When Ralph Ellison saddled up the pony of death and took that long, lonesome ride into eternity on Saturday morning, April 16, the quality of American civilization was markedly diminished. He had always traveled on a ridge above the most petty definitions of race and has given us a much richer image of ourselves as Americans, no matter how we arrived here, what we looked like or how we were made. Alone of the internationally famous Negro writers of the last half-century, Ellison had maintained his position as a citizen of this nation. His deservedly celebrated 1952 novel, Invisible Man, his two collections of essays--Shadow and Act and Going to the Territory--the public addresses he gave and what he read and published from the most-awaited second novel in this country's literary history spoke always of the styles, the intrigues, the ideas, the lamentations and the desires that bewitchingly reached across race, religion, class and sex to make us all Americans. This champion of democratic narrative wasn't taken in by any of the professional distortions of identity that have now produced not the astonishing orchestra of individuals our country always promises, but a new Babel of opportunism and naïveté, one we will inevitably defeat with a vital, homemade counterpoint.
Ellison had been trained as a musician, intending to become a concert composer. But the books got him and he boldly took on the job of ordering the dissonance and the consonance of our culture into the orchestrated onomatopoeia that is the possibility of the novel at its highest level of success. At every point, he was definitely the Oklahoma Kid-- part Negro, part white, part Indian and full of the international lore a man of his ambition had to know. I sometimes thought of him as riding tall into the expanses of the American experience, able to drink the tart water of the cactus, smooth his way through the Indian nations, gamble all night long, lie before the fire with a book, distinguish the calls of the birds and the animals from the signals of the enemy, gallop wild and woolly into the big city with a new swing the way the Count Basie band had, then bring order to the pages of his work with an electrified magic pen that was both a warrior's lance and a conductor's wand.
In our time, there is a burden to straight shooting, and Ellison accepted it. Those troubles snake all the way back to the '30s, when the Marxist influence began to reduce the intricacies of American problems to a set of stock accusations and dull but romantic ideas about dictatorial paradises rising from the will of the workers. Because Ellison had come through all of that and, like Richard Wright, had rejected it, he was prepared for the political bedlam of the '60s. He refused to forgo his vision of democracy as an expression of high-minded but realistic courage, one that demanded faith and vigilant engagement. His tutoring by blues musicians and the world of blues music had given him a philosophical ease in face of the perpetual dilemmas of human existence. What he wrote