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Literary Executor For Ralph Ellison Reflects On Author's Life And Collection Of Letters

Before becoming the internationally recognized author of Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison grew up a precocious child in Deep Deuce, Oklahoma City. Now, a collection of his letters is available in hardback. KGOU’s Richard Bassett spoke with John Callahan, the literary executor for Ralph Ellison and one of the editors of the book. Bassett began by asking what the letters reveal about Ellison’s feelings for Oklahoma.

Extended Version Of Richard Bassett's Conversation With John Callahan

Full Transcript:

John Callahan: Well, he loved Oklahoma, Richard. He loved it while he was there and more and more unreservedly as he left. For example, I'd like to read a letter he writes in 1961 to a woman named Hester Holloway. She was his mother's best friend in Oklahoma City and she typifies the kind of spirit and the quality that these elders had in Oklahoma City, and that formed his life from the point he was a boy on. So he writes:

"That you were adventurous people and that you reached out for some of the joy of life. I've seen a lot of places, countries, and people from places in this society whom if somebody had told me I would grow up to know and observe I would have thought they were trying to kid me; but for all of that, there are few of them who impress me as being more interesting or more human or imbued with a greater feeling for life than some of you. This has come to mean a great deal to me and I know that I've been extremely lucky to have grown up in that place and in that time and thus around you. Thanks to those like you I never had to apologize to myself, or make excuses to anyone, for being a Negro. That is much more than anything I got at Tuskegee or anywhere else. I couldn't have bought it with gold, and all that was necessary for me to get it was for you to be true to yourself."

I mean, this is Ellison writing almost 30 years after he's left Oklahoma and you can see how it's still deep in his heart.

Richard Bassett: So Ellison only completed the one novel in his lifetime, "Invisible Man." At one point, though, he lost over 200 pages of a second novel in a fire, which is really kind of to hard to fathom how he would have responded to that.

Callahan: Well, it's funny you should mention that, Richard, because a letter does the trick better than anything else. The fire and the loss of a very important chunk of the second novel grew into something of a myth in terms of the way that Ellison would refer to it. And we're very lucky that he, eight or nine days after the fire—and the fire happened in late November of 1967—and he has agreed to write a preface to this young scholar's book about culture and poverty. And so Elison sits down to write him about why he can't write the preface for the guy and he mentions the fire. And it's a brief passage that I'd like to read:

"On the late afternoon of November 29 at our home in Plainfield, Massachusetts, was destroyed by fire. The loss was particularly severe for me as a section of my work in progress was destroyed with it. I write this to say that as much as I had hoped to write the foreword to your forthcoming book, "Culture and Poverty," under the circumstances, I don't believe I can take time out now. Fortunately, much of my summer's work on the new novel is still in mind. And if my imagination can feed it, I'll be all right. But I must work quickly."

Now, that's very different than a notion that the whole novel was destroyed. It obviously hampered his work on the novel. He had difficulty really getting it back together. Two years later, in 1969, less than two years later, he has written and published probably the best thing that was published in his lifetime from the second novel. It's a magnificent piece of work called "Night Talk." So he managed to do that less than two years after the fire. So it seems to me that this letter sheds light on the notion that the novel was giving Ellison fits long before the fire. Did the fire hurt his efforts? Yeah, yeah, it did. But it didn't comply entirely disable him. I think other literary problems were at the core of his inability to finish the novel. He had, he didn't make certain decisions about what to cut. He talks at the same time in 1969, he talks to the young writer Jim McPherson. They're collaborating on a wonderful essay interview called "Indivisible Man." And Ellison is talking to McPherson in his apartment in New York and is surrounded by all of his manuscripts and typed scripts. And he starts pulling them out and he says to McPherson, I could publish three volumes. I have the material for three novels. But I'm trying to integrate all this material into one. Now, that was in 1969 and I found when I was going through editing "Juneteenth," and then also doing this scholarly edition of the novel that came out in 2010, that these distinct narratives were still there, but he never did completed one and never completed the other two and never knit the three of them together.

Bassett: Despite only completing the one novel, Ellison is rightfully regarded as a literary giant through his stories, essays, and these letters. It's really an extraordinary collection that offers a look at a disappearing craft. Tell us a little bit about his letter-writing process and what letter writing meant to Ralph Ellison.

Callahan: Well, it damn near meant everything to him. He writes Richard Wright in 1953—January 53—about the hiatus in his letter writing. He hadn't written many letters since sometime in 1948 or 1949 because he was on the home stretch of "Invisible Man." So, he writes to Dick Wright in January of 1953. And he just flat out says somewhere along the way, I've flat out lost the joy of corresponding. And he goes on to say that there was a time when he never felt as much himself as when he was writing letters, and he doesn't know why that pleasure, that joy has gone away. Now, that's in early 1953. But he gets it back ... The wonderful thing is he gets it back and from then on the decade of the fifties has twice as many letters as any other decade.

Bassett: It was fun to read about his interactions with other notable 20th century writers and artists like Richard Wright, as you just mentioned, and William "Bill" Faulkner. Are there any interesting stories in the collection that you'd like to share that readers might be drawn to?

Callahan: Well, it's interesting because one of the correspondences that seems to me to be really as important as any other is Saul Bellow. Ellison and Bellow had a real affinity as friends. There is an amusing story about the letter he writes to Faulkner. I think it's in 1957. And few people knew this. I didn't really know this until I came across the letter. There's a kind of writing, or Association of American Writers. And Faulkner for a while is charged with writing the other writers and to ask him to do this or that. There's a situation in 1957 where a number of writers and artists and various people get together and petition Eisenhower, who's president then, to release Ezra Pound from his confinement in St. Elizabeth's mental hospital. There were two people, two American writers who oppose this, one Ellison, and Bellow was the other. And Ellison writes to Faulkner, who's asked him for it to do a couple of things, and he says, I'm fine with this and that, but I'm not fine with your petition to the president about Ezra Pound. And he goes on to say how much he admires Pound's poetry. But he feels that Pound's actions in World War II, wherefrom fascist Italy he makes these recordings that are vicious things. Not only against Jews, but also against black people. And and he says to Faulkner, look, if Pound and his views had triumphed, I wouldn't be here to write you this letter. So he says, doesn't mean I don't love his poetry, that I haven't admired and gotten a lot from his poetry, but it seems to me that the punishment that he's serving is just. That was Ellison. You know, what he believed he was prepared to go with.

Bassett: So one of the most fascinating things about this collection is that it does provide a window into American history. The letters span, you know, 60 years of the 20th century from the 1930s to the 1990s.

Callahan: Ellison's letters have both a timely and a timeless quality to them. And in our culture there is a sense that every moment is utterly different from every other moment. And that's true. But some of the values that we have or don't have, certainly some of the values that Ralph Ellison had, remained constant. That's not to say they remain unchanging, but there's a fundamental quality and truth to them. And you mentioned American history ... In one such cases, he writes a letter to his old teacher—the guy was the librarian while he was at Tuskegee—Morteza Sprague. And he writes it two days after the Supreme Court hands down the Brown v. Board decision. He writes it on May 19th, 1954, and he writes it about the decision declaring segregation unconstitutional and declaring integration as the law of the land. And I think I will read some of that letter:

"Well so now the court has found in our favor and 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. The decision came while I was reading "A Stillness at Appomattox," and a study of the "Negro Freedman" and it made a heightening of emotion and a telescoping of perspective, yes, and a sense of the problems that lie ahead left me wet-eyed. I could see the whole road stretched out and 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. Why did I have to be a writer during a time when events sneer openly at your efforts defying consciousness and form? Well, so now the judges have found Negroes must be individuals and that is hopeful and good. What a wonderful world of possibilities are unfolded for the children! For me there is still the problem of making meaning out of the past and I guess I'm lucky I described Bledsoe before he was checked out. Now I'm writing about the evasion of identity that is another characteristically American problem that must be about to change. I hope so. It's giving me enough trouble."

And then he ends with this wonderful mock toast to Sprague:

"Anyway, here's to integration, the only integration that counts: that of the personality. See you soon, Ralph."

So he gets out a whole lot there. And it seems to me he talks about that decision and he's very much aware of some of the ambiguities, not about the decision itself, but about the consequences and effects that that decision will have. And one of them that disturbed him, and actually Toni Morrison in very similar ways, is the way that carefully built and nourished communities of African-Americans, black people, especially the teachers who couldn't find positions anywhere but Negro schools, which were segregated, and they had given their wonderful gifts to the black students they taught. And in many sections of the country, many school districts that got wiped out. And they, you know, some black kids were integrated into white schools, but they didn't bring any teachers with them, you know. And then, his point did that integration of the personality, that integration, really is work every single last person has got to do. And that is incredibly tied to integration of races in America. It's a very moving letter. It makes me tongue-tied.

Bassett: There is this line in the introduction of the book where you write that Ralph Ellison's story is an African-American variation of the American dream.

Callahan: Sure. Here he is. He's a kid. He's growing up and in Oklahoma City and he loses his father when he's three years old and his mother must become a domestic. They're very, very poor. He's obviously a gifted child and he takes up music. But he's also in many ways, he's really got to understand solitude. So you say, well, here he is, these are the cards he was dealt. But Oklahoma City is a very key place for jazz during the 20s and when Ellison's growing up early 30s. And he really loves jazz. He sneaks around to some of the jazz joints and hides in the shadows and listens to Jimmy Rushing. He listens to Basie's orchestra. He hears Louis Armstrong a couple of times and never forgets what he sounded like then. And so, you know, he has his dreams and he talks about his friends and him. He calls Renaissance, we were Renaissance men, men, Renaissance boys. And they all had their dreams. They all had their aspirations and their ambitions. And he kept at it and left Oklahoma City to go to Tuskegee, where he got other chances. And he went there determined to be a composer and a musician. And that didn't work. But he seized on writing and he became a writer. And it was a dream that was, that was his, but it was connected to what was to the possibilities in American life.

Bassett: So, I am curious about your experience putting this collection together. Did you learn anything new about Ellison or what his perspective offers, or what was the emotional experience like for you doing this project?

Callahan: Reading the letters just gives me a sense of the richness of this guy's consciousness. And there's another point when Harvard asks him to address the 25th reunion of its class of 1949. So this would have been in '74. And Ellison gives an address and this is right at about the time of ... Nixon hasn't yet resigned ... but all the wealthier of chaos that went with that time is still very much present. And he talks about hubris as being an American characteristic. And he reminds these graduates of Harvard that hubris almost inevitably leads to nemesis. So then he says, so what are we to do now? How do we live today? What kinds of qualities do we Americans need? And then he says, I guess the best I can say is we ought to go back to that earlier Ralph Waldo, meaning Ralph Waldo Emerson. And that we need conscience, more conscience and more consciousness. And then he adds a word into this. He says we need conscience and conscientious consciousness. So I learned that about him, just how the man was conscious from day to day. And then many other things. I mean, I knew, of course, I'd been to Oklahoma a number of times, I knew that he was fond of Oklahoma, but I did not know how deep and profound his love for Oklahoma City was, aware, as he was, of the limitations of Jim Crow, Oklahoma. Also aware of the way that the people in the black community, in Deep Deuce, were so rich as human beings. And you can't miss that reading the letters.

Bassett: Who should read this collection and what do you hope people take away from it?

Callahan: There is a human being. There's a man. There's a human being. And, particularly in these times, by God, there's an American. That's what we need to be. We need to bring the kind of humanity and compassion and brilliance and risk, bravery, to our lives as we lead them, as we're conscious and as we go through life and experience things and our citizens. We need more of his conscientious consciousness.

Bassett: So as someone that knew Ellison well, what do you think he would say about 21st century America?

Callahan: Oh, I can tell you what he'd say. Every time I saw him in person or talked to him on the phone, he said the same damn thing. He said, "God, John. It's a crazy country." And he said that with what he might call a sanity-saving comedy. He didn't say that in horror, or being aghast or the world is going to collapse and is gonna be destroyed and he's gonna cease to exist in a half an hour. He had a sense of ... America was a tragic-comic place with a tragic-comic experience. And for Ralph, that comedy, and he talks about it, writes a letter to McPherson where he says, you know, we've got to keep our sense of black comedy because it keeps us sane. I mean, he believed we had to laugh. He said if Americans stop laughing at each other, they're going to start killing each other. The Civil War. And he, Ellison, believed in some ways the Civil War was never over, not yet over entirely in America. So it seems to me, again, there's a sense of, he insisted on a complexity. So what he is, you know, what do you expect? It's a crazy country. So he loved the country and he was impatient at much of the country, angry at the things of the country, but also joyous about much in American life. And he still would be.

Bassett: You think so?

Callahan: Yes, I do. Because the other side of that coin, it's a crazy, in other words, we can't deal with America without realizing it's a crazy country. And that word crazy, you know, turns and spins a lot of ways. It's not just a horror. There's horror and darkness, and lack of compassion and viciousness. But there's also compassion and generosity, and all these things mix and have mixed. And again, the guy just had a tremendous sense of life, a tremendous sense of vitality and curiosity. You know ... that's one of the reasons .... I was with him his last days. I was with him when he died. And I remember him saying, why, John? And then, as if he was afraid I might not understand what he meant, he said, I don't mean why, I mean why now. He knew he was dying. It was why now. And what he had to come to grips with was not just simply death, but dying now, dying in April, April 16th, 1994. You know, and he had to develop in a very short time a certain readiness to die because he was so curious about what was happening in himself, around him, in the country, in New York City, down in the park and he wanted to be a part of it.

Richard is a graduate of The Conservatory of Recording Arts and Sciences in Arizona. He spent three years working for Studiomedia Recording Company in Chicago, where he furthered his audio engineering education. After one too many battles with the snow and the cold, Richard returned home and enrolled in The University of Oklahoma. He has a bachelor's degree in anthropology and graduate study in Professional Writing.
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