Why Did Ralph Ellison Never Publish His Second Novel? A New Theory.

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June 19 2013 11:41 AM

Why Did Ralph Ellison Never Publish His Second Novel?

A new theory.

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Slim not only replicates Ellison’s theme, but signals in his subtitle that he is replying to Mailer—something that Ellison had clearly been itching to do. And while Trick Baby and its 1977 sequel, Long White Con are genre novels, they are tightly plotted and laced with perceptive social commentary. Slim’s crisp and energetic writing is better than his reputation as a pulp novelist suggests. Today he is often mentioned in association with the rappers he has influenced, from Ice-T to Jay-Z, who recognized worlds similar to their own in his depictions of street life. (Trick Baby and Long White Con were republished in 2011 by Cash Money Content, a partnership between the rap label Cash Money Records and Simon and Schuster.)

Would a writer of Ellison’s stature have even been aware of Slim’s work? It’s not entirely unlikely. Slim, whose real name was Robert Lee Maupin (later Robert Maupin Beck), had been Ellison’s classmate at Tuskegee Institute in the early 1930s. Ellison was five years older than Slim, but Ellison started college late and Slim started early. At that time, Tuskegee had about 3,000 undergraduates. The historical record does not establish whether they knew one another, but it seems likely that in subsequent decades Slim kept up with his world-famous classmate, and perhaps through Tuskegee connections Ellison may have heard of Slim’s writing endeavors. (Slim was expelled from Tuskegee—an incident that might well have been the subject of some discussion on a small campus.) Ellison was also a close observer of culture, and would have had many chances to learn of Slim’s work. In a 1968 essay in the New York Times that asks “what books are being read in New York City’s black ghettos?,” Mel Watkins mentions Trick Baby as being “among the bestselling paperbacks in these areas.” As a resident of Harlem, it is far from impossible that Ellison could have encountered a neighbor, a barber, a shopkeeper, or a person on the street that had read Trick Baby. And if Ellison did not know of the novel, it is possible that he knew of the feature film, which received a favorable review in the New York Times in 1973.

Of course, even if Ellison were aware of Slim’s work, would a pulp novel really have prevented him from publishing his work? Invisible Man owes thematic debts to Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground and Richard Wright’s The Man Who Lived Underground, not to mention a debt to H.G. Wells for the title. But by 1967 Ellison was a figure of grander stature than he was in 1952—and Iceberg Slim, for all his talents, is no Fyodor Dostoevsky. Invisible Man had catapulted Ellison from up-and-coming writer to a figure of national importance. In 1965 Lyndon Johnson, appointed Ellison as a charter member of the National Council for the Arts. He was also involved with creation of the Kennedy Center and PBS. He had held prestigious fellowships and teaching appointments and judged major book awards.

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At the same time that he was being embraced in the halls of power, Ellison was being criticized by various figures associated with Black Power and the Black Arts Movement, including Amiri Baraka and Ishmael Reed. Ellison was thought to be disdainful of younger black writers; unhelpful at best, hostile at worst.  Ellison was fixated on the word craft, which he associated with literary modernism, and he frequently dismissed works by younger black writers in other genres as lacking craft. (To be fair, he could be dismissive of younger white writers as well, even Thomas Pynchon.) It seems plausible that Ellison, had he known of Slim’s book, would have been dismayed to see such a pair of characters so similar to his own at its heart. Exalted by the white establishment and under attack by the black underground, by 1967, Ellison might have been highly sensitive to a comparison with Slim, a writer considered by many to be an authentic voice of the black streets. 

In all likelihood, there is not one clear-cut reason why one of the most anticipated novels in American history was not published during Ellison’s lifetime, but rather several reasons. Over the years many theories have circulated. At the outset of the novel, Reverend Hickman and his congregation, the only people in America who are aware of Sunraider’s true identity, travel to Washington, D.C., to confront him about his boisterous race-baiting. Shortly thereafter, Sunraider is shot on the floor of the Senate. He barely survives, and to the surprise of many, summons Hickman to his hospital room, where they discuss old times and what went wrong in their relationship. One old theory, often repeated, suggests that a novel begun in the 1950s and hinging on an assassination attempt would have seemed to be in poor taste after the assassinations of the 1960s. Ellison told novelist John Hersey in 1974 that the assassinations of the 1960s “really chilled me.” The poet Richard Wilbur, according to Rampersad, has claimed that Ellison had to make new changes after each assassination.

In a new study, Hip Figures: A Literary History of the Democratic Party, University of California at Irvine professor Michael Szalay makes a detailed and compelling case that Ellison’s Sunraider is at least partially based on Sen. John F. Kennedy, whose Senate record on Civil Rights was somewhat shabby (and in whose style Mailer saw something of the white Negro). If Szalay is right, and Sunraider was based on Kennedy, the president’s assassination may have created a dilemma for Ellison. It would have been one thing to parody Sen. Kennedy in 1958, but to do so in 1968 might have been perceived as in poor taste, and perhaps have been too much of a risk for an already cautious writer of whom so much was expected.

In another new book, Ralph Ellison and the Genius of America Timothy Parrish of Florida State University advances an argument that as Ellison had to spend more time publicly defending Invisible Man, his unpublished manuscript became a private solace. This makes a certain amount of sense, but does not fully reflect the public anxiety Ellison expressed about the unpublished book in interviews. Toward the end of this 1966 documentary, he says that he expects the novel to be published “in the coming year” and adds, with dramatic intonation, “the pressure’s on.” The coming year was 1967, the year Iceberg Slim published Trick Baby.

Paul Devlin is a regular contributer to The Root and the editor of Rifftide: The Life and Opinions of Papa Jo Jones.

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