I just finished reading Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison for the first time. I found it to be a challenging, gripping, entertaining novel of the first rank that I want to commend to your attention. Published in 1952, it remains an incredibly timely novel. It lends further support to the contrarian case Jeffrey Hart makes in When the Going Was Good! that the 1950’s represented a high-water mark in American art. I am taking a seminar on the novel next week offered as part of the Summer Classics in Santa Fe program at St. John’s College. I can’t wait to talk about the novel under the instruction of a couple of St. John’s “tutors” with others who have read the book.
In form the novel gives us the education of a young man. It is a so-called bildungsroman (or Bildungsroman). One can draw a straight line from Melville, Twain, Eliot, Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Faulkner, not to mention Hardy and Dostoyevsky, to Ellison’s novel. Ellison was obviously a voracious reader. Yet he unobtrusively turned his reading to his own uses in Invisible Man and staked his own claim to the territory.
An anonymous black narrator tells the story of his (the narrator’s) education into “invisibility.” His invisibility seems to have something to do with the rejection of various identities he tries on or finds imposed on him. His anonymity is part of his invisibility. From the outset the story takes the shape of a nightmare. While it is a work of realism in some respects, the story moves from humiliation and disaster to catastrophe as in a bad dream. The characters have the abstraction of figures in a dream. Events have a dream logic. As each chapter ends, a trap door opens as the narrator is pulled down further into the vortex. His odyssey ends with a stint in Harlem as an agent of the Communist Party (“the Brotherhood”). The nightmarish shape of the novel gives it a compelling forward momentum. It draws you ever further on. You want to know what happens next.
Parts of the novel read like they could have been ripped from yesterday’s headlines. The narrator’s race is a factor in every aspect of the story. His grandfather was a slave. He attends a black college like Tuskegee. He moves north to Harlem, where the Communists find him of use because of his race. His relations with every white man or woman in the book are colored (no pun intended) by his race.
The search for his true identity finally transcends race. At the end of it all he asks: “Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?” He speaks for me. This transcendence provokes race men like the New Yorker’s Hilton Als. Als’s hostility is palpable in his otherwise informative review of Arnold Rampersad’s 2007 biography of Ellison.
I waited to finish the novel before rereading Norman Podhoretz’s characteristically excellent 1995 essay “What happened to Ralph Ellison?” On his first reading, Podhoretz found the novel a masterpiece. Rereading the novel 30 years later, he slightly lowered his estimate. He judged the novel as a work of realism. For reasons suggested above, I wonder if that is the right frame of reference. Whether or not it is a masterpiece, I would say (as I do above) that it is a work of the first rank. I haven’t read a postwar American novel that I would rank higher.
Nathaniel Rich takes a brief but useful look at the novel in “American nightmare: Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man at 60.” Also of interest is Tom Vitale’s NPR tribute “Ellison at 100.”
Somewhere in the information available online I learned that 20 books have been written about Invisible Man. My thoughts above are uneducated and preliminary, offered with no motive higher than getting you to make the book part of your summer reading if you haven’t gotten to it yet.