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Arnold Rampersad

(b. 1941)


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(b. 1941), scholar, literary and cultural critic, educator, winner of the American Book Award, and MacArthur Fellow.

Born in 1941 in Trinidad, Arnold Rampersad received a BA and MA from Bowling Green State University and an MA and PhD from Harvard. He has held teaching positions at Stanford, Rutgers, and Columbia. Rampersad was Woodrow Wilson Professor of Literature at Princeton and is Sara Hart Kimball Professor Emeritus in the Humanities at Stanford University. From 1991 to 1996, he held a MacArthur Foundation fellowship. A member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Philosophical Society, Rampersad was a 2010 recipient of the National Humanities Medal.

Although he began his career specializing in Herman Melville, Rampersad is best known for biographies of W. E. B. Du Bois and Langston Hughes. In The Art and Imagination of W. E. B. Du Bois (1976), Rampersad sought to trace the intellectual development of one of this century's preeminent black political and social leaders. He achieved this by presenting the complete scope of Du Bois's complex and paradoxical beliefs and opinions. By bringing the conservative Du Bois into relation with the radical Du Bois, Rampersad made sense of what might appear to be a contradictory career.

In the two-volume Life of Langston Hughes (1986–1988), Rampersad again illuminated the life of a central figure in African American literary and cultural studies. As was the case with Du Bois, Hughes presented an instance of a writer whose complexities had been insufficiently revealed. Well known was Hughes's affection for “common everyday” African Americans. Less well known were the psychological and cultural groundings of this affection, subjects Rampersad sought to illuminate. Revealed, too, was the historical background against which Hughes so frequently reacted, such that The Life of Langston Hughes is not only concerned with the life of one person but also with the life of a culture and a nation. It is considered the authoritative biography of this central African American poet.

Rampersad is rightly credited with rehabilitating biography as a valued form of literary and cultural criticism in the face of the influence of literary theory in the late 1980s and the 1990s. While literary biography is not intended to replace literary or cultural criticism, per se, or literary theory, Rampersad's contribution is to restore a neglected mode of intellectual and scholarly discourse to its previous prominence. In Days of Grace (1993), tennis star Arthur Ashe's autobiography, which Rampersad coauthored, and in the biography Jackie Robinson (1997), Rampersad brought the craft of the scholar to the enterprise of popular biography, illuminating the life of an instrumental figure in African American cultural life during the last quarter of the twentieth century. In 2007, Rampersad's biography of Ralph Ellison was welcomed by many reviewers as a definitive study. In dealing with all these subjects—Du Bois, Hughes, and Ashe—Rampersad sought to bring the individual life into relation with the life of the culture. The title of the second volume of The Life of Langston Hughes, I Dream a World powerfully indicates the extent to which Rampersad seeks to negotiate the connection between the visionary aspects of individual greatness and the demands of cultural representativeness by means of scholarly biography.

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Subjects: Literature.


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