be part of what Ellison was getting at with Invisible Man's wonderful, complex phrase about the need to affirm the "beautiful absurdity of [our] American identity."
But that's another story--though here, too, Ralph's imagination would not rest. In "Brave Words for a Startling Occasion," his 1953 address in response to the National Book Award, he associates the American quest with a mysterious fusion of deepest personal and national yearnings. "The way home we seek," he wrote, making the Odyssey a fable for the American predicament, "is that condition of man's being at home in the world, which is called love, and which we term democracy." To the end, love and democracy were Ellison's touchstones for the way home. Like Jefferson, who did not say "happiness" but "the pursuit of happiness," Ellison spoke not of home but the way home. Perhaps we are never truly home, and that, too, is another story.
For now, it's enough to say that a great writer and a great and good soul is gone. For me, a friend and a father is gone, too; but as Ralph said of his own father, "He only perished, he did not pass away." So, too, with Ralph. In life and legacy he was a true American kinsman, and he lives on through his nourishing words. Like Melville's catskill eagle descending and ascending, his spirit quickens the pulse and beckons us home to the lower and the higher frequencies of America.
This essay is an expanded version of a eulogy delivered at Ralph Ellison's funeral, April 19, 1994 in New York City. Portions of it were published in Willamette Week, May 11- May 17, 1994. Copyright 1994 & 1995 by John F. Callahan. All rights reserved.
From Callaloo 18.2 ( 1995), 298-309.