In Survey of American Literature, 1992
Principal literary achievement
Ralph Ellison's single published novel, Invisible Man, is recognized as one of the finest achievements in modern American fiction as well as one of the most complete statements of the African-American experience.
Ralph Waldo Ellison was born in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma on March 1, 1914. His father, Lewis Ellison, was an adventurous and accomplished man who had served in the military overseas and had lived in Abbeville, South Carolina and Chattanooga, Tennessee before moving to Oklahoma a short time after the former Indian territory achieved statehood. In Oklahoma City Lewis Ellison worked in construction and started his own ice and coal business. Ellison's mother, Ida Millsap Ellison, who was known as "Brownie," was a political activist who campaigned for the Socialist Party and against the segregationist policies of Oklahoma's governor "Alfalfa Bill" Murray. After her husband's death, Ida Ellison supported Ralph and his younger brother Herbert by working at a variety of jobs. Although the family was sometimes short of money, Ellison and his younger brother did not have deprived childhoods.
Ellison benefited from the advantages of the Oklahoma public schools but took odd jobs to pay for supplemental education. His particular interest was music, and in return for yard work, Ellison received lessons from Ludwig Hebestreit, the conductor of the Oklahoma City Orchestra. At nineteen, with the dream of becoming a composer, he accepted a state scholarship and used it to attend Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.
Unlike the protagonist of Invisible Man, Ellison was not expelled from Tuskegee, but like the character he later created, Ellison did not graduate. Instead, he travelled to New York City in 1936 to find work during the summer between his junior and senior years, intending to return to Tuskegee in the fall. Soon after his arrival in New York, however, Ellison happened to meet Alain Locke and Langston Hughes, major literary figures of the Harlem Renaissance. Through his acquaintance with Hughes, Ellison was introduced to Richard Wright, who encouraged Ellison to write and published his first review in New Challenge, a journal that Wright edited.
Ellison supported himself with a variety of jobs during his first years in Harlem. In 1938, he joined the Federal Writer's Project where he and others employed by the Living Lore Unit gathered urban folklore materials. This experience introduced Ellison to the richness of black urban culture and provided him with a wealth of folklore materials that he used effectively in Invisible Man. In the early 1940's Ellison published several short stories.
During World War II, Ellison served as a cook on a merchant marine ship. At the war's end, he travelled to New Hampshire to rest, and there he began work on Invisible Man. With the financial assistance of a Rosenwald Foundation Grant, Ellison worked on the novel for several years, publishing it in 1952.
Invisible-Man was controversial, attacked by militants as reactionary and banned from schools because of its explicit descriptions of black life. Literary critics, however, generally agreed on the book's significance. In 1965, a poll of literary critics named it the outstanding book written by an American in the previous twenty years, placing it ahead of works by Faulkner, Hemingway, and Bellow. Ellison received many awards for his work, including the National Book Award (1953), the Russwurm Award (1953), the Academy of Arts and Letters Fellowship to Rome (1955-1957), the Medal of Freedom (1969), and the Chevalier de l'Ordre des Artes et Lettres (1970).
In 1958 Ellison accepted a teaching position at Bard College. In subsequent years he taught at Rutgers University, the University of Chicago, and New York
University from which he retired in 1979. He has accepted numerous honorary doctorates and published two collections of essays. The essays in Shadow and Act (1964) focus on three topics: African-American literature and folklore; African-American music; and the interrelation of African-American culture and the broader culture of the United States. Going to the Territory (1986) collected sixteen reviews, essays, and speeches that Ellison had published previously.
Since the 1960's Ellison has worked on a second novel that he reputedly plans to publish as a trilogy. His work on the novel was disrupted when about 350 pages of its 1,000 page manuscript were destroyed in a house fire in 1967. Several selections from the book have been published in journals.
The central theme of Ralph Ellison's writing is the search for identity, a search that he sees as central to American literature and the American experience. He has said that "the nature of our society is such that we are prevented from knowing who we are," and in Invisible Man this struggle toward self-definition is applied to individuals, groups, and the society as a whole. The particular genius of Invisible Man is Ellison's ability to interweave these individual, communal, and national quests into a single, complex vision.
On the level of the individual, Invisible Man is, in Ellison's words, a clash of "innocence and human error, a struggle through illusion to reality." In this sense, the book is part of the literary tradition of initiation tales, stories of young men or women who confront the larger world beyond the security of home and attempt to define themselves in these new terms. Through the misadventures of his naive protagonist, Ellison stresses the individual's need to free himself from the powerful influence of societal stereotypes and demonstrates the multiple levels of deception that must be overcome before an individual can achieve self-awareness. Ellison describes the major flaw of his protagonist as an unquestioning willingness to do what is required of him by others as a way to success." Although Ellison's hero is repeatedly manipulated, betrayed, and deceived, Ellison shows that an individual is not trapped by geography, time, or place. He optimistically asserts that human beings can overcome these obstacles to independence, if they are willing to accept the responsibility to judge existence independently.
Invisible Man is also concerned with the communal effort of African-Americans to define their cultural identity. The novel surveys the history of African-American experience and alludes directly or indirectly to historical figures who serve as contradictory models for Ellison's protagonist. Some of the novel's effect is surely lost for readers who do not recognize the parallels drawn between Booker T. Washington and the Founder, between Marcus Garvey and Ras the Destroyer, or between Frederick Douglass and the narrator's grandfather. W. E. B. DuBois' description of the doubleness of the African-American experience fits the Invisible Man's narrator, and DuBois' assertion that the central fact of an African-American's experience is the "longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self" stands as a summary of the novel's overriding action.
However, Ellison does not restrict himself to the concerns of African-Americans because he believes that African-American culture is an inextricable part of American culture. Thus, Invisible Man shows how the struggles of the narrator as an individual and as a representative of an ethnic minority are paralleled by the struggle of the nation to define and redefine itself. Ellison's frequently expressed opinion that African-American culture's assimilation by the dominant culture of the United States is inevitable and salutary has led some African-American critics to attack him as reactionary. The suspicion that he has "sold out" has also been fed by his broad popularity among white readers and his acceptance of teaching positions at predominantly white universities.
The breadth and diversity of Invisible Man make it possible to fit Ellison's novel into several American literary traditions. As part of the vernacular tradition, exemplified by Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway, Ellison skillfully reproduces the various speech patterns and rich folklore of rural and urban African-Americans. As part of the symbolist tradition, exemplified by Herman Melville and T. S. Eliot, Ellison builds his novel around a full set of provocative and multifaceted symbols. As part of the tradition of African-American literature, Ellison echoes the theme of DuBois' The Souls of Black Folk (1903), reproduces the northward flight to freedom in Frederick Douglass' Narrative (1845), explores the ambiguity of identity as James Weldon Johnson did in The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man (1912), and appropriates the striking underground metaphor of Richard Wright's "The Man Who Lived Underground" (1944) .
In Invisible Man, Ellison employs a "jazz" style in which an improvisation of rhetorical forms is played against his central theme. Letters, speeches, sermons, songs, nursery rhymes, and dreams are used throughout the novel, and the novel's style adjusts to match the changing consciousness and circumstances of the protagonist. In the early chapters Ellison employs a direct, didactic style similar to that of the social realist protest novels of the 1930's and 1940's. In the middle portions of the novel, after the narrator moves to New York City, Ellison's prose becomes more expressionistic, reflecting the narrator's introspection. In the last section of the novel, as the narrator moves toward the apocalyptic race riot in Harlem with which the novel concludes, the prose becomes surreal, emphasizing the darkly comic absurdities of American existence. In all sections the book in enriched by Ellison's versatile use of symbols that focus attention on his major themes while underscoring the ambiguous nature of experience.
Structurally, Invisible Man is episodic and cyclic, presenting the reader with versions of a basic pattern of disillusionment enacted in increasingly complex social environments. In each cycle the narrator eagerly accepts an identity provided by a deceitful mentor and eventually experiences a revelation that shatters the illusory identity he has adopted. This repeated narrative pattern demonstrates the pervasiveness of racism and self-interest and convinces the narrator that he must find his individual answers and stop looking to others.
Although Invisible Man addresses some of the most serious concerns of American society, it is also a comic novel in which Ellison relies on both the traditional picaresque humor of initiation and the rough-edged and often disguised humor of urban African-Americans. Its dark comedy, sophisticated play of rhetorical forms, complex use of symbolism, and original examination of difficult social issues distinguish the book as a masterpiece of modern fiction.
First Published: 1952
Type of Work: Novel
An ambitious but naive black youth journeys through American society in search of his identity.
Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man is framed by a Prologue and an Epilogue that are set at a time after the completion of the novel's central action. The novel's picaresque story of a young black man's misadventures is presented as a memoir written by an older, more experienced embodiment of the narrator. The narrator of the Prologue and Epilogue has withdrawn into a state he calls "hibernation" after surviving the multiple deceptions and betrayals that he recounts in his memoir. As the narrator says, "the end is the beginning and lies far ahead."
The Prologue foreshadows the novel's action, preparing the reader for the narrator's final condition; focusing the reader's attention on the major themes of truth, responsibility, and freedom; and introducing the reader to the double consciousness that operates in the book. Throughout the novel the naive assumptions of the youthful narrator are counterbalanced by the cynical judgments of his more mature self, creating an ironic double perspective.
The broken narrator to whom the reader is introduced in the Prologue is hiding in an underground room, stealing power from the Monopolated Power Company to light the thousands of bulbs he has strung up. An angry and damaged man, he explains his frustration at his "invisibility," a quality that prevents others from seeing anything but "surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination." The narrator experiences a desperate need to "convince [himself] that [he] exists in the real world." As he listens to Louis Armstrong's recording of "What Did I Do to Be so Black and Blue?", he dreams and then recounts his experiences.
The first episode of the narrator's memoir, which goes back to his graduation from a black high school in the South, is a representative anecdote, a story that sets the pattern and themes of the narrator's subsequent misadventures. Throughout Invisible Man, the narrator builds illusory expectations based on the deceitful promises of people who set themselves up as his mentors. In each cycle the narrator is eventually disillusioned by a dramatic revelation of deceit and sent spiralling toward his final confrontation with himself.
In the initial episode, the narrator is invited to repeat his valedictory speech before the white leaders of the town. These men, however, humiliate the protagonist and some other black youths by forcing them to engage in a "battle royal," a blindfolded fist fight in which the last standing participant is victorious; tempting the black youths to fight for counterfeit coins tossed on an electrified rug; and rudely disregarding the protagonist's remarks when he is finally allowed to speak. The episode demonstrates how racist leaders control African-Americans by encouraging them to direct their anger at one another and by rewarding acceptably submissive behavior such as the protagonist's speech about "social responsibility." Although the episode clearly reveals the corrupt and even bestial nature of these men, the protagonist is blinded by his eagerness to succeed and gratefully accepts the briefcase he is given after his speech.
The episode develops the ocular symbols of blindness/sight, darkness/light that are used in the novel to describe the protagonists invisibility and his stumbling
quest for truth. It also introduces the briefcase, a symbol of the narrator's naive effort to accept prescribed identities. The briefcase stays with the narrator until the end of the novel, accumulating objects and documents that represent the various false identities he assumes. These two symbols are united at the end of the novel when the narrator burns the contents of his briefcase in order to see in his underground hideout.
At the black college which the protagonist attends, he is introduced to the misuse of black power. The President of the school, Dr. Bledsoe, a ruthless man whose name implies his deracinated disregard for other
African-Americans, , is blindly idolized by the narrator for whom the college is a paradise of reason and culture. He says that "within the quiet greenness I possessed the only identity I had ever known." But when he mishandles a visiting white trustee named Norton by allowing him to hear Jim Trueblood's shocking tale of incest and taking him to a brothel where they are beset by a group of World War I veterans, Dr. Bledsoe banishes the protagonist from the collegiate Eden. It is only later, after fruitless efforts to find employment in New York City, that the narrator discovers that Bledsoe's letters of reference have betrayed him.
The revelation of Dr. Bledsoe's perfidy destroys the narrator's dream of returning to the college, so he accepts a job with Liberty Paints, determined to make his own way. The factory, which is a microcosm of capitalist America, produces Optic White, "the purest white that can be found," a paint that will "cover just about anything," for the government, but the secret ingredient is a small amount of black base that is produced in a boiler room by an aging African-American named Lucius Broakaway. The protagonist is assigned to Brockaway, but the veteran employee's paranoid suspicion that the protagonist is a spy sent to discover his secrets and the protagonist's resentment at being assigned to an African-American supervisor result in a fight. As the two fight, pressure builds until the boilers explode.
The protagonist awakes to find himself in the factory infirmary where various masked doctors are discussing ways in which to make him pliable. Half-conscious, the narrator is dimly aware of the doctors' efforts at scientific behavior modification, but their bizarre treatment only succeeds at stripping away layers of superficial personality and revealing a changed man who looks at the world with "wild infants' eyes."
In this reborn state the narrator is adopted by Mary Rambo, the maternal owner of a boarding house in Harlem. Mary's nurturing restores the protagonist and awakens a new sensitivity to injustice. When he comes across an elderly couple being evicted from their apartment, he speaks up in their behalf, stirring the crowd of neighbors to action and preventing the eviction. The protagonist's unpremeditated but effective oratory is noticed by Jack, an organizer for the Brotherhood, an organization that closely resembles the Communist Party. Jack recruits the protagonist and tells him that he will become the party's new spokesperson in Harlem.
The Brotherhood supplies the protagonist with a name and establishes him in their Harlem office. As director of the party's Harlem branch, the protagonist works with Todd Ciifton, an idealistic young party member, who is eventually killed for resisting arrest, and Tarp, a grizzled escapee from @ southern chain gang. He competes with Ras the Destroyer, a African-American nationalist who is reminiscent of Marcus Garvey.
Eventually the protagonist realizes that he is being used by Jack and that the Brotherhood is willing to sacrifice the progress made in Harlem for the larger ends of the party. In a climactic showdown, Jack shocks the protagonist by plucking out his glass eye, demonstrating the necessity for personal sacrifice and his own blindness.
Realizing that his dream of real progress through the Brotherhood is futile, the narrator moves toward chaos, suddenly finding that he is mistaken for the Protean character Rinehart, a mysterious con man who is at once a minister and a pimp, a man whose name suggests the ambiguous relation of inner and outer realities. The protagonist considers adopting the cynicism of Rinehart, a decision that would end the search for a true identity, but he soon realizes that he cannot abandon his conscience or his quest.
As the book nears its conclusion, the protagonist runs through a race riot that the Brotherhood has encouraged, seeing men burn their own homes. He finds sanctuary in an underground hole where he is forced to burn the symbolic contents of his briefcase in order to see. He thus destroys the various identities that have been handed to him by others, in order to prepare himself for the "hibernation" during which he hopes to discover himself.
Invisible Man's Epilogue completes the frame begun in the novel's Prologue, returning the reader to narrator who is hibernating underground. The narrator says that although the world outside his underground haven is as deceitful and dangerous as ever, the process of retelling his story has made him "better understand my relation to it and it to me." He has come to accept the responsibility of determining his own identity and rejects demagogic reactions to injustice. He advises his reader that "too much of your life will be lost, its meaning lost unless you approach it as much through love as through hate." He now sees his own life as "one of infinite possibilities." Thus, at the novel's conclusion the narrator is preparing to reenter the world, to make a fresh start. As Ellison has said, his narrator ficomes up from the underground because the act of writing and thinking necessitated it." The novels concluding question, "Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?", underscores applicability of the narrator's experience and revelation to individuals, African-Americans, and the nation as a whole.
Although Ellison has modestly claimed that Invisible Man is "not an important novel," the book has demonstrated its ability to speak to a variety of readers.
Covo, Jacqueline. The Blinking Eye: Ralph Waldo Ellison and His American, French, German, and Italian Critics, 1952-1971. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow, 1974.
Gottesman, Ronald. The-Merrill Studies in Invisible Man. Columbus: Charles E. Merrill, 1971.
Gray, Valerie Bonita. Invisible Man's Literary Heritage: Benito Cereno and Moby Dick. 1978.
Hersey, John. Ralph Ellison: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1974.
List, Robert N. Dedalus in Harlem: The Joyce-Ellison Connection. , 1982.
McSweeney, Kerry. Invisible Man: Race and--Identity. Boston: G.K.Hall, 1988.
Nadel, Alan. Invisible Criticism: Ralph Ellison and the American Canon. , 1988.
O'Mealiy, Robert G. The Craft of Ralph Ellison. , 1980.
Reilly, John M., ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of Invisible Man. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1970.
Trimmer, Joseph, ed. A Casebook on Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. New York: Crowell, 1972.