September 11, 2013
I can’t find pictures of them together, just houses that they shared.
713 Windsor Lane, a modest cottage in a writer’s compound in Key West, shared by John Hersey, his wife, and Ralph Ellison, whose Invisible Man he’d been assigning to his Yale classes for years. Hersey also edited the Ellison volume for Twentieth-Century Views, surely the classiest in that series.
And before Key West, the house on the Hudson, near Bard College, that once had a ballroom, but by 1956 was run down enough so that Saul Bellow could buy it for $16000. To repair the roof and put in new plumbing, he had to take an advance of $10,000 from Viking to write Henderson the Rain King. He also invited Ralph Ellison to move in.
They had known each other from New York — Bellow had reviewed Invisible Man, and the two had taken walks together in Riverside Park. So it is natural that that Hudson River connection should go a little further north now.
Ellison arrived with his black Lab in his old Chrysler and set up his typewriter in the former ballroom, which ran the entire length of the house. Apparently he also kept African violets there, watering them with a turkey baster.
They had more walks and more talks. Bellow says: “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.”
Henderson the Rain King — Bellow’s only African novel — was written with Ellison in the vicinity.