It may come as a surprise to some that one of the nation’s premier biographers was born and raised outside the country. “Growing up as a schoolboy in Trinidad, I received an education in literature that some people might dismiss as ‘colonial,’ ” Arnold Rampersad recalls. “It nevertheless served me well in dealing with the complexities of American biography.”
Rampersad’s career as a biographer began at Harvard, where he wrote his dissertation on W. E. B. DuBois. “I thought that DuBois was extraordinarily important and complex,” he says. “My life was changed in a basic way by my first reading of The Souls of Black Folk. And while the historians who had written about him had done good jobs, I believed that they had missed his genuine essence—which is, in my opinion, the grandly poetic imagination he brought to the business of seeing and describing black America and America itself.”
After the dissertation was transformed into the magisterial intellectual biography, The Art and Imagination of W. E. B. DuBois, Rampersad was approached by the executor of Langston Hughes’s estate to write a biography of the poet. Delving into the enormous archive left by Hughes, Rampersad soon discovered that the life of this key figure of the Harlem Renaissance “was a revelation as well as a mystery—the mystery being the source of his amazing drive to establish himself as a writer at a time when few blacks dared to think in those terms, and to do so with black America as his primary, though not exclusive, subject. I wanted to explore the complexity of his intelligence and sensibility, as well as his art (despite its surface simplicity), and in that way to explore the complexity of black American culture at the leadership level.”
Rampersad’s two-volume The Life of Langston Hughes was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in 1986 and is widely considered the definitive biography of the poet. He next turned to writing about two very different figures from the world of American athletics—Arthur Ashe and Jackie Robinson, both of whom helped destroy the color line in their respective sports.
Rampersad has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Rockefeller Foundation. He also has taught at some of the nation’s premier institutions, including Princeton and now Stanford, where he also served as senior associate dean of humanities. Throughout his career he found himself “drawn to biography because I saw the African-American personality as a neglected field despite the prominence of race as a subject in discussions of America. African-American character in all its complexity and sophistication was, and still is, by and large, a denied category in the representation of American social reality.”
In 2007, Rampersad returned to literary biography with the first work to cover the entire life of the contrarian, prickly, and brilliant author of Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison. Driving his interest in Ellison were some of the issues he’d first encountered in his Caribbean childhood. Having “come of age just as my native country was marching toward political independence from Great Britain,” Rampersad increasingly saw black American artists as “colonials in their own country, struggling against a greater power for political and cultural independence—relatively speaking—and for freedom of expression.”
Ralph Ellison was published in an era when, according to Rampersad, “the life of the African-American writer has changed dramatically. In part through holding positions at programs in creative writing and departments of English at universities, the black writer has gained a solid presence on the literary scene that has replaced the fugitive nature of expression and publication forced on blacks over the centuries, especially in the slave narratives but continuing into the twentieth century. That presence does not guarantee fine writing but it has led, in my opinion, to an assurance that bodes well for the future. Black literature was described a long time ago as a ‘literature of necessity’ rather than one of leisure. That element of necessity still exists but it does not dominate as it once did. Black American literature as a cultural phenomenon has reached a level of stability and maturity that the circumstances of American life once routinely denied it.”
By Randall Fuller
Randall Fuller is associate professor of English at Drury University in Springfield, Missouri.