Still such annoyances were to be endured as part of the desperate gamble involved in my becoming a novelist.
--Ralph Ellison in his introduction to The Invisible Man
I sit there waiting for Ralph Ellison to take the microphone. What will he be like, I wonder.
Among writers Ellison is a legend. He has written one wildly successful and much-respected novel. Since then he has remained virtually silent for 40 years.
When the great novels of this century are discussed, The Invisible Man, published in 1952, is always picked among the Top Ten.
This brilliantly written tale of a young black man's experience with racism in both the South and North of this country has sold more than a million copies. It has never been out of print. Even as I wait, paperback copies are selling briskly outside in the hallway.
News that Ellison will speak at this Printer's Row Book Fair in the south end of Chicago's Loop has attracted a tremendous crowd. I look around and see hundreds of late arrivals standing in the rear behind the last rows of folding chairs.
This is not a fancy crowd. No one came here to show off his or her new clothes.
A young black woman strides to the microphone. She is one of the top officers of Chicago's new Harold Washington public library. The night before, a celebrity audience had gathered to see Ellison honored with its annual award for literature.
"Mr. Ellison will not be signing books after he finishes speaking," the woman says, with an air of authority. She says it and then, without another word, she walks off.
I wonder what this means. Who came seeking autographs, anyway? Does Ellison fear crowds? Does he have an aversion to mixing too closely with his fans? I would like to think he has a terrible hangover. Will he, after all our adulation, turn out to be some terrible literary snob with a British accent?
There is no reaction from the crowd. This is an audience of Ellison aficionados. It is enough that he speaks to them for a while. Obviously nothing he does at this point can alienate them. Any little kernels of literary wisdom will keep them happy.
Ellison is supposed to speak at 11 a.m. Three minutes past that time, he walks to the front of the room. He grabs the microphone with one hand. Obviously he is no stranger to public speaking.
Ellison wears one of those expensive, English-cut shirts with a conservative tie and a dark-blue double-breasted suit. He looks elegant.
The audience responds at once to his arrival. They recognize him, no doubt, from the photograph on the dust jacket of his novel. Applause rolls over the room. People are packed so closely together it is difficult for them to clap. Ellison smiles. He raises his right hand to the crowd, signaling them to stop so he can begin.
But they react by rising to their feet and applauding even louder.
Now, for a full minute, they continue with this standing ovation. It is a moving scene. None of these people seems to know each other. They have come together simply because of their longtime love affair with a writer.
And you can see that Ellison is deeply touched, even surprised, by their warmth.
"I didn't know what to say when I came out here," he says, sheepishly, "and I know even less now."
Ellison's mellow voice reminds me of Duke Ellington's. In appearance, however, he bears a strong resemblance to John Morris, the eminent law professor at Arizona State University.
Ellison begins speaking. He speaks at once of The Invisible Man.
"You really shouldn't get the book confused with me," Ellison says. "The book has a life of its own. After it got out there, it was you who gave it life."
Ellison worked on The Invisible Man for years, hoping that it would sell well enough to make back the $1,000 advance he had received from his publisher.
"It comes," Ellison says, "from a lot of things that gave it life. There's jazz, there's blues, there's street talk that I heard growing up in Oklahoma City."
Ellison smiles slyly. He talks about growing up in a place where blacks were not even allowed into the public library. He sees the obvious irony of that historical fact with his award the night before from this Chicago public library.
Then he says something as surprising as it is welcome.
"Look," Ellison says, "I'm going to stop at this point because I'm sure some of you have questions. And I think it's much better to read an author's book than to listen to him try to make a speech."
A microphone has been placed in the middle aisle. A line of potential questioners heads toward it.
With surprisingly little confusion, the question-and-answer period begins.
"You are my all-time favorite author," a young black woman says to Ellison. "I don't have any children, but I have decided my first son's name will be 'Ellison.' Can you give me one word of wisdom that I can impart to him?"
Ellison seems embarrassed.
"I'm not a very wise man," he says, shaking his head. "But why don't you tell him to remember to learn where he came from and to look to a better future? And like the man said, 'Move on up a little higher.'"
An English teacher asks whether The Invisible Man will ever be made into a film.
"I have mixed feelings," Ellison says. "I would rather the book be read than seen. You see, when a book is read, each reader creates his own scene. On the screen, it is only dialogue being heard."
Ellison hesitates. He grins.
"But if they lay some money on me and make a movie, I'm American enough to dig that."
Over the years, I have read a half-dozen interviews with Ellison. In the written form, he comes off as a bit standoffish and pedantic. But now I see that, in person, he is warm and self-deprecating. It is his shyness that probably confuses people who interview him and who must re-create later what he has said.
A young woman asks Ellison whether it was difficult for him to be published because he was a black man. Did he encounter prejudice from the man who edited his book?
"My editor was Albert Erskine, a white Southerner, who also edited William Faulkner and Robert Penn Warren. There was never any attempt to censor me"
Ellison notices that the young woman who asked him the question has already turned her back and is heading for her seat. Her question was apparently part of her own agenda.
Ellison does something that only a man with great style and supreme confidence can carry off.
"Young lady," he says, reminding his questioner without saying so that common courtesy requires that she at least listen to the answer, "I said there was no attempt to censor me and that my editor was the same man who edited both William Faulkner and Robert Penn Warren."
The inference was implicit. Does she know who the other men are? Does she understand the league they are playing in?
A young Chinese woman steps to the microphone next.
"I want to tell you just how much reading your book meant to me," she said. "At that time, I felt alone and terribly isolated. Your story helped me through a bad time."
Ellison nods his head. He obviously does not know what to say.
"I have a weird request," the woman says. "Can I just come up there and give you a hug?"
Ellison scratches his head. He does not answer.
The young woman walks swiftly and with determination to the elderly author. She grabs him in her arms and squeezes.
There's a hush and then a murmur of approval all through the crowd. Somehow it seems to be just the right thing to do.
Ellison catches his breath. "I never realized," he says, "what fooling around with fiction would do to me."
A few minutes later, Ellison finishes answering questions. He departs quickly through a side door.
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I remember one of the final lines from his novel:
"I have been hurt to the point of invisibility. And I defend because in spite of all I find that I loveso I denounce and I defend and I hate and I love."
Ellison departs but his fans remain. For half an hour, they stand talking and buying copies of The Invisible Man.
They will cherish the memory of this encounter. Most probably, for as long as they live.
THE OLD NEIGHBORHOOD... v6-24-92