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Stroke of genius

Ralph Ellison’s life in letters

Portrait of Oklahoma City-born author Ralph Ellison by Tracey Harris at the Oklahoma State Capitol.


Few figures tower over America’s literary landscape like Ralph Waldo Ellison. The Oklahoma City-born author lit up the world with his 1952 novel, Invisible Man, but he was also a prolific essayist and a searing cultural critic. Nonfiction works like Shadow and Act (1964) and Going to the Territory (1986) remain valuable insights into one of the greatest American minds to ever grapple with questions of race, art and identity in the 20th century. 

He also wrote letters—thousands of them, to friends and rivals alike, over the course of six decades. Now Ellison’s literary executor, John F. Callahan, presents a monumental collection of the literary giant’s lifetime of correspondence in The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison, published Dec. 3 through Penguin Random House. The collection represents the most complete account of Ellison’s correspondence, offering deep insight into his emotional life and professional development. 

John F. Callahan is the Morgan S. Odell Professor of Humanities at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon. In addition to editing the Modern Library edition of The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison (2011), he also edited Ellison’s posthumous novel Juneteenth (1999)—which he later re-worked as Three Days Before the Shooting (2010)—along with Ellison’s lone short story collection Flying Home (1996) and Trading Twelves: The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray (2001). 

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Jezy J. Gray: Thanks for chatting with me, Dr. Callahan. 


John F. Callahan: Oh, you bet!


Gray: Can you start by telling readers about your relationship to Ralph Ellison, and how you came to take on the role as literary executor of his estate?


Callahan: I read Invisible Man in college, and it really stopped me in my tracks. So it was a wonderful book still in my mind when I was in graduate school in the late ‘60s, trying to write my dissertation on Scott Fitzgerald. And there was a really puzzling passage in Tender Is the Night. It seemed to me to have something to do with the Civil War. Fitzgerald was almost using the trivial events in Paris to parody the Civil War. And I had a lot of trouble figuring out what the hell he was up to. [Then] a good friend of mine, the black poet named Michael Harper, said … you gotta read these essays of Ellison. 


And curiously, the essays he gave me—God, I think they were mimeographed, Jezy. I mean, they both were pieces that had come out and not not been reprinted or anything. Very few people knew about them. One was ‘Society, Morality and the Novel,’ and the other one was, ‘Tell It Like It Is, Baby.’ And I read these things and they were—they were astonishing. And I thought, ‘God, when I get done with Fitzgerald I gotta see what I see what I can do with Ellison.’ 


So anyway, I wrote a fairly long essay on him. And it was published by, you know, some pretty obscure journal. And it came back to me—and you write, so you know the feeling—it's more common than not to write something and see it published and think, ‘Jesus, I wish I'd spent another two weeks on this thing. I could have really made it good.’ But in the case of this piece, I read it. I said [to myself] ‘Are you sure you wrote this?’ Because there wasn't anything I wanted to change. And I was really delighted with the piece. So I got my Irish up, I guess, and I got Ellison's address and I sent him a copy of it. A ‘Dear Mr. Ellison, enclosed …’ kind of thing. 


About five weeks later, I got back a two-page, single-spaced letter from Ellison. He really liked the piece very much. It was called ‘The Historical Frequencies of Ralph Waldo Ellison,’ and he picked right up on historical frequencies, and it was as if we'd been in conversation for a long time. And I realized recently, of course we had [been in conversation] as writers. Because there was a wonderful quality about Ellison on the page, whether it was a letter or an essay or the fiction that was intimate. It was as if he was writing it to the person who was reading it.


Anyway, at the end of the letter he said, ‘If you're ever in New York and have the time, Mrs. Ellison and I would be glad to meet you.’ This letter was in late January. Around May, I managed to figure out how to get to the New York Public Library to do a little research and I told the Ellisons I would be in New York … so that's when I met them. They invited me to come over and meet with Ralph and stay for dinner. And we became immediate, fast friends right away. 


This was in 1978. And we grew closer and closer all the time until his death in 1994. After he passed away, Mrs. Ellison asked me if I would help her try to, you know, assess the shape of the papers he left behind. And mainly she was keyed into the second novel. Although initially, shortly after he died, Random House decided they wanted to bring out a collected essays. And I really thought that was wonderful, because a lot of the essays were not and are not in Shadow and Act and Going to the Territory. So, I first the first thing I did was the collection of essays. 


Gray: How is building a collection like Collected Essays different from what I imagine is the more intimate process of poring through his personal letters? 


Callahan: It's interesting because the two the two tasks were very different. But there was one one damn thing that was really similar, as I think about it—your question focuses me very well—and that’s the critical matter with sequence. How do you sequence these things? On what basis do you put one after another after another? 


With the essays, it was roughly chronological … [although] I didn't necessarily start there, doing it that way. But the more I read Ellison's work as being in conversation with itself, the more I thought, ‘Hey, these things are telling a story.’ And the story is, to some extent, chronological. And the conventional way that I think letters or letter collections are organized, even some of the very best ones, are by correspondence—you know, all the letters that he wrote to you, Jezy, in one place; and the letters he wrote to me in another place. Letters he wrote to his wife all together, letters he wrote to Al Murray all together, and I decided that just wasn't right. 


I had become fairly familiar—not really, truly and intimately familiar yet with the letters—but I had a sense of the letters and the great sweep of them. I mean, the first letter was written in March of 1933. …  It written from Boley, an all-black town in Oklahoma. There was the Boley School for Boys, which was another fancy word for reform school. There was some kind of job, supposedly, in terms of teaching music to the boys. He goes there for an interview and he stays overnight and he writes a letter to his mother. And that's the first letter in the collection. 


That's the beginning … and the last letter is written in 1992, to Willie Morris. So here we have this story, the marvelous sweep of so many things: Ellison's own life, his travels and his life in Oklahoma, in New York, trips to Europe—especially Rome—and so on. It’s clearly a story of America for over 60 years, basically the 20th century. And that just seemed to me the way, so I never looked back on that. 


Gray: Oklahoma loomed large in Ellison’s life. Can you talk about what “the territory” meant to him, and how this part of the world colored his experience? 


Callahan: Oh yeah. I remember the first day I met him. That evening, we sat around—Fanny and Ralph and I—and we each talked about where we’d grown up and what life was like. And he loved to tell stories about Oklahoma and his life there. And he loved to tell the story of Oklahoma. I mean, I had no idea what ‘Sooner’ meant … these bastards [who] hustled in too soon, to get the best land. All kinds of stuff like that, [which] he knew and loved about Oklahoma. 


One of the things that was very important to Ralph, and he talked about it the first night I met him, was how diverse and eclectic … his range of acquaintances [was] in Oklahoma. He knew red people and black people and white people and some Asian people. I mean, it was just a part of a part of his world. Obviously the main conflict was still, you know, white and black, although Ellison always was very, very much fascinated by and part of the various Indian tribes in Oklahoma. That was something he felt was part of his heritage. 


Oklahoma itself is a wild and roistering place. I mean: Deep Deuce [neighborhood]—which, what’s Tulsa, about 150 miles from Oklahoma City? 


Gray: A little less—about an hour and a half away. 


Callahan: Yeah, yeah. 


Gray: I used to live in the City. 


Callahan: Okay, so you know Deep Deuce. Ellison brings that alive. I mean, I've wandered around it, but now it's very, very different. It's kind of been remodeled, or whatever they call it now. Redeveloped, I guess.


Gray: Gentrified.


Callahan: Yeah, the freeway’s been put through there. But it was very rich, the black community—through Ellison’s eyes, anyway—when he was growing up. It was a very warm and nurturing place. I mean, not completely. No place is. 


Gray: You say Oklahoma was a “frontier dream world” for him.


Callahan: Yeah. I think it's a place where a lot of people dreamed their dreams. Ralph Ellison was certainly one of them. 


Gray: These letters are such a rich account of Ellison's personal and professional life, but they’re also an account of his life as a citizen. 


Callahan: You bet!


Gray: Can you tell me about his letter to Morteza Sprague about Brown v. Board of Education? 


Callahan: Oh, yeah. I mean, it's an amazing letter. He writes her two days after May 19, 1954. It’s the day after the decision gets handed down, and he writes such an interesting letter. It starts out like, ‘Well, yesterday, I went down here, and then Sunday, I was here …’ It's just very much a daily letter. It's a letter of what he's up to—his routine, his life—then all of a sudden he moves to a new paragraph, which is the last paragraph in the letter, and he says, ‘Well, the court has spoken,’ and he starts to talk about the decision. And he says, ‘Now the court has decided …’ Well, let me see. I got the goddamn thing right in front of me.  Let’s key into a couple of these things. 


Let’s see. Page 360. Yeah, listen to this: ‘Now the court has found in our favor. They recognized our human psychological complexity and citizenship, and another battle of the Civil War has been won. The rest is up to us. And I'm very glad.’ And he talks about how he was reading Bruce Catton’s book about Appomattox [where Robert E. Lee surrendered his Confederate forces in 1865] when he heard about [the decision] on the radio. 


He says, ‘Reading these things made a heightening of emotion and a telescoping of perspective—yes, in a sense of the problems that lie ahead—that left me wet-eyed. I could see the whole road stretched out. It got all mixed up with this book I'm trying to write, and it left me twisted with joy and a sense of inadequacy …  Well, so now the judges have found Negros must be individuals, and that is hopeful and good. What a wonderful world of possibilities that have unfolded for the children.’ All of this is preparing for this little post that he gives. He says, ‘Anyway, here’s to integration, the only integration that counts: that of the personality.’ 


So, some fool who thinks Ellison is apolitical, or thinks he's art for art's sake was, would say, ‘What’s the matter with him? He's talking about the personality, individualism, all that kind of stuff. He's not really on the case about what the court decision made.’ And, you know, that's absolutely not so. I mean, Ellison thinks every human being’s task is to integrate the different parts of himself or herself. And of course that is inextricably bound up with what the goddamn country has to do—all of its citizens, together.


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The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison
Edited by John F. Callahan and Marc C. Conner 
Random House, 1004 pp, $50

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