There’s something inherently amazing about a collected letters of any famous person, or in this case a famous writer. For one, there’s extraordinary amount of research and footwork put into the project, from collecting the letters from a potential wide-ranging set of recipients to placing them in order, providing editorial content, and for verifying different aspects of the letters, let alone providing an analysis of the content. So the editors of this collection have been very successful (so far is readily apparent in reading them). In addition to all this, there’s the fact that Ralph Ellison has written something like decades of letters to all kinds of different people, and that this book comprises about 1000 or pages of letters all told. It’s ordered chronologically as makes sense, and my review will cover these sections.
The 1930s and 40s: (https://thislandpress.com/2014/04/07/father-of-fight-club/)
In these first two decades of writing, from the late 1930s as Ellison is moving away to college, experiencing university, and then into the 1940s as he’s writing commentary, short fiction, and finally Invisible Man we see a kind of kunstlerroman at work. It’s not actually that because, for the sake of thoroughness, this collection does not support a narrative here. This is a life that includes asking for small amounts of money for a winter coat to asking a wife to send cigarettes and does she know where that one book got to, this is not a story. Instead, it’s the presentation of a person, through his outward discourse with those people in his life. Later, we’ll see the very common and understandable duality (what would more so be a multiplicity) at play depending on who he is writing to (especially about the same subject). The early letters are mostly written to his mother and his stepfather, who through sacrifice and generosity and a sense of duty, help him finance his university education which splits its time between music and literature. Fees must be paid on time, so some semesters are delayed, and even when well-meaning professors try to help him, institutional facades keep him from a timely finish. This present Ellison in one way as a pretty recognizable young man asking him mom for money, promising that this is everything he’ll need it for, thanking her, almost immediately needing more, and then thanking her profusely. What is revealed in addition to all this through the subtext, is that despite being at a Black college, there’s a really fragility to his studies not because of his capacity (he’s more than adequate to the task) but through his position as a young Black man. He does not let this on, and it will be clear in other letters not that he sees himself as exceptional, but that he sees himself as a natural toward this life, compelled by it, and attuned to it.
As these decades move on he begins writing and publishing, thinking about his reading, and beginning the process of joining the variety of literary circles he becomes associated with. He writes letters in the 1940s to Langston Hughes, Albert Murray, and Richard Wright among many others (including Shirley Jackson and her husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman).
He’s on the cusp of publishing Invisible Man, reading and reviewing a lot. He’s receiving a lot of attention for early drafts and early sections of the novel and is awarded a lot of writing residencies like Yaddo. One of the more interesting things that comes out of this period of letters is his relative distrust and aversion to James Baldwin (it’s important to note that many of Ellison’s letters and thinking is informed by a casual to more serious homophobia that is not expressly unique of the time, along with some mild to hefty misogyny as well) and a friendship with Saul Bellow that begins with mutual respect for each other’s writing, but includes letters discussing details of rent and utility bills of a house in Italy that Bellow owned and Ellison used for a time. There’s also a long series of letter between Ellison and his wife over an affair Ellison had while in Italy, which threatened to, but did not end their marriage.
Ellison’s fiction becomes more and more mired in stagnancy, and the letters are less fruitful. He’s still a valued teacher and critic (coming from a writerly perspective instead of a academic one). His friendships again are shifting, and there’s some pained, but also painful to read pleading with his wife over her drinking. Like I said, there’s not a narrative here, but we know that Ellison will never publish that second novel. In this section, it’s perhaps becoming clear to Ellison as well. He mentions at times that he’d preferred to publish one perfect novel than five bad ones, but it might also be the case that one perfect novel and one bad one would free up his mind to dive back in. So like his character in Invisible Man, there’s a hesitancy to commit himself to the publication (as opposed to the writing), and be willing to possibly fail. There remains in this section the continued search for small amounts of money to keep pushing forward in life. One of the best exchanges in this section is where he politely declines a writing assignment from Irving Kristol in one letter, while calling Kristol a son of a bitch in another. It’s a wonderful look into the duality of humans in general, and the especial kind that in this case a Black writer has to make to not shut doors.
This is where things begin to get decidedly sad. Ellison begins the decade off starting a tiff when his friend Stanley Edgar Hyman, who dies soon thereafter. He’s reeling from being labeled an “Uncle Tom” by many in the Left, while he sees himself as active in different ways. And it’s clear that he’s moving from writer to teacher in more permanent fashion. He spends a lot of the decade working on essays, giving fiction notes, and shoring up details on a variety of subjects.
1980s and 1990s:
He’s not going to finish his novel and he knows it. A lot of these letters are legacy pieces. In addition, he spends a lot of time correcting misconceptions, especially with his relationships with Richard Wright and Langston Hughes. The world is passing him by. He spends one long letter defending against criticisms of homophobia, an accusation that might not be accurate in the specific case of an old friend, but definitely permeates earlier letters, including telling us that he thinks James Baldwin only went “gay in France” for some kind of affect. It’s a reminder that human lives are complicated and in the playing that the narrator of Invisible Man does with memoir and narration, letters also involve writers telling us who they want us to see them as.