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The Drama of Ralph Ellison

He tells himself to stop running from the people in authority who had always had control over him and to run instead from “their confusion, impatience, and refusal to recognize the beautiful absurdity of their American identity and mine.” After his surreal descent from politician to looter to someone hibernating and speaking “on the lower frequencies,” the narrator, “hurt to the point of invisibility,” wonders if maybe blacks didn’t have to “affirm the principle on which the country was built, and not the men, or at least not the men who did the violence,” or even to take responsibility “for the men as well as the principle” in order to find transcendence.

This message of enlightened endurance is unexpected because, apart from some gorgeous nostalgic passages about Southern settings early on,3 Invisible Man is grim in its scenery and paranoid in mood. The narrator reminisces as someone who has been taught to behave from the conviction that everyone he encounters is conspiring to do something to him. He is in command of the solitude of his hiding place, a hole in a basement that he has wired with 1,369 filament light bulbs. Perhaps the paranoia is fitting for a novel about blacks as a transplanted, unwelcomed people.

But Ellison’s idea of the complexity and resilience of black folk also included the possibility that they were capable of a mournful patriotism in spite of everything that had gone wrong since Reconstruction. Ellison’s narrator is more likely to speak of American society than of white society, because the plurality of the term, American, would indicate that he has a share in the national life, “the whole unhappy territory and all the things loved and unlovable in it.” Though Ellison in his novel has contempt for white paternalism of any kind, the anti-communism of Invisible Man shows the change in the Party’s image since the war. Ellison had praised Native Son as a philosopher’s book when it appeared in 1940. But as a novel of political ideas Invisible Man shows no sympathy for the radical alliances of the Depression that informed Wright’s best-known work.

McCarthyism’s power was increasing when Invisible Man was published in 1952. The same year Partisan Review declared that American artists were at last discovering enough on their own shores to sustain them. Langston Hughes was soon to face committee hearings; Richard Wright was in exile in Paris, ignored, he feared, by American critics. James Baldwin had attacked protest writing in Partisan Review in 1949, but he, like Chester Himes, was also living in Europe. Ellison, however, after a stint at the American Academy in Rome from 1955 to 1957, returned to America and stayed American—not bohemian, not queer, not married to a white woman, not a former Marxist, not a novelist of racial victimization.

In the immediate aftermath of World War II black writers like Wright, Himes, and Anne Petry had brought out works of protest, but not until the 1960s would there again be anything comparable to their aggressiveness in exposing the country’s racial violence. Realism is always a vital force. It never goes out of date, providing one has a new subject. As the cold war took hold, the cultural moment, in fiction by blacks, seemed to belong to introspective coming-of-age novels, to Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953) or Paule Marshall’s Brown Girl, Brownstones (1959). What sets the fabulism of Invisible Man apart from the realism of its time is the atmosphere it conveys of Ellison’s having asked as much of the novel, stylistically, as he did of his subject matter.

Invisible Man gives a sense of Ellison’s having patiently saved up a great stock of observation and ideas for the release of composition. Though some of the incidents in the novel were based on actual events, it is not a transcription of experience. It is clearly an invention, and its incidents are so fantastic that it can’t remotely be read as a case study. Ellison had no interest in pretending that his book was like life, an expression perhaps of his Modernist disdain for journeyman realism. To judge from some “Working Notes” on the metaphor of invisibility, written around the time he began Invisible Man, he had higher aspirations for his novel.

His perfectionism counted for everything—in the meticulousness of the novel’s conception, the confidence of its structural devices, and especially in the lavishness of its rhetorical displays. For a story about someone remembering his own spiritual fog, the narrator is precise in his language and perceptions, in his recall of so many idioms, as though they were reproduced by an ear trained for musical memory. Ellison’s governing presence is never far from the frame of the narrator’s personality, and the virtuosity of his narrative voice was central to Ellison’s ambition. In Philip Rahv’s historical view which split American literature into the two camps of paleface and redskin, Ellison would have wanted to be counted among the patricians of sensibility.

He was a paleface with a subject long dominated in his youth by redskins. A high literary finish was therefore the quality that would most distinguish Ellison’s prose style from Wright’s broad stream of speech. It’s no scandal that Ellison might have wanted to produce a work free of or even superior to Wright’s. When Ellison was at work on Invisible Man, Wright was the most famous black writer in the US, the first to enjoy the financial relief of a best-seller. In 1945 Ellison wrote a thoughtful review of Black Boy in which he tried to reconcile Wright’s bleak picture of the South with his own idea of the black community as a place where the imaginative life is encouraged.

However, the same year, 1953, that Ellison spoke at the National Book Award ceremonies about Invisible Man‘s significance being in its “experimental attitude,” its presentation of “the rich diversity” of America “unburdened by the narrow naturalism” that had led to so much “unrelieved despair” in current fiction, Wright published an “existentialist” novel, The Outsider, to very mixed reviews. In a Time magazine article dismissive of the fears of totalitarianism in the US expressed in the novel, and suspicious of Wright’s residency in France, Ellison is quoted as saying, “After all, my people have been here for a long time. It is a big wonderful country, and you can’t just turn away from it because some people decide it isn’t your country.” The New Masses feeling was obsolete.

Wright himself had been trying to find an alternative to the racial situations of his earlier fictions. The Outsider had its origins in a long story, “The Man Who Lived Underground,” published in 1944 in an anthology, Cross Section. In this story about the nature of guilt, Wright combines naturalism with stream-of-consciousness techniques. It opens with a man, not immediately identified as black, eluding police by slipping down a manhole into a sewer. He’d been beaten into signing a confession for a murder he didn’t commit. He becomes a phantom hunter-gatherer, eventually rigging his cave with electricity.

Holes in brick walls allow him to spy on the daily life of others. He gains access to a jewelry shop, which he robs. When out of curiosity he goes back to the jeweler’s he observes the night watchman accused of the robbery kill himself after a brutal police interrogation. Driven by inchoate feelings, he returns to the surface. He is unable to remember his name and his story isn’t believed. He sounds like just another raving black man. The murder he was almost framed for has been solved, but the police decide not to risk that he had indeed witnessed their torture of the night watchman. He leads them to his manhole. “You’ve got to shoot his kind. They’d wreck things.” Sewer waters carry the body off.

4.

Wright died in 1960. In the years that followed Ellison had occasion to reflect on his relation to Wright, especially when critics linked him with Baldwin as a black writer whose aestheticism had betrayed the social mission of black literature as exemplified by Wright. In response Ellison invoked “the American Negro tradition” that abhors trading on one’s anguish and teaches strategies of survival instead. A tenacious hold on the ideal of ultimate freedom, he contended, was as characteristic of blacks as the “hatred, fear, and vindictiveness” that Wright chose to give emphasis to. One wonders why Ellison assumed that holding on to ideals of freedom was separate from or contradictory to the fear and anger of the lives Wright investigated.

Ellison asserted his belief that “true novels,” even the most pessimistic, arose from the compulsion to celebrate human life, that they were therefore “ritualistic and ceremonial at their core.” Wright, on the other hand, in Ellison’s summary, believed in the novel as a weapon or an instrument of public relations. Wright, he said, was more of a problem for a young black writer like Baldwin than he was for him anyway.4 Wright was not the “father” in his way because they were too close in age. “I simply stepped around him.” By 1940, he said, Wright had begun to view him as a rival and he had ceased to show Wright his work.5 Had he wanted to study a protest novel in the first place, Malraux’s Man’s Fate was superior to Native Son in his opinion.

To me Wright as a writer was less interesting than the enigma he personified: that he could so dissociate himself from the complexity of his background while trying so hard to improve the condition of black men everywhere; that he could be so wonderful an example of human possibility but could not for ideological reasons depict a Negro as intelligent, as creative or dedicated as himself.

Bigger Thomas was intended as “a subhuman indictment of white oppression.” Wright could imagine Bigger, Ellison said, but someone like Bigger could not imagine a black man like Richard Wright. Even if Ellison recoiled from the tabloid sources of Wright’s plots, one wonders why Ellison overlooked how hard it is to make a simple person convincing on the page. Wright made Bigger uncertain in speech, but he did not leave him without powers of reflection.

Ellison illustrated through his articulate narrator the black presence in the country as a kind of “pure” intelligence. It’s as though he thought of the memories and feelings of blacks as being like signals not detected by others by which certain people recognize one another. But what Wright made intelligible through Bigger was the inner state of someone unseen, even by himself, because of his caste. Wright broke psychological and physical taboos in his portrayal of how race affected human relations. In some ways as a popular writer he was more innovative than Ellison, a “custodian of the American language,” as he called himself.

  1. 3

    For images from The Waste Land recalled in Ellison’s narrator’s description of his Negro college, see Louis Menand’s essay “Diversity” in Critical Terms for Literary Study, edited by Frank Lentricchia and Thomas McLaughlin (University of Chicago Press, 1995).

  2. 4

    Baldwin was scathing about Native Son in an essay in Partisan Review, “Many Thousands Gone,” published in 1951 and reprinted in Notes of a Native Son. He cited among its faults Wright’s inadvertent acquiescence to the American image of the Negro; his failure to interpret the isolation of the Negro within his own group; and a plot of “unapprehended disaster” that encouraged the notion that the Negro had no traditions to express the experience of a people trying to survive. Baldwin claimed that as yet there had been no black writers with a “sensibility sufficiently profound and tough to make this tradition articulate.” Oddly enough, Baldwin’s first novel is all about a young man’s escape from this very tradition as embodied in the black church. His remarks sound more like Ellison’s idea of himself.

  3. 5

    In an entry in his diary made in February of 1945 Wright grumbles about Ellison keeping his ideas to himself and refusing to lend him a book by Wilhelm Reich.

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