Author, intellectual and social critic, Ralph Ellison was a pivotal figure in American literature and history, and arguably the father of African-American modernism. Universally acclaimed for Invisible Man, a masterpiece of modern fiction, and more recently for the posthumously edited and published Juneteenth, Ellison was recognized with a succession of honors, including the 1953 National Book Award.
Lawrence Jackson’s Ralph Ellison: Emergence of Genius is the first thoroughly researched biography of Ellison. Jackson’s work draws from archives, literary correspondence, and interviews with Ellison’s relatives, friends and associates, and among other topics, covers his friendships with Langston Hughes and Richard Wright, and examines his involvement in the Socialist Left of the thirties and forties and the black radical rights movement of the same period.
In our exclusive interview for The Ralph Ellison Project, Jackson discusses Ellison’s life, and the complex and intriguing man at its core.
Interview hosted by Jerry Jazz Musician publisher Joe Maita.
Ralph Ellison, 1952
Louis Armstrong plays
JJM Who was your childhood hero?
LJ My own father, Nathaniel Jackson, Jr, who passed away twelve years ago. I also have a cousin who was best man at my wedding, a public school teacher named Charles Dugger. Charlie has run for mayor of Baltimore about three times, and is a left wing, black nationalist presence in the political forums and debates. He raises issues that normally wouldn’t appear. I always admired these men very much. As a young guy, I was also very much taken with military figures.
JJM What is your background?
LJ I am an English professor at Emory University, as of this fall. Prior to that, I taught at Howard University for five years. I was born and raised in Baltimore, where I went to public schools through the eighth grade. I went to a Catholic high school in Baltimore County. I have a bachelors degree from Wesleyen University in Littleton, Connecticut, and a Masters degree from Ohio State University. I did my PhD work at Stanford.
JJM How did Ralph Ellison touch your life prior to your writing of the biography, Emergence of Genius?
LJ When I was at Wesleyen, I studied briefly with Robert O’Meally, who had written the first monograph devoted to Ellison called, The Craft of Ralph Ellison. He was a very impressive figure to me because he was my first exposure to an English professor, and certainly to an African American man who had his kinds of interests and concerns. He had so much style and a great deal of grace, which was of interest to me. It was during a period for me where I became increasingly radical with my own beliefs and tendencies. Bob left Wesleyen in 1988, and I started to work more closely with Jerry Watts, who published a book on Ellison in 1994 called Heroism and the Black Intellectual. Watts sees himself very much as “anti-Ellisonian.”
As an aside, Ishmael Reed has a very long and fascinating introduction to a reader that he published recently, where he talks about this phenomenon of people who swath themselves in the cloth of Ralph Ellison, promoting his ideals and defending his values. He writes of it as if it is almost a minor industry. Watts saw himself as very much against that grain and that group. The book he published was almost an attack on Ellison. It is very fascinating intellectual work, and it raised the level of debate in African-American literary circles that can sometimes be marked by a certain kind of quietude, or a reluctance to engage in hot debate.
I was quite energized by his work, and I wrote him a long letter that talked about some of the assumptions that he made. One of the important things Watts did in his work is that he said he wasn’t going to deal with the influence of Invisible Man on Ellison’s reputation. Watts felt that Ellison, as a public intellectual, had neglected his duty and failed black people as a unit during the late fifties through the seventies by voicing conservative perspectives and resisting a certain kind of public advocacy for African-American rights. Because of that, and because Watts chose not to deal with how the novelist’s vocation would have influenced Ellison’s stature and the kind of the political work that Ellison was neither committed to or capable of during those periods, I thought that there was potentially a little short shrift going on there. At this point, people knew very little about Ellison’s background, only what was done during the forties and fifties by a woman named Barbara Foley. I started getting the germ of the biographical project in the fall of 1994, when I was hunting for a dissertation topic, and I had all these questions about Ellison. I realized that there were no verifiable facts that could address the historical, literary questions.
JJM Emergence of Genius ends at the time of the publishing of Invisible Man. Are you planning to continue?
LJ No, I am not. I started working on this book in 1995, and it came out in 2002. It has taken a considerable effort and a great deal of energy. My contention is that Ellison is going to be remembered for Invisible Man, so the thing that was most critical to me was to look at his life and what enabled him to create this achievement. What came after was of secondary importance to me, although the most important next question would be, “Why didn’t he write more?” Also, I have to say that some people like to do these kinds of projects because they enjoy the celebrity aspects of it. They like to meet people that are well-to-do and very well known. That is not particularly important to me. The second half of Ellison’s life is pretty much a star-studded affair. I will leave that work to people who have more interest in that aspect of his life.
JJM Ellison lost his beloved father at a very early age, and was raised solely by his mother from age 3. What was her vision for her son?
LJ His mother had an interesting history. She came to Oklahoma from a part of Georgia that is very close to South Carolina, moving almost 2,000 miles for the purpose of experiencing a different concept of freedom. She was a very advanced thinking African-American woman at the turn of the century. It is difficult for us to recapture what it means to defy tradition and convention in the fashion Ida Ellison did at that time, because she seems to have moved on her own. She left a small farming community where her parents had been slaves, and was perhaps the only person in her immediate family who was literate. She moved to the large city of Atlanta, and then moved out to this unknown place, leaving all her traditional roots and forging out independently — a remarkable thing for a woman to do at that time. She met and married Ralph’s father, Louis Ellison, in Tennessee, and when he died, she tried to keep this idea of pursuing middle class values for her young children alive. In particular, she wanted them to pursue standards of excellence. One way that Ellison began to see this cohere was when he latched on to the idea that he would become a musician. She really had some quite remarkable attempts to keep this family afloat. She remarried at least twice, and she moved the family to different parts of Oklahoma — and to Gary, Indiana — in search of a better life.
JJM How did the guitarist Charlie Christian touch Ellison’s youth and what did he learn from him?
LJ Charlie Christian and his large family would play in the rich white neighborhoods, playing this beautiful music, not only jazz, but classics, waltzes, polka — whatever people want to hear. The Christian family was incredibly poor family but so gifted musically, and Ellison saw them demonstrating so much dignity. There is no begging involved, no ignoble behavior. Despite their needs, they are using their heads and combining their talents to come up with a way to create a somewhat fulfilling life. The thing that Ellison also noticed is that, despite his great talent, Charlie Christian couldn’t play in the school band because some people thought he wasn’t dignified enough. That is the flip side of it, people taking the heraldry of the middle class as far as they can, and excluding some elements of the community they believe to be unsavory. For Ellison, this was a great tension of his early life, witnessing the differences of the rich vernacular reality and middle class propriety. This was a dilemma for Ellison, in terms of something he had to stride over.
Ellison was raised in the AME Church. When you compare the AME with the Baptist and the Pentecostal , it can be regarded as the high church in the African-American community. There is a great deal of decorum in the AME, where the choirmaster led the choir, and that sort of thing. You can compare that with the emerging gospel, blues and jazz music, which the church considered to be “frolicking” or promoting “bumping and grinding.” Ellison, as a young person, was struggling to figure out where he fit in and what side of the line to be on. Eventually, he decided he would try to make it as a classical musician and then as a symphonic conductor, and went to Tuskeegee Institute in Alabama on a music scholarship. Charlie Christian, on the other hand, continued playing the guitar and became good enough that Benny Goodman invited him to New York City in the late thirties.
JJM What were Ellison’s first intellectual pursuits?
LJ Ellison said that during segregation there was less regulation in the African-American library. In a segregated society, there were separate libraries because they didn’t want to have black people using the one downtown. When the Dunbar Library branch is set up on the east side of Oklahoma City in the Deep Deuce, the books are set up randomly. So, Ellison and his friends are racing through this library and pulling out the volumes that are there, looking at everything. They think that Sigmund Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams is something having to do with a dream book, which is very important in another part of African-American society — whether you are interpreting dreams or using them to come up with a number for the lottery. Ellison is shining shoes one day and he happens to mention some of the Freud that he has been lightly exposed to — maybe he read a title or a couple pages of something — much to the shock and amazement of his shoe shine customers. In other words, in some ways his was an uncensored sort of reading experience, and a competitive one done in concert with a number of different strivers in a scholastic community of Oklahoma City. Those that participated went on to become judges, professors It actually ended up being an elite group.
Ellison’s first major intellectual experiences seem to begin in 1935, when he went back to Oklahoma City at the end of his sophomore year at Tuskeegee. While at the barbershop, he reads Ernest Hemingway’s sportsmen’s stories that are published in Esquire. This has a big impact on him, because it opens up this literary world that is connected with something that he is familiar with — hunting and fishing. When Ellison returns to Tuskeegee in 1935, he abandons the music program and chooses to take a curriculum in humanities and social sciences. He starts taking classes in English, Sociology, History of Negro Education, Sculpture, and Art History. The curriculum opens up his entire range. When Ellison is in Sociology class, he reads Robert Park’s book, Introduction to the Science of Sociology, in which Park called African-Americans the “laziest of the races.” Ellison is incensed by this. As an Oklahoman, he has a very different history and tradition than most of the students at Tuskeegee, who are primarily from Alabama and Mississippi. For example, there are many small black towns in Oklahoma, and when the segregation statutes passed in 1911 or so, black Oklahoman’s burned down the train stations to display their anger to the governor who would pass through. They were defiant and would not easily submit to unjust laws. Ellison possessed this spirit as well, so when he is reading Park’s textbook, he is outraged. This experience becomes a very important force compelling him to discover on his own, and to reject whatever kinds of bromide or speciousness he could detect from “authorities”. So, I would say that the 1935 period is very pivotal in terms of pushing him forward in his literary career.
JJM He would also read literature published in Vanity Fair that was probably not accessible to many other members of the African-American community at the time.
LJ Yes, or to anybody! That is one of the fascinating things about the black community, where you have people like Ida Ellison, who was a live in maid, and who had this exposure to the upper class. The people she would work for are throwing out record albums or old Vanity Fair magazines, and Ida would bring this stuff home to Ellison, giving him an early exposure to a different life.
JJM How did Ellison connect the poetry of T.S. Eliot with the music of Louis Armstrong?
LJ He could pick up on some of these riffs. He said the wonderful thing about Eliot’s Wasteland was that it didn’t reject the vernacular heritage. You have to figure that at Tuskeegee at the time, the main poets were Longfellow, Whittier and Whitman, and everything had to have regular rhymes and meter and have set standards. That is the exposure he is given to “poetry” and “high art” in a classroom environment. When he gets to Eliot, he is seeing all this stuff reassembled, used in a completely modern and different fashion. So, Eliot, who must have exchanged tens of letters with Ezra Pound talking about “old possums” and “old coons like us” in the “Mississippi riverboat” vernacular the two men shared, also applied this to some of the changes he saw in modern music. He is going to have a riff of Cole Porter or Noble Sissle in the poem, and also a little riff from Louis Armstrong, since he was so very popular. Ellison was interested in looking at the vernacular tradition and the tradition of high art, and saw these combinations taking place which reoriented him to the possibilities of modern art.
JJM An interesting aspect of Ellison’s character was his competitiveness. When Ellison went to Tuskeegee, he seemed to have it in his mind to become the first African-American to create a significant American symphony. His music teacher at Tuskeegee, William Dawson, beat him to it, writing Negro Symphony No. 1. Did Ellison haveto be first in order to be motivated?
LJ Ellison didn’t get to be “first” until he won the National Book Award in 1952, and I don’t know if that is what motivated him — that kind of egotism and individual pursuit of excellence that excluded others. I just think that he had a reasonably tough time as the child of a widow and in some ways the caretaker of his younger brother during a period when they were fairly destitute, especially compared to other families. At the same time, when you combine that kind of poverty with someone’s prideful ambition and dignity, it can make for an awkward mix, and I think that was the kind of thing that made him a little competitive and stand-offish.
When he goes down to Tuskeegee to study with Dawson, he is already quite familiar with a certain level of excellence in black musicians. Zelia Breaux, his high school teacher, studied in France and was a very well regarded musician, not only in Oklahoma but that whole region. In fact, I suspect that the reason he goes to Tuskeegee was because she knew Dawson. Dawson was a larger than life sort of figure. He would have been a lion in anyone’s path, not just Ellison’s. He was the second highest paid faculty member on the campus, and who had almost complete autonomy, which was almost unheard of in a place as rigid and autocratic as Tuskeegee was during that era. So, I don’t know if Ellison realistically expected to “compete” with Dawson, but I do think the celebrity and the stature of Dawson made him realize he had some work to do to think of himself in the way Dawson was.
JJM How did Richard Wright’s interest in revolutionary theory affect Ellison?
LJ Wright and Ellison met in June of 1937. Wright’s intensity of commitment toward a certain kind of radical socialism was waning by this time. What he imparts so significantly to Ellison has much more to do with literary standards and the love of high art. Ellison always said that Wright was the best read person he knew. The conversations they had about the nature of recognition and the nature of the indignant consciousness resonated very deeply for Ralph Ellison. I think that Ellison likely saw in the creation of Wright’s Bigger Thomas character in Native Son a prototype for the radical revolutionary. Unfortunately for their relationship around this time, Wright became more openly competitive with Ellison, which caused Ellison to begin to challenge and reject this kind of formulation.
JJM What influence did Ellison have on Wright’s Native Son?
LJ Wright and Ellison were at the height of their intellectual intimacy and friendship when Wright was constructing the novel in 1938 and 1939. They talked every couple of days and saw one another frequently, with Wright living in Brooklyn and Ellison working for the WPA in Manhattan. Ellison said they discussed Native Son as it was being written. At the end of the novel, Bigger Thomas is in a prison cell next to one occupied by a black intellectual psychopath who talks about the nature of a corrupt society, and the way race is used to imprison people and silence certain kinds of black truth and objectivity. I think that is the one breech in a very somber, hard-hitting and absolutely realistic, naturalistic depiction in this novel. Those are the kinds of touches that we go on to associate with Ralph Ellison, and was a fundamental contribution to the effort. Also, one of the things Wright was trying to puzzle out was whether Jan, the communist operative, and Max, Bigger’s attorney, could have a friendship that moves beyond ideological elements and gets to a more fundamentally human, deeper level. This was something Ellison and Wright were both pondering greatly during this period, and they shared conversations about this quite frequently.
JJM Despite bebop musicians’ interest in being politically engaged, particularly around the idea of ending segregation, Ellison disconnected himself from their struggle. Why?
LJ The shift in music, an abandonment of the large band by the younger musicians in favor of bebop — a far more separate and individually created musical art form – -came at a high point of Ellison’s radical black rights involvement, which would have been between 1940 and 1943. At this time, Ellison is an active member of the National Negro Congress, which was an organization that made something like the NAACP and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee look like Sunday afternoon tea affairs. Along with ex-political prisoner Angelo Herndon, Ellison also became editor of the Negro Quarterly, arguably the most important African-American journal. It featured a level of professionalism and commitment that had not been seen before.
When bebop musicians started communicating that dancing is not that important, and coupled that with jive language and isolated behavior — such as turning their backs to the audience — my interpretation is that Ellison thought of their music as a kind of withdrawl. He saw these musicians as profoundly apolitical, and didn’t feel they were particularly interested in making the kinds of political commitments he was seeing from others on a very consistent basis. He found their attitudes to be generally hedonistic and self-seeking, but at the same time, he felt they were being economically exploited. I don’t think that he felt bebop musicians added much to the overall efforts of organizing or popularizing their ideals in a productive way.
JJM When did Ellison’s metaphor of invisibility begin appearing in his work?
LJ He said that he came up with the line “I am an invisible man” in 1945. While at sea during that year, he was writing down notes on Red Cross menus and Merchant Marine stationary about seeing oneself in the reflection of the glass. Then, in 1947, he published the Battle Royale segment from the novel, and by that time he pretty much had most of the central ideas for the plot thought about and well under way.
JJM The invasion of Korea in 1950 seems to have had an impact on his work. The change in American politics as a result of the invasion may have caused Ellison to shift the plot of his book
LJ It would be difficult to speak with exact precision on the point, but I don’t believe the contextual evidence can be ignored. Through the late forties, Ellison is plotting a series of different endings for the book. For example, he supposed or surmised that the book might conclude with the invisible man going south, organizing dispossessed black workers, and potentially returning north and becoming a kind of preacher like Rinehart. There were other things too.
JJM It wasn’t a good time politically to create that sort of ending, was it?
LJ The United States was deep into the McCarthy era at this time, which really does have the country moving in another direction. Ellison’s friend Langston Hughes wound up on the hot seat during this era. So, it became a difficult period for a writer to express a certain kind of artistic honesty. Ellison was taken to task by the black left wing press once the book was published. Artistic creation is very complex. There were a number of people who read the manuscript at different stages, providing subtle hints or direction. Two people, for example — Random House editor Albert Erskine, and the editor at Henry Holt — were reading the manuscript and writing him back, offering suggestions such as “I don’t think you need to use this symbol over again,” or “I think you covered this already.” Ellison must have removed about 200 pages of text from the novel that many readers of the manuscript thought to be redundant. Today, we might think that the text removed was really important, or added a different perspective to the invisible man’s character.
JJM Did the Book-of-the-Month Club ever consider Invisible Man?
LJ Not that I know of.
JJM They did Wright’s Native Son and Black Boy.
LJ Right. I think they might have been more interested with something like J. Saunders Redding’s Stranger and Alone when it came out in 1950, more so than Ellison, who during that period was working with a lot of cutting-edge techniques.
JJM Partisan Review editor Delmore Schwartz called Invisible Man “overwhelming,” and “genuine.” You say that Schwartz suggested that really only one writer had the qualifications to offer a deep estimate of Ellison’s value, William Faulkner. Does any evidence exist of what Faulkner thought of Invisible Man?
LJ Faulkner did meet Ellison, and said he had been sent a copy of the book in 1952, and that he did enjoy the book very much. I don’t have anything like a letter that details his thoughts. Faulkner did write Richard Wright a letter when he wrote Black Boy, and told him what he thought of it. It was an interesting letter because it was a sort of backhanded compliment, still reminding Wright in a kind of paternal fashion that he had the potential to become a great artist and that he needed to fill that potential. I think Faulkner would have had to have seen Ellison’s art as very accomplished and polished.
JJM You write, “Whatever his need, either to perfectly craft the geography of his early years, or to escape it, he used the next symphony in prose mainly for his own enjoyment. He was satisfied to publish an occasional riff off the grand Ellisonian melody.” In your opinion, why didn’t he ever complete his second novel?
LJ I think that if there were psychological, material and social needs in Ellison’s own life for a certain kind of completion and accomplishment, they were satisfied by Invisible Man. It was a heralded novel and he became a heralded novelist. From this work, he was able to get teaching positions that enabled him to live well the rest of his life. Much of the essays found in Shadow and Act are nostalgic pieces about Ellison’s coming of age and perspectives of literature and estimates of fellow artitsts he found interesting in jazz and gospel music. I think the essays represent an era of reflection that that the success of Invisible Man allowed.
The work represented in the second novel, Juneteenth, is that of a writer reflecting on the life of a very young boy through his teenage years, and that of a wise, grandfatherly figure. It is a very romantic sort of creation, which is quite different than what he was doing in Invisible Man. Of course, Juneteenth wasn’t just a romantic notion, frequently it was a nightmare, and psychologically a much different kind of pursuit than Invisible Man. While Juneteenth is a lyrical tour de force, for me its meaning and value is of less significance than Invisible Man.
JJM After Invisible Man was published, the use of Ellison as the hallmark of black writers had begun. Is he still the hallmark of black writers?
LJ I think so, in the regard of his achieving the writing of one epic novel that served him so well. With other African-American authors, especially those who have a very competent body of work – writers like Toni Morrison, John Edgar Wideman and Alice Walker — you could sift around for their tour de force novel. But sometimes in your sifting you can diffuse the power of the author, and Ellison certainly doesn’t lack for that. I believe the theme and importance of Invisible Man continues to grow.
Emergence of Genius
Ralph Ellison products at Amazon.com
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Interview took place on July 8, 2002
If you enjoyed this interview, you may want to read our interview with Ralph Ellison scholar Horace Porter.