Tracking the Invisible Man

A Walk Through Ralph Ellison's New York

Becoming a literary classic can spell death to one's street cred. For the last three decades of his life, Ralph Ellison spent a lot of time defending Invisible Man from a younger generation of black radicals, and defending himself for not finishing a second novel. By the 1980s, Invisible Man's subversively democratic last line—"Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?"—spoke mainly to students in college classrooms.

Lawrence Jackson's new biography, Ralph Ellison: Emergence of Genius avoids academic overgrowth by focusing on Ellison's early life and work, following the author through Invisible Man's 1952 publication and leaving him at the threshold of his fame. Jackson charts Ellison's intellectual growth and convincingly describes the tightrope of making a living as a black intellectual at midcentury. It's the first in-depth portrait of Ellison in his times, a deeply researched account of his early years, and one that should spur a re-awakening to the vitality of Ellison's achievement.

A walk can clear away the cobwebs of canonization. An April afternoon presented me with a chance to make a trip across Harlem during the week when, 50 years before, Invisible Man hit bookstores. In his first 15 years in Harlem, Ellison went from Okie college dropout to radical to freelance critic to National Book Award winner. I wanted to shadow him and see how he did it.

On the first leg from the Bronx across the Harlem River, my transport is the Bx 33. As I board, the driver waves me back to any seat I choose. Jackson reports that Ellison savored such choices when he first arrived in New York from the segregated South. The bus then drops me off at St. Nicholas Park, which glows with a spring flush of grass, daffodils, and hyacinths. The sun is sliding down as a cold breeze kicks up.

On early spring nights in 1938, the park benches here were a young Ellison's only shelter. He had just come from his mother's funeral in the Midwest, an orphan with no money and few connections. It was his second time in New York.

Ellison, fortunately, learned self-confidence from his mother, Ida Ellison, who had raised two boys alone after her husband died when Ralph was small. Her love and high expectations pointed him to Tuskegee for music studies (he played the trumpet; his mother wanted him to be the next Ellington). After three years there he went for a summer in Harlem. On his second day in the city he strolled into the lobby of the 135th Street YMCA and joined a conversation with Alain Locke and another man. Ellison recognized Locke from the poet's visit to Tuskegee. The other man was Langston Hughes. When Locke excused himself, the kid from Oklahoma continued to bend the ear of Harlem's poet laureate about T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land," music, and his plans to study sculpture at Augusta Savage's studio on 125th Street.

Ellison knew intuitively how to network. In Harlem there were writers, sculptors, and thinkers to meet. Hughes introduced him to Richard Wright, who helped shape Ellison's views about art and politics and inspired him to write. In Harlem, even politics was jumping. As Jackson notes, "the Party was also a party, and its reputation for revelry appealed to the twenty-four-year-old Ellison." A Young Communist League leader from that time later said that being a communist in Harlem "was like being the swinging present and the swinging future simultaneously . . . you were enjoying all the boogying and boozing and everything in the present, while you had your socialist perspective to give you the inspiration to continue."

Wright helped get Ellison's first book reviews published in New Masses and The Daily Worker, but to pay his rent Ellison joined the Federal Writers' Project, part of the WPA. The Project was more chaotic than the Communist Party (to whom it was accused of playing handmaiden), but it offered fertile ground for a writer. It connected Ellison with other writers and material that grounded him in New York. He researched black life in the city and conducted interviews throughout Harlem for the Project's folklore division. Jackson writes, "Ellison saw the WPA, with all of its shifting political ground, contested hallways, and cross-purposes, as a model for interracial antagonistic democracy in cooperative action."

Ellison learned much from the residents he interviewed for the folklore division: a Pullman porter in Eddie's Bar, on St. Nicholas Avenue near 147th; a trucker at the Harlem Labor Center on 125th; schoolchildren taunting cars with out-of-state plates; and a South Carolinian who told him about Sweet, a black man who made himself invisible by cutting out the heart of a black cat, climbing a tree backward, and cursing God. After that, Sweet defied whites with impunity, robbing banks and giving cops the slip. ("I hope to God to kill me if this ain't the truth," the man insisted, like any good storyteller.) The interviews, typed up from memory or notes (recording equipment was too cumbersome) and now filed in the Library of Congress, show Ellison sharpening his ear for dialogue. He transcribed an older man's take on the last days, when the arrogant and the exploiters will "be floating down the river. You'll go over to the North River, and over to the East River and you'll see 'em all floating along. And the river'll be full and they won't know what struck 'em."

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