How Ralph Ellison Got Invisible Man Into the Canon
The “author myth” surrounding Ralph Ellison usually centers on the follow-up novel to Invisible Man that never happened, the many years of promises unfulfilled. But if writing novel #2 was so difficult for Ellison, how did novel #1 happen?
If you want to know when and how Ralph Ellison wrote Invisible Man, Google is fine. The wikipedia entry tells you have, after graduating blah blah, he spent a summer in Vermont and out poured all those words. If you want to know what people thought about Invisible Man when it was published, wikipedia is again useful. A quick paragraph on what a sensation it caused is right there, in the Reception section. Invisible Man was published in 1952 by Random House, and was an instant hit, reviewed by all the muckity-mucks of the day.
But what wikipedia won’t tell you—and what searching more specifically in Google won’t tell you either—is how Ellison got that first book contract and the process of drafting and publishing it. Who published it? How did he get it into the hands of an editor? What role did his publishing house have in the making of this #8 best novel in the history of the novel, according to Modern Library?
To answer, I read Arnold Rampersad’s biography. Ellison was born in segregated Oklahoma in 1914. He got himself to the Tuskegee Institute where he studied music for a few years, then left for New York. There, he met Richard Wright, and started writing. He was in the mix with the extraordinary people involved with the Harlam Renaissance, as well as the whites who patronized these artists. He started writing seriously in 1937.
He started publishing in magazines, and then, to help him get into better ones, he signed with an agent, Henry Volkening of Russell & Volkening, who reached out to Ellison after reading some of his published stories. They tried to break into higher paying publications with a short story, “In A Strange Country,” but it was turned by The New Yorker and Harpers. It was finally sold to Tomorrow, a magazine Ellison had already appeared in, for $100.
An editor at Reynal & Hitchcock, then a newish but established press, Frank Taylor, read that story in Tomorrow, and, with Volkerning agenting, offered to pay Ellison $100 per month for a year to write a novel for them. Ellison wasn’t sure he was ready to write a novel, so he turned them down. His published stories also attracted interest from editors at Atlantic Monthly Press, Little, Brown, and Harcourt Brace. Volkening pressed Ellison to accept one of the offers, and, mainly because he was broke, Ellison accepted a new offer from Reynal & Hitchcock’s —$1500 spread over a year—and promised to have the manuscript in by September 1945.
Ellison continued to publish reviews, essays, and short stories, and his profile increased, especially with word of his book contract. In 1945 Langston Hughes said Ellison was “the most promising of the younger Negro writers of prose.”. He applied for a Guggenheim and a fellowship with the Julius Rosenwald Fund, which gave money to Black artists. Both were for a novel about a Nazi prison camp; not the novel he had signed with his publisher to write. He was rejected by the Guggenheim Foundation, but the Julius Rosenwald Fund offered him $1800 for a year to write what was then a novel about a Nazi prison camp.
Ellison went to Vermont to write and it is there—at least according to him—that he decided to write Invisible Man: “On a farm in Vermont, where I was reading The Hero by Lord Raglan and speculating on the nature of Negro leadership in the United States, I wrote the first paragraph of Invisible Man, and was soon involved in the struggle of creating the novel.”
But don’t think this is the beginning of the good part of the story: Ellison returned to New York, where his landlord threatened to kick him out, which was terrifying, as there was then a housing shortage in the city due to the end of the War (they would be evicted in December). Wiliam Shawn rejected two of his stories. But The New Republic asked him to review “Negro” books.
There wasn’t progress on the book he had promised to write for Reynal & Hitchcock, and his publisher was concerned. Henry Volkening, calling Reynal & Hitccoock “the nice patient guys,” called Ellison to see how things were going. But the contract he had signed was for a Nazi prison camp novel, which Ellison was no longer writing, so he had been avoiding both Volkening and the publisher. Ellison sent “manuscript pages from the new novel, along with an apology. ‘I have great misgivings over having to present these fragments for your inspection, and my only reason is to let you know that despite all instability I have been at work on an idea.”
Blowing a deadline is common and the agent and publisher probably weren’t shocked, but Ellison had decided he was going to write “The Great American Novel”—the next Moby Dick, which was going to be no easy feat.
Ellison wasn’t at all sure he could write a novel. He had come to writing late, was probably most comfortable as an essayist, of which he had already established himself. He was also always in need of money—that spring, Ellison turned down a job offer to work as a steward on a ship and applied for an extension to the Julius Rosenwald Fund, stating he was “two-thirds” done with the novel which he said had been “accepted” by Reynal & Hitchcock (none of this was true, and also he was now referring to an entirely different novel). He said he needed 6 more months (this would also not turn out to be true either—he was still many years from the publication of that novel). Rosenwald said they could offer him another $500 spread over five months. His longtime patron, Ida Guggenheimer, sent another of her periodic checks as well.
By the winter of 1946, Reynal & Hitchcock was getting antsier, and the press itself was going through huge changes. Hitchcock had died, and his widow had taken over. Frank Taylor, Ellison’s editor, left for Random House, along with another editor, Albert Erskine. (Shortly thereafter, Taylor left Random House). Hitchcock’s widow wrote asking for a meeting to ‘hear something of your novel,’ but Ellison didn’t respond, as we was hoping he could move to Random House. He wanted to go where his editors were, and he also knew a new contract would come with another deadline extension and perhaps more money. Bennett Cerf at Random House said he was interested, but needed “a clear outline of the novel from start to finish.” Ellison provided it, and Cerf bought it from Reynal & Hitchcock, paying them back for the money they had advanced Ellison years earlier.
Random House initially offered $500; Volkerning negotiated it up to $2000. Ellison received most of it upon signing in July, 1947, and promised to deliver the entire manuscript on November 30. Taylor, still Ellison’s editor, promised the first chapter to be serialized.
That chapter appeared in Horizon—while Ellison was still far from down with the novel. It, in the language of today, went viral. The excerpt was then bought by ’47: The Magazine of the Year, edited by John Hersey, which gave Ellison more money than usual: they paid 10 cents a word for the 5600 word piece. It ran in ’48: The Magazine of the Year (clunky to have to change the name of a magazine every year!).
During the next year Ellison worked on the novel—-but also many other projects. He spent much of the winter working on an essay with Gordon Parks for 48: The Magazine of the Year, but then that magazine declared bankruptcy. He sent it to Harpers, who rejected it. In the summer of 1948—one year after the new, extended deadline from Random House, he holed up in an office a friend loaned him in the Jewelry district where he wrote hundreds of pages.
But still he wasn’t done with the novel. He told up photography, and did portraits of his famous friends: he was even hired by Random House to do book jackets for them. To make more money, he “did some ambulance chasing,” and was paid $18 to shoot an accident in Harlem. On his 1949 tax return, he reported $191 for photography and $270 for writing. (His wife Fanny, on whom he was financially dependent throughout, and who, yes, typed his manuscript, earned $2687).
Finally, in 1950—five years after his first deadline—he sent his manuscript to Erskine. They spent a year intensely editing it, and in 1951, the book was in production. Then he dropped his agent, Volkening:. “After failing to hear form my former agent for about three years (doubtlessly he thought I’d never finish my book), I was waiting until I had turned in my ms and then proceeded to free myself.”
Volkening, now out of his cut of the book he initially signed up and championed years earlier, ended up settling with Random House: he didn’t try to get royalties from Ellison, although he likely would have won had he taken it to court.
Galleys were ready in November 1951 for an April 1952 publication date. Random House sent copies to review outlets as well as “influencers” and friends, including Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, and Chester Himes. It was instantly admired: the critical buzz was intense. On April 13, the book was launched with a party at the Four Seasons Bookshop in Manhattan. It was a scene, with not only Ellison’s high-powered friends there, but also folks such as Robert Penn Warren and Saul Bellow, with whom he would later become friends.
By April 30, 6,000 copies had been sold. It appeared in 10th place on the NYT bestseller list on May 11. It rose to number 9 the next week and then dropped, rallied to 8 on June 22, and then was off for good. 8,000 more copies sold through the rest of 1952. (The best selling novel of that year, The Silver Chalice by Thomas Costain, sold 250,000 copies). In May 1952, after deducting the advance, Random House paid Ellison $1,537, which included a Signet paperback reprint advance payment of $1500. His November check was $4,557. (image below is of the later UK edition)
What conclusions could we draw from these 7 years of writing, two different publishers, and one agent lost along the way, looked at through the lens of publishing per se? One is that Ellison, who had been writing and publishing and moving in literary circles since he had arrived in New York, and become friends with and mentored by Richard Wright, established himself in key circles as an important writer and thinker, and this led to novel’s success, along with the extenuated process of finishing the book, rumored for years by influential critics to be a masterpiece. Volkening was the first person from the book publishing world to reach out to him after reading a piece by him in a magazine, but by the time Random House was ready to launch the book, Ellison’s reputation and friends had done much of the marketing: he was friends with Stanley Hyman, Shirley Jackson, Kenneth Burke, Richard Wright, Langston Hughes and many others; the book was chosen for review by Saul Bellow, Anthony Burgess, Irving Howe, George Mayberry, Wright Morris, and other names. It’s not clear the famous Bennett Cerf had an enormously active role in making the novel and Ellison the critical success they became (Erskine, who became the editor, did have a large role in shaping the book, a topic I’ve left off this newsletter); Cerf rode a wave that had already been built (and was, of course, the kind of publisher an ambitious writer would want to sign with). The endless blowing of deadlines, along with the rumors that Ellison was working on a masterpiece—the years-long build-up of suspense, the first chapter published as a standalone years before the novel was ready— created the buzz and market.
After reading his biography, I am absolutely not surprised Ellison did not write another novel. He was under constant financial stress, and antically moved around to different locations, desperately trying to find ways to concentrate and write more pages, faster. Any moments of flow, or joy in the process, that Ellison may have experienced were quickly subsumed by difficulties with the novel form (he was a natural essayist, but not a natural novelist) or money. In this light, Invisible Man is ever more of an accomplishment.
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