book was the extent to which Ellison tended to isolate himself. You talked about a couple of friendships already that blossomed early on his life and soured.

Prof. RAMPERSAD: He did isolate himself. And he certainly isolated himself at a crucial time in his life and his career from younger African-American writers in the 1960s, '70s. And then on going onwards, he seemed to lose interest in what the younger people were doing when, in fact, that could have been a great stimulus for his own creativity.

CONAN: One exception seemed to Ernest Gaines.

Prof. RAMPERSAD: Yes - yes, but in fact, I have spoken to Ernest Gaines, and he does not - he doesn't emphasize too much how the influence of Ellison on his life. And he, in fact, told me - as I say in the book - that he found the collection of essays and interviews "Shadow and Act" - which Ralph published in 1964 - to be much more interesting, much more powerful than "Invisible Man" itself.

CONAN: That's interesting. In a way, after his enormous success in the 1950s, there was subsequent movement that was greatly disappointed in Ralph Ellison, it seemed.

Prof. RAMPERSAD: Oh, yeah. I would say that starting in 1965, he's really caught up in a kind of maelstrom, and he absolutely abhors any idea of racial separatism. He opposed any idea of cultural - extreme cultural nationalism, essentialism. And he will not budge. He will not give an inch. He will not, in any way, cater to, you know, what he regarded as new trends. He didn't even want to drop the term Negro. He was - he said he was proud to be a Negro.

In a way, I mean, in a very - in a distinctly genuine way, Ralph Ellison was what one calls a race man. But he had an - a conception of black humanity that involved dignity and forbearance, as well as a capacity to produce wonderful art, as in jazz and the blues.

CONAN: Yeah. And we forget that we think of him, primarily, as a writer - also a musician, a composer, a sculptor involved in many of the arts, yet the picture you paint of him later in life is not a pretty picture. It's a man who - various words, there were blowhard, pompous, pretentious comes into it. A man who might take too many drinks and be the - suddenly the loudest voice at the table.

Prof. RAMPERSAD: Well, I don't know how to account for that. I would say, though, it is tied in with the idea of Ellison pride. His mother warned him about, you know, the sin of pride, which she associated with his side of the family. I could go into, you know, why he would have a certain amount of pride in his family.

But I think there's a certain degree of arrogance, of a need to be exclusive. He believed in high standards, but - and I think he was somewhat intolerant in exercising, you know, his evaluations of other people. So yes, in many ways, he was an honored man and a popular man in certain circles. In other circles, he was a rather cold man and uncharitable, almost.

But I keep coming back to, you know, the idea that we don't really go to the artists for, you know, for the facts of their lives as much as for the art - the gift of art that they have left us. And in his case, the gift is considerable. Even the people, the younger black writers of the '60s and '70s who found him very hard to take, and whom he - whose work he himself, sort of, spurned, even they realized that in reading his essays they were dealing with a kindred spirit. And in reading "Invisible Man," they could learn a tremendous amount about art and the craft of fiction from him.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. This is Stephanie - Stephanie with us from Pennsylvania.

STEPHANIE (Caller): Hi. Thank you so much for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

STEPHANIE: I wanted to discuss a little further his separation from Richard Wright. And I'm wondering - I know he had written an essay saying he couldn't be a party to him anymore - how he felt about Richard Wright's derogatory stance against writers like Zora Neale Hurston and Nella Larsen and even later, Toni Morrison.

Prof. RAMPERSAD: Richard Wright's…

STEPHANIE: How Ralph Ellison felt about Richard Wright taking a negative stance towards those great women writers.

Prof. RAMPERSAD: Well, I would have to say that he would have shared Wright's opinion about the writers. In fact, if one goes through Ellison's body of work, public and private, you do not find much praise. You hardly find any praise at all for black writers, male or female. But I do make a point in the book how when the great wave of women's - black women's writing surfaced - say around in 1970 - and reached its highest point with the awarding of the Nobel Prize to Toni Morrison, Ellison had no part of that and he wanted no part of it. He did not understand it and he did not sympathize with the writers. And that was, I think, an enormous loss for him - an enormous loss.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Particularly, Hurston, you said - I forget who you quoted in the book, but you said they thought this would be something that would be very attractive to him and he just seemingly rejected it out of hand.

Prof. RAMPERSAD: It was either R.W.B Lewis - I was quoting from Yale or Nathan Scott.

CONAN: I think it was Nathan Scott. Yes.

Prof. RAMPERSAD: Nathan Scott, the professor of theology and literature from the University of Virginia, and before that Chicago. He said, you know, he tried to interest Ellison in Zora Neale Hurston, thinking that, you know, they both love the blues and so on, and folk ways. But no, as far as Ellison was concerned - Ellison had his pantheon, the pantheon of great writers, and he - and there was no black American, no black at all in that pantheon. They could never make it. We're talking about Dostoyevsky, T.S. Eliot, Hemingway, Faulkner, Andre Malraux, Joyce. I mean, it's a reasonable pantheon.

CONAN: They're pretty good writers.

Prof. RAMPERSAD: Yeah. They're pretty good writers. But he made a distinction that I thought - I sometimes think was unfortunate, or is unfortunate between ancestors who - to whom he looked up with pride, and relatives - like Richard Wright and Langston Hughes - for whom he had really very, very little time.

CONAN: Stephanie, thank you.

STEPHANIE: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Here's an email we got from Akuwa(ph) in Rochester, New York.

Ellison influenced me in many ways. I remained awed and grateful. I journeyed to Paris, extended my art from poetry to sculpture, and continue to hope to create as compellingly as he did. Of course, he stands today - and his body of work and the breadth of his work - as a model for many.

Prof. RAMPERSAD: Absolutely. A lot of the book deals with his foibles and so on, and people say this is sad. But I still believe - I believe that "Invisible Man" will last a very, very, very long time. And I believe that "Shadow and Act," those essays and interviews - and there's nothing like it in American culture. It's a landmark work.

CONAN: Let's speak with Lois - Lois with us on the line from Portland, Oregon.

LOIS (Caller): Hi. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Yeah.

LOIS: I'm excited about a lot of Ellison's writings, but I'm, in particular these days, thinking about "Invisible Man," because here in Portland we have a great organization called Literary Art. And I'll be leaving, sort of, an open-community seminar for six weeks in which we're going to be doing a close reading of "Invisible Man" later in May and through June.

And one the things that's great about it is there's been a lot of publicity around Professor Rampersad's new biography. But I'm a little nervous because I'm always trying to encourage readers to not believe that they'd need to know the biography of the author to understand the work, and particularly, I think, with minority authors.

People tend to read them more as almost ethnographic studies than as works of literature. So I guess, I'd love to hear Professor Rampersad comment on, what the - this new biography helps us do in terms of reading the novel? In what ways does it change his own reading of "Invisible Man"?

Prof. RAMPERSAD: Well, I have had various people read the book and say that -perhaps it's immodest of me to say it - and they tell me that they will, from this moment on, read "Invisible Man" differently. What I try to do is to go stage by stage through the years as "Invisible Man" is being written, and to look at the choices, the artistic choices and thematic choices that Ellison makes and relate them to, you know, to his serious intellectual concerns.

This is a man who made himself into a first class intellectual in the - in liberal Western tradition, and he wanted to bring all of that learning and philosophizing, if you like, into this masterpiece that he believes he was writing.

I would like to think that if you read the biography, certainly, in those chapters, you would find useful illumination of the novel. I strongly recommend it to you.

CONAN: Lois, all I can do is give you the benefit of my experience. I read "Invisible Man" more years ago than I care to think about and had not revisited it. And after reading the biography, I really want to go back and read it again.

LOIS: Yeah, it's a great book. I mean, it truly is one of the outstanding works of American literature - certainly, of the 20th century.

CONAN: Yeah. Thanks very much for the call, Lois.

LOIS: Thank you.

CONAN: Why did not Ralph Ellison ever complete a second novel?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. RAMPERSAD: Well, one thing I like to say, by the way, is that it is perhaps a greater question, how did he manage to write the first novel given all the…

CONAN: There you go.

Prof. RAMPERSAD: …all the, obstacles he had to overcome, including starting to write at the age of 24, which Richard Wright flatly told him was too late…

CONAN: Much too late.

Prof. RAMPERSAD: …much too lat to late to become a writer.

CONAN: Raymond Chandler started at 40.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. RAMPERSAD: Well, yes. We have had instances like that. He tried. There was no writer's block. The pages kept coming out, but he became, I think, self-indulgent. Norman Podhoretz says - and I think there's an element of truth here - that he got, Ellison got Faulkner into his head and couldn't get Faulkner out of his head. And if you look at the themes of "Juneteenth," at least the central theme of "Juneteenth," and some of the incidents even, you're dealing in Faulknerian territory.

He was not - he did not want to write like he Richard Wright. He didn't want direct realism. He wanted myth and symbol and allegory, and those are a source - potential sources of trouble. I mean, when you think of trying to control your text. He likes surrealism. But he worked and worked and worked, and he was a perfectionist, too. And maybe that finally is the answer, that he wanted to trump "Invisible Man" when he should have remembered, I think, that people like Faulkner and Hemingway produced lesser work proudly toward the end of their lives.

CONAN: We're speaking with Arnold Rampersad. His new book is a biography of Ralph Ellison. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's get Jeff on the line - Jeff with us from East Lansing, in Michigan.

JEFF (Caller): How are you doing?

CONAN: Good.

JEFF: Great novel. Just one of the greatest I've ever read. This question about Ellison - do you think that Ellison's disregard for other black writers was a matter of him kind of wanting to be the voice of black America for a greater America? Kind of in a very Western tradition, but he is wanting to be the voice of black America for perhaps even white America or greater America?

Prof. RAMPERSAD: I believe so. I think you've hit on a very good point. And I think Toni Morrison says something like that - and not, well, disapprovingly, of course - in the biography. And Stanley Crouch quotes Sol Bello as saying, you know, he wanted a black man - a black person, I suppose I should say - to write a piece of literature that would rank with, you know, the greatest names in European civilization. And the problem was, according to either Stanley Crouch or - I think it was Stanley who said the problem was Ralph gave himself the task…


Prof. RAMPERSAD: …when he perhaps should have been giving somebody else the task. But, you know, there's something noble about wanting to take one's "people," - quote/unquote - you know, forward and raise standards, but there's also something that is unrealistic, and also, really, kind of, I don't know -selfish.

JEFF: I think it was kind of tragic, actually.

Prof. RAMPERSAD: Well, yes. Yes. Precisely. Yeah, I wanted you to say that. I didn't want to say it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Well, let me follow on from what Jeff was saying. This is a man who wrote a novel that is universally acknowledged. It's one of the greatest pieces of literature in American the 20th century.


CONAN: Showered with honors, a distinguished professor at many different universities. Lectured anywhere he wanted to go, yet, was he ultimately disappointed in himself?

Prof. RAMPERSAD: Disappointed in himself, I don't think so. Toni Morrison's words in the biography came into my mind when a reference was made to tragedy. I think this is tragic. And she said, well, no. Tragedy requires a kind of grandeur. And what we have here is a sort of melancholy, a kind of sadness about the life, that he should continue to harbor these ideas of being the exceptional black, accepted by whites as of the one. This was unfortunate. And I suppose I agree with her - and also with the notion that it was in part tragic, and maybe simply sad.

CONAN: Jeff, thanks very much for the call.

JEFF: Thank you. Great discussion.

Prof. RAMPERSAD: Thank you.

CONAN: Okay, we just a minute or so left, but I didn't want to leave on just that note, because his achievement - again, his achievement is extraordinary.

Prof. RAMPERSAD: His achievement is extraordinary. And also, one of the wonderful things about tracking the life was that by the end of his life, he had come around to understanding that the desire of the younger blacks to be overtly proud of themselves for being black, that that was in fact a stimulus to their intellectual, their psychological and their artistic lives. He lived long enough to see his work openly praised by a lot of the young writers he had ignored…

CONAN: And who had criticized him.

Prof. RAMPERSAD: …and who had come to - who had achieved great things themselves. So, in a sense, I'm glad that he lived long enough to see that turn. But yes, finally, we go back to the novel, the two collections of short stories - not short stories, but essays and interviews - the posthumous collection of short stories put together by John Callahan. This is a significant body of work having to do with race, but going far beyond any sort of simple analyses or presentation of the racial problem in America.

CONAN: Ralph Ellison, A Biography. Arnold Rampersad, thank you very much for being with us today.

Prof. RAMPERSAD: Oh, my pleasure altogether.

CONAN: When we come back, refereeing the refs. A new study claims racial bias in foul calls. I'm Neal Conan. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.