Ralph Ellison, who died in 1994 at the age of 80, remains famous for precisely one novel: Invisible Man, the richly detailed, complex chronicle of an unnamed black man whose travels from the South to New York City constitute what critic Lev Grossman has called “the quintessential American picaresque of the 20th century.” The book, published in 1952, not only won the National Book Award but has since sold several million copies around the world.

Ellison never completed a second novel, dismaying not only his fans but himself. He blamed a fire in his home in 1967 for destroying part of the manuscript, but as we learn in the splendid The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison, he struggled for the rest of his life with the pressures of writing another novel that he deemed worthy of Invisible Man.