Notes on Ralph Ellison.
BY TONY WOLK
These notes are provided as annotations to Wolk’s 1972 interview with James Baldwin.
RALPH ELLISON (1914-1994): Born in Oklahoma City, not the Deep South, Ellison may be the best known black American writer, thanks to his novel Invisible Man, which came out in 1952 and won the National Book Award in 1953 and was on the best-seller list for thirteen weeks. Invisible Man took Ellison about seven years to write. A second novel was started in 1955 while he was in Rome. According to Jervis Anderson, whose very full profile, “Going to the Territory,” appeared in The New Yorker (November 22, 1976), Ellison’s second novel, with the working title And Hickman Arrives, in effect has never been published. According to Anderson, Ellison worked on the novel for more than twenty-two years. Then came a terrible interruption, “an event that Ellison describes as ‘one of the most traumatic of my life.’” In Anderson’s words: “In the late nineteen sixties he lost over three hundred and fifty pages of the manuscript in a fire that destroyed his summer house, in Plainfield, Massachusetts.” One version of this history has Ellison unable to begin again from scratch, the ambiance of that initial draft simply too delicate to reconstruct.
I’ve heard Ursula Le Guin say that there are two kinds of writers: herself, where you write a draft and then roll the manuscript back through the typewriter however many times it takes to satisfy yourself. That’s Le Guin, with a few exceptions. The other kind of writer is like her mother, Theodora Kroeber, who wrote until she got stuck, at which point there was no possible progress until she achieved clarity and satisfaction. Finally, when the last word was written, the novel was done. (No doubt this portrait is an exaggeration.) But I sense Ralph Ellison as the second kind of writer, a perfectionist. Or, perhaps, losing so many pages was simply too great a loss to allow for starting over. Yet I grew up hearing that Ellison had a trunk filled with thousands of pages of manuscript, though not until I read Anderson’s profile did I hear about the fire.
Curiously, the rumor of the thousands of pages has considerable substance. In 1999, under the editorship of Lewis and Clark College professor John Callahan, a 368-page condensation of more than two thousand pages, written over a forty year period, with the title Juneteenth, was published by Random House. Later, in 2010, Modern Library published all the pages of the manuscript with the title Three Days Before the Shooting...
Of course there’s much more to Ellison’s story. For example, that after twice applying to Tuskegee he was admitted in 1933 to fill the gap of a trumpet player. Music may have been his first love, but reading was also a joy, especially James Joyce and Gertrude Stein. (I’d say that once more we are in the realm of Simplification, a domain without borders.)
To set your feet on solid ground, I’d suggest checking out John Callahan’s website for the story of how he became Ellison’s literary executor. Which began with young Callahan, having written an article on “Ralph Waldo Ellison,” and being satisfied with it, sending it to Ralph Ellison. About a month later, he received a two-page reply, which ended with, “If you’re ever in New York and have the time, Mrs. Ellison and I would be glad to see you.’” To quote Shakespeare, “And thereby hangs a tail/tale.” (A tail which is still wagging at the Aubrey R. Watzek Library on the campus of Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon.)