U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Jackson Via Greif Via Rampersad

A Brief Morality Tale On The Foundations Of Scholarship

In writing about Bellow and racism a few posts back, I learned that he and Ralph Ellison were friends. The Chicago Tribune article I cited in the post went so far as to assert that Bellow was a great “encouragement” to Ellison—both before and after the publication of Invisible Man. Of course there are number of reasons for an intellectual historian to consider Ellison’s life and career, but that article put him further up the ladder of my interests.

So it was with great interest that I discovered, earlier today, this review of Arnold Rampersad’s Ralph Ellison: A Biography. Written by Mark Greif and titled “Black and White Life,” this is a first-rate piece published by the London Review of Books. Like any review, it previews the uniqueness of Rampersad’s latest scholarly offering.

But in many ways Greif’s piece is also a review of an earlier unknown biography by Lawrence Jackson, titled Ralph Ellison: Emergence of Genius (New York: Wiley, 2002). Here are some excerpts from Greif’s review that focus on Jackson’s intellectual history of Ellison:

– “The most revelatory part of Jackson’s biography was his demonstration of how much of Ellison’s intellectual underpinning and development came from the black Communist Party. In his introduction to Shadow and Act, Ellison acknowledged his education: ‘my attraction (soon rejected) to Marxist political theory’. Jackson laid out, and Rampersad confirms in detail, how this education occurred within the circles of the New York Party. Ellison became a thinker, journalist and apprentice philosopher all as a Party loyalist, under the unique conditions of Harlem life. Ellison’s initial connection to black literary culture is still astonishing. Having left Tuskegee to try his luck in New York, unsure of his direction, he had only to come up from Alabama and spend one night at the YMCA on West 135th Street: he came downstairs into the lobby the next morning and ran into both Alain Locke and Langston Hughes.”
– “Locke had essentially established the Harlem Renaissance as a force in 1925, with his anthology The New Negro. He happened to have met Ellison on a visit to Tuskegee earlier that year. Hughes, meanwhile, was a complete stranger to Ellison. But he took the young writer up and immediately began helping him. He led him to read Malraux and Thomas Mann, and also to study political economy. ‘I don’t wish to be ignorant of leftist literature any longer,’ Ellison wrote to Hughes, hungrily. This was the reader in Ellison, who had devoured the Tuskegee library while still studying music. ‘workers of the world must write!!!!’ he was insisting not much later to Richard Wright, an up-and-coming novelist with whom Hughes put him in touch. Wright had arrived in New York from Chicago – young, self-confident, aggressive and Communist – and showed Ellison a new world from his perch as a writer for the Communist Daily Worker and founder of a new journal, New Challenge. Later, Wright trained Ellison as a novelist in the most direct way possible – by showing him Native Son in the process of composition, a masterpiece which Ellison read ‘as it came out of the typewriter’.”

This last passage evokes a fantastic image. It gives us a sense of connection between thinkers and writers that are often pictured, or portrayed, as merely great individuals.

Wright’s been on my mind quite a bit this fall because I’m teaching Native Son in a Newberry Library Seminar. Having also read Invisible Man, Jackson’s connecting Ellison to Wright makes much more sense to me than the Tribune article’s ideologically connecting Bellow to Ellison. Jackson rightly locates the common denominator: communism.

Greif’s review also reminds us of the foundations of scholarship. While many familiar with well-researched books on African-American historical figures know Rampersad’s name, few likely knew of Jackson. Greif takes the matter a step further: He chastises Rampersad for not engaging Jackson’s work. This reproof is not just nitpicking: Greif points out several instances where a Rampersad-Jackson conversation was either necessary or could have been enlightening.

With this post I want to thank Greif for digging deeper. We need more public reminders of the depth of work required to build accurate portraits U.S. intellectual history’s complex figures. – TL

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. A Historical Guide to Ralph Ellison (2004) edited by Steven C. Tracy contains a lengthy follow-up essay by Lawrence Jackson entitled “Ralph Ellison’s Politics of Integration,” about how Ellison cultivated the legacy of his novel.

    In an online piece, “The Grooming of a Public Intellectual,” Jackson explains that “In August 2001, Ellison’s estate threatened to file suit to stop publication. The book was in galleys, and they wanted 3,000 words (of a particular section) cut from the manuscript –these were quotes from his letters to Richard Wright, which are in Yale’s library and open to the public.”

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