I wonder if teenagers who are assigned to read Ralph Ellison’s (1952) Invisible Man or who pick it up on their own (as I did when I was a teenager) have the experience necessary to “get it.” There is the exhilarating language, which I know I appreciated when I first read the book long ago, and enough happens to keep the pages turning… And even on rereading I remain unsure what happened at the end of the narrator’s employment at the paint factory, so longer life experience does not make everything in the book clear…
Besides being certified (immediately) as one of the greatest 20th-century American novel (it received a National Book Award and has appeared high on every list of the canon of 20th-century literature written in English), Invisible Man is a particularly good choice as an object of contemplation for Black History Month, because it was a historical novel even when Ellison began to write it, during World War II. I don’t mean to say that it fails to deal with timeless themes of alienation, self discovery, discovery of the duplicity of others, racisms (black and white), etc. But the events in the novel occur before World War II and the multiple social effects on the United States and, especially, on its South related to the mobilization to fight fascism(s). The particular forms of racism portrayed in the book are hard to imagine occurring now. Moreover, the fall of Soviet communism has made the sustained portrayal of the American Communist Party (“the Brotherhood” in the novel) and its zigzag lurches following changes in policies and alliances commanded by Stalin’s politburo a matter of historical interest, whereas American communists dabbling with encouraging and discouraging black rage was a “current event” when Ellison was writing the book.
During the 1930s (the era of the Harlem portion of Invisible Man), no group other than the communists was pressing for equal rights for what were then politely known as “colored people” (as in the name NAACP). “Equal rights” is an overstatement of what the CPUSA was pressing. Before anything like equal access to public accommodations, efforts were made to enact anti-lynching laws and end kangaroo court proceedings against colored defendants. A major cause célèbre was the mockery of a trial of the “Scottsboro boys” for alleged rape of white prostitutes.
In the North, the avant-garde of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” sought to include Negroes (as they were increasingly frequently called) in nonmenial jobs, often in the face of bitter opposition from white unionized workers. The issue the never-named narrator of Invisible Man happens upon is eviction of aged Negroes from white-owned Harlem tenements. It is an ad hoc speech by the narrator (henceforth designated as Y) that attracts the attention of a communist official looking for Harlem organizers. The narrator is groomed for leadership, but when he takes initiative is slapped down (subjected to “party discipline”), told that he was not hired to think and put in his inferior place, just as he was for trying to please patronizing whites in the South (first in being added to the blindfolded “boxing” mêlée staged for businessmen of his native town, then in showing a Northern patron of the thinly fictionalized Tuskeegee Institute some of the underbelly of Southern black life).
Presumably at start of the Popular Front era (though possibly as late as the notorious Hitler-Stalin non-aggression pact), Y is supposed to channel the rage he has been mobilizing away from racial issues to neighborhood beautification (prefiguring Giuliani?). Those whom Y has helped to stir up turn to his black nationalist enemy, Ras, in a race riot. The immediate historical point here, is that in such riots, imaginary or momentary gains, including looting, were followed by real losses, including the loss of homes and personal property of those in the tenements set afire. The wider historical point is that the CPUSA was not committed to equal rights for Negroes (or, for that matter, for the “universal class,” the proletariat) but used and dropped mobilization of black disaffections as they suited Stalin’s jockeying for position in the world.
Everyone whom Y trusts, even conditionally, uses and betrays him, including his role model, Dr. Bledsoe who has succeeded The Founder (Booker T. Washington) at Tuskeegee, and his “brothers” (Clifton, who is black, and Jack, the one-eyed white brother who is the local commissar and more equal than others). Well, not quite everyone: there is the maternal Harlem landlady who shelters Y after his industrial adventures and the elderly “brother” who entrusts the shackle from his chain gang days. Still, betrayal and abuse comes from blacks as well as whites, until the Candide-like Y tumbles down a hole and makes it his home there. Like his forerunner, Dosteovesky’s The Man Who Lived Underground who deliberately collides with others in the street, Y continues to have near-violent collisions above ground (in the novel’s prologue).
There is considerable latitude for interpreting how much of Y’s alienation comes from his experiences of racism in America, how much from the experiences of an initially trusting (and almost unbelievably naive) youth in the harsh world of postagrarian anomie, how much is the existential condition of human beings. In addition to Dosteovesky’s underground man, Richard Wright, who encouraged Ellison’s vocation as a writer, had published a novella “The Man Who Lived Underground” in 1944… and existentialism was very much in vogue in Francophile American literary circles after the Second World War.
Wright had also written about communism as a “God that failed” black liberation (and Wright) in the second half of the memoir he completed in 1943, a much-edited version of which what was published in 1944 as Black Boy (and not published as he wrote it until 1977, as American Hunger), “I Tried to be a Communist” (1944), etc. Chester Himes (who was encouraged by Wright and by Ellison) sketched the duplicity of Communist championing of black workers in If He Hollers, Let Him Go (1945) and made it central in his 1948 novel The Lonely Crusade.
Invisible Man is a peak in a chain of novels about black alienation from its communist would-be tutors in the science of history (the functionaries who believe that “the trick is to take advantage of them [the masses] in their own interest”). Invisible Man is not an isolated outcropping, rising from a plain (like Mount Lassen or Devil’s Tower). Similarly, it is the highest peak in a chain of novels about the absurdities faced by black males trying to survive amidst the fantasies and fears of black virility that haunt many white men and women (including the businessmen watching the Battle Royale and the drunken white woman who wants to be violently taken by Y) and to survive the complex strategies of black entrepreneurs like Dr. Bledsoe and Rinehart to get and stay ahead, often by exploiting other blacks.
Invisible Man is a long book (568+xx pages in the Vintage edition), and there is a lot going on in it. I suspect that I understood little of the political context when I read the book as a high school student, and I had not read related work by Wright and Himes.
There is much to admire in Ellison’s creation of characters and milieux and in his often exhilarating language and shifting style. (Ellison himself characterized it as moving from naturalism (à la Richard Wright) to expressionism to surrealism — though the Battle Royale seems already quite surrealist/absurdist to me.) I don’t question that it is a great book, but great books (e.g., Moby Dick, The Charterhouse of Parma) are often not perfectly crafted books. I’ve already suggested that Y is a little too naive to have survived to junior year in college, so that there is some sense in Dr. Bledsoe’s shock and irritation at having to tell Y
You let the white folk worry about pride and dignity—you learn where you are and get yourself power, influence, contacts with powerful and influential people—then stay in the dark and use it.,,, Play the game but don’t believe in it—that much you owe yourself.
Ther novel contains too many long speeches (in particular, I’d cut the blind speaker at a Founder’s Day assembly) and Y seems to lack any sexual desire of any sort. Defining himself as “invisible” seems a dead end (although many is the life that goes into a dead end), and Ellison himself seems not to have known where to go after Y embraces his condition (which he considers externally imposed, but which has to be to some extent a choice as existence becomes essence).
In focusing on the political context of communist Negro-mobilizing, what I’ve written gives little indication of the pleasures of the text. I think that rather a lot of the book is intended as satire, like much in the fiction of Chester Himes (and not nearly enough in the fiction of James Baldwin…) and in Soviet writers in the Bulgakov tradition. For a work of High Modernism, Invisible Man is more fun to read than might be imagined from what I (or many others) have written about it.
After the acclaim for Invisible Man
There was a successor “Work in Progress” that was overdue before the grandchildren of Ras (black nationalists of the 1960s) attacked Ellison. I have my doubts of how finished a project the manuscript that was lost in a fire was. Ellison only somewhat pulled together the strands of Invisible Man, and it’s easy to extrapolate that he would have had problems bringing together the strands of a more epic project than the story of one disillusioned Southern black boy gone north to new confusions. Ellison worked on it for forty years (he died in 1994). Part of it was assembled posthumously by John F. Callahan as Juneteenth and there is also a posthumous collection of interesting and mostly accomplished short fiction written between 1937 and 1954, Flying Home and Other Stories and the collection of pithy essays Ellison published, Shadow and Act (incorporated into the Modern Library’s Collected Essays). Still, Ellison was something of a “one-hit wonder,” like Lorraine Hansberry and Eric Waldron.
©2003, Stephen O. Murray