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books Henry James and Pigs’ Feet

Ralph Ellison's letters make an excellent counterpart to Invisible Man, his great novel of 1952.

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The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison
Ralph Ellison
Edited by John F. Callahan and Marc C. Conner
Random House
ISBN 9780812998528

Any opportunity to read a great writer's mail should be embraced in these days when a serial Instagram feed is about as ambitious as correspondence gets. Granted, at roughly a thousand pages, The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison may be asking a lot, at the outset, of even the most committed scholar of twentieth-century American literature, to say nothing of the waves of readers who continue to come away from Invisible Man convinced that it’s the Great American Novel.

But these letters, as assembled by John F. Callahan and Marc C. Conner, come to us a quarter of a century after Ellison’s death as more than just another corpus for further academic study. In heft and breadth, the missives here make up the Big Book of Life that Invisible Man’s triumph augured, and that we’ve been awaiting (not always patiently) for all these years. After his first book’s publication in 1952, Ellison doggedly, painstakingly, and at times dolefully toiled at completing a second novel, which remained unfinished at the author’s death in 1994. More than either posthumous version of that book, the densely compacted Juneteenth and forbiddingly gargantuan Three Days Before the Shooting . . . (both curated by Callahan, Ellison’s executor), Ellison’s letters vibrate with striking imagery, flinty repartee, shrewd literary insight, and bountiful reverie. One can’t help thinking while wandering through this capacious volume that if only this mercurial and meticulous man could have somehow sustained the high-spirited, polychromatic flow of his correspondence and carried it into his regular routine, there could have been two, three, even four more novels bearing his name. Or so you’d like to imagine.

The story told by this Ellison opus, as in Invisible Man, concerns a black American’s progress toward self-realization in a world that insists on misunderstanding him. Ellison was correct to insist, especially to interviewers in the immediate wake of its publication, that his novel was not autobiographical, although the author, like the book’s anonymous protagonist, rose from modest beginnings (in Oklahoma City) to attend a historically black university (Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute). His college years, the early 1930s, were less tumultuous and more rewarding than the Invisible Man’s, even if the letters home to his mother, Ida Bell, betray anxieties over money for things like socks, shoes, dental work, and a band uniform (“I can’t do without it,” he pleads. “It is important!”). There’s also some dissatisfaction with his chosen major (“A music student should have the opportunity to hear good music all the time—I’ve heard no worthwhile music since I’ve been here”). In 1936, Ellison takes a summer job in New York City; by the end of the year, he is living in the city full-time as an apprentice to sculptor Richmond Barthé and establishes friendships with Langston Hughes and, a year later, with Richard Wright. Tuskegee, and his potential career as a horn player, have been left behind in the Alabama clay.

By the end of the decade, Ellison’s letters become more expansive and “literary” in intent and execution. His restless search for the vocation that will best accommodate his artistic yearnings lands on writing, thanks to Hughes and especially Wright, who becomes an important mentor and advocate. Inevitably the radicalism sweeping young intellectuals and bohemians coming of age during the Depression catches hold of Ellison. Still, as he writes in a 1939 letter to a college friend, he’s aiming for something higher than ideology:

One should live at the height of his time intellectually, one should be able to pick apart every experience, examine it and relate it to his whole world-view. In short a man should possess his experiences and not be possessed by them. Such thought becomes creative. And [in] these times of social consciousness the resulting action is likely to become social action.

He found inspiration and empowerment for this ambition through Wright’s achievements, especially Native Son, the 1940 novel that became a nationwide success. Later, in a 1971 lecture, Ellison recalled reading in awe “most of Native Son as it came off the typewriter” and said he still considered it “one of the major literary events in the history of American literature,” despite “certain reservations concerning its view of reality.” It was, however, Wright’s photo-essay 12 Million Black Voices that galvanized Ellison into releasing torrents of visceral emotion he’d rarely expressed before in writing. In a 1941 letter to Wright, Ellison confesses:

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 remembered things. . . . Back when I first knew you, remember, I often speculated as to what it was that made the difference between us and the others who shot up from the same [southern US] region. Well, now (and it is this which makes us brothers), I think it is because this past which filters through your book has always been tender and alive and aching within us. 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.

Such eloquence grows in assurance and intensity throughout the mid-to-late-1940s letters leading up to Invisible Man. He shares his hopes, fears, and, to a lesser extent, his working routines with, among others, Wright (who has by 1946 moved to Paris); Ida Guggenheimer, his patron and friend and Invisible Man’s dedicatee; critics Kenneth Burke and Stanley Edgar Hyman; and, most of all, Fanny McConnell Ellison, his second wife, to whom he sends what are likely the most vivid word pictures we’ll ever get of his wartime tour of duty with the merchant marine. The letters with Burke and Hyman are less about matters of the novel’s content and more about theme and folklore’s influence on literature. It’s encouraging to see most of Ellison’s imaginative efforts being poured into the novel, though at times you wish there were maybe a few Easter eggs nestled here and there referring to Invisible Man’s raw material. One possible revelation comes in a 1937 letter that refers to Ellison’s job as a lab assistant with the A. C. Horn Paint Factory on Long Island—a potential source for the “Optic White” paint-color riff, in which the Invisible Man muses on how adding black paint to white paint makes the latter whiter and brighter. I wonder whether Ellison, in making small talk with Hyman’s wife, Shirley Jackson, at the couple’s Vermont home, ever mentioned that experience to her, and if Jackson, being an indulger in gothic and surrealist imagery, encouraged him to use it. Just speculation; but the evidence here shows Ellison gave advice to Jackson and offered suggestions on two of her 1948 short stories, “Pillar of Salt” and “The Lottery.” (Those looking for more direct origins of Invisible Man will have to get fuller details from the introductory essay Ellison published in 1982’s thirtieth-anniversary edition.)

After its publication, the novel’s success at once widens Ellison’s circle of literary friends and correspondents, notably Robert Penn Warren, Richard Wilbur, and Saul Bellow, who read parts of each other’s manuscripts and offered encouragement. Ellison’s stature as a major novelist also reenergizes some of his contacts from his youth in Oklahoma City. A six-and-a-half-page letter written in 1956 to boyhood friend Virgil Branam is about as laid-back and limber a display of down-home reminiscence and scatological patois as exists anywhere in Ellison’s canon, closing with a cheeky reference to the names he shares with a white New England writer of note, “AND DON’T BE CALLING ME WALDO.”

Of all these correspondents, however, Albert Murray was the one who best drew out of Ellison both the literary lion and the streetwise sophisticate at his most unbuttoned and inventive. Murray was a couple years behind Ellison at Tuskegee and was teaching literature there when they began corresponding in 1950. While on the home stretch of Invisible Man, Ellison, feeling super-relaxed, concedes to Murray, as he could to no one else, that the book has become “just a big fat ole Negro lie, meant to be told during cotton picking time over a water bucket full of corn, with a dipper passing back and forth at a good fast clip so that no one, not even the narrator himself, will realize how utterly preposterous the lie actually is.” In Murray (a novelist and critic of comparable stature whose own side of the decade-long exchange can be found in 2000’s Trading Twelves), Ellison found a boon companion with whom he could comfortably revel in the foot-stomping, jump-dancing, blues-shouting verities of their shared cultural references and unfurl freewheeling inquiries into the literary masters (Hemingway, Malraux, and Faulkner, among others) who had nourished them since their respective youths.

It is in these letters that we are introduced to “Mose,” which is Ellison’s shorthand description for the African American mass man, especially of his and Murray’s generation and temperament, as momentum builds for the civil rights movement. “I feel a lot better about our struggle,” Ellison writes to Murray in March 1956 from Rome, where he’s on fellowship working at his second novel. “Mose is still boycotting the hell out of Montgomery and still knocking on the door of Alabama U.” And a few months later, also from Rome, talking about the often violent white resistance to change in the South: “What the hell do those crackers think they’re doing? Mose is the only darker group who doesn’t want to blast [whites] from the face of the earth, who make any kind of allowance for their form of insanity. There was a time when the cracker’s madness could be rationalized but now they’re acting like a maniac chasing hell in an airplane loaded with the atomic bomb.” After a few more of these, one wonders why Ellison didn’t just drop whatever he was doing and start spritzing out another picaresque saga with “Mose” as the presumptive hero.

But by this time, Ellison’s persona was both broadening and, in a strange manner, narrowing into that of a cosmopolitan man of letters, as capable of finding unexpected epiphanies in the rhetoric of Henry James as discussing the verities of chitterlings (aka “chitlins”). In a 1956 letter written to Murray from the American Academy in Rome, Ellison tells of the formidable difficulties in “trying to find the right jive” in preparing pickled pigs’ feet in Italy the way he would have back home: “I went into stores and did everything from inventing new dances to standing on my head and pulling out my pecker trying to make them understand pickling spice and they dragged out everything from tomato paste to embalming fluid. . . . Never in the history of the world did a mess of pigs’ feet cause so much exasperation.”

Such self-deprecating slyboots humor seems at odds with Ellison’s often fastidious views toward other aspects of American culture, especially jazz. He was forever devoted to Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, the swing masters of his 1930s youth, but was far less taken with the modernist postwar music, firing vitriol in a letter about the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival against “poor, evil, lost little Miles Davis” and the “badly executed velocity exercises” of John Coltrane. He was surprisingly captivated by Thelonious Monk, “who is supposed to be nuts, [but] got up on stage and outplayed most of the modern boys and was gracious and pleasant while doing so.” One doesn’t have to share Ellison’s opinions on these and other artistic matters to be impressed by the tough-minded assurance, the willingness to challenge orthodoxy even among the terminally “hip.” He carried many paradoxes, but as with Walt Whitman, embraced and exulted in them. In these letters and in the essays collected in 1964’s Shadow and Act and 1986’s Going to the Territory, Ellison was able to vividly evoke what it was like to come of age as an alive and aware black child of the Depression, and at the same time to come to terms with the contradictions of embracing an American identity where the trappings of “blackness” and “whiteness” are too narrow on their own to suitably define whatever is meant by “American.” Such thoughts were already emphasized in Invisible Man’s epilogue, but there were many occasions—interviews, lectures, and awards-ceremony speeches—where he played variation upon variation on this still-farsighted cry from the Invisible Man’s underground lair: “America is woven of many strands; I would recognize them and let it so remain. It’s ‘winner take nothing’ that is the great truth of our country or of any country. Life is to be lived, not controlled; and humanity is won by continuing to play in face of certain defeat. Our fate is to become one, and yet many—This is not prophecy, but description.”

Meanwhile, the specter of that novel-in-progress, Callahan writes, “hovers over the letters—sometimes a swollen moon struggling to enter its last phase, other times a barometer able to register literary morale and moods from gladness to dejection.” A November 1967 fire at the Ellisons’ Plainfield, Massachusetts, house destroyed most of the manuscript he’d assembled, and to this day, scholars and critics insist he never recovered enough momentum to finish his second novel. Yet in a March 1982 letter to Jacques Barzun, Ellison confesses that the thirtieth anniversary of Invisible Man has forced him to confront “my dismally low rate of publication” and offers what may be the most persuasive self-diagnosis from any American writer in similar straits:

Actually I am aware that I alone am responsible for this state of affairs for I brought to writing a fledgling musician’s sense of form and perfection, I was also badly educated, as stubborn as hell, and in awe of the sheer power of the great novelists. Yes, and perhaps a bit chicken before the possibilities of failure. . . . At any rate, I’ll keep on cooking.

And he did. Make of the commensurate results what you want. But in the end, Ralph Ellison, as so many writers before and since, turned out to be an even deeper and more fascinating creation than the nameless hero of his great novel. Instead of quoting again from that book with that famous concluding line about “the lower frequencies,” I’m going to instead borrow a line that concludes his essay on Stephen Crane: Ellison still has much to teach us as a writer today because he turned out to be a great artist, and he became a great artist “because under conditions of pressure and panic he stuck to his guns.”

Gene Seymour is a writer living in Brooklyn.