Black History Month: “Invisible Man”

Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel “Invisible Man” has been called a classic of American literature.

But don’t just take my word for it. Here’s an excerpt from Irving Howe’s review:

This novel is a soaring and exalted record of a Negro’s journey through contemporary America in search of success, companionship, and, finally, himself; like all our fictions devoted to the idea of experience, it moves from province to city, from naive faith to disenchantment; and despite its structural incoherence and occasional pretentiousness of manner, it is one of the few remarkable first novels we have had in some years.

You can read Saul Bellow’s review of the book here.

And here’s a PBS page dedicated to him, here.

From a NYTimes book review of Ellison’s essays, written by Richard Bernstein for the Dec. 20, 1995 issue:

If truth be told, Ralph Ellison, whose novel “Invisible Man” is one of the indisputable classics of American literature, has faded from the public mind, occupying what might be called a highly respected position on the sidelines of the general consciousness. This is a shame, as any reader of this new and elegant collection of his nonfiction articles will immediately see. And yet, paradoxically, the collection serves contradictory purposes. It reminds us just how subtle, deeply cultivated and searching Mr. Ellison’s mind was. At the same time, it suggests why that mind seems, sadly, to be underappreciated these days.

Mr. Ellison, who was born in Oklahoma City in 1914 and died in New York in 1994, always identified himself as an “American Negro writer.” The essays in this collection represent a sustained, lifelong reflection on issues that are still so much with us: race, racism and African-American identity. But while Mr. Ellison clearly took the oppression of blacks as an essential and irreducible fact of American life, he also waged an untiring intellectual war against those “who regard blackness as an absolute, and who see in it a release from the complications of the real world.”

And this is from a recent Boston Globe op-ed piece comparing the character of the Invisible Man with Barak Obama:

The invisible man rises again

By Stephen Smith – Stephen Smith is a lawyer and businessman who has taught at Harvard University.

ALTHOUGH SEPARATED by more than 50 years, and the success of the civil rights movement, politician Barak Obama and Ralph Ellison’s existential hero of the “Invisible Man” have something in common.

Ellison’s classic novel was a profound exploration of how the struggle for black identity in America embodies the human struggle for authenticity and transcendence. When it was published in 1952, critic Irving Howe described it as “a searing and exalted record of a Negro’s journey though contemporary America in search of success, companionship, and finally himself.” Its protagonist begins his story by emerging from his hideout in his basement apartment – driven by the desire for recognition and meaning – to confront an often hostile and alien world. In the last chapter, he falls into the darkness of an uncovered manhole. He is guided by the light that emanates from the burning contents of his briefcase, which contains many remnants of his past.

Ellison’s unnamed hero is forced, like all who seek an authentic and committed life, to confront the many hazards and challenges of living and to light his way to the meaning of the present by letting go of and making good use of his past. In coming to terms with his blackness, he finds a set of values to live by and a way of connecting his own struggle to the human struggle and the American dream.

Like Ellison’s hero and Ellison himself, Obama is a black man on his own searing journey, in his case a presidential campaign. He, too, journeys in many different worlds and finds himself fully accepted in none of them. To whites he is still a black man, albeit one who is exciting and potentially electable. In the words of Senator Joseph Biden he is “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.”

To blacks like Stanley Crouch and others he is not quite black enough to be real: “When black Americans refer to Obama as one of us, I do not know what they mean.” In fact, nobody seems to fully get a handle on him other than to say he is talented and they like him. Like Ellison’s hero, he is attempting to realize success while navigating the shoals of America’s many polarities, and he is attempting to use his diverse experience to articulate a narrative that will illuminate the universal shared struggle that is symbolized by the American dream.

Perhaps Obama has fired the public imagination because in a world that is multicultural, and in an America in which the 300-millionth American baby was born to Chinese immigrants, who better than a good-looking, articulate, black Hawaiian with a Kenyan father and a white mother to represent the American ideal.

Maybe Obama is proof that we are all in it together and that anyone can make it. And who better to speak to a divided nation than a man who has spent his life reconciling himself with divided worlds; someone who, like Ellison’s Invisible Man, does not fall fully into any category, and who, in a time rife with conflict, can mobilize the language of hope to activate dreams of a harmonious future.

Ralph Ellison’s hero was an outsider, not a politician. Ellison himself was a black intellectual and loner who read Dostoyevsky and the existentialists, dressed in a coat and tie, and was somewhat reclusive. Black intellectuals disavowed him as too white at the time his book was published. For Ellison, the great hazard was trying to be what other people thought he should be. At the end of the book he writes: “After years of trying to adopt the opinions of others I finally rebelled. I am the invisible man.”

It is easier to be authentic as an existential intellectual outsider than as a politician. Giving people the answers they wish to hear, and needing to be liked, are often necessities and occupational hazards of politics. The trick of a great person or a great leader is striking the balance between conflict and consensus, between compromise and principle, between bringing people together and standing up, even when it is unpopular, for the ideals that gave birth to the country. This is the trick that transformational leaders like Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt and to a certain extent Ronald Reagan managed, but they didn’t do it without some nasty confrontations and struggles along the way.

The irony of the Invisible Man is that in order to stand for everyone he had to choose where he stood first. He needed to stand apart and risk disapproval to affirm the principle that we are all in it together.

The challenge for Obama or any politician who aspires to greatness in these divided days is the same as the challenge of the “invisible man”: to take a stand as an individual with an authentic moral voice, and to conjure a vision of America where the thousand flowers of democracy can bloom without choking each other at their roots.

February 14, 2007

The previous authors and writings featured on this blog:
“The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano”
Gwendolyn Brooks
August Wilson
“Our Nig” by Harriet Wilson
“Twelve Years A Slave” by Solomon Northup
“The Souls of Black Folks” by W.E.B. Du Bois
Langston Hughes
“Cane” by Jean Toomer
“The Great Negro Plot” by Mat Johnson
“Passing” by Nella Larsen
“Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass”
“The Autobiography of Malcolm X”
“I Have a Dream” speech”
“Sula” by Toni Morrison
“The Known World” by Edward P. Jones
“The Color Purple” by Alice Walker
“The Intuitionist” by Colson Whitehead
“Up From Slavery” by Booker T. Washington


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