Give conceptual Ralph Ellison a break

Ralph EllisonIn the eyes of many, Ralph Ellison was a disappointing, pitiful figure because he didn’t manage to follow up his great first novel, “Invisible Man,” with a second novel, despite years of trying.

The latest expression of that viewpoint comes in Arnold Rampersad’s biography and a review of it by Hilton Als in the New Yorker.

But Ellison deserves better. His career follows some typical patterns of conceptual innovators, which suggests that Ellison didn’t have much say in the matter. Conceptual innovators typically do their best work early, with lower-quality work following later in their careers.

With that thought in mind, some of the criticisms sound merely like complaints that Ellison wasn’t an experimental innovator — a type of innovator who gradually improves with experience.

Although Ellison was no “young genius” — he published “Invisible Man” at age 41 — that book was the beginning of his career as a novelist. The book came out 18 years after he arrived in New York to pursue literary endeavors, and was followed by decades of attempts to finish a second novel, “Juneteenth.”

Like many conceptually innovative writers, Ellison was much more inspired by the literature of the past than by his experience of the present.

As Als writes:

  • “He sought to emulate the writers who gave him a sense of himself as an artist, not just as a black man. …
  • “In Hemingway’s work, as well as in T. S. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land,’ Ellison claimed to have found a language that evoked the improvisatory sound of jazz or the rhythm of the blues. …
  • “His technique … was almost exclusively mined from white writers, mostly notably Faulkner, for whom Ellison felt a reverence that almost did him in as a novelist in later years. … (The two-thousand-page manuscript [of ‘Juneteenth’] was posthumously edited and published in incomplete form in 1999.) This failure was due partly to Ellison’s attempt to incorporate Faulkner’s vast range and scope into a single work—a task that even Faulkner never accomplished. …”

Als and Ramersad suggest that Ellison needed to follow the pattern of an experimental innovator, drawing inspiration from his environment:

Ellison’s failure, Als writes, was due “partly to the fact that he didn’t manage to follow his own early advice to Wright: he never quite found the explicit reality of his characters. … (Rampersad) implies that Ellison’s failure to align himself with other blacks was what prevented him from continuing his career as a novelist.”

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