Yesterday the National Association of Scholars inaugurated a new series on the Great American Novel with a program on Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. The program is accessible here at the NAS YouTube channel. Moderator David Randall kindly led off the questions with one I had submitted in advance because I had a conflict with the live presentation on Zoom.
Insofar as academic literary studies have declined into a sinister farce, I think this series is a brilliant use of the NAS’s time and resources. I found the panel to be disappointing, but the NAS’s selection of Ellison’s novel to lead off the new series is nothing short of perfect. It is a great American novel, if not the great American novel. It is up there with Moby Dick, with Huckleberry Finn, and with Faulkner’s masterpieces. Like them, it is inexhaustibly rich.
Published in 1952, it also 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. Indeed, the novel is a classic of world literature.
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 Homer, Virgil, Augustine, Hardy and Dostoyevsky — especially Dostoyevsky — to Ellison’s novel. Ellison was obviously a voracious reader. He unobtrusively turned his reading to his own purposes and staked his own claim to the territory. One can infer he thought that “appropriation” — cultural and otherwise — was the name of the game.
In the novel 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 as if 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 read the novel for the first time a few years ago for a St. John’s Summer Classics seminar. I waited to finish the novel before rereading Norman Podhoretz’s 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 doubt that this is the right frame of reference. In any event, I haven’t read a postwar American novel that I would rank higher.
Nathaniel Rich took 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.” The NAS program yesterday cited James Tuttleton, which sent me to Tuttleton’s 1995 New Criterion essay “The Achievement of Ralph Ellison.”
I was blown away by Invisible Man when I read it for the St. John’s seminar. Wanting to talk about it when we returned home, I asked my friends if they had read it. They had, either in high school or in college, but confessed that it didn’t register on them at that age. If you read it in the course of your formal education, I urge you to revisit it in your maturity.
As noted above, Arnold Rampersad is Ellison’s biographer. In the lecture below, he gave an overview of Ellison’s life shortly after publication of the biography. Looking for a video to post with these comments, I found this to be worth the time.