Academic journal article American Studies

Sound and Meaning: Ralph Ellison's Record Collection

Academic journal article American Studies

Sound and Meaning: Ralph Ellison's Record Collection

Article excerpt

During the summer of 2006, a heat wave spread throughout most of the United States and Canada, and by the end of August, at least 225 people had died as a result of the unrelenting high temperatures. The weather was particularly bad in the Southwest, and in Oklahoma City twelve deaths were blamed on the heat. In Queens, New York, at the end of July, there was a series of power outages that left at least 10,000 residents without electricity for over a week.

At that time, I was living in Brooklyn with my wife and daughter, struggling to finish a book, and working as a guest lecturer for the Bard (College) Prison Initiative. One afternoon, I got a phone call: Fanny McConnell Ellison, the widow of Ralph Ellison, had died the previous fall, and the estate was soon to be settled. Would I consider coming, as soon as possible, to the Ellison apartment on the Upper West Side so that I could take a look at the author's record collection? There was no proviso for the records in the will, and the collection needed a home.

The Ellisons had already made provisions for those artifacts, manuscripts, letters, source materials, working notes and first editions that were deemed to be of consequence. They ended up at the Library of Congress. The rest of the contents of the apartment, including the furnishings, according to the Ellisons' last wishes, were to be liquidated-and the proceeds were to go to charity. "Liquidation" in this context meant that they were to be sold to the lowest bidder-a hauling company-and thence, to the dumpster.

I had the time and the inclination to make the trip, which amounted to about an hour's train ride. I grabbed an artifact of my own, a 1990s era recording Sony Walkman, and headed for the subway.

I had been a devotee of Ralph Ellison since my post-college days on the north side of Chicago, when I had devoured his novel-Invisible Man-during the sweltering summer of 1989. That year, Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing and Tim Burton's Batman were in theaters, and the North American Drought of 1988 was still in full force. In Chicago, it seemed as if there were rarely a day when the temperature dropped below ninety degrees. In what since then has become clear to me was a highly implausible scenario, the Cubs were in a pennant race. On some days, when the winds were right, my roommates and I could hear the sound of the cheers from Wrigley Field, several blocks away, as they floated through the open windows of our apartment, just seconds after they blared from the speakers of our giant cathode ray Magnavox color television.

Ellison's book had a strangely hypnotic effect on me; the surreal episodes were a perfect complement to my mildly disoriented state, brought about by the recent exodus of my closest college chums for Los Angeles and New York, the hasty, unannounced departure of my live-in girlfriend several months earlier, and the unbelievably oppressive heat. As claustrophobic as the book felt at times, there was also a sense of a vast psychological space just behind the prose, which was perhaps the most elegant and powerful I had ever encountered.

What I did not know about Ellison at the time was that he was to have an impact on me far into my mature adulthood, and that his was a perspective I would come to study and absorb, especially given the value he placed on American vernacular music, which was becoming increasingly important to me. This reconciliation of sound and meaning was given full voice in Ellison's essays, especially those that dealt, not unromantically, with his boyhood experiences growing up alongside seminal jazz musicians in prohibition era Oklahoma City. I felt prepared for whatever awaited me at the Ellison apartment, which was in the Beaumont, an eleven-story building on the corner of Riverside and 150th Street in Manhattan.

After negotiating the building's lobby, which, despite its impressive marble floors and majestic staircase had definitely seen better days, I was met at the front door of apartment 8D by a representative of the law firm that administered the Ellison estate. …

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