On Ralph Ellison

Morris Dickstein at TLS:

Ellison_2T. S. Eliot once wrote that there were two ways good writers could court recognition – either by publishing so much they turned up everywhere or by publishing so little that each work, perfectly crafted, would become a literary event. Eliot himself took both courses, writing reams of critical prose (but republishing it selectively), and bringing out poems only at widely spaced intervals, each a landmark in a carefully plotted career. Curiously, Eliot did not mention another approach which he would also try: polishing your mystique by not publishing at all. Turning to the stage, he wrote almost no new poetry in the decades after Four Quartets.
An even more ingenious way of not publishing is to create a buzz around work in progress. By offering tantalizing glimpses of ambitious projects, writers arouse expectations that the books themselves, if they do appear, can almost never satisfy. I recall the long wait for Joseph Heller’s second novel, the gossip that attended Truman Capote’s unwritten magnum opus, the anticipation Norman Mailer stoked around unfinished works, including his novel about ancient Egypt. Harold Brodkey’s reputation never quite recovered from the publication of his long-awaited novel, The Runaway Soul. Henry Roth, legendary for his writer’s block, surprised the world with an autobiographical novel some sixty years after Call It Sleep. But there was nothing quite like the awe surrounding Ralph Ellison’s heroic labours over a successor to Invisible Man – protracted for four decades, right up to his death in 1994 at the age of eighty-one.

The picture is of the Ralph Ellison memorial.

More here.