In 1939, three years after leaving the Tuskegee Institute, Ralph Ellison regained contact with his close friend Joe Lazenberry, a Tuskegee classmate whom Ellison had presumed deceased. The following, a reply to a letter from Lazenberry, is the fullest account Ellison wrote of his time spent in New York; Dayton, Ohio; and again in New York after leaving school. It is a factual and meditative version of both his life and the development of his mind in his midtwenties.
To Joe Lazenberry
April 18, 1939
You have no idea how glad I was to hear from you again. I mailed the card in spite of having been informed that you were deceased, like Mark Twain, and I assure you that more than mentally my heart was in my mouth. It was like this: I happen to know a girl from St. Paul, Zelma Jackson, who gave me this information with a very positive assurance that it was true. I didn’t know what to think; she was positive and I couldn’t accept. I started to write your mother but decided that it would be too painful; after all the damn gal might have known what she was talking about. Well, I thought, that guy couldn’t leave without giving me a chance to cuss him out for failing to answer my letters, he’s bad, but not that bad. Then last month I wrote Rabb asking him about you and he answered that if you were dead it was only from the neck up. So with that hope I sent out the feeler. I am glad we are no longer out of contact. I suppose it takes some such incident as this to make one realize you don’t miss your water till your well runs dry. I’ve known a slew of people since the Tuskegee days Joe but none I would rather have as a friend—and alive.
In broad outline it is surprising how similar the patterns of our lives have been. The following brief list of events will explain what I mean. Read More