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A masterful biography captures complexity of Ellison's art and ideas

A new biography delves into what happened to Ralph Ellison after he won fame with his 1952 novel "Invisible Man." (BOB ADELMAN/RANDOM HOUSE VIA ASSOCIATED PRESS/FILE)

Ralph Ellison: A Biography, By Arnold Rampersad, Knopf, 672 pp., $35

Whatever happened to Ralph Ellison's long-awaited second novel? This question persistently nipped at Ellison's heels long after his celebrated 1952 breakthrough "Invisible Man" quickly propelled him into the front ranks of 20th - century American writers -- and long after the forlorn accounts of the 1967 fire that consumed his country home and his later manuscript.

For that matter, whatever happened to Ellison? That question plagued Ellison as well for many decades of his public life, particularly during the 1960s and 1970s, when a rising generation of African-Americans routinely complained that Ellison, much like his fictional narrator, had withdrawn from the world and abandoned the struggle for racial justice -- an image perhaps inadvertently fueled by the young African-American writer James Alan McPherson in a 1970 profile that depicted Ellison peering through the lenses of a pair of high-powered binoculars upon the streets from the vantage point of his eighth-floor Riverside Drive apartment.

Now, Arnold Rampersad's masterful biography provides answers to these questions. Other biographers have explored similar terrain, notably Lawrence P. Jackson in his fine account of Ellison's early years in "Ralph Ellison: Emergence of Genius, " but Rampersad's entry into the field is distinguished by his unrestricted access to Ellison's papers at the Library of Congress as well as by the cooperation of Ellison's literary executor, John Callahan, and his widow, the late Fanny Ellison . The author of critically acclaimed biographies of Jackie Robinson and Langston Hughes, Rampersad has sifted through the materials to offer a meticulously detailed portrait of Ellison's universe.

In some respects, the trajectory of Ellison's life sounds like a quintessential American success story. He was born in Oklahoma City in 1913, and his father died when he was 3, creating an early turning point: "Ralph's life was changed forever. So, too, were the lives of his mother and his brother . . . The emotional cost was incalculable, and in all matters involving money the change was a disaster. Ahead lay years of shabby rented rooms, hand-me-down clothing, second-rate meals, sneers and slights from people better, and a pinched, scuffling way of life." Rampersad wisely sidesteps the crude psychologizing that often accompanies portrayals of rough conditions such as these. Nevertheless he discerns traits in Ellison's childhood that would mark him as an adult: "a boy without a grounded sense of identity, a boy plagued by feelings of social inferiority, eager to learn but also envious, defensive, alienated, and angry."

Breaking through the constraints of life in Oklahoma City, Ellison attended Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, where he planned to study music, then journeyed to New York City in 1936, where -- embraced and encouraged by the noted African-American poet Langston Hughes and the emerging novelist Richard Wright -- he quickly immersed himself in the art and political radicalism of the Popular Front. After a long literary apprenticeship, Ellison burst forth on the American literary scene with "Invisible Man." Awarded the National Book Award for fiction in 1953, Ellison's novel opened doors for him that would have been unimaginable a decade earlier. That year marked the beginning of his ascent to national prominence, and the consolidation of his status as a cosmopolitan, certified "New York Intellectual," who numbered among his friends Stanley Edgar Hyman , Saul Bellow, Robert Penn Warren, Richard Wilbur, and John Cheever.

Honors followed: a Prix de Rome fellowship; numerous teaching and lecturing offers; membership in the prestigious Century Association; election to the American Academy and the National Institute of Arts and Letters; the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In Rampersad's capable hands, the post-"Invisible Man" Ellison emerges: debonair, accomplished, and stubbornly dedicated to his craft as a literary artist on the one hand; private, self-absorbed, prickly, and quick to take offense on the other. But he was also shrewd in calculating the opportunities now available to him: "With . . . the civil rights movement opening the way for blacks to rise in the world, he was determined to do just that. By dint of talent, ambition, and labor he had made himself into a formidable intellectual and artist."

These achievements were not without a cost -- the "price of the ticket," as James Baldwin would somberly describe racial progress in another context -- and Rampersad chronicles the toll that Ellison's position "near the top of his Mount Parnassus" took on him. For example, his status as often the sole African-American among various white elites smacked of the social arrangements that a new generation of African-Americans would reject out of hand as tokenism. Ellison was acutely aware of these tensions, Rampersad notes, and they played havoc with his inner life: "The price he paid for his delight in easy association with like-minded whites was a measure of insecurity only heightened by the knowledge that to many fellow blacks this delight was a form of racial betrayal." In turn, Ellison's growing sense of isolation from younger African-Americans only made the challenge of creating art out of the materials of black life even more demanding. Rampersad sees a clear connection between this isolation and alienation and Ellison's inability to complete his long-awaited novel: "As a novelist, he had lost his way. And he had done so in proportion to his distancing of himself from his fellow blacks." This, coupled with the "compulsive perfectionism that was clogging his arteries as a writer," defined the trajectory of his later years.

The triumph of Rampersad's book rests in its ability to capture the complexity of Ellison's artistry and ideas at the same time it lifts the veil and reveals the personality behind the persona, warts and all. Often blunt and critical, Rampersad is at the same time judicious and humane in his portrait of a writer who has exerted considerable influence on our understanding of American life.

James A. Miller is professor of English and chair of the American Studies Department at George Washington University.