The Letters of Ralph Ellison: On the Making of a Literary Giant

John F. Callahan Looks at What Decades of Correspondence Can Reveal

Ralph Ellison’s life comes close to spanning the 20th century, though as the years go by he casts a glance back to the Civil War and Reconstruction of the 19th century and ahead to the fast-approaching digital age of the 21st. Born in 1913, about five and a half years after Oklahoma was admitted to the Union, he lost his father, a protective companion, at the age of three. Raised by his mother, Ida, with rigorous love, Ellison grew up in the mostly nurturing, close black community of the vibrant Deep Deuce section of Oklahoma City during the Jim Crow era.

His story is an African American variation of the American dream. Long after leaving Oklahoma City, this young man from the provinces, who became a sophisticated man of the world, remembers “when I lay on a pallet in the moon-drenched kitchen door and listened and dreamed of the time when I would leave and see the world” (letter to Albert Murray, July 24, 1953).

Written over six decades, Ellison’s letters range from boyhood notes to his mother to detailed exchanges—and sometimes trenchant sparring matches over ideas—with some of the most distinguished figures of American intellectual and literary life: Richard Wright, Kenneth Burke, Stanley Edgar Hyman, Albert Murray, Saul Bellow, Romare Bearden, Robert Penn Warren, Richard Wilbur, Harold Bloom, Hugh Kenner. Equally important, and perhaps sometimes more so for what they reveal about his private self and boyhood experience, are letters to old friends and relations from Oklahoma City, that frontier dream world of his childhood to which Ellison returned with increasing frequency: Virgil Branam, Jimmy Stewart, Camille and Mamie Rhone, Charles Etta Tucker, Hester Holloway, H.B.O. “Hoolie” Davis. Perhaps sensing that he might not live to write a formal autobiography, in the last years of his life Ellison wrote more and more letters that record memories of the people, places, and events of his early years in Oklahoma and what that experience continued to mean in his life and work.

Between March 1933 and June 1993, Ellison wrote letters to an expanding and expansive company of individuals. Even in the parochial “Dear Mama” letters he writes from Tuskegee, we see glimmers of the defiant, lyrical mind whose observations discern fluid changes in American life, society, and personality over the next 60 years. In fact, personality fascinated Ellison so completely that he dared assume the stance of bystander as well as participant—a dual perspective that infuses some of the letters with a feel of both biography and autobiography.

Consider two letters, each from the rich trove of the 1950s, that stake out Ellison’s quest as a person, citizen, and writer. After hearing a radio bulletin announce the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, Ellison is “wet-eyed” as he reflects on what is ahead now that integration is the law of the land: “Well, so now the judges have found and Negroes must be individuals.” He ends this remarkable letter, “Anyway, here’s to integration, the only integration that counts: that of the personality”—a profound toast hailing individual personal integration (letter to Morteza Sprague, May 19, 1954). For Ellison, the Supreme Court’s ruling goes hand in hand with the challenge faced by each citizen, each person, to create an integrated self—an arduous task that, decade by decade, threads its way through his letters.

In another letter written not long after publication of Invisible Man, he regrets that he has “lost the delight of corresponding,” a harrowing condition “since there was a time when I was more myself when writing a letter than at any other time” (letter to Richard Wright, January 21, 1953). Rather than accept “loss of delight” as a chronic affliction, Ellison gives his correspondence an even more central place in his thinking, feeling, and writing life than was the case in the lead-up to and immediate aftermath of Invisible Man.

Almost against his will, Ellison breaks his silence and begins to write revealingly—sometimes guardedly, sometimes openly—about his second novel.

Considered as a whole, Ellison’s letters tell his story on several levels. Biographically, the correspondence tells of his metamorphosis from an impressionable, ambitious outsider into an articulate, accomplished denizen of Harlem who, while making a mark in New York, nevertheless sustains fierce allegiance to his Oklahoma roots. Artistically, the letters follow his changes from a down-and-out, former aspiring symphonic composer into a writer, then a first-rate contemporary novelist, and finally a man of letters whose embrace of American complexity leads to a defiant patriotism bred of his need “to affirm while resisting” (letter to John Callahan, August 12, 1983).

“Personally,” he wrote Time on November 27, 1958, more than a year after his return to the United States from Rome, to correct its mischaracterization of him as a Negro writer in exile, “I am too vindictively American, too full of hate for the hateful aspects of this country, and too possessed by the things I love here to be too long away.” Undoubtedly read by millions of Americans, his letter expresses the double delight of someone able to both master and express “the only integration that counts: that of the personality.”

The letters of Ralph Ellison  testify to the fluidity and change he sees in American life and society, as well as in himself and his relationships. Perhaps the first things to strike a reader coming for the first time to Ellison’s correspondence are its remarkable longevity and the fascinating variety of people he wrote to over those sixty years in the intimate form of the letter. Decade by decade, year by year, Ellison unfolds his lifelong ambition and anxiety, confidence and uncertainty, anger and serenity—and most of all, perhaps, a quality of intensity that became vivid in his painterly observations of the natural and social terrain around him during his daily comings and goings.

Three weeks after his 20th birthday, Ellison writes the first letter in this volume to his mother from the State Training School for Negro Boys in Boley, an all-black town founded before Oklahoma became a state. A fetching self-deprecation presages the humor peppered through the letters: “I’m Mr. Ellison out here and I forget to answer sometimes.”

The 1930s produce a series of letters, many deeply personal, that mark young Ellison’s growth from a dependent young man to a fiercely independent writer-to-be. From June 1933 to May 1936 his letters are written by hand at Tuskegee Institute in rural Alabama. Almost all are to his mother, Ida; a few others are to his younger brother, Herbert, and his stepfather, John Bell; and an ambiguous one is to Vivian Steveson, his old flame from Oklahoma City. The impoverished young man writing “Dear Mama” from Tuskegee is sometimes a lonesome college student viscerally aware of his mother’s sacrifices, at other times a self-absorbed trumpet player whose secret wish is to write a symphony by the age of 26, like Richard Wagner. In July 1936, after his junior year, he goes to New York to earn money for his senior year while shaking free of a manipulative, abusive dean at Tuskegee.

There, encouraged by Langston Hughes, whom he meets outside the Harlem YMCA his first morning in New York, he studies sculpture with Richmond Barthé and lives in a room in the studio. Soon Ellison meets Richard Wright, and the two quickly become good friends; their bull sessions at the Harlem branch office of the Daily Worker give Ellison access to a typewriter, which he uses to respond to Wright’s urging that he try his hand at writing. Under Wright’s inciting influence, young Ellison first writes a book review for Wright’s (and Dorothy West’s) quarterly, New Challenge, then his first short story, “Hymie’s Bull.” Before he realizes what’s happened, Ellison puts away his trumpet in favor of the writer’s pen.

Just when Ellison feels the true surge of a writer inside and is beginning to be noticed in the radical world that Wright dominates in Harlem, catastrophe strikes out in Dayton, Ohio, where his mother moved in the summer of 1936. Informed by a relative in mid-October 1937 that his mother is critically ill, he catches a train and arrives at her Cincinnati hospital  to find her so racked with pain she does not recognize him. The next morning she dies with him at her bedside. A day later, October 17, 1937, he writes the first of several signal letters from Dayton, this one handwritten and addressed simply to “Dear Folks.” Two others he types to Dick Wright on “this very old Typewriter” telling of “wild pears” in the woods, “antagonism” between his brother, Herbert, and himself, and “no Daily nor Masses to be had here” (letter to Richard Wright, October 27, 1937).

By April 1938 Ellison is back in New York, newly hired by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), researching and writing primarily about African American urban folklore in Harlem, when he is not pursuing the fiction begun in Dayton. He marries Rose Poindexter, a strong-willed theatrical artist with ambitions of her own; they grow apart and by 1942 the marriage exists only in name. During this period Ellison expands his circle of acquaintances, and his letters, with their sensuous impressions of New York City and Harlem in particular, show the writer in him taking charge of his personality.

Throughout the 1940s Ellison furiously writes fiction, book reviews, essays, and not least letters. His letters are written mostly in New York City; a few are penned in Waitsfield, Vermont, a writing hideaway; one or two are from Quogue, on eastern Long Island; and in 1945 several are written at sea. During World War II he rejects the segregated U.S. Army in favor of the merchant marine, and during his last voyage on the wild Atlantic, he writes letters that mingle elemental and personal realities, intimate and cosmic sensibilities. In the forties his letters show signs of the self-conscious, self-critical, maturing artist who inches from apprentice to journeyman until the summer of 1945, when, sitting at his typewriter in the open door of a barn in Vermont, his fingers tap out the first sentence of Invisible Man. He perseveres through successive drafts in the late forties to the decisive, bold revisions in 1951 that raise his first novel to the level of the classic it became and still remains.

The letters show how intellectually, aesthetically, and personally rich the decade is for Ellison. His frequent correspondents include Fanny McConnell Ellison, whom he meets and immediately falls in love with in June 1944 and marries in August 1946; Richard Wright, who evokes extraordinary intensity and filial loyalty; literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman and his counterpoint, literary philosopher Kenneth Burke; and Ida Guggenheimer, his patron, to whom he dedicates Invisible Man. Some of these letters track his gradual, sometimes painfully slow composition of Invisible Man and his artistic courage in digging down to the root of his material and revising Chapter 1 for publication in a late 1947 issue of Horizon, Cyril Connolly’s important London magazine.

Except for some seven letters to his close friend Albert Murray,  there is a gap in Ellison’s correspondence between his August 13, 1948, letter to Stanley Edgar Hyman and a March 26, 1952, letter to Ellen Wright. This was an intense period of composition and revision on Invisible Man. Yet when he resumed writing letters after the novel’s publication, the 1950s turned out to be his most prolific decade for correspondence. Like those of the forties, his fifties letters are rich and multifaceted, written to a widening circle of old Oklahoma family and friends such as the Rhone family and boyhood friend Virgil Branam, whose caustic note condemning the 1956 Southern Manifesto spurred Ellison to write “Tell It Like It Is, Baby”; literary friends including Saul Bellow, John Cheever, Richard Stern, Paul Engle, Horace Cayton, and Harry Ford; Tuskegee folk of lesser and greater note including Morteza Sprague and William L. Dawson; and black and white young people he did not know whose letters about Invisible Man touched him.

Of special interest are many letters Ellison wrote from Rome in which his perceptions of America seem sharper, closer, and more vividly and presciently imagined for his being in another country while the civil rights movement back home was shaking America to its foundation. Ellison’s Rome correspondence also broods, rejoices, questions, exults, and wavers over his progress (and lack thereof) on the second novel with its newly created characters, Reverend Hickman and orphan Bliss, and its tangled theme of fathers and sons. These letters include all but one written in the 1950s, to his close friend Albert Murray, collected separately in Trading Twelves along with Murray’s letters to Ellison.

Other letters tell of urgent private matters, most notably the passion, guilt, grief, and complex ownership he expresses surrounding his affair in Rome in 1956-57 and the fissures it opened in his marriage to Fanny. Unsurprisingly, these are among the most intense, tautly self-controlled, yet gut-wrenching letters he writes to her. Always present in Ellison’s letters to Fanny are his observations on the day-to-day ups and downs of the life they are living. Ellison is also compelled to write from Rome, and later New York City during his stopover there in October 1956, of how the civil rights movement seems to be changing. Inquiring what the movement’s development portends for America and the lives of black Americans, he throws into relief those unreconstructed elements of American society and culture still fiercely arrayed against the canny tactics and moral high ground displayed by acts of various contemporary civil rights campaigns, with special focus on the roles of the black church and its ministers and the brave young people who integrated southern public schools in the face of vicious white mobs.

Almost 40 years after the triumph of Invisible Man, the letters are snapshots of Ellison battling with his second novel: How long would the game go on?

Such passages exist side by side with idiosyncratic exchanges with childhood friends from Oklahoma, where Ellison indulges his obsession with jazz, technology, and photography. In addition, one finds sustained investigations of literature and the craft of writing. Almost against his will, Ellison breaks his silence and begins to write revealingly—sometimes guardedly, sometimes openly—about his second novel, particularly during his remarkable decade-long correspondence with Albert Murray. From these excursions it becomes clear that his earliest picaresque episodes, driven by the actions and voices of wild vernacular characters, subsequently led him to characters, plots, and themes that take center stage in his rapidly changing conception of the epic unfinished novel on his hands.

For almost 40 years after the triumph of Invisible Man, the letters are snapshots of Ellison battling with his second novel: How long would the game go on? Would the novelist come to bat down two runs with the bases loaded and two outs in the bottom of the ninth? Would he still be in the batter’s box, digging his spikes into the dirt at home plate, when an umpire, dressed in black, appeared to call the game on account of darkness? If the lights had stayed on, would he have smashed home the winning runs? The official scorecard is lost. The record left is Juneteenth, Three Days Before the Shooting . . . , and all the notes now in the Library of Congress.

The letters of the turbulent 1960s began auspiciously, with Ellison’s excitement over the imminent publication of “And Hickman Arrives,” a long, carefully edited excerpt of the novel-in-progress—the prologue from Book I, leading to episodes from Book II. Saul Bellow called these pages “every bit as good as Invisible Man” and hastened to feature Ellison’s work as the lead piece in his new journal, The Noble Savage. That said, a number of Ellison’s letters from the sixties reflect preoccupation and frustration over his slow progress. As the decade winds on and his essay collection Shadow and Act* (1964) appears while the second novel does not, his letters wane. They all but cease from late 1964 until December 1967, nine days after a mysterious fire ravages the Ellisons’ newly purchased summer home in the woods outside the Berkshire town of Plainfield, Massachusetts.

The embers are still warm on December 8 when Ellison writes Charles Valentine to explain why he must pass up writing the foreword to his book: “The loss was particularly severe for me, as a section of my work-in-progress was destroyed.” The taut facts of understatement neither exaggerate nor make light of the damage. Having taken Fate’s punch, Ellison leans in to resume fighting: “Fortunately, much of my summer’s work on the new novel is still in mind and if my imagination can feed it I’ll be all right, but I must work quickly.” His spare account of what was lost and where he is inside himself make this letter the most suggestive take we have of the actual loss and its impact, as well as the task ahead.

Ralph Ellison’s abiding concern with craft and citizenship finds another outlet in the letters of the 1960s and 1970s, the period when he composes some of his most luminous essays on American culture and also does some of his most sustained and successful writing on the second novel. By the 1980s, after his retirement from the Albert Schweitzer Chair in the Humanities at New York University (NYU), the letters become less about the second novel and more focused on essays he is writing. Too, as more and more relatives and old friends pass away in Oklahoma, he produces vivid letters about the old days and the old life in what he still called the Territory.

Many of these letters, like those written to Richard Wright in the 1940s, have friendship as their theme; notably in the long letter-cum-essay written to poet and longtime friend Richard Wilbur in 1987, Ellison seems to carry on the meditation on friendship in Cicero’s “De Amicitia.” Across the decades Ellison’s letters chart his gradual emergence as a preeminent American essayist. Essays written during his struggles with the second novel—“Society, Morality and the Novel” (1957), “Tell It Like It Is, Baby” (1956/1965), “The World and the Jug” (1963–64), “The Little Man at Chehaw Station” (1977–78), “Going to the Territory” (1980), and “An Extravagance of Laughter” (1986)—articulate his view of American artistic and cultural life and language. Against this backdrop the letters are an invaluable window on both his essays and his fiction and on Ellison’s uniquely American destiny in its abiding vicissitude during his years as a citizen in what he calls, always with a chuckle, this “crazy country.”

In the first year of the 1970s Ellison, whose public support for President Lyndon Johnson complemented his deep skepticism about and opposition to black separatism and much in the Black Power movement, basked in the glow of his essay “What America Would Be Like Without Blacks,” written for Time magazine’s “Race in America” special issue of April 6, 1970. His presence in the sun grew even stronger when The Atlantic Monthly put him on its December cover to show off the brilliant, extraordinary essay/interview “Indivisible Man,” by James Alan McPherson in close collaboration with Ellison. This long, fascinating piece featured excerpts from conversations between Ellison and McPherson and indicated clearly that the unfinished novel was alive and well. (Coincidentally, the interviews for “Indivisible Man” were conducted and the essay written close to the time Fanny Ellison was retyping and labeling the manuscripts of the completed Book I and nearly complete Book II.)

Yet his correspondence from the seventies hints at the distractions occasioned by his nearly decade-long professorship at NYU as well as his proud membership on the board of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Letters tell of other honors equally important to him, such as the dedication of the Ralph Ellison Library in Oklahoma City in 1976, an occasion in his life superbly observed and reflected upon in Jervis Anderson’s 1976 New Yorker profile of Ellison. In the late 1970s and into the 1980s Ellison writes to younger writers and scholars besides McPherson, such as Michel Fabre, Horace Porter, Robert O’Meally, Michael Harper, Alan Nadel, and Henry Louis Gates Jr., as well as old friends Jim Randolph and Jimmy Stewart, the latter now a celebrated citizen of Oklahoma City.

In 1979 his retirement from NYU signals a new phase of Ellison’s life. In several letters he vows to devote the decade to finishing the long-awaited second novel. And indeed, the 1980s are a prolific period for Ellison the writer—but Ellison the letter writer, not Ellison the novelist. The quantity of letters he writes eclipses his output in fiction and essays, though he does produce several splendid short essays as well as write from start to finish the long and canonical autobiographical essay “An Extravagance of Laughter,” published in Going to the Territory in 1986.

By any measure it’s the letters that show us Ralph Ellison over these last years of his quest for “the integration of personality.” As he grows older, he writes more and more letters—often long ones—to those he knew growing up in Oklahoma. These seem juxtaposed naturally with those he writes to newer friends; all give off an intensity that perhaps he could not so easily summon when he turned his hand, as he often did, to the unfinished novel. Increasingly, reminiscence becomes the watermark of his letters, even those he writes to friends whom he also sees in person. It is intriguing if mysterious to calculate the interrelationship between these letters of remembrance and the backward feel of lengthy sequences he writes and revises for the second novel, often from drafts he typed on thin blue or yellow paper and corrected in pencil in the margins in the 1950s and early 1960s and which now rest silently alongside the computer on his desk.

Eight letters are here from the 1990s, each one vitally concerned with the past. Perhaps the most important is to Lowry Ware, the South Carolina native and author of Old Abbeville. Ware’s chapter on Ellison’s grandfather “Big Alfred” Ellison, the sheriff of Abbeville in the late 1870s before the franchise was taken away from black men, earned Ellison’s strong appreciation and gratitude. His “vivid but spotty memories” of visiting his grandfather as a suddenly fatherless three-and-a-half-year-old mingle with Ware’s account of the place and stir up a vision of what the little boy experienced nearly 80 years before: “Abbeville’s huge moths, its butterflies, and the swarms of fireflies that an older neighborhood boy taught me to catch and store in a bottle, and the fun of watching them twinkle and glow through the glass at nightfall . . . the tall pecan trees, which were said to have been planted by my father, and with the fruit of which I was distantly familiar thanks to Christmas holidays when my Aunt Lucretia was sure to receive a gunny sack filled with that delicious share of her old home’s bounty.”

Ellison’s surmise of his grandfather’s approval—dim to the three-year-old, brightly haloed for the old man writing—comes because Big Alfred “was said to have been quite proud of my father so I think he found me acceptable.” Now older than his grandfather was at meeting him, Ellison imagines the little boy he was sensing the possibility the man is only now able to express: “We got along fairly well, perhaps because we were united in our mutual grief.” Writing three-quarters of a century later, the man composing at the computer turns the disturbing memory of “a violent nighttime storm” the little boy experienced once upon a time in Abbeville into a creative fable of belonging to the universe’s different cycles of history and nature: “The next morning the air was quite clear and as I accompanied my Uncle Jim on a walk to assess the storm’s damage we came upon a nest of fledging birds that had been blown from their home in a tree.

It’s as if his narrator’s famous question looms over each letter: “Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?”

After Ellison’s death in 1994, that letter of September 7, 1990, has had the unforeseen, restorative consequence of filling in a hole in his biography. It also tips the scales regarding his true date of birth in favor of March 1, 1913, by showing him act his age as a boy of three instead of a mind-boggling prodigy of two.

*

Ida Milsap Ellison and Fanny McConnell Ellison were, respectively, the original keepers of Ellison’s flame. His mother saved his letters, notes, and cards to her, and he kept hers to him, so after she passed away in an inhospitable Cincinnati hospital, he was able to put the precious correspondence together and in order. From the time he moved to New York in the summer of 1936 and snagged a typewriter, he made carbons of his letters. The habit continued during his five months in Dayton. From then on, back in New York or wherever life took him, he made copies of his letters. He kept them around, if haphazardly, until he and Fanny were married in 1946 and she started careful files of the couple’s correspondence.

In accord with her husband’s wishes, shortly after his death Fanny deeded his books, manuscripts, drafts, letters, and papers of all kinds to the Library of Congress. During negotiations she allowed Alice Birney, the gifted specialist in the Manuscript Division assigned charge of the Ellison Papers, into what she called “the little room” in the Ellison apartment at 730 Riverside Drive. Dr. Birney saw at once the rare quality and value of the correspondence. Back at the Library of Congress Donna Ellis did too. As senior archivist of the Manuscript Division, Ellis directed a dedicated group of archivists who arranged the enormous piles of letters, manuscripts, notes, and memorabilia in good order and prepared a finding aid to guide scholars and readers through the labyrinth of the collection.

The Ellison Papers are in two parts: the bulk of the material arranged and described as Part I in 1997, the remainder processed as Part II in 2010 after Fanny Ellison’s death. In “Part I: General Correspondence, 1930–1996,” Boxes 35 through 79 house Ralph Ellison’s individual correspondence. There are alphabetically arranged folders for individual correspondents and a miscellaneous folder or folders for every letter in the alphabet (e.g., “ ‘A’ Miscellaneous, 1939–1993”).

In almost every case the Library of Congress collection is the source and repository of letters in this volume. Exceptions are Ellison’s three letters to Sanora Babb, one of which exists in partial form at the Library of Congress but is one of the three complete Ellison letters in the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, Austin; six letters to Saul Bellow from the Special Collections Research Center of the Regenstein Library at the University of Chicago; and the originals of several Ellison letters to Richard Wright (not in the Ellison Papers) belonging to the Wright Archive in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University.

The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison is organized chronologically by decade, with an introduction preceding the letters of each decade. Footnotes are included to identify persons, places, events, titles, and other matters germane to the particular letter referred to, or to provide context for an important idea, issue, or relationship mentioned in the letter. On the few occasions when Ellison has something wrong, a footnote attempts to provide more accurate information.

Silent corrections were made to correct typos, misspellings, and occasionally confusing punctuation or its lack, such as in a run-on sentence. Dialect usage remains untouched. Brackets within letters signify missing or illegible words or phrases; they also indicate where a likely word is inserted in a letter’s text. When Ellison has clearly finished but not signed a letter, “[Ralph]” is inserted. On the rare occasions where Ellison’s paragraphs go on at extraordinary length and shift suddenly from one topic to another, mostly in a letter or two to Albert Murray previously published in Trading Twelves, these paragraphs have been divided into two to avoid confusion.

A last thing I would note is that Ralph Ellison did not change his composing habits much from hand to typewriter to computer. He had a palpable tendency to be as careful to “tell it like it is” in a letter as he was in his most ambitious fiction or essays, out of self-respect and respect for the person he was writing to, even if that person was a stranger who had written him about Invisible Man. He put more than a few of his letters through multiple drafts and revisions, sometimes as many as four or five, each one mining extra nuance out of a sentence, an observation, an idea, or a memory. It’s as if his narrator’s famous question looms over each letter: “Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?” If we listen carefully, we may hear Ellison’s voice answer, “Who knows? I know.” And we’ll sense that he’s speaking to us.

__________________________________

The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison
From The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison by Ralph Ellison, edited by John F. Callahan and Marc C. Conner. Excerpted by permission of Random House.

John F. Callahan
John F. Callahan
John F. Callahan is the Morgan S. Odell Professor of Humanities at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon. His writings include a novel, A Man You Could Love. He is the editor of The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison, recently published by Random House, and the Modern Library edition of The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison. A close friend of Ralph Ellison’s, he is literary executor of The Ralph Ellison Estate.





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