“I am an Invisible Man.” With this brief sentence composed in a Waitsfield barn in 1945, Ralph Ellison began one of the great works of 20th century fiction. After the publication of “Invisible Man” in 1953, this seminal novel of the African-American experience won the National Book Award, making Ellison the first African-American to be awarded this prestigious honor. Time magazine added “Invisible Man” to its compendium of the 100 best novels of the 20th century and it has been said that Ellison’s book inspired Barack Obama when he wrote his autobiography, “Dreams from my Father.”
In a work that Ellison said owed as much to T.S. Elliott’s “Wasteland” as the Harlem Renaissance, the plight of the individual in a society that cannot see beyond race is articulated in a masterful account of agony and despair, tinged with bitter humor and sarcasm. “It all began,” Ellison recalled in the introduction to the 1980 edition, “during the summer of 1945, sitting in a barn in Waitsfield, Vermont, where I was on sick leave from service in the merchant marine.”
For a Vermonter, the immediate question is how this great man of letters came to be sitting at a typewriter in an open doorway of a barn, the Green Mountains arrayed before him in a brilliant panorama, and cattle lowing in the verdant pastures of Waitsfield. This was not Ellison’s first visit to the picturesque village in Vermont’s Mad River Valley. He had visited at least once before in 1943. “But now, in 1945 on a Vermont farm, the theme of a young Negro’s quest for identity was reasserting itself in a far more bewildering form. Now I was confronted by nothing more substantial than a taunting, disembodied voice.”
The Oklahoma-born writer first moved to New York City in the 1930s to become a jazz musician. He soon turned to writing stories and fell under the sway of Langston Hughes and Richard Wright. During World War II he began publishing stories while serving in the Merchant Marine, and, it was during this time that Ellison met John and Amelie Bates, an interracial couple who lived in both New York City’s Harlem and a farm in Waitsfield, Vermont – a farm that had been in Amelie’s family for generations. Ellison met the couple through John’s brother Addison, who was well known in artistic circles and among the political activists who campaigned for social justice on the streets of Harlem. Addison was described as a dynamic personality:
“Ad was a noted carpenter of beautiful furniture, dancer, choreographer, artist, Communist Party-led Union Activist, and key player in the Harlem Renaissance. Addison was active in the Workers Theater and he also owned his own gallery in Harlem.”
While Addison Bates was a lynchpin of the cultural life of Harlem, John was athletic and competitive. He was a professional boxer, fighting under the name, “Brooklyn Johnny Bates,” and he fell in love with Amelie Pumpelly, the grand-daughter of Vermont Civil War general Edward Hastings Ripley. Ripley, an officer distinguished for his valor, had famously warned Lincoln of the assassination plot against him.
Amelie’s mother was also named Amelie, and she married Raphael Welles Pumpelly the son of a famous explorer and geologist. Young Raphael accompanied his father on various expeditions to central Asia, and the Pumpelly family lived a life of comfort and privilege. When he married Amelie, the couple settled on a grand estate in North Carolina where they grew peaches. They named the expansive orchard Samarkand, a destination in one of Raphael’s expeditions. However, when they later divorced, their years of extravagant spending and mismanagement of their farm had depleted the family fortune. A genealogist noted:
“Years of lavishness sapped the farm’s entire earnings. By 1918, two years of failed peach crops, coupled with the collapse of both the peach and real estate markets crippled the Pumpellys financially, driving them deeper into debt. Samarkand Manor, a correctional facility for troubled women, was erected on 300 acres of land sold by Pumpelly to the state that year.”
Accounts of Raphael and Amelie’s messy divorce were printed in the nation’s newspapers.
“Raphael Pumpelly, well-to-do Sandhills peach grower, is on trial in Moore County Superior Court this week and the society of the peach belt is all agog with the near sensations which the pleadings indicate the testimony will bring out.”
These sensations included Rapahel’s dalliance with the children’s tutor, Miss Ellen Morrow from Hartford, Connecticut. Pumpelly, seemingly oblivious to the charges of infidelity against him, wrote a letter of regret to a Harvard classmate sometime later, “My wife is gone, my house is empty, my property ransacked, and I have endured two years war with my most intimate friend and former partner.”
In the divorce proceedings, Pumpelly alleged that his wife was an incompetent parent, and he was awarded custody of their three children. He promptly moved them to a cave dwelling he had constructed 25 years earlier on land his family owned in New Hampshire.
As a young man, Pumpelly and his best friend, Gerald Thayer spent the summer building a 125 square foot, stone hut on a ledge outcropping on Mount Monadnock. Much like teenage boys, they constructed a secret retreat, known, even today, by only a few. They hauled, on their shoulders, bags of cement and tin for a roof. They also installed a crude fireplace and a triangular, mystery door that one could only open if one knew the secret — one reached in a window to pull a cord that opened a latch. Although it was a primitive existence, Pumpelly and his three children survived in this makeshift home for a year eating only what they could find in the wild.
Within a year, Pumpelly found work as a stockbroker and, during the Wall Street boom of the early to mid 1920s, quickly rebuilt much of the fortune he and his wife had squandered. With his financial health restored, Pompelly secured lodging for his family in New York.
In the city, teenaged Amelie converted to the Baha’i faith, and it was within a Baha’i congregation that she met her future husband, John Henry Bates, an ex-prizefighter. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle said of his fighting prowess, “Bates, a Negro battler, is one of the fastest punchers that we have seen in some time.” His career as a boxer was cut short when an automobile accident curtailed his exploits in the ring. By the early 1930s he learned the art of furniture-making and worked as a cabinetmaker in his brother’s workshop.
In the 1940s John and Amelie resided, for a time, at the family home in Waitsfield, and it was during this period that Ralph Ellison, on leave from the Merchant Marine, elected to visit them. “The wife of the racially mixed couple who were our hosts,” recalled Ellison, “was the granddaughter of a Vermonter who had been a general in the Civil War,” In 1945, sick with a kidney ailment, Ellison and his wife Fanny joined them at their Vermont home for rest and relaxation. The clamor and intensity of Harlem sometimes seemed to overwhelm him, and, like so many others, he found relief in the quiet beauty of the Green Mountains. He remarked in a 1955 Paris Review interview:
“In the summer of 1945. I had returned from the sea, ill, with advice to get some rest. Part of my illness was due, no doubt, from the fact that I had not been able to write a novel for which I’d received a Rosenwald Fellowship the previous winter. So, on a farm in Vermont where I had been 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 creating the novel.”
Ellison’s relationship with John and Amelie was not always an easy one. He could be a difficult friend. According to Michel and Lena Hill’s “Reference Guide to Invisible Man”:
“Ralph had last visited in the spring of 1943 but had almost ruined his chances of another invitation by exploding in anger after John or Amelie Bates had given out his telephone number without his permission. Once again, in contrast to seedy, noisy Harlem, the serene beauty of the Vermont farm in summertime moved him. The bright, green fields, woods and mountains, the soothing sounds of brooks calmed his frayed nerves. They loved the smell of hay in the barn where Ralph worked, the genial cows lumbering into the yard.
“His makeshift writing studio was just inside the doorway of a barn from which he looked across a field ripe with hay and goldenrod and fringed with sugar maples.”
If John was notoriously argumentative, he was also a considerate host, and Amelie was as loving and generous as she was politically progressive. They had a baby daughter, a quiet, smiling child to whom Ralph liked feeding cereal in the morning.
The Bates house was old, with parts dating back to the eighteenth century. Together Ralph and John devoted a part of each day to its renovation. One can imagine that the physical work of repairing an old house was another kind of relief for an author who lived in the confines of his mind. Yet, even in rural Vermont, Ellison was confronted by the legacy of Jim Crow and discrimination. Again, from the 1980 introduction to “Invisible Man”:
“I had seen, in a nearby Vermont village, a poster announcing the performance of a “Tom Show,” that forgotten term for blackface minstrel versions of Mrs. Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I had thought such entertainment a thing of the past, but there, in a quiet northern village it was alive and kicking, with Eliza, frantically slipping and sliding on the ice, still trying – and that during World War II! – to escape the slavering hounds. What is commonly assumed to be past history is actually as much a part of the living present as William Faulkner insisted.”
Ellison added that it took five more years to complete the manuscript. When the Paris Review asked him if he thought the novel would be around in another 20 years. His reply was surprising.
“I doubt it. It’s not an important novel. I failed of eloquence, and many of the immediate issues are rapidly fading away. If it does last, it will be simply because there are things going on in its depth that are of more permanent interest than on its surface.”
The major flaw in the hero’s character is his unquestioning willingness to do what is required of him by others as a way to success.
Nevertheless, the novel was an immediate triumph upon its publication in 1953. Life magazine’s Gordon Parks was so moved by the book, that he attempted to capture the essence of the novel with a series of photos. Amazingly, he asked John Bates to serve as the physical embodiment of Ellison’s “Invisible Man.” Park’s intent was “to show the loneliness, the horror and the disillusionment of a man who has lost faith in himself and the world.” The photo essay appeared in the April 25, 1952 issue of Life.
In succeeding years “Invisible Man” has become a touchstone for the African-American experience in the United States — a book that saw it genesis in the hills of Vermont.