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Black and White Life

Mark Greif: Ralph Ellison

1 November 2007
Ralph EllisonA Biography 
by Arnold Rampersad.
Knopf, 657 pp., $35, April 2007, 978 0 375 40827 4
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... In 1955, Ralph Ellison took part in a roundtable discussion on the subject ‘What’s Wrong with the American Novel?’ I came across the transcript recently and it opened my eyes. The first speakers twitter along, blaming readers for the novel’s decline. Then Ellison speaks up, and blames one party only: ‘There has been a failure of writers ...
2 March 2000
Juneteenth 
by Ralph Ellison, edited by John Callaghan.
Hamish Hamilton, 368 pp., £16.99, December 1999, 0 241 14084 6
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... Ralph Ellison wrote his own running commentary on the mammoth fiction he laboured over for the last forty years of his life and failed to finish. When his literary executor John Callahan appended some of these jottings to the end of ‘Juneteenth’, the ‘novel’ he extracted from two thousand manuscript pages, he gave Ellison the last word: the final note reproaches the editor from beyond the grave, along with the readers Callahan has invited into the unfinished structure ...

My Friend Sam

Jane Miller

16 August 1990
The rock cried out 
by Ellen Douglas.
Virago, 303 pp., £5.99, June 1990, 1 85381 140 8
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Can’t quit you, baby 
by Ellen Douglas.
Virago, 256 pp., £12.95, June 1990, 1 85381 149 1
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... forms of Christianity celebrated in Southern churches. There must be ways in which writers like Ralph Ellison and Alice Walker are bound to acknowledge their indebtedness to white Southern writing, as to its European sources. If The Color Purple may be read as a novel about the acquiring of literacy, becoming a reader and a writer, and the meaning of ...

Writing Absurdity

Adam Shatz: Chester Himes

25 April 2018
Chester B. Himes: A Biography 
by Lawrence P. Jackson.
Norton, 606 pp., £25, July 2017, 978 0 393 06389 9
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... black male writers who came of age in the 1930s and 1940s and included Richard Wright (born 1908), Ralph Ellison (1914) and James Baldwin (1924), Himes has never quite entered the pantheon. His peers were condescending: Wright never took him seriously as an artist; Ellison, who saw him as little more than an ex-con with ...

Plummeting Deep into Cold Pop

Zachary Leader: Colson Whitehead

13 December 2001
John Henry Days 
by Colson Whitehead.
Fourth Estate, 389 pp., £12, June 2001, 1 84115 569 1
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... and extravagant praise from American critics. Whitehead is black and comparisons were made to Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison and Ishmael Reed. John Updike has called him ‘blithely gifted’, ‘the young African-American writer to watch’. Whitehead’s new novel, John Henry Days, is longer and more ambitious than The Intuitionist, and the ...

Cheeky

J.I.M. Stewart

23 October 1986
H.G. Wells: Desperately Mortal 
by David Smith.
Yale, 634 pp., £18.50, September 1986, 0 300 03672 8
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... a single slight instance must suffice – that The Invisible Man ‘probably provided the novelist Ralph Ellison, an important black observer of America, with the title for his work Invisible Man (1952)’. Again, although Professor Smith no doubt judges the quality of a scientific or literary work to be much more important than its degree of financial ...

Too Fast

Thomas Powers: Malcolm X

25 August 2011
Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention 
by Manning Marable.
Allen Lane, 592 pp., £30, April 2011, 978 0 7139 9895 5
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... time. On any morning that summer, Little might have brushed shoulders with the slender, watchful Ralph Ellison, passing through the Harlem YMCA, where Little roomed for a time only a block away from Small’s. Ellison was preparing himself to write the great black American novel, and he later set an important scene in ...
3 April 1986
The Mantle of the Prophet 
by Roy Mottahedeh.
Chatto, 416 pp., £12.95, January 1986, 0 7011 3035 0
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... outlook. At the Harvard International Summer Seminar of 1965, directed by Henry Kissinger, he told Ralph Ellison: ‘I believe that the problem of American blacks comes from the two refuges they have constructed for themselves: Christianity and jazz.’ But he became more and more apolitical and pessimistic. Despite his return to religion, he never ...

Southern Comfort

Claude Rawson

16 April 1981
Jefferson Davis gets his citizenship back 
by Robert Penn Warren.
Kentucky/Transatlantic Book Service, 114 pp., £4.85, December 1980, 0 8131 1445 4
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Being here: Poetry 1977-1980 
by Robert Penn Warren.
Secker, 109 pp., £4.95, October 1980, 0 436 36650 9
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Ways of light: Poems 1972-1980 
by Richard Eberhart.
Oxford, 68 pp., £5.95, January 1981, 9780195027372
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... at the time of the celebrated Agrarian manifesto, I’ll take my stand (1930), and even told Ralph Ellison and Eugene Walter in 1957 that this unreadiness had been an ‘objective’ fact in 1929. The posture does Warren an injustice. The early statement is less crudely inhumane than it is made to seem, and the subsequent record is honourable. But ...
23 September 1993
Was Huck Black? Mark Twain and African-American Voices 
by Shelley Fishkin.
Oxford, 270 pp., £17.50, June 1993, 0 19 508214 1
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Black Legacy: America’s Hidden Heritage 
by William Piersen.
Massachusetts, 264 pp., £36, August 1993, 9780870238543
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Black and White Strangers: Race and American Literary Realism 
by Kenneth Warren.
Chicago, 178 pp., £21.95, August 1993, 0 226 87384 6
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... the first person to state that Huck’s voice is, in crucial ways, at least partly black. In 1970, Ralph Ellison claimed ‘the black man [was] a co-creator of the language that Mark Twain raised to the level of literary eloquence ... without the presence of blacks, the book [Huckleberry Finn] could not have been written. No Huck and Jim, no American ...

Tang and Tone

Stephen Fender: The Federal Writer’s Project’s American epic

18 March 2004
Portrait of America: A Cultural History of the Federal Writers’ Project 
by Jerrold Hirsch.
North Carolina, 293 pp., £16.50, November 2003, 0 8078 5489 1
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... was the impetus given to the careers of black authors: Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison were given their first chance by the FWP. Its ambition was to create – or rather to discover – a great American epic in the acts and words of ordinary men and women: to draw from the disregarded speech and customs of the people the ...

They don’t say that about Idi Amin

Andrew O’Hagan: Bellow Whinges

6 January 2011
Saul Bellow: Letters 
edited by Benjamin Taylor.
Viking, 571 pp., $35, November 2010, 978 0 670 02221 2
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... notion that replying to letters was nothing if not a complete and utter waste of time. To Ralph Ellison: ‘I’ve never enjoyed writing letters. Vasiliki says that Isaac, whose journals she took after his death, had some uncomplimentary things to say about the way I answered letters. I deserve them. There is some wickedness hidden here and I ...

Whalers v. Sealers

Nicholas Guyatt: Rebellion on the Tryal

19 March 2015
Empire of Necessity: The Untold History of a Slave Rebellion in the Age of Liberty 
by Greg Grandin.
Oneworld, 360 pp., £25, May 2014, 978 1 78074 410 0
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... even more elusive, even more entrenched in human affairs’. It’s an idea that made sense to Ralph Ellison, who took Delano’s question as the epigraph to Invisible Man. But there’s an element of wishful thinking here. ‘Benito Cereno’ is nothing like Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Melville’s Babo – intelligent and coldly resolute – would find no ...

The Sound of Cracking

Pankaj Mishra: ‘The Age of the Crisis of Man’

26 August 2015
The Age of the Crisis of Man: Thought and Fiction in America, 1933-73 
by Mark Greif.
Princeton, 434 pp., £19.95, January 2015, 978 0 691 14639 3
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Moral Agents: Eight 20th-Century American Writers 
by Edward Mendelson.
New York Review, 216 pp., £12.99, May 2015, 978 1 59017 776 1
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... life without being bothered by women and non-whites; the rare outsider they listened to, such as Ralph Ellison, concluded, as Greif points out, that universal humanity in a universal history ‘makes ruined buildings, and dead men’. Greif knows​ that the American interrogation of the crisis of man was programmed to receive ‘a single inductive or ...
6 June 2019
Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud and the Last Trial of Harper Lee 
by Casey Cep.
Heinemann, 314 pp., £20, May 2019, 978 1 78515 073 9
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... writer is going to have on the inward aspects of black lives. She was good – but she wasn’t Ralph Ellison. Whatever the reason, three years into the project, Lee was flailing. ‘My agent wants pure gore and autopsies,’ she wrote to Peck, ‘my publisher wants another bestseller, and I want a clear conscience, in that I haven’t defrauded the ...

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