cover image Ralph Ellison: A Biography

Ralph Ellison: A Biography

Arnold Rampersad, . . Knopf, $35 (657pp) ISBN 978-0-375-40827-4

Rampersad's new biography sweeps every cobweb out of every nook and cranny of the life of Ralph Ellison (1913–1994), author of one of the seminal works of 20th-century fiction, Invisible Man . Rampersad, a professor of humanities at Stanford and biographer of Langston Hughes, was given unprecedented access to Ellison's extensive correspondence, and it shows: he seems to leave nothing out, including every cold Ellison ever came down with, though the details often add nothing to the developing portrait. The details will make this the definitive biography for now, but work remains to be done, because Rampersad fails to address the lasting question of Ellison's legacy: why he could never produce a second novel in his lifetime. (The biographer doesn't cover the posthumous publication of Ellison's unfinished Juneteenth. ) Ellison never truly embraced the Civil Rights movement, quietly supporting the fight from afar while maintaining that his writing would represent his contribution to the cause. Still, Rampersad does plot how Ellison drew on his experiences in Jim Crow America to produce his groundbreaking novel. He reveals Ellison to have been prickly, short-tempered, self-absorbed and chronically bad to women, but also charming enough to win over influential people. Rampersad provides a wealth of material about Ellison, but synthesizing it all will be up to readers to do for themselves. 24 pages of photos. 40,000 first printing. (Apr.)