Book Review: Ralph Ellison: A Biography
- A Top 10 Book in the “Nonfiction Books from the 21st Century” Category
- Selected for 1 Book Club’s Reading List
- 2008 BCALA Literary Award
- A New York Times Notable Book for 2007
Book Reviewed by Kam Williams
"I know by now that all my little triumphs are in reality defeats."
— Ralph Ellison, 1961
When Ralph Ellison (1913-1994) won the National Book Award for Invisible Man in 1953, little did he know that he’d never publish another novel during his lifetime. Still, his acerbic examination of racism through the eyes of a black man in search of an identity was a masterpiece which permanently established the author in the pantheon of great African-American writers on the strength of this contribution alone.
Ellison, a World War II veteran and college dropout, would spend the next forty years in a futile quest to replicate the success of that literary feat. According to his biographer, Arnold Rampersad, all the attention and accolades which arrived in the wake of Invisible Man, probably prevented the perfectionist from ever focusing on his work to the degree necessary to attain the same level of excellence again.
Rampersad, professor of English at Stanford University, devotes almost 700 pages to chronicling his subject’s confounding spiral towards irrelevancy, if not obscurity. Fortunately, this encyclopedic examination of the enigmatic Ellison’s life proves to be fascinating, partially because Ralph was so outspoken and given to making controversial, conservative remarks which ultimately left him ostracized by and estranged from the community he had once so eloquently spoken for.
A black beatnik still banging on his bongo, Daddy-o, long past the time when his people had begun marching to the beat of a different drum.