|Genre||bildungsroman, African-American literature, social commentary|
|Media type||Print (hardcover and paperback)|
|Pages||581 pp (second edition)|
|LC Class||PS3555.L625 I5 1994|
Invisible Man is a novel by Ralph Ellison about an African American man whose color renders him invisible, published by Random House in 1952. It addresses many of the social and intellectual issues facing African-Americans early in the twentieth century, including black nationalism, the relationship between black identity and Marxism, and the reformist racial policies of Booker T. Washington, as well as issues of individuality and personal identity.
Invisible Man won the U.S. National Book Award for Fiction in 1953. In 1998, the Modern Library ranked Invisible Man 19th on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century. Time magazine included the novel in its TIME 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005, calling it "the quintessential American picaresque of the 20th century," rather than a "race novel, or even a bildungsroman". Malcolm Bradbury and Richard Ruland recognize an existential vision with a "Kafka-like absurdity". According to The New York Times, former U.S. president Barack Obama modeled his memoir Dreams from My Father on Ellison's novel.
Ellison says in his introduction to the 30th Anniversary Edition that he started to write what would eventually become Invisible Man in a barn in Waitsfield, Vermont in the summer of 1945 while on sick leave from the Merchant Marine. The book took five years to complete with one year off for what Ellison termed an "ill-conceived short novel." Invisible Man was published as a whole in 1952. Ellison had published a section of the book in 1947, the famous "Battle Royal" scene, which had been shown to Cyril Connolly, the editor of Horizon magazine by Frank Taylor, one of Ellison's early supporters.
In his speech accepting the 1953 National Book Award, Ellison said that he considered the novel's chief significance to be its experimental attitude. Before Invisible Man, many (even most) novels dealing with African-Americans were seen and even written solely for social protest. Most notably, Native Son and Uncle Tom's Cabin, and while Ellison dovetailed two movements, The Harlem Renaissance and the Black Arts Movement neither defined his work completely, which reinforced his claim to a unique experimental narrative that broke with tradition. While Ellison certainly drew inspiration from the Harlem Renaissance, especially in the characters he wrote about: Jim Trueblood, Dr. Bledsoe, Mary Rambo to name a few. You can't really say that Ellison was a classical Harlem Renaissance writer. Not that it wasn't ingrained in him. At the Federal Writers' Project, Ellison had previously interviewed many older people who were living examples to the movement. Ellison once quipped that he needs to get real angry and start talking with the old folk again. A reference to his days at the WPA, possibly? At least on some level Ellison had an indebtedness to that time period. Examples of this can be read in The Way It Is collected in Shadow and Act.
Ellison was also not a Black Arts Movement writer. Many of the notable writers of black arts movement were disillusioned with Ellison. John Oliver Killens, denounced Invisible Man, like this: “The Negro people need Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man like we need a hole in the head or a stab in the back. . . . It is a vicious distortion of Negro life." He and Amiri Baraka were always at odds.
That said, Ellison's style is uniquely his. It has some basis in modern symbolism. In the poem The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot., using one notable example, Ellison was immediately impressed with its ability to merge his two greatest passions, that of music and literature. When asked later what he had learned from the poem, Ellison responded: imagery, and also improvisation—techniques he had only before seen in jazz. But Ellison's influences run deep. The aforementioned WPA, and what he called his literary ancestors, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Mark Twain and others, along with books such as Dostoevsky's Notes From Underground, and even as broad-reaching as speculative writers such as Kenneth Burke, all of whom Ellison used to break away from classical African-American writing.
Ellison biographer Arnold Rampersad feels that the character of the narrator "resembles no one else in previous fiction so much as he resembles Ishmael of Moby-Dick." Ellison signals his debt in the prologue to the novel, where the narrator remembers a moment of truth under the influence of marijuana and evokes a church service: "Brothers and sisters, my text this morning is the 'Blackness of Blackness.' And the congregation answers: 'That blackness is most black, brother, most black...'" In this scene Ellison "reprises a moment in the second chapter of Moby-Dick", where Ishmael wanders around New Bedford looking for a place to spend the night and enters a black church: "It was a negro church; and the preacher's text was about the blackness of darkness, and the weeping and wailing and teeth-gnashing there." According to Rampersad, it was Melville who "empowered Ellison to insist on a place in the American literary tradition" by his example of "representing the complexity of race and racism so acutely and generously" in Moby-Dick.
Ellison always believed that he would be a musician first and a writer second, and yet even so he had acknowledged that writing provided him a "growing satisfaction." It was a "covert process," according to Ellison: "a refusal of his right hand to let his left hand know what it was doing."
Political influences and The Communist Party
The letters he wrote to fellow novelist Richard Wright as he started working on the novel provide evidence for his disillusion and defection with the Communist Party. In a letter to Wright August 18, 1945, Ellison poured out his anger toward party leaders for betraying African American and Marxist class politics during the war years. "If they want to play ball with the bourgeoisie they needn't think they can get away with it ... Maybe we can't smash the atom, but we can, with a few well chosen, well written words, smash all that crummy filth to hell." In the wake of this disillusion, Ellison began writing Invisible Man, a novel that was, in part, his response to the party's betrayal.
The narrator, an unnamed black man, begins by describing his living conditions: an underground room wired with hundreds of electric lights, operated by power stolen from the city's electric grid. He reflects on the various ways in which he has experienced social invisibility during his life and begins to tell his story, returning to his teenage years.
The narrator lives in a small Southern town and, upon graduating from high school, wins a scholarship to an all-black college. However, to receive it, he must first take part in a brutal, humiliating battle royal for the entertainment of the town's rich white dignitaries.
One afternoon during his junior year at the college, the narrator chauffeurs Mr. Norton, a visiting rich white trustee, out among the old slave-quarters beyond the campus. By chance, he stops at the cabin of Jim Trueblood, who has caused a scandal by impregnating both his wife and his daughter in his sleep. Trueblood's account horrifies Mr. Norton so badly that he asks the narrator to find him a drink. The narrator drives him to a bar filled with prostitutes and patients from a nearby mental hospital. The mental patients rail against both of them and eventually overwhelm the orderly assigned to keep the patients under control. The narrator hurries an injured Mr. Norton away from the chaotic scene and back to campus.
Dr. Bledsoe, the college president, excoriates the narrator for showing Mr. Norton the underside of black life beyond the campus and expels him. However, Bledsoe gives several sealed letters of recommendation to the narrator, to be delivered to friends of the college in order to assist him in finding a job so that he may eventually re-enroll. The narrator travels to New York and distributes his letters, with no success; the son of one recipient shows him the letter, which reveals Bledsoe's intent to never admit the narrator as a student again.
Acting on the son's suggestion, the narrator seeks work at a paint factory renowned for its pure white paint. He is assigned first to the shipping department, then to the boiler room, whose chief attendant, Lucius Brockway, is highly paranoid and suspects that the narrator is trying to take his job. This distrust worsens after the narrator stumbles into a union meeting, and Brockway attacks the narrator and tricks him into setting off an explosion in the boiler room. The narrator is hospitalized and subjected to shock treatment, overhearing the doctors' discussion of him as a possible mental patient.
After leaving the hospital, the narrator faints on the streets of Harlem and is taken in by Mary Rambo, a kindly old-fashioned woman who reminds him of his relatives in the South. He later happens across the eviction of an elderly black couple and makes an impassioned speech that incites the crowd to attack the law enforcement officials in charge of the proceedings. The narrator escapes over the rooftops and is confronted by Brother Jack, the leader of a group known as "the Brotherhood" that professes its commitment to bettering conditions in Harlem and the rest of the world. At Jack's urging, the narrator agrees to join and speak at rallies to spread the word among the black community. Using his new salary, he pays Mary the back rent he owes her and moves into an apartment provided by the Brotherhood.
The rallies go smoothly at first, with the narrator receiving extensive indoctrination on the Brotherhood's ideology and methods. Soon, though, he encounters trouble from Ras the Exhorter, a fanatical black nationalist who believes that the Brotherhood is controlled by whites. Neither the narrator nor Tod Clifton, a youth leader within the Brotherhood, is particularly swayed by his words. The narrator is later called before a meeting of the Brotherhood and accused of putting his own ambitions ahead of the group. He is reassigned to another part of the city to address issues concerning women, seduced by the wife of a Brotherhood member, and eventually called back to Harlem when Clifton is reported missing and the Brotherhood's membership and influence begin to falter.
The narrator can find no trace of Clifton at first, but soon discovers him selling dancing Sambo dolls on the street, having become disillusioned with the Brotherhood. Clifton is shot and killed by a policeman while resisting arrest; at his funeral, the narrator delivers a rousing speech that rallies the crowd to support the Brotherhood again. At an emergency meeting, Jack and the other Brotherhood leaders criticize the narrator for his unscientific arguments and the narrator determines that the group has no real interest in the black community's problems.
The narrator returns to Harlem, trailed by Ras's men, and buys a hat and a pair of sunglasses to elude them. As a result, he is repeatedly mistaken for a man named Rinehart, known as a lover, a hipster, a gambler, a briber, and a spiritual leader. Understanding that Rinehart has adapted to white society at the cost of his own identity, the narrator resolves to undermine the Brotherhood by feeding them dishonest information concerning the Harlem membership and situation. After seducing the wife of one member in a fruitless attempt to learn their new activities, he discovers that riots have broken out in Harlem due to widespread unrest. He realizes that the Brotherhood has been counting on such an event in order to further its own aims. The narrator gets mixed up with a gang of looters, who burn down a tenement building, and wanders away from them to find Ras, now on horseback, armed with a spear and shield, and calling himself "the Destroyer." Ras shouts for the crowd to lynch the narrator, but the narrator attacks him with the spear and escapes into an underground coal bin. Two white men seal him in, leaving him alone to ponder the racism he has experienced in his life.
The epilogue returns to the present, with the narrator stating that he is ready to return to the world because he has spent enough time hiding from it. He explains that he has told his story in order to help people see past his own invisibility, and also to provide a voice for people with a similar plight: "Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?"
Critic Orville Prescott of The New York Times called the novel "the most impressive work of fiction by an American Negro which I have ever read," and felt it marked "the appearance of a richly talented writer". Novelist Saul Bellow in his review found it "a book of the very first order, a superb book...it is tragi-comic, poetic, the tone of the very strongest sort of creative intelligence" George Mayberry of The New Republic said Ellison "is a master at catching the shape, flavor and sound of the common vagaries of human character and experience." In The Paris Review, literary critic Harold Bloom referred to Invisible Man, along with Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, as "the only full scale works of fiction I have read by American blacks in this century that have survival possibilities at all."
- "National Book Awards – 1953". National Book Foundation. Retrieved 2012-03-31.
(With acceptance speech by Ellison, essay by Neil Baldwin from the 50-year publication, and essays by Charles Johnson and others (four) from the Awards 60-year anniversary blog.)
- "100 Best Novels". Modern Library. Retrieved 19 May 2014.
- Invisible Man (1952), by Ralph Ellison | All-TIME 100 Novels | TIME.com
- Malcolm Bradbury and Richard Ruland, From Puritanism to Postmodernism: A History of American Literature. Penguin, 380. ISBN 0-14-014435-8
- Greg Grandin, "Obama, Melville, and the Tea Party". The New York Times, 18 January 2014. Retrieved on 17 March 2016.
- Ellison, Ralph Waldo. Invisible Man. New York: Random House, 1952.
- "Ralph Ellison, The Art of Fiction No. 8, The Paris Review, Spring 1955, p. 113.
- "Ralph Ellison, Winner of the 1953 Fiction Award for Invisible Man". National Book Awards Acceptance Speeches. NBF. Retrieved 2012-03-31.
- Eliot, T. S. (1963) Collected Poems, 1909–1962. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World. ISBN 978-0-15-118978-6
- Ellison, Ralph and Richard Kostelanetz. "An Interview with Ralph Ellison." The Iowa Review 19.3 (1989): 1-10. Web. Available at: http://ir.uiowa.edu/iowareview/vol19/iss3/2
- Arnold Rampersad (1997), "Shadow and Veil: Melville and Modern Black Consciousness." Melville's Evermoving Dawn: Centennial Essays. Edited by John Bryant and Robert Milder. Kent, Ohia, and London, England: The Kent State University Press, p. 172-173. ISBN 0-87338-562-4
- Ralph Ellison, Shadow and Act
- Carol Polsgrove, Divided Minds: Intellectuals and the Civil Rights Movement (2001), pp. 66-69.
- Prescott, Orville. "Books of the Times". The New York Times. Retrieved 6 November 2013.
- Bellow, Saul. "Man Underground". Commentary. Retrieved 6 November 2013.
- Mayberry, George. "George Mayberry's 1952 Review of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man". New Republic. Retrieved 6 November 2013.
- Weiss, Antonio. "Harold Bloom, The Art of Criticism No. 1". The Paris Review. Retrieved 6 November 2013.
- "Winners by Year". Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards. Retrieved 7 November 2013.
- Holloway, Daniel (26 October 2017). "Ralph Ellison's 'Invisible Man' Series Adaptation in the Works at Hulu (EXCLUSIVE)". Variety. Retrieved 26 October 2017.
|Wikiquote has quotations related to: Invisible Man|
- Ralph Ellison, 1914–1994: His Book 'Invisible Man' Won Awards and Is Still Discussed Today (VOA Special English)
- Full text of The Paris Review's 1955 interview with Mr. Ellison
- New York Times article on the 30th Anniversary of the novel's publication—includes an interview with the author
- Teacher's Guide at Random House
- Invisible Man study guide, themes, quotes, character analyses, teaching resources
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