Remembering Ellison

Ralph Ellison, 90¢

As the Ralph Ellison stamp debuts, writers and scholars reminisce about a man devoted to the written word.

From his literary executor

John F. Callahan
John F. Callahan
Morgan S. Odell Professor of Humanities at Lewis & Clark College and the editor of Ellison’s posthumously published volumes of work

Ralph Ellison loved letters. His rich correspondence began in 1933 after he rode the rails of Depression freights from Oklahoma City to Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. There, he wrote letters to his mother, always in his own hand. In New York City, where he moved in 1936, she remained his favored correspondent. By then he composed on the typewriter, often scrawling a P.S. in the margins or on the back of the envelope.

In his last years, though an early, passionate aficionado of the personal computer, he held off switching to email. He preferred to print out his letters, perhaps add a note or two in his bold script, pick out appropriate stamps from the stash on his desk, and walk the letters to the mailbox. An American man of letters, he loved the letter as a form of communication, and the U.S. Mail® as a network of conveyance between writer and reader.

In fact, our friendship began with a letter.

In 1977 when I was a young professor at Lewis & Clark, I decided on a whim to get Ellison’s address and send him an essay I’d just published about his work, expecting nothing in return. About a month later, I received a two-page, single-spaced letter. It was formal, beginning “Mr. Callahan…” but also very conversational, vernacular, almost conspiratorial, as if we’d known each other a long time. And I guess we had. I’d read his work; he’d read mine.

Months later, I came to New York, sat down with him, and we became quick friends. Over the years, I visited him and his wife Fannie late in the afternoon after his day’s work was done, and we’d talk over martinis and dinner late into the evening. It was the best ticket in town. Ralph had the most defiant mind I’ve ever come across. No matter what came up — literature, politics, the generation gap affecting musicians or writers or athletes — he almost invariably had a take different from everyone else.

John Callahan and Ralph Ellison at Ellison’s summer home in Plainfield, Massachusetts, early 1980s.

He was a “jazz man,” constantly improvising, and he loved Ellington, Armstrong, and the bands of the ’30s and ’40s. In 1970, for example, Time magazine asked him to write a title essay about black America. One of the assertions he makes in the essay is that a true American, whatever else he or she is, is also partly black. He’s not talking about skin color, but culture. He was saying if we’re going to talk about how we’re American, we have to talk about the profound influence of black culture — its music (the spirituals, the blues, and always jazz), the history of its people — on all of us.

In the first sentence of Invisible Man, we encounter Ellison’s genius: “I am an invisible man.” What an astounding metaphor! He’s talking about the peculiar condition of the eyes of those looking at him and not seeing him — the condition of their inner eyes, the way they choose to see reality. He’s saying invisibility doesn’t reside in the person who’s being looked at; it resides in the person doing the looking . . .

And what is more fitting in the centennial year of his birth, but that the man who wrote Invisible Man becomes visible on a stamp commemorating his (and our) American identity?


From a scholar

Farah Griffin
Farah Griffin
William B. Ransford Professor of English and Comparative Literature and African American Studies at Columbia University, author, and speaker

Video interview is adapted from Ralph Ellison: An American Journey, produced by Avon Kirkland and aired through the PBS American Masters series. An official selection of the 2002 Sundance Film Festival, the film is available through California Newsreel, newsreel.org.


From a biographer

Arnold Rampersad
Arnold Rampersad
Author of Ralph Ellison: A Biography; a Pulitzer Prize winner, and Sara Hart Kimball Professor Emeritus in the Humanities at Stanford University

I met Ralph Ellison twice. The second encounter was fleeting, but the first was not. I had gone to his home in New York to interview him for a biography of Langston Hughes. The sharpness of Ellison’s intelligence, his wit, his candor, and his intense self-possession were on full display as he spoke about the artistic limitations, as he saw them, in the work of Hughes — a former friend and mentor who had helped Ellison launch his own career as a writer in the 1930s. I left his home stunned by his near-Olympian vision of art and truth.

Many years later, as I worked on his biography, I saw in intimate detail evidence of the steep price he had paid to attain such a height. I watched with fascination as his amazing strengths began to emerge in a life dogged from its start in Oklahoma by severe handicaps. The worst of these undoubtedly was the sudden death of his father when Ellison was only three, an event that plunged his family into years of poverty. I marveled at Ellison’s indomitable effort over seven years in the 1940s and early ’50s to create his modernist masterpiece, Invisible Man.

When Ellison won the National Book Award in 1953, his life was changed forever. A long train of major honors and awards followed. But such recognition did not ensure happiness or artistic fulfillment. The last 42 years of his life were dominated by his unrelenting effort to create a second novel, one that would surpass his first. Yet no second novel appeared in Ellison’s lifetime.

“Ellison believed profoundly in African-American creativity as represented especially by its music. He saw no separate black and white cultures, but instead one nation, indivisible.”

Arnold Rampersad

Refusing to be defeatist or dull, the aging Ellison remained a man of impressive vitality who reveled both in intellectual controversy and in the more sensuous pleasures of life. He loved food and drink, music and dance and laughter. And yet his most cherished sense of himself was as a bulwark against what he called “chaos,” or the widespread collapse of those values that give life its deepest meanings — virtues such as democracy, justice, and a respect for learning. He never ceased to believe in America, its people, and its Constitution. Loving European high art and culture, he also believed profoundly in African-American creativity as represented especially by its music. He saw no separate black and white cultures, but instead one nation, indivisible.

Invisible Man belongs with other key American texts such as Moby Dick, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Absalom, Absalom! as iconic books that ask each generation of Americans to engage and decode them in order to grasp the inner meaning and ultimate destiny of the nation. This was Ellison’s great gift to us.


From a poet

Terrance Hayes
Terrance Hayes
Author of National Book Award-winning Lighthead (Penguin 2010), among other volumes of poetry, and recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship

Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man has always loomed large in my literary imagination. Let’s not debate whether it’s the most important novel of the last century (it’s certainly in the top five), and say instead that the book remains essential to scores of readers who recognize the invisibility Ellison named.

Play audio Listen to Hayes recite “How to Draw an Invisible Man.”

After reading Invisible Man, I waited, as I think many did, for more Ellison novels. There was Juneteenth, Ellison’s posthumous novel, but in his lifetime little more than his brilliant essays arrived. They are lucid, curmudgeonly sagacious tomes, to be sure. But an essay is to logic and reality as fiction is to dream and surrealism. I hungered for more of Ralph Ellison’s imagination. Instead, like his protagonist, he became a kind of specter as fixed and elusive as a circle of footsteps. My poem imagines the art that went with Ralph Ellison into eternity. It is an elegy with mystery and shades of critique added to its commemoration.