The Fiction of Philip Kaveny
“I still ain’t found nothing that my spirit it could kill.”
This is a review I wrote in 2011. I am publishing it on my blog as a way of revitalizing my work as a critic, scholar, with a lifetime interest in African American writers and the contribution they have made to America. I feel I owe a debt of honor to Ralph Ellison and this review is the first step in my dream to edit an essay collection with the working title. Ralph Ellison an American writer for the 21st century. I first read Invisible Man the year James Meredith integrated the University of Mississippi 1962. I will have a lot more to say in my next installment about that magical year when my mind was jump Started by the greatest English teacher that ever lived. Hazel Kashkelenia who was the first teacher who saw past my appearance as six foot one inch one-hundred-kilogram college heavyweight wrestler and sensed the spirt inside of me with its desperate need to articulate its moral impulse. Fifty years later like the Steppenwolf song. “I still ain’t found nothing that me spirt it could kill.”
Ralph Ellison: A Biography
Alfred A. Knopf
1745 Broadway 21st Fl. New York, NY 10019
9780375408274, $35.00, http://www.amazon.com
Arnold Rampersad’s literary biography of African American writer Ralph Ellison (1914-1994) is fascinating, highly detailed, and painstaking in its efforts. It might be thought of as a kind of treasure map for other researchers to important Ralph Ellison primary documents, most of which are available at the Library of Congress. My issue then, is not with the level of detail or the quality of Arnold Rampersad’s scholarship. My issue is with what he would have me believe about the Ralph Ellison. He reminds me of the mythic Greek blacksmith Procrustes who made a one-size-fits-all iron bed, and rather than adjust the bed to fit his victims he would remove their body parts to make them fit. That’s the issue with Rampersad’s Ralph Ellison. Rampersad has made Ellison into something that is un-recognizable to me.
A close reading of Rampersad’s biography of Ralph Ellison made me feel that his subject was not the Ralph Ellison with whom I spoke briefly about my lifetime interest in his work at the Chicago Printers Row Outdoor Book Fair in 1992 (which is incidentally one of the largest events of its kind in the world). Ralph Ellison was the guest of honor there and made his guest of honor speech before an audience of about five hundred in the Dearborn Station conference center in the heart of downtown Chicago. At the time, I met him, I was a disheveled, long-haired, bearded, 350-pound ex-wrestler exhibitor who had had been out in the sun for several hours trying to earn a living selling books, and I am sure I smelled like it.
Arnold Rampersad’s Ralph Ellison would not have bothered to talk to me because I was not the type of person he liked to hang out with. I had nothing to offer him. There was no way that talking to an old hippie like me could advance Ralph Ellison’s calculating self-serving agenda, something that Rampersad would us believe was the driving force in his life.
His Ralph Ellison would have ignored me and talked to the well-groomed tweedy academic types who were waiting for his attention. But Ralph Ellison did talk to me, and before he talked to them. He wished me good luck and shook my hand before he talked to the really cute coed who asked if she could please hug him, since she did not have anything to say, and then he did talk to the guys in the well-styled, light-weight summer suits.
One of the things that shades this review is I feel like I owe Ralph Ellison’s memory a debt of respect because he made me feel respectable when I didn’t look respectable in the way that the tweedy white guys in the summer suits did. I looked like a working man who had spent a hot day working in the hot sun. I will stand up for the Ellison I think I know, just as Arnold Rampersad, through his interpretations tries to create another Ralph Ellison. This other Ralph Ellison that is not respectable or admirable, rather he is a collection of hackneyed stereotypes which, when implemented, in an obvious attempt to seriously diminish his subject, rather diminish Rampersad himself, who could have done so much better.
He is not arguing that Ralph Ellison was not a great writer or that his fiction and criticism does not belong within the hallowed confines of the literary cannon. Not even an illiterate fool would make that assertion. Rather he is creating a literary biography of his subject, in the same way that Ralph Ellison created the world in which his fictional protagonist Jack the Bear finds himself trapped. No matter how he tries or how good his intentions are he can never do the right thing to meet expectations of any of the characters that inhabit his creator’s fictional universe.
But there should be a difference between fiction and biographical authorial intent. For even if the fictional universe is forged from Ralph Ellison’s life experience, at least from the multiple interviews and articles written by Ralph Ellison in his lifetime and some published after his death, his fiction did have an intention. In one instance, he said that a work of art should cry fire in a crowded move theater, or, to say it another way, it should raise our consciousness in a way that we become acutely aware of the dangers around us.
Ralph Ellison writes and speaks about the limits of sociology and its tendency to objectify, and even its ability to define the real-world parameters of its models to even approximate the reality of historical experience. He also looked a bit askance at even such majestic documents as American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy, a 1944 study of race relations authored by Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal and funded by The Carnegie Foundation. Nor was he satisfied with Senator Moynihan who issued his research under the title The Negro Family: The Case for National Action, now commonly known as The Moynihan Report.
Ralph Ellison was not some kind of Neo-con Republican who objected to government intervention for any purpose. Ralph Ellison was a socialist in his early writing career and a beneficiary of the New Deal Federal Writers project. He referred to himself as a New Deal Democrat, and later was associated with LBJ’s War on Poverty. He took issue with the way both documents objectified the American Negro. For most of his life Ralph Ellison preferred the term Negro to the term Black when applied to the African American experience. He preferred it because it implied a complex culture with European and trans-Atlantic components. Think of it this way: if the problem is a problem of the objectification of the American Negro, a suggested solution which involved objectification was only an extension of the “problem”. It is not “the Negro Problem”, it is an American problem.
I now think that Ralph Ellison may have seen African American and American culture as being inexorably linked, and compounded by W.E. Dubois’ insight of the dual- consciousness. This is something that several economic historians have irrefutably documented. Slavery represents a kind ultimate attempt at objectification of the slave’s consciousness and abrogation of her free will and resistance which current scholarship establishes as being much more commonplace than was once thought. To quote my inspiration, Dr. Selika Duckworth-Lawton, “to be free means to have honor and be able to fight”, and I would again be drawing from her that fighting could be recast as resistance, on the scale of covert, passive and active.
This inexorable link is also expressed through the dismal science of economics to the point where we can say that throughout the 20th and into the 21st century science, rather than 19th century pseudo-science that race is really a fabrication, but it is a fabrication which rests upon and sustains the concept of class, and those who appear to benefit from it. For example, the founders of the dismal science, classical economists like Adam Smith, David Ricardo and Thomas Malthus look at free labor as nothing more than organic capital, which, by the mechanism of what was called “the iron law of wages,” could only be paid the cost of reproducing itself. Which to rephrase life axiom is to say life for those who labor under capitalism can never improve past workers simply having families of more immiserated workers, to replace those who die or retire.
How would it then be, by extension, for a slave before the 20th century, who under the contemporary Anglo-American system of slavery was not a person but a chattel? Nothing more than a super intelligent piece of machinery, a cog in the wheel of production, that is nearly self-maintaining and self-replicating.
I think that Ralph Ellison found this kind of objectification the great lie that he sought to contest using art, education, teaching and writing through his lifetime, his project. What his life’s work centers around is the dual-consciousness problem which reassembles the mathematical Poincare Conjecture, the four-color mapping problem in its nuanced subtlety and the generational labor of mathematicians that have addressed it. Ralph Ellison’s creative life is, up to, and including Invisible Man, involved in stating the problem of dual- consciousness, and once the horrific implications of it break down as expressed in several race riots which were part of Ralph Ellison’s thrown, (a loan word from 19th century German philosophy) which can be best thought of as the time-space-continuum where we are cast to live our lives
African Americans and White Americans are both subject and object. Driven by an inner vision of integrity, yet trapped in the objective expectation of the other and, at the same time, thrown into an economic reality where they are only an apparent but not a real interest of those power elites who maintain and benefitted from maintaining this objectification through racist tropes.
Because of Ralph Ellison’s literary mastery and acute historical awareness, his work is more real than what used to be the canonical history, the great movements of African American and American History which are, according to Ralph Ellison, inexorably linked. I am not going to get lost in the text of Invisible Man to show how his great project unfolds, but I am going to take a single example for the introduction of the 1995 international additional of Invisible Man which helped me recover some of my pride in my own Irish American History. He points out that Wilkee James, the brother of literary figure Henry James, was wounded nearly unto death as second in command to Robert Gould, commander of the Massachusetts 54th, an all Negro enlisted man regiment. Thus, I gain a new respect for both the James family and my own heritage, as I think of the ending scene of the film Glory, with Black and White dead buried in a mass grave by confederates who, in the process of trying dishonor those who lived, fought, and died together, symbolically honored the dead soldiers’ relationships to each other. Ralph Ellison had a totally disinterested faith, that could not be shaken, that America rises to greatness when challenged, as both Blacks and Whites fought for their subjectivity, even unto death, on the battlefield.
Yet why then does Rampersad seem to wish to disrespect and objectify Ralph Ellison and reduce the dignity of the choices he made or the fights he fought, whichever way he had to fight. For example, it is a matter of historical record that in 1953 Ralph Ellison won the prestigious American National Book award for his first novel Invisible Man. Further, in the process, Invisible Man beat out works of both Ernest Hemmingway and John Steinbeck. To use my own sports metaphor, as Rampersad is so likely to do also, this is about as likely as his becoming a major force in African American literary, arts and sports, biographies, an African American himself and a distinguished professor, and winner of the Coveted McArthur Award. Ralph Ellison was about as likely to win the National Book award in 1953, for Invisible Man, As Boise State was to be ranked number two in all the national football polls. This was written in late 2011, and my point is that things to happen where the Talented 10th rises to the top.
Yet as I write this Boise State is still undefeated and has won yet another game. And Ralph Ellison did beat out Ernest Hemmingway and John Steinbeck for the National Book Award in 1953. The simplest explanation of both events is that Ralph Ellison was a great writer who confounded expectations, beat out the best American writers by writing a great book, and Boise State has a great football team.
I know that there must be Alabama fans, now that Alabama is lost a game, who says that the national football ranking polls are flawed, and Alabama though they have one loss, should be ranked ahead of Boise State. And somehow there is something dark and sinister and prejudicial against Alabama in the back ground of those that rank football teams which put Boise State ahead of The Crimson Tide. Besides everybody knows, because of Boise State’s pussy cat schedule, they don’t even play real football. Well okay. That’s stuff is fun and you hear a lot of that sort of stuff in the sports bars, and I heard it forty years ago, when folks talked about Grambling Negro University’s football coach Robinson who spent fifty-six years winning over four-hundred games. But you could always win a bar bet by asking which active college coach had more active NFL players at the time. You could win a lot of free beers by saying Eddie Robinson was just a great coach period. And this was when my UW-Madison undergraduate era teams had six or seven players, depending on if you want to count kickers playing in the NFL.
The point behind all this is in the way Rampersad writes about a Ralph Ellison as a disgruntled seventy-year Chicago Bear fan, But if Ellison had just won a hundred thousand dollar MacArthur Award and was given full access to all the relevant documents to write a comparative study of the life and times of two greatest football coaches in the history of the professional game, the Chicago Bears’ George Halas and the Green Bay Packers’ Vince Lombardi. You might expect the Bear biographer to start out saying that Vince Lombardi was not a real football coach, rather he was a fascist slave driver and well he might have even idolized Mussolini, because well, Lombardi never made an anti-Fascist speech in Madison Square Garden, and he was mean. Just ask his players how mean he was to them, and really Lombardi only won three Super Bowls and left his successors with a crummy team. Enough said.
Indeed for his other efforts Rampersad did win a MacArthur Award in 1991 something of no small mention, and he is an African American who is a major force in both the arts and biography and a Professor of Humanities at Stanford and biographer of Langston Hughes. Yet, as other reviews have said, while this may become the definite biography, something is missing. In the process of writing this review I have come to understand what is missing, and I will address it more completely in next month’s Kaveny’s Bookshelf Review. But like any good serial it must have a segue into the next episode, and will start from this point as I move away from Rampersad’s book the, one I hope will NOT become the official biography of Ralph Ellison.
I believe that there is strong textual historical evidence, much of it supplied by Arnold Rampersad, which contests and subverts his own thesis. So, next month I will contend that the trajectory of Ralph Ellison’s life as a musician, journalist, photographer, and stereo-repair person was always more political and idealistic than it was personal, opportunistic, and exclusionary of other African Americans, as this biographer implies. And that his wining of the 1953 national book award was not simply the result of the collusion of several Jewish judges. And further that he was not an Uncle Tom when he insisted throughout his life that young African Americans must assert their subjectivity through integration and education, rather than be shot dead in the streets, like one of his most gripping characters, Todd Clifton, who commits suicide by cop when, to assert his subjectivity, he realized his dual consciousness and thus could no longer sustain the contradictions heaped upon him. That was the Ralph Ellison who respected me when I did not appear respectable. I just noticed that my paperback copy of RALPH ELLISON a Biography by Arnold Rampersad carries the prestigious silver stamp of a National Book Award Finalist, something Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man won as a first novel some fifty-four years before.
I am a bit perplexed given his low opinion of National Book Award politics in relation to Invisible Man. Perhaps they cleaned up their act. Perhaps Rampersad just agrees that any award is a good award.
Next month, in Part II, I will address Ralph Ellison’s career as a public intellectual considering contemporary historical knowledge.