Ralph Ellison in Tivoli

Copyright The Los Angeles Times

May 10, 1998|SAUL BELLOW | Saul Bellow was awarded the 1976 Nobel Prize for literature. “Ralph Ellison in Tivoli” first appeared in “News from the Republic of Letters,” a literary magazine featuring fiction and commentary, edited by Bellow and Keith Botsford
Some 40 years ago I came into a small legacy and with it I bought a house in Tivoli, N.Y. “House” is not the word for it; it was, or once had been, a Hudson River mansion. It had a Dutch cellar kitchen of flagstones and a kitchen fireplace. There was a dumbwaiter to the vanished dining room above. The first floor had a ballroom but according to my informants, Tivoli’s townspeople, no one had danced in it for 80 years. Tivoli had been the birthplace of Eleanor Roosevelt. The villagers were the descendants of the servants and groundskeepers of the Duchess County aristocrats.

I shan’t be going into the social history of the township or the county. There were great names in the vicinity–the Livingstones, the Chapmans and the Roosevelts–but I didn’t know much about them. I had sunk my $16,000 legacy into a decaying mansion. To repair the roof and to put in new plumbing, I drew an advance of $10,000 from the Viking Press to write a novel called “Henderson the Rain King.”

There was a furnace of sorts and a warm-air system that took the moisture out of your nostrils. I was too busy with “Henderson” and with my then-wife to take full notice of my surroundings. The times were revolutionary–I refer to the sexual revolution. Marriages were lamentably unstable and un-serious. My wife, tired of life with me in the gloomy house, packed her bags and moved to Brooklyn.

I was naturally wretched about this. I now found the solitude (and the decay of the house) insupportable. Determined to save my $16,000, I threw myself into the work of salvage. I painted the kitchen walls and the bedrooms, as much for therapeutic reasons as to improve the property.

Then Ralph Ellison, who was teaching at Bard College, accepted my invitation to move in. I have always believed that this was an act of charity on his part.

We had known each other in Manhattan. I had reviewed “Invisible Man” for Commentary. I was aware that it was an extremely important novel and that, in what he did, Ralph had no rivals. What he did no one else could do–a glorious piece of good fortune for a writer.

Both of us at one time had lived on Riverside Drive. We met often and walked together in the park, along the Hudson. There we discussed all kinds of questions and exchanged personal histories. I was greatly taken with Ellison, struck by the strength and independence of his mind. We discussed Richard Wright, Faulkner and Hemingway. Ralph, it was clear, had thought things through for himself, and his ideas had little in common with the views of the critics in the literary quarterlies. Neither he nor I could accept the categories prepared for us by literary journalists. He was an American writer who was black. I was a Jew and an American and a writer, and I believed that by being described as a “Jewish writer,” I was being shunted to a siding. This taxonomy business I saw as an exclusionary device. Ellison had similar objections to classification. From his side, he saw the Negro as one of the creators of America’s history and culture.

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