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cover of the book Theory's Empire

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cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

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cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

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cover of the book How Novels Think

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cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

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cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

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cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Thursday, April 19, 2007

Rose on Rampersad on Ellison

Posted by Bill Benzon on 04/19/07 at 08:17 AM

Phyllis Rose reviews Arnold Ampersad’s Ralph Ellison: A Biography in The American Scholar. Rose tells us that:

Arnold Rampersad, as fine a biographer as is working today . . . is fully up to answering the obvious question “Why no second novel?” But his book suggests, more interestingly, that it may be the wrong question to ask. The right one would be “How did he manage to write Invisible Man?” For, as Rampersad shows, Ellison’s instincts and core talents were not those of a novelist.

He was cerebral, judgmental, meaning-oriented oriented rather than experience-oriented in his approach to fiction. He had no impulse merely to represent life in its variety, an impulse that, like the urge to chronology, can sustain a fiction writer when all else fails.


Jesus, that was awful. Ellison must have peed in her cornflakes at some point.

By John Emerson on 04/21/07 at 01:07 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I just taught Invisible Man last week.

Maybe the ‘obvious question’ is, why do so many people write fourteen novels which don’t add up to a chapter of this one?

By on 04/21/07 at 04:17 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Why is it people want to believe anEllison who never qwas and resist what this fine biography informs us of?

By on 05/11/07 at 11:58 PM | Permanent link to this comment

We haven’t read the biography, just the awful review of the biography. No facts were harmed in the preparation of our responses.

By John Emerson on 05/12/07 at 07:15 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Maybe it was a good review of a good biography of a nasty man.

By Bill Benzon on 05/12/07 at 08:34 AM | Permanent link to this comment

This is the “would you want to have a beer with” level of criticism. A lot of the authors we like to read behaved badly, with arrogance being a pretty pervasive trait.

Does the reviewer really think that “East of Eden” or “The Old Man and the Sea” are superior to “Invisible Man”. That’s stupid, but if she didn’t think so she shouldn’t have written what she did. How many of the people Ellison thought of as mediocrities really were mediocrities?

Ellison was an advocate of jazz and other forms of black music. Where do we get “His scorn of black culture”? Are we really angry about Ellison’s dog’s poop, and his joke to Bellow about it?

Don’t know about the biography (should Ellison be blamed for its excessive detail?) but the review reminds me of a long string of “X’s ultimate failure” critiques, where X could be Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis, Mark Twain, or any of the other actual writer inevitably envied by non-writer critics.

By John Emerson on 05/12/07 at 09:21 AM | Permanent link to this comment

John Emerson is right.  But what I found even worse was the paragraphs around: “I love knowing exactly how much Ellison spent on stereo equipment and that there was at least one year when he made more money as a photographer than as a writer. But this is not the way you create the portrait of a great mind.” How many scholars really wish that there was *less* information so that it would be easier to make up a coherent, more-fictional narrative?  In between the “have a beer with” criticism and the “facts get in the way, I want a narrative” criticism, it’s like a replication of the media’s dominant mode of political reporting.

By on 05/12/07 at 09:56 AM | Permanent link to this comment

As it happens, Ellison was most scornful of black culture, and blacks in general, If one reads his essays—so few people do—he speaks in gllowing generalities but so specifics; what he praises is his hometown of Oklahoma City—self love in camouflage. As it happens, “The Old Man and the Sea” and “East of Eden” are QUITE superior to “Invisible Man,” the most overrated novel of post-World War II American literature.

By on 05/12/07 at 12:40 PM | Permanent link to this comment

If I agreed about the relative merit of those three books I’d be more sympathetic to your point of view. It would be nice to have more specific examples of Ellison’s scornfulness, because I’ve read two books of his essays, one of which is right here with me now, and I can’t think of any examples. It’s very common for writers to be a bit unhappy with others of their own ethnicity, e.g. Joyce.

By John Emerson on 05/12/07 at 06:29 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Begin with the preface to “Shadow and Act” with the vicious putdown of other black writers. The continuing denigration of Richard Wright, vastly his artistic (and intellectual) superior. But overall., notice that when Ellison praises black culture, he does so because he can relate it to white culture; he does not praise black culture in and of itself.

By on 05/12/07 at 09:13 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, I have “Living with Music” right here. He’s pretty much unreservedly positive about Duke Ellington, Mahalia Jackson, Charlie Christian, Jimmy Rushing, and the birth of bepop at Minton’s. His feelings about Charlie Parker are more mixed, but everyone’s feelings about Parker are mixed. He doesn’t like LeRoi Jones’s book on Blues, but not because he doesn’t like blues. He says good things about his teacher William Dawson. His thing about Richard Wright is complex, and one of its themes is the difficulty that all black writers and intellectuals (including Wright and Book T. Washington, and especially progressive or politically aware intellectuals) have dealing with the actual black community—pretty much the same problems that intellectuals from all communities have.

By John Emerson on 05/12/07 at 10:07 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Is “Invisible Man” obviously better than “Old Man and the Sea”?  I haven’t read either in a while, but the claim that “Old Man and the Sea” is better doesn’t strike me as particularly outrageous.

By on 05/13/07 at 03:57 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The honors that rained down on Ellison in the 1950s and on into the next decades are astonishing. Invisible Man won the 1953 National Book Award over Steinbeck’s East of Eden and Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. (If we need any proof that these awards are representative and political as much as pure testimonies to literary excellence, the fact that Hemingway had not received either a National Book Award or a Pulitzer Prize by this point should do it.)

I really doubt that many readers prefer the two books named to “Invisible Man”. I certainly don’t. But in any case, there’d have to be a very clear superiority of Hemingway’s or Steinbeck’s book over Ellison’s for the above to be a meaningful statement about Ellison’s award. Otherwise it’s a content-free snide remark.

You could say that there were three strong candidates that year and it was unfortunate that two had to lose. You could regret that Hemingway never won a NBA. But there’s no case against Ellison.

By John Emerson on 05/13/07 at 04:50 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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