Ralph Ellison’s Letters Reveal a Complex Philosopher of Black Expression 1

Edited by John F. Callahan and Marc C. Conner

“Complexity” was the term that Ralph Ellison deployed most often to describe black life and culture. And it is the term best suited to convey the character of this brilliant, often disapproving and unsparing man. Decades before Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” and “Song of Solomon,” “Invisible Man” (1952) singularly defined the meaning of literary achievement. As a critic, Ellison was no less significant a thinker and stylist. Always, he was a philosopher of black expressive form and an astute cultural analyst.

I first encountered Ellison through the scrim of Larry Neal’s 1970 essay “Ellison’s Zoot Suit,” so I knew what I needed to read for — the invaluable critical propositions about African-American culture, the dazzling enactment of blues vernacular in modernist prose, artistic achievement steeped in reference to the music and an eye capable of discerning what Zora Neale Hurston described as the distinctive asymmetry and angularity that were the most striking manifestations of black style and the will to adorn. I also knew what I had to read past — the cult of the masculine hero and an aesthetic project that “restores to man his full complexity” and to the native son truth and revelation, while abandoning the daughter to the chaos of the underworld.

“The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison” is an encyclopedic collection of 60 years of correspondence, ranging from the 1930s to 1993, the year before Ellison’s death, and running to more than 1,000 pages. Admittedly, the size of the book is a bit daunting. Fear not. It is a treasure trove for scholars and general readers alike. Edited by John F. Callahan and Marc C. Conner, it is organized by decade and each section is preceded by a short essay introducing the significant themes in Ellison’s life and writing. These framing essays are critical for navigating this massive volume, as are the annotations accompanying the individual letters. The collection offers an intimate portrait of the writer and intellectual: the friendships made and lost; the turmoil of two extramarital affairs; the rich exchange of ideas with the novelists, critics and philosophers who formed Ellison’s inner circle; the herculean effort required to complete “Invisible Man”; the advent of literary celebrity with the bestowal of the National Book Award in 1953; and the frustrated four-decade struggle to finish a second novel, the posthumously published “Juneteenth.” The thinker and writer who emerges in these pages is a complicated, funny, intense, fiercely intelligent, ambitious, irreverent and disturbing figure.

Ellison’s goal as a writer was “not that of pleading Negro humanity, but of examining and depicting the forms and rituals of that humanity.” Many of the letters from the ’30s were sent from Tuskegee Institute, where Ellison, then a trumpet player, was enrolled in the school of music. These years were filled with challenges. The most pressing was the financial struggle to meet his tuition, to purchase books, supplies and his uniform for the band, and to dress decently. While his intelligence and good looks allowed him entry into the smart set, it proved impossible to secure a place in the fashionable crowd in his poor circumstances. Letter after letter sent home to his mother, Ida, pleads for money: “Try to send the pants. I need them badly. You know I travel with the richer gang here and this clothes problem is a pain.”

Ellison detested the hypocrisy, provincialism and crass materialism of Tuskegee. He complained that his classmates were “a bunch of small-minded niggers who won’t be satisfied until they show how important they are.” To make matters worse, Captain Neely, the dean of students, sexually harassed him. Neely “is the biggest man here so far as the student is concerned and if I kick up a racket now I would never get a job when I graduated, this dump is too powerful,” he wrote. “You must understand that the reputation that this place has and what it really is, are two different things. … The person trying to study should not be worried and nagged at because he does not prostitute himself.” Decades later he shared with a friend that he was “hounded out of college by a homosexual dean of men.” Behind the mask of sexual Victorianism, racial striving, up-by-the-bootstrap faith, hard work and service, Tuskegee was, in his eyes, a den of corruption. Much of this experience would be immortalized in “Invisible Man.” Ellison soon decided to escape to New York City.



On his first day there, he had the good fortune to meet Langston Hughes in the lobby of the Harlem Y.M.C.A. The poet nurtured the would-be artist, guided the newcomer through the city, educated him about the cultural scene and introduced him to the sculptor Richmond Barthé, with whom he lived for three months. The friendship with Hughes provided an anchor and radicalized Ellison, shifting his political allegiances to the left. His first letter posted from New York was to the traveling Hughes. In it, Ellison joked, “Don’t be surprised if you see me on a soapbox next time you’re here.” Within a year of his arrival in the city, he had given up the trumpet and decided to pursue writing.

The letters chronicle his intellectual friendships with Stanley Edgar Hyman, Richard Wright, Kenneth Burke, Saul Bellow, Albert Murray and Michael Harper. Ellison acquired and developed his language as a writer through these relationships. Being a Negro writer, he explained to the critic Kenneth Burke, was not a racial ascription but a cultural legacy. He wanted to “write simply as an American, or even better, a citizen of the world, but that is impossible just now because it is to dangle in the air of abstractions, while the fire which alone illuminates those abstractions lies precisely in my being a Negro and in all the ‘felt experience’ which being a Negro American entails.” Burke introduced him to the philosophy of literary form. Over the course of his career he affirmed that being a Negro helped his work because it gave “some form, some specific shape to the chaos of life and it presents me with a specific set of circumstances, experiences, characters, dilemmas … that I must confront in order to discover who and what I am, what life is and what art is.” In a disagreement with Hyman about the use and meaning of the terms “Negro artist” and “Negro American experience,” Ellison tried to explicate the fine line between dispossession and inheritance: “I try to make the terms convey something of the complexity of Negro American life and expression along with their intricate connections with the broader culture of the United States. Because far too often they are used in a manner reductive of that complexity and slighting of those interconnections.”

Sanora Babb, with whom Ellison had a brief but passionate affair in the early 1940s, affords one of the few occasions for a literary exchange with a woman writer about literature and politics. Babb was radical, beautiful, daring and talented. She lived in Hollywood with a Chinese cinematographer, but anti-miscegenation statutes prevented them from marrying. Ellison was reluctant to leave his first marriage, to Rose Poindexter, an actress, despite the intensity of his feelings for Babb, who in his eyes was that rare example of “a truly human person, a woman who answers all my complex needs; a woman courageous enough and beautiful enough to become a human being is rare even for the most fortunate of the West, and for my own people, almost nonexistent.” Babb proved an exception in another sense too: She was an intellectual. This was a surprise for a man who believed that women’s thinking was dictated by “biological reality,” even when they appeared in “intellectual sheep’s clothing.” The novelist Shirley Jackson, the wife of Stanley Hyman, was the other exception. Ellison admired her work and learned lessons from her fiction that enabled him to complete “Invisible Man.”

The rich literary world that Ellison came to inhabit was a man’s world, but one supported by the labor of wives who nurtured, cooked, cleaned, read, typed, edited, coddled, tended to the wounds of ego and offered affirmation. Fanny McConnell, his second wife, was pretty, extremely competent, and bright and ambitious enough to sustain Ellison as he made his long climb to the top of the literary mountain and the social ladder. She was raised in a working-class family, but, as he bragged in a letter, “looks like she was to the manor born — only it took a hell of a time to get her there.” As a husband, he could be self-absorbed and thoughtless. While involved in a very public affair at the American Academy in Rome that nearly ended their marriage, he wrote to Fanny: “Please try to be calm and avoid depression, I have enough of it here for both of us.”

Bawdy jokes and ribald humor, and a decade’s-long conversation about black music, distinguish his letters to Albert Murray. Mose, Ellison’s persona for the ordinary Negro as bluesman, trickster and philosopher, regularly appears in these exchanges. The humor of folk bards like Mose and Jim Trueblood, whose dream chronicle in “Invisible Man” recounts an act of incest and sexual violation, is without female equivalent. In reflecting on leadership and the role of the Negro preacher as a “stud-hoss,” Ellison delighted in sharing an outlandish and rejected scene from “Invisible Man” in which “the narrator dreams that he and several leaders are taking turns in attempting to break the maidenhead of a tough-hymened young Negro woman. None are about to make a penetration, and when it came his turn he bounces around on her quite willing belly with no success until it occurs to him that the solution was to use his fountain pen.”

Perhaps nowhere are Ellison’s brilliance and audacity, love and loyalty, more forcefully displayed than in the correspondence with Richard Wright, who was a friend and personal hero. Without question, Ellison was Wright’s finest critic. Yet his generous and productive interpretations of “Black Boy” and “Native Son” risked rewriting these texts rather than simply explaining them, because Ellison fundamentally refused Wright’s bleak view of black life and culture. He would admit as much in a letter to Kenneth Burke about Wright’s aesthetic oversimplification: “If I seem to back it unquestioningly, it is only because I feel the need to support the truth that it enables him to project. And while I do not believe it to be the only possible approach, I do think that it contains a fundamental approach based on a self-acceptance that Negroes seriously need. In my own work, however, I am aiming at something I believe to be broader, more psychological and employing, let us say, of 12 tones rather than one of five.”

Ellison conceded that in his essay “Richard Wright’s Blues,” “much of what I put into Wright’s mouth therein came out of my own brain.” As a mature writer, he freely voiced his criticisms of Wright but never denied the importance of his example: “I admired what Wright had made of himself. That he could make himself a powerful writer did indeed increase my sense of the possible.”

In his letters to Wright, there is a quality of intimacy different from that found in those to Stanley Hyman, a close friend and a valued reader who helped Ellison assemble and order “Invisible Man,” much of which had been written in Hyman’s house. The letters to Wright are characterized by a shared reference to having lived the brutalities of Jim Crow, by the sense of being a brother: “Part of my life, Dick, has been a lacerating experience and I have my share of bitterness. But I have learned to keep the bitterness submerged so that my vision might be kept clear; so that those passions that could so easily be criminal might be socially useful. I know those emotions which tear the insides to be free and memories which must be kept underground, caged by rigid discipline least they destroy. … Writing is an act of salvation. … I felt so intensely the fire of our common experience when reading ‘12 Million Black Voices’ that I felt the solder of my discipline melt and found myself opened up and crying over the painful pattern of remembering things. … I am sure now more than ever: that you and I are brothers. … We are the ones who had no comforting amnesia of childhood, and for whom the trauma of passing from the country to the city of destruction brought no anesthesia of unconsciousness, but left our nerves peeled and quivering. We are not the numbed, but the seething. God! It makes you want to write and write and write, or murder.”

As he neared the end of “Invisible Man,” Ellison judged the book “a rock around my neck; a dream, a nasty compulsive dream which I no longer write but now am acting out … a ritual of regression which makes me dream of childhood every night … or is it a kind of death, a dying? Certainly after it’s all over and done up in binders I will have passed through the goddamnedest experience of my life and shall never be the same.” He was never the same. The shadow cast by “Invisible Man” engulfed him as a novelist. In the late 1950s, admitting his slow progress and fearing that the second novel might never be completed, he wrote to Saul Bellow: “I’m also thinking quite seriously of writing a short novel next time, something requiring no more than a year to finish. I was embarrassed when the M.C. at the book ceremony felt it necessary to credit me with a whole slew of books when she introduced me. Seriously though, I have several ideas that might be handled in the shorter form.”

A letter to John Cheever echoed this anxiety: “I seem to finish nothing these days — fiction-wise, at least — but continue to make more and more notes and more and more clutter for my desk, my pockets and my already untidy mind. If this continues much longer I’ll either have [to] confess defeat or get the aid of a head stretcher — which, for me, would be much the same. Only the teaching goes satisfactorily, and that’s no consolation at all.” In the letters of the 1960s and 1970s, “Invisible Man” exerted a stronger presence than the second novel, the monkey on his back, on which he had been working for two decades.

For Ellison, the work of art gave shape to the chaos of existence. He devoted his life to creating beautiful forms. The words he wrote about Leon Forrest might well be applied to him: “Here is a black American writer who, having rejected the stance of cultural self-segregation, reveals himself as eager to pit his talents against the achievements of the great masters of the form. A word-possessed (and word-possessing) imaginative man from the Negro American briar patch, whose way with words is as outrageously and inventively stunning as this outrageous America which gave him birth!”