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The Drama of Ralph Ellison

By the time Ellison was publishing his first stories it was well established that left-wing publications offered black writers the chance to reach an audience. What now gets called folkloric was probably back then seen as having a New Masses aesthetic, the reversals that give victory to the common man, or thwart the usual expectations about how a social situation will be resolved. For instance the white man who comes up to the black janitor on the street turns out to be a union organizer, not a bigot. To white radical readers and editors these twists would have been taken as the higher truths of proletarian literature. To black writers and readers the surprises may have been enjoyed as occasions of social correction or downright payback.

Several of Ellison’s stories have that New Masses feeling, among them “Hymie’s Bull” and “I Did Not Learn Their Names,” stories in which he was able to draw on his experience of hopping freights. Their descriptive ease and tone of cool menace make them the best in the collection. They deal with a temporary or tentative fraternity among the down and out. Blacks and whites are made equal by the circumstance of being displaced. Riding on top of a boxcar, Hymie, “sick from some bad grub he’d bummed,” is grabbed by a railroad cop who then beats him and attempts to throw him from the streaking train. In the ensuing struggle Hymie kills him with a knife. The narrator expresses satisfaction that Hymie manages to get away, even though black bums are the ones hauled off trains and made to pay the cost whenever a railroad cop goes missing. The narrator of “I Did Not Learn Their Names,” a student, waits for the elderly white couple he meets on a boxcar to act like white people. Instead they share their food and bits of their sad story. He keeps his distance, but finds himself thinking of them when not long afterward he is picked up in an Alabama railroad yard and put in jail.

The airplane still figured in American fiction as a common symbol of the romantic hope of the young for adventure, especially a poor boy’s. Everywhere characters used to look up from slum doorways or cornfields and vow that they too would climb high. The title story has a downed, injured black airman embarrassed by the concern of the black farmer who has come to his aid. The airman is certain that the old man’s attentions will compromise him further in the eyes of his white superiors, with whom he is already in trouble for wrecking his machine and for being a pilot who is black. He thought he’d escaped what the old farmer represented. But by the story’s end their mutual understanding affords the only dignity he has.

Flying Home” and an equally ambitious story, “King of the Bingo Game,” also first published in 1944, hint toward the voice Ellison was to find for Invisible Man. In both stories, narrative emphasis shifts from external detail to the point of view in the protagonist’s head, an anxious concentration on the main character’s being surrounded by uncomprehending, potentially hostile spectators. But both are apprentice work. The short story form wouldn’t accommodate Ellison’s need to describe experience as he had “seen and felt it,” because he couldn’t assume his readers would understand what he meant by the diversity of experience among blacks. His own consciousness had been formed by a multiplicity of sensations, from a love of observing the weather to listening to different styles among Negro preachers.

Neither the naturalism nor the straight realism of the short story suited his temperament. He wanted to extend realism somehow to find a way to include the chaos of life as it had passed before him. Soon after Ellison had completed these exercises he made his leap. Ellison began Invisible Man in 1945. Two years later a segment appeared in Horizon in a special issue on America. It would be another five years before the work was finished.

3.

Ellison had almost as much to say about Invisible Man as his critics did. In his preface for the thirtieth-anniversary edition he recalled that his novel’s prologue came to him as a voice that interrupted the war novel he was writing about a black American pilot imprisoned in a German camp. Ellison respected messages from that empire, the unconscious, and he described himself as being suddenly in the service of “a taunting, disembodied voice.” His “spokesman for invisibility” would not be one of those protagonists in African-American fiction who were “without intellectual depth.” He said he was trying to avoid writing what would amount to just another novel of racial protest instead of the “dramatic study in comparative humanity” that “any worthwhile novel should be.”

Ellison in his preface said that he had associated his invisible man “ever so distantly” with the narrator of Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, but the connection is clear. Golyadkin remembers trying to pick a fight with a six-foot-tall blond officer, who moved him to another spot and walked on. “I could have forgiven blows, but how could I forgive just being moved like that and being so completely ignored?” Golyadkin could not treat the officer as an equal even on the street. He stepped aside, “nothing but a fly before all that fine society.”

Ellison’s unnamed narrator recalls the night he bumped into a tall blond man who then uttered an insult. The narrator seized him and demanded an apology. The black man kept kicking and butting him until the white man went down. He was ready to slit his throat, “when it occurred to me that the man had not seen me, actually; that he, as far as he knew, was in the midst of a walking nightmare!” He is talking about the habit of whites not to notice blacks, not to differentiate among them. While Dostoevsky’s narrator, speaking “from under the floor,” inspired Ellison’s metaphor of invisibility, it was the marginal urban philosopher himself who may have given Ellison confidence in the fluency of his narrator’s hallucinations.

Dostoevsky’s clerk is socially superfluous but well read. He says that the only external sensations available to him are in reading. Apart from his reading, he has nothing to respect in his surroundings. He mocks the romantic pretensions in Russian thinking at the time by identifying with them, by knowing all the fashionable phrases. Ellison’s narrator has a similar relationship to the talismanic phrases of Negro uplift and education. In his search for Negro leadership he tries a variety of styles, and his dreams of success prove as false as Golyadkin’s literary postures.2

Invisibility, Ellison said, also sprang from the “great formlessness of Negro life” which produced personalities of “extreme complexity.” This complexity explains why Ellison was enthralled by the narrative voice he had found. The narrator’s sheer articulateness is his advantage over racial prejudice. It gives him the victory of the more profound understanding. The tragic face behind the comic mask that Ellison felt was so central to black folk culture was really intelligence, the black person’s conscious refusal to accept any interpretations of reality other than his own.

Dostoevsky’s example of a deracinated, educated character freed Ellison from the piety of the articulate black first-person narrators of earlier black fiction, who were resolutely middle-class. The anonymous narrator of James Weldon Johnson’s novel The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912) is a precursor of Ellison’s invisible black man. His is also a story retold in isolation. Johnson’s narrator remembers a series of disillusioning experiences as a young, aristocratic mulatto. But he looks back on his life as a black from the psychological prison of having chosen to pass for white. Ellison’s narrator doesn’t pass, but he disappears underground, in order to start talking. Ellison wanted to comment on the theme of upward mobility by having his character go down and “rise” by expressing his inward self while down, the “transformation from ranter to writer.”

Ellison’s narrator has made the journey from the rural South to the urban North often related in autobiographies by blacks. He recalls the experience in black politics that he survived before he went underground, from Southern paternalism at a Tuskegee-like college to radical agitation in a volatile Harlem. Crammed with incident, dense with metaphor and symbol, the novel is full of speech makers: black educators, left-wing organizers, a West Indian black nationalist. The invisible man himself makes speeches in his helpless progress from naive class orator performing for his hometown big shots to embittered eulogist of a fellow political organizer in Harlem. When he is not wondering where he is or how he got there, someone is talking at him or around him, usually a working-class black man or black woman. How they talk and what they talk about form the “underground of American experience” that is Ellison’s main subject.

They tell stories within the story. They are the carriers of the friendly down-home customs, playful ways of speaking, and relaxed attitudes about daily life that the invisible man thinks he must repudiate in order to advance. The sharecroppers, war veterans, bartenders, landladies, street vendors, and random pedestrians he meets form a chorus of folk values. They are “too obscure for learned classification, too silent for the most sensitive recorders of sound; of natures too ambiguous for the most ambiguous words.” These transitory people “write no novels, histories or other books” and have no one to applaud the glamour of their language. But the unwritten history contained in their sayings and songs contradicts the political theories and sociological prejudices from which the narrator has been trying to forge his identity.

He can only appreciate these folk truths once he has broken with the Brotherhood, an organization much like the Communist Party. Ellison not only made room for so many recognizable social types in his narrator’s odyssey, he also had a talent for rendering traits that were usually laughed at into something strange and threatening, like the suspicious black men in the narrator’s rooming house who hold menial jobs but nevertheless dress fastidiously and observe a strict social code. Ellison is merciless in his portrayal of the cynicism of the Brotherhood’s members. His narrator makes cuckolds of the leaders. Their women pine for black brutes. To all of them he is either a tool or an entertainer. They no more want him to think than they expect Paul Robeson to be able to act on stage.

He submits to the Brotherhood’s discipline. “If I couldn’t help them to see the reality of our lives I would help them to ignore it until it exploded in their faces.” But the Brotherhood dupes him and abandons Harlem to black nationalist forces. Harlem erupts following a cop’s shooting of an idealistic black organizer who, disgusted by his misplaced faith, had resorted to selling Sambo dolls on the street. At first the invisible man exults in the destruction as an action by the people that did not come from ideology. But the smashing and burning convince him that the Brotherhood was willing to sacrifice Harlem, that its new alliances in city politics meant that it welcomed the repression of blacks. He falls down a manhole and escapes.

  1. 2

    For a full, in-depth discussion of this connection see Joseph Frank, “Ralph Ellison and a literary ‘ancestor’: Dostoevsky,” The New Criterion, September 1983.

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