We’re in the middle of commencement season – but Arnold Rampersad has already picked up his honors (we’ve written about his previous triumphs here and here). Rampersad, a leading biographer of African-American writers and cultural figures, including Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, W.E.B. Du Bois, Jackie Robinson, and Arthur Ash, received an honorary doctor of letters degree from Columbia University.
He also received one of four “Centennial Citations” from his alma mater, Harvard, where he received his PhD in 1973. The award honored him “for showing us how biography can illuminate culture and history, and how literature transcends barriers…”
From Harvard Magazine here:
How did this native of Trinidad develop the perfect pitch that allowed him to capture the tensions of American writers, the fullness of what it is to be black in America? When Rampersad was awarded the National Humanities Medal in 2010, he gave credit in part to his early education in literature, which, he said, “some people might dismiss as ‘colonial.’ It nevertheless served me well in dealing with the complexities of American biography.”
His work as a biographer began at Harvard, where he wrote his dissertation on W. E. B. Du Bois. He has said that he was drawn to that work because Du Bois changed his life, and the historians who had written about him had not been able to explain why: they missed, he said, “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.”
When the dissertation was published as the masterful intellectual history The Art and Imagination of WEB Du Bois, the acclaim it received drew notice from the executors of the Langston Hughes estate. Rampersad’s resulting two-volume biography, released in 1986 and 1988, was a Pulitzer Prize finalist and is widely considered the definitive work on this most important Harlem Renaissance poet. Exploring the complexity of Hughes’s ambition, intelligence, and commanding talent, Rampersad set him in his time, chronicling not just the life of one black American but the changing world of all black Americans at the time.
His revelatory biography of Ralph Ellison, published in 2007, considers the full arc of Ellison’s life and — as the San Francisco Chronicle put it — “the extent to which family tragedy, failed ambitions and a prickly, imperious nature combined to isolate him in the years following Invisible Man.”
“I know of no other scholar who has consistently told stories that matter so deeply to our society as whole,” says Rampersad’s Stanford colleague Shelley Fisher Fishkin. “Arnold Rampersad has left an indelible mark on our understanding of who we are as Americans.” She recalls co-editing Oxford’s Race and American Culture book series with Rampersad as “an extraordinary education. Arnold’s vision of what kinds of scholarship could move the field in productive directions was always spot-on; his judgment about what authors needed to do in order to transform a good manuscript into a great book was illuminating.” …
Rampersad has said that he was “was 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.” There is no other scholar who has done more to undo that denial, to assert the grace and the terrifying complexity of the American experience, than Arnold Rampersad.
Rampersad is also a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Philosophical Society. He held a MacArthur fellowship from 1991 to 1996.