Invisible Man holds such an honored place in African-American literature that Ralph Ellison didn’t have to write anything else to break bread with the remembered dead. But he did try to go on, because if a writer has done one great thing then the pressures to do another are intense. A few of Ellison’s short stories from the 1940s and 1950s were widely anthologized over the years. After a while it became generally known that he was at work on another novel. Though he remained aware ever afterward of the authority Invisible Man gave to him, no second novel followed his brilliant debut in 1952.
Ellison published essays, magisterial in tone, often on how a “specifically ‘Negro’ idiom” has influenced and been influenced by the larger American culture, or on the enduring predicament he saw as being at the heart of the American novel, the contradiction between the country’s founding ideals and its actual, though sometimes hidden, caste and racial history. He admired nineteenth-century writers such as Melville and Twain because they believed in works of fiction as repositories of the nation’s social and moral history. Before the undoing of Reconstruction, American novelists took account of the presence of blacks, and this inclusiveness suggested a brave, creative country, in Ellison’s view. From its legacy he derived a lofty sense of his own purpose as an artist and of the novel as a “public gesture.”
Ellison was prominent on the lecture circuit even in the Black Aesthetic days of the Sixties when his defiantly pro-American and prickly-proud intellectual act met with some hostility. Black Power nearly buried his reputation as he faced impolite audiences of black students from Harvard to Iowa, and refused to join in the mood of outrage, declining to call himself black instead of Negro. Meanwhile, chapters of his second novel appeared here and there throughout the 1960s and the 1970s. Eventually the voices of the militants whom he charged with having condescended to blacks faded and became as historical as his memory of Richard Wright falling out with black Communists in Harlem.
Whatever was said about Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man was considered untouchable. For a long time—pre- Song of Solomon days—he was the sole African-American novelist to have won anything as big as the National Book Award. Ellison held distinguished university appointments, received honorary degrees, delivered commencement addresses, granted lengthy interviews, and relished the fellowship of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His work benefited mightily from the rediscovery of folklore in Black Studies and he lived long enough to witness the elevation of Invisible Man to a sort of Ur-text of blackness. “That blackness is most black, brothers, most black,” people like to quote.
By the time Ellison died in 1994 he was regarded as a cultural treasure, a vindicated father figure for a generation of formerly militant and post-militant black writers who wanted folklore, blues, jazz, and black literature to be brainy yet virile subjects. The man of letters in Ellison had flourished, but maybe the writer in him up there on Riverside Drive, with his voluminous black-bound manuscript pages of a “work in progress,” had found it paralyzing to think of the risks in publishing a second novel that might not measure up—or might be said not to measure up—to his one celebrated accomplishment.
To have published only one novel was part of the drama of his distinction. His standing apart because of this novel also became an allegory for one of his most cherished themes: the individuality of the Negro and therefore the complexity of the Negro as an American artist. He wanted to be read on his own terms. In some of the essays originally collected in Shadow and Act (1964) and Going to the Territory (1986), Ellison used his biography to explore the pluralistic irreversibly mixed cultural tradition in which he saw himself working, and which he didn’t think most other Americans, black or white, appreciated enough for its intricacies and ironies.
Perhaps in looking back on his formative years to make his case that there was more to the lives of black people than Jim Crow, Ellison slyly confused the evidence of his own singularity with the argument for “personal realization” and affirmation of self that he claimed were available to all blacks. But Joyce, he noted, was busily establishing the conventions by which he wanted to be read even while he was writing his books. For Ellison this meant challenging misconceptions about the lives of black people and asserting what made his “sense of Negro life” different from that of other black writers.
To begin with there was Oklahoma, where Ellison was born in 1914. During his childhood Oklahoma had some of the worst riots in US history, and this was at a time when a race riot meant whites on the rampage through black neighborhoods. Still, he observed, Oklahoma “had no tradition of slavery, and while it was segregated, relationships between the races were more fluid and thus more human than in the old slave states.” Ellison remembered a white boy called Hoolie, whom he’d met when his mother was working as custodian for some apartments in a white middle-class neighborhood. Hoolie suffered from a rheumatic heart, was being educated at home, and, like Ellison, was lonely for company. Race, Ellison said, didn’t come into their shared enthusiasm as radio buffs and seekers after tuning coils in the garbage. Because the nine-year-old Hoolie approached electronics with “such daring,” knowing him led Ellison, so he claimed, to expect more of himself and the world.
The porousness of the Jim Crow fabric in Oklahoma City not only allowed for exchanges of everyday humanity, but also for an almost subversive cultural flow up and down the social scale. “Any feelings of distrust I was to develop toward white people later on were modified by those with whom I had warm relations. Oklahoma offered many opportunities for such friendships,” he said in an interview in 1961. In his late teens Ellison worked as an elevator operator in the Hub Building on Main Street to earn money for his college tuition. The building’s owners, the Lewinson brothers, were pleased to find him either reading or beating out rhythms on the elevator cage. Ellison had a crush on one of the Lewinson daughters and years later in Italy he told her cousin, the writer Thekla Clark, that when he thought of a father figure he recalled Milton Lewinson’s white mane.
Oklahoma had only been a state seven years when Ellison was born. The black people no less than the white people there, he said, were still imbued with the pioneer spirit. Their aggressive demeanor alone challenged the intentions of segregation. They were also mindful of the Native American elements in their ancestry and environment. This atmosphere of resistance and superiority was part of Ellison’s remembrance of a black community not at all cut off from information, knowledge.
Ellison’s father, a construction foreman, coal and then ice salesman who died when Ellison was three, wanted his oldest son to be a poet, as Ralph Waldo Ellison learned much later. It was not unusual for blacks of his father’s generation to name their children after American heroes, including literary ones. Though Ellison’s mother did not have much formal education, she nevertheless encouraged her two sons by bringing home from her jobs as a domestic discarded books, magazines, opera recordings. Just as he could grow up listening to the radio, like any white kid, he said, so, too, could anybody go to the movies, even if people had by law to sit in different sections.
Ellison remembered as a joy the public library for blacks that had been hastily organized in two large rooms of what had once been a pool hall. He first read Shaw and Maupassant in the home of a friend whose parents were teachers. As adolescents he and his friends told one another that they were going to be “Renaissance men.” “We discussed mastering ourselves and everything in sight as though no such thing as racial discrimination existed.” The first black graduate of Brown, Inman Page, was, in the last years of his career as an educator, principal of Ellison’s high school.
Apart from the editor of the local black newspaper, Oklahoma City “starkly lacked” black writers. Ellison had been a delivery boy for several black newspapers that had nationwide distribution, but “on the level of conscious culture the Negro community was biased in the direction of music.” Dr. Page’s daughter was a leader of the music-in-the-schools movement that swept the nation in the 1920s. She also owned the town’s one black theater and was responsible for its sophisticated repertory. “We were being introduced to one of the most precious of American freedoms, which is our freedom to broaden our personal culture by absorbing the cultures of others.”
Black schoolchildren danced Irish reels and Scottish flings on their segregated playground; black Spanish-American War veterans taught them drills until dusk. Ellison credited his school’s rigorous music program with teaching him the lifelong lesson of “artistic discipline.” The school’s teachers were conventional in their musical tastes, but jazz was inescapable as part of the social life of young black people. Ellison liked to point out that the Kansas City style had its origins among the jazzmen of Oklahoma City.
Ellison’s use of his past to illustrate the workings of “cultural integration” reached beyond the wish to dress up a respectable but humble background. Ellison objected to ideas about black people that depended on a limited picture of what went on in the places blacks came from. He opposed the notion of black life as a “metaphysical condition” of “irremediable agony” because that made it seem as though the lives of blacks either took place in a vacuum or had only one theme. Ellison wanted to confound sociological categories. Consequently, the Tuskegee Institute, Booker T. Washington’s citadel of accommodationism, was his prime example of how misleading the general impression of “American Negro culture” was.
At Tuskegee, where Ellison enrolled in 1933 to study music, his teacher, Hazel Harrison, let him handle manuscripts that Prokofiev had given her. There he was at the institution most associated with the bowing and scraping of vocational education, Ellison seemed to say, and yet he was being initiated into the mysteries of classical music. In The Oregon Trail, Francis Parkman expressed surprise at the French novels he found in a prairie cottage. Ellison answered that they didn’t get there by magic and that as people moved about they became transmitters of culture, practitioners of cultural synthesis.
Ellison once rounded on Irving Howe for saying that he may have read great writers at Tuskegee, but at the same time he would not have been able to attend “the white man’s school or movie house.” To Ellison, this underplayed his freedom of choice and will.
I rode freight trains to Macon County, Alabama, during the Scottsboro trial because I desired to study with the Negro conductor-composer William D. Dawson, who was, and probably still is, the greatest classical musician in that part of the country. I had no need to attend a white university when the master I wished to study with was available at Tuskegee. Besides, why should I have wished to attend the white state-controlled university where the works of the great writers might not have been so easily available?
Ellison also informed Howe that even though he had never attended a white school, he had taught at Northern white universities, just as Howe had done. Apparently he didn’t ask whether Dawson, himself a Tuskegee graduate, could have taught at white-controlled state schools, or even whether he would have wanted to. Ellison gave the impression that he, a scholarship student, could have followed Dawson anywhere.
He insisted that Tuskegee was a major musical center in the South in the 1930s. “It was to Tuskegee that the Metropolitan Opera groups came; it was to Tuskegee that the great string quartets and the Philharmonic came. It was not to the University of Alabama; it was not to white schools in this area, but to Tuskegee.” But while he convinced himself that Tuskegee was one of the leaders in his field of study, he neglected to say that another black for whom Tuskegee represented the only chance to get a college education might have dreamed of going someplace else.1 What mattered to Ellison was that he may have been poor, orphaned, and segregated, but as a Negro he refused to see himself as deprived, a cultural outsider.
Ellison’s stand about the contributions blacks had made to music as an American art, including the level of musicianship which the greatest exponents of jazz had attained, was the basis from which he judged the achievements of blacks in other forms of artistic expression. It was also why he expected blacks as artists to find freedom within their restricted circumstances. He was critical of those who wanted to dignify jazz’s rough beginnings. Blacks knew too much about the hypocrisy of respectability, and as a youth he himself had seen more nobility in socially marginal musicians than he did in the professionals and businessmen he was urged to emulate. Ellison wanted to keep jazz’s outlaw sources, but at the same time he said that the musicians he most admired were those who could jam in the roadhouses as well as read scores in the orchestra pits downtown.
He talked a great deal about things like craft, skill, and technique. No amount of emotion or raw power substituted for proper training. Black artists had to earn the mastery, a favorite Ellison word, that would let them extend any tradition they encountered. Hence his admiration for those jazzmen who were the equivalent of bilingual. Ellison spoke of black musicians as being like folk heroes, and their mastery was an example of how black artists could reclaim the debased images of folk culture, which meant something opposite to blacks from what it did to whites. Ellison agreed with the poet and critic Sterling Brown in his sense of the complexity of the folk roots of black culture, though Ellison was wary of the term “black culture” because to him it had racist overtones.
Part of what led Brown to write dialect poetry when it was considered a relic of Uncle Remus days was his contention that the psychology of the black had been erased by the minstrel images white people had imposed on him. Ellison goes further and characterizes America as “a land of masking jokers.” The darkie entertainer of the minstrel tradition was, Ellison said, an exorcist, but the black-faced figure could not eradicate the country’s spirit of unease, which was what led to the notion that the trickster, the smart man playing dumb in order to protect himself, is “primarily Negro.” “Very often, however, the Negro’s masking is motivated not so much by fear as by a profound rejection of the image created to usurp his identity.” Ellison is as concerned as Brown with how folklore gets into literature, but if Brown concentrated on the psychological reality lost because of stereotyping, then Ellison wanted to add that black artists were conscious of folklore as a subversive tradition and were discriminating about standards. Folk culture was a source of stability as well as of inspiration.
He didn’t falter when talking about music, but in his discussions of his literary education a frustrated Ellison emerges, which raises the question of how willful his interpretation of social reality was. At Tuskegee he and Albert Murray had talked of going to Harvard to study with “Dr. Kittredge.” Ellison later conceded that he wasn’t sure he could have hopped a freight to Harvard or what would have happened to him had he gotten there.
Ellison remembered the name of the grade school teacher—another cultural transmitter—who taught Negro history and from whom he’d learned about the writers of the New Negro Movement of the 1920s. They inspired pride, gave him a closer identification with poetry, excited him with the glamour of Harlem, and “it was good to know that there were Negro writers.” But he also never forgot
the humiliation of being taught in class in sociology at a Negro college that Negroes represented the “ladies of the races.” This contention the Negro instructor passed blandly along to us without even bothering to wash his hands, much less his teeth. Well, I had no intention of being bound by any such humiliating definition of my relationship to literature.
At Tuskegee in 1935 Ellison read The Waste Land on his own, and this encounter with Modernism was a turning point. “I was much more under the spell of literature than I realized at the time. Wuthering Heights had caused me an agony of unexpressible emotion, and the same was true of Jude the Obscure, but The Waste Land seized my mind.” Its rhythms, he judged, were somehow closer to jazz than were those of Negro poets. The Waste Land and its footnotes began, he said, his conscious study of literature. He moved on to Pound, Ford Madox Ford, Sherwood Anderson, Gertrude Stein, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald. “Perhaps it was my good luck that they were not taught at Tuskegee.”
In his later essays, Ellison gives his departure from college a romantic gloss: Manhattan was his Paris and Harlem his Left Bank. In the summer of 1936 he went to New York, already aware of radical movements in politics and the arts. Ellison said that he had begun to write almost in secret, but he still thought of himself as a student “symphonist,” or maybe a sculptor, while he worked odd jobs, such as being a waiter at the Harlem YMCA, hoping to earn the tuition for his senior year at Tuskegee. He never went back to college. The day after he arrived in Harlem Ellison met Langston Hughes on the street. He recognized Hughes from his photographs. Hughes took him to the Broadway play of Tobacco Road, and also arranged his introduction to Richard Wright.
In 1937 Wright invited the yearning Ellison to write a book review and then a short story for New Challenge, a magazine he was editing. It folded before Ellison’s story could be published. Wright was then also working in the Harlem bureau of The Daily Worker. There Ellison read some of the stories that would go into Uncle Tom’s Children, the collection that made Wright’s name. “He guided me to Henry James’s prefaces, to Conrad, to Joseph Warren Beach and to the letters of Dostoevsky.” Then again Ellison also once said in an interview that he’d already read everything by the time he met Wright and had had to suppress his annoyance at Wright’s assumption that he had not.
In 1937, when his mother became ill, he went to Ohio, where she was then living. There, with the help of one of Dayton’s black lawyers, he began to devote himself seriously to writing. His mother died, and after three months of “ice and snow and homelessness,” he abandoned an attempt at a novel. Back in New York he found work, with Wright’s help, collecting Negro folklore for the Federal Writers’ Project. He became managing editor of The Negro Quarterly in 1942. It ceased publication after a year, and Ellison joined the merchant marine, which did not get in the way of his literary application. By war’s end he had published a number of stories in such magazines as Direction, Common Ground, Tomorrow, and The New Masses.
The work in Flying Home and Other Stories, respectfully edited by John F. Callahan, who has also served Ellison well as editor of the Modern Library edition of his Collected Essays, dates from this period. One of the thirteen stories was written in the 1950s, but its characters belong to a series from the 1940s. The story that opens the volume, “A Party Down at the Square,” is a first-person account given by a white boy from Cincinnati visiting his uncle in Alabama. He witnesses a lynching and simply relates what happens, how the crowd taunts the victim until a storm blows an airplane off course, how the crowd flees when falling wires electrocute some of the whites.
Ellison had read Wright’s apocalyptic poem about a lynching, “Between the World and Me.” Maybe Wright’s passionate lyricism about tar and flame provoked Ellison to look at lynching through an innocent and therefore more effectively condemning observer. But “A Party Down at the Square” probably owes more to Faulkner’s courthouse loafers and soused demobilized World War I pilots. Though one might expect to find in this collection of stories signs of Wright’s influence or of Ellison’s struggle to overcome it, there aren’t any. Wright’s intense and anguished early stories of rural blacks thrown into violent confrontation with whites are completely different from Ellison’s low-key investigations of how racial situations affect an individual’s perceptions. In later life Ellison would say that Wright’s importance to him was intellectual, not literary. At most the work of both shows that Wright and Ellison belonged to the same social era.
Callahan has arranged Ellison’s stories so that they follow the stages of a man’s life. They are all about men and maybe that comes from Hemingway. Ellison was young when he wrote them and life would have presented itself then as a series of solitary discoveries. But writing about young black characters also involved the theme that some day arbitrary limitations would be placed on them as social beings. Three stories, “Mister Toussan,” “Afternoon,” and “That I Had the Wings,” for instance, depict two young black boys, Buster and Riley, at boisterous play, telling themselves tall stories about Toussaint L’Ouverture, cheering each other’s baseball skills, trying to fashion parachutes for baby chicks. They don’t know how dangerous it is for them to grow up with dreams of heroism. Because of their own experience the grandmothers and mothers are fearful for boys who are too bold and loud and too blatant about their wanting to be something, even if it’s just a game.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Wright had told Ellison in Paris that after his rupture with the Communists he had no place else to go. To Ellison Wright’s main problem was that Marxism closed off to him the world of black folk because it had made him so negative about it. He claimed that Wright didn’t understand the “catharsis of tears,” the release of shouting in church, and that because Wright didn’t know anything about jazz, he was not in full possession of African-American culture.
Ellison said his goal in Invisible Man had been “to transcend, as the blues transcend the painful conditions with which they deal.” Perhaps that was why he sometimes seemed to be talking about his book as though it were a trickster tale, whose blameless narrator’s voice, for all his forthrightness, was a clever means of making his “truths” palatable, of sneaking them up on readers without setting off racial radar. When he maintained that the motives behind his own writing were “by no means racial” and that he had resolved not to succumb to “the deadly and hypnotic temptation to interpret the world and all its devices in terms of race,” he was looking at black life as a kind of inexhaustible, abiding reserve that would make the fictions that could capture its essence immune to changes in social mood. “Novels are time-haunted. Novels achieve timelessness through time.”
Folklore, as Ellison discussed it, was above politics; it existed in nature, like a river that never stopped flowing, but was different from the idealized ruralism white writers had invested with conservative social values, from the plantation tradition of the 1830s to Agrarianism. Yet it’s not always clear what Ellison meant by folklore: a recognizable style in the arts in some cases, in others an art form in itself. Most often he seemed to classify it as the “rich oral literature” that had been a part of the cultural climate of his upbringing. Folklore provided “the first drawings of a group’s experiences” but these drawings were usually “crude.” The feeling found in churches, schoolyards, barbershops, and cotton-picking camps was a resource that was waiting until, in his explanation, Dostoevsky and Joyce taught him that he, too, could make it the stuff of literature. To Wright, however, folklore was the backwater hell he had fled.
Regardless of their different attitudes to folk culture, Wright and Ellison were both products of their reading, as Ellison tirelessly pointed out. And they read the same things, as he noted less often. Writings by blacks from the nineteenth century were unavailable to them in their youth in a way that is inconceivable now. Perhaps very little of it would have satisfied their standards. It is very moving that they shared a passion for the weird English of the Constance Garnett translations, that circulated widely in the US beginning in the 1920s. For both, nineteenth-century Russian literature, with its drifting urban characters, tied-down serfs, and worries about Westernization, was an alternative literary past. Their own common themes had antecedents in a literature that did not require the filtering out or the explaining away of how blacks were depicted.
Still, Ellison reacted very strongly to the way blacks were portrayed in American literature. Over the years he returned to the same great writers in essay after essay, refining his judgments, redefining his relation to them.6 He was especially drawn to ponder the examples of Twain and Hemingway. Ellison cherished Huckleberry Finn because Twain had allowed the runaway slave to stand with all his ambiguity as a universal symbol of Man. But what Twain achieved in the character of Jim and his friendship with Huck signaled, for Ellison, a missed opportunity. He lamented the disappearance, beginning in the twentieth century, of “the human Negro” from American fiction. Writers of the Lost Generation were only interested in their personal freedom, which made their cries of alienation a “swindle.” Hemingway was more concerned with “technical perfection” than with “moral insight.” Ellison also criticized Hemingway for wanting to excise the anti-slavery theme from Huckleberry Finn, thus reducing it to a boy’s story.
Ellison took personally the overall absence of blacks in Hemingway’s American reality.7 It is easy to imagine the effect Hemingway had on Ellison when he first read his stories in Esquire in an Alabama barbershop or when he hiked through the Ohio winter to get the New York newspapers with the dispatches Hemingway sent from Republican Spain. Ellison said Hemingway’s struggle with form made him “a cultural hero,” but he also probably identified with the trout fishing or with Nick Adams remembering the face the undertaker had put on his father. Also, Hemingway had become famous while still in his twenties.
In time Ellison forgave Twain’s heir by looking beyond Hemingway’s bias, he said, in order to appreciate the truths revealed by his art. He proclaimed that Hemingway had been “the true father-as-artist” of aspiring writers of the 1930s. Ellison no longer accused Hemingway of moral diffidence. Ellison also said that he learned to lead a bird from reading Hemingway and as a result was able to feed himself and his brother by hunting in the Ohio woods.
No doubt Twain and Hemingway appealed to Ellison as writers of masculine adventures. The work of these redskins also represented to him the literary arrival of the American vernacular, just the sort of contribution he hoped to make to American literature, if in paleface terms. Ellison’s sense of what literature was, like Wright’s, came mostly from white European and white American writers, who seemed to set the standards because their work survived fashion. Both had grown up in the days when black literature was regarded as necessarily inferior, still in its “infancy,” which was why they were determined to rescue those white writers whom they admired. Wright once worried about his fondness for Gertrude Stein’s Three Lives after reading an article that condemned her as decadent. He gathered a group of black stockyard workers together in a Chicago Black Belt basement and read “Melanctha” to them. They laughed, stomped, and howled, he said. “They understood every word.”
Poor frivolous, forgotten Harlem Renaissance. Hughes was very much around when Wright and Ellison were starting out, but they were ambivalent about his work. One would think both would have been more sympathetic to a literary movement among blacks that had as a driving force the wish to assimilate some of the developments of Modernism. But just as blacks tend to look at the political and social advances of the generation before them as being partial, incremental, so, too, the literature of a previous generation seems to require completion. As such, books by blacks from an earlier era were treated as raw material—somewhat like folklore, in Ellison’s case. He had criticized William Attaway’s novel about the migrating folk, Blood on the Forge (1941), for being too despairing, as if to say the ingredients were there but Attaway had got it wrong and the subject needed the corrective of Ellison’s more forgiving optimism.
A biography of Ellison may one day tell us whether or not he read James Weldon Johnson or Claude McKay, with their bookish main characters inhibited by their education and trying to get back to their roots. Ellison’s invisible man does pretty much the same, deciding to breathe the stench and sweetness of Louis Armstrong’s Old Bad Air.
It would have been Jim Crow thinking, Ellison said, for him to model himself only on other black writers. He was adamant about the distinction between his literary “ancestors”—Melville, Twain, Crane, Hemingway, Faulkner—and his literary “relatives”—Hughes, Wright, Baldwin. There still is a tendency among black writers to compete with one another, as if only one of them could be left standing by the chair marked Black Writer, in the way that many women writers really compete with other women writers, not with men. What at first glance looks like snobbery on Ellison’s part was perhaps an attempt to withdraw from that kind of competition, to try instead to occupy one of the chairs marked, simply, Writer. (Interestingly enough, both Wright and Ellison wrote scenes in which blacks are manipulated into boxing for the amusement of a white audience.) Nevertheless, everything Ellison did not want to be mistaken for made him fetishistic in his attitude toward tradition. Some Jim Crow thinking seeped into Ellison’s resentment of Wright’s shadow, as though having to define himself against a black writer were not as literary as Henry James marking his departure from another New Englander, Hawthorne.
Invisible Man came out roughly in the middle of Ellison’s life, dividing his biography, and, just as a prism bends light, giving to his contemplations after 1952 a meaning altogether different from the quests of his apprenticeship. The longer he worked at his second novel, the more his identity as a writer was invested in his first novel’s reputation.8 His later essays defend his slowness and the mastery implicit in his taking his time. Ellison wrote superbly about Mark Twain or Stephen Crane, but he was also prone to windy meditations on the novel as an abstract form. Someone unafraid of titles such as “The Novel as a Function of American Democracy” is gripping a top branch in the Tree of Seriousness.
Perhaps Ellison’s fortress tone had something to do with his being largely self-educated. The cultural climate in which it was customary to wonder about a black’s educational or intellectual preparation may be why one can sometimes sense in Ellison’s saturation in the New Criticism, in his devotion to speculations about form, symbol, and myth, a determination to show that a black writer could be terrifically thoughtful about what he was up to, that he could respond to Kenneth Burke or hold his own against Trilling. It was also a way for him, as a black, to participate in American culture. Moreover, literature was the god that had not failed. Consequently, Ellison stood by the black writer’s right not to be a spokesman, a leader. The only mention of Du Bois in his essays is a suggestion that one ought to ask why Du Bois failed to become as powerful a politician as Booker T. Washington and that if Du Bois was not as good a sociologist as Max Weber one ought to say so. Maybe he meant that Du Bois had tried to be too many things. Ellison said he believed that black people recognized a division of labor in the struggle, that his being the best novelist he could be was his contribution to that struggle, and that this effort required that he resist distractions and reductive thinking. He made a distinction between art and politics, as in his criticism of Robert Lowell for declining an invitation to the White House in 1965 as a protest against US involvement in Vietnam. Ellison had accepted the invitation, saying the evening had been about art, not politics.
Ellison’s Americanism was like his pride in his literary pedigree: it seemed proof of his independence of mind as a black. His strict attention in public to literary matters was also a way of resisting other people’s ideas about how to be “a good Negro,” even though, traditionally, it was the angry black who was urged to be good. He said that he found it less painful to move to the back of a bus than to “tolerate concepts which distorted the actual reality of my situation or my reactions to it.”
Modernism was the great universalizer, which was what Ellison was responding to when he read The Waste Land all alone down there in Tuskegee. It crossed national and linguistic boundaries. Why not the color line? As liberating as Modernism was, the cost for the doctrine of newness was the culture of forced originality that haunts us still. With Ellison the burden translated into regarding his work as a culmination, an indisputable summing up. Often a writer can’t repeat the inspiration of his or her first book, but it is unusual when that work is of the order of Invisible Man. What came after Ulysses? The saying that a first novel is never finished, merely abandoned, does not apply to Ellison. Something like the opposite happened. He finished Invisible Man and that monument to literary longings held him hostage for the rest of his dignified life.
May 15, 1997
I see that Jerry Gafio Watts makes the same point in Heroism and the Black Intellectual: Ralph Ellison, Politics and Afro-American Intellectual Life (University of North Carolina Press, 1994). ↩
For a full, in-depth discussion of this connection see Joseph Frank, “Ralph Ellison and a literary ‘ancestor’: Dostoevsky,” The New Criterion, September 1983. ↩
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). ↩
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. ↩
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. ↩
Ellison said that he was not interested in the kind of general survey of black characters in the attitudes of white writers that Sterling Brown offered in his study, The Negro in American Fiction (1937), because when white Americans praised novels for capturing “the American reality,” they were seldom talking about second-rate books. ↩
It would be interesting, for instance, to know how Ellison responded to Nick Adams’s repeated description of the ruined boxer’s black companion in “The Battler” as speaking in “a low, smooth, polite nigger voice,” whether he would have said Hemingway’s attitudes were irrelevant to how his characters reflected the idiom of their historical moment. ↩
For a summary of the plot of his second novel and Ellison’s remarks on his progress, see Robert G. O’Meally, “Ralph Ellison,” in Valerie Smith et al., editors, African American Writers (Scribner’s, 1991). ↩