A collection of letters from the author of Invisible Man that trace the life and mind of a giant of American literature, with insights into the riddle of identity, the writer’s craft, and the story of a changing nation over six decades.
An essential new book, The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison, presents this writer in all his candor, seriousness, outrage and wit. Nearly all of these letters are previously unpublished. What brings them alive is that while they brood on the largest of issues — identity, alienation, the political responsibilities of the artist — they’re earthy and squirming with all the vital things of everyday experience ... You move from the cascade of Ellison’s thinking about art and ideas, for example, to one of the funniest and warmest letters I’ve ever read ... This collection has so many incidental pleasures that I nearly always felt lucky to be reading it while the rest of the world had to make do with Twitter ... His writing about music is nearly always sublime ... There’s too much of John F. Callahan, Ellison’s literary executor and co-editor of these letters, in this collection. His introductions to each decade of letters are overly long, not especially perceptive and spill too many details ... Collections of letters, like biographies, build narrative momentum — how will Ellison get out of this jam? — momentum that Callahan dashes by too often emerging in the narrative to tell you what is going to happen and to pre-empt the best lines ... contains so much fine human stuff, however, that the indelible line from Invisible Man reverberates over it: 'Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?'
In heft and breadth, the missives here make up the Big Book of Life that Invisible Man’s triumph augured, and that we’ve been awaiting (not always patiently) for all these years ... Ellison’s letters vibrate with striking imagery, flinty repartee, shrewd literary insight, and bountiful reverie. One can’t help thinking while wandering through this capacious volume that if only this mercurial and meticulous man could have somehow sustained the high-spirited, polychromatic flow of his correspondence and carried it into his regular routine, there could have been two, three, even four more novels bearing his name ... in the end, Ralph Ellison, as so many writers before and since, turned out to be an even deeper and more fascinating creation than the nameless hero of his great novel.
This book is a treasure. It serves in part as an alternative to the view of Ellison provided by Arnold Rampersad’s 2007 biography, a highly informative, eminently readable work that nonetheless portrayed its subject as something of a cold fish. The man who emerges from Selected Letters is complex and has his prickly moments but comes across, in the main, as a warm human being who valued artistic achievement, meaningful intellectual exchanges, good music, Southern cooking, a sip of whiskey and good times with old friends. And in an age when people text because they can’t be bothered with email, it is a pleasure to read the letters of one who wrote at length, thoughtfully, and with wonderful humor about everything from family stories to literature to the state of his nation to—inevitably—race ... Mr. Callahan provides a general introduction to the book as well as a warm, perceptive introduction to each decade of letters.