‘I am an invisible man,’ declares the narrator of Ralph Ellison’s only novel. ‘I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fibre and liquids—and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.’ The truth of these disturbing lines is relentlessly revealed in Invisible Man, the story of a young idealistic African-American man in the American South and Harlem of the 1940s whose early promise and academic aspirations are confounded at every turn by the very people who pretend to help him: the white town leaders who invite him to speak at their gathering, the president of his state college for Negroes, the members of the socialist Brotherhood who take him up in New York. Finally, humiliated, defeated, hounded on every side and yet with a nascent, defiant sense of himself, he disappears down a manhole, making official his status as an invisible man.
Invisible Man opens with the unnamed narrator in his bolt-hole recalling the previous 20 years of his troubled life, beginning with the uncharacteristically fierce dying words of his grandfather, who had been a slave. His grandfather’s words continue to haunt him and only after the repeated shattering of his hopes and dreams does he begin to make sense of their cryptic meaning:
I never told you, but our life is a war and I have been a traitor all my born days, a spy in the enemy’s country ever since I give up my gun back in the Reconstruction. Live with your head in the lion’s mouth. I want you to overcome ’em with yeses, undermine ’em with grins, agree ’em to death and destruction, let ’em swoller you till they vomit or bust wide open.
The narrator then cuts to one of the most shocking scenes in literature. Having made a brilliant oration at his high-school graduation, in which he successfully demonstrated rhetorically that ‘humility was the secret, indeed the very essence, of progress’, he is invited to speak at an important town gathering. But before he can speak, he must take part in a ‘battle royal’. In the violent battle which ensues, the narrator learns the depraved depths to which his humility must sink if he is to progress in the world.
Like Stendhal’s Julian Sorel, the narrator dreams of furthering himself through his brilliant mind and gift for speech, and, like The Red and the Black, the novel is charged with irony and moves with the force of a roller coaster. Along the way, the narrator meets other African-Americans who have found an understanding he cannot yet share, for they are dispossessed and insane—and he distances himself from them in horror, clinging instead to the white world and aspiring to work alongside the duplicitous president of his college. An impoverished African-American farmer, Jim Trueblood, tells a story of how he found the strength to live through disgrace and banishment from home. One night, filled with despair, Trueblood looked up and saw the stars:
All I know is I ends up singin’ the blues, I sings me some blues that ain’t never been sang before, and while I’m singin’ them blues I makes up my mind that I ain’t nobody but myself and ain’t nothing I can do but let whatever is gonna happen, happen.
This man, despicable in the eyes of the narrator, finds his strength through his own music. Another man, the inmate of a semi-madhouse, sees that the narrator has ‘learned to repress not only his emotions but his humanity’—but the narrator, still beholden to his dream, cannot see this until his dream begins to fall apart, which it does with astonishing and devastating rapidity when he is dismissed from his college and sent to New York.
Ralph Waldo Ellison, born in Oklahoma City in 1914, was named after the American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson. His parents, both children of former slaves in the South, moved west to Oklahoma hoping to bring up their children in a state known for its freedom. When Ellison’s father died, his mother found work at an Methodist Episcopal church, where Ellison could use the minister’s library. He became a passionate reader—of Twain, Stendhal, Dostoyevsky, Faulkner, Hemingway, Joyce, TS Eliot—and a talented trumpeter. He later wrote:
When I read Stendhal, I would search within the Negro communities in which I grew up. I began, in other words, quite early to connect the words projected in literature and poetry and drama and novels with the life in which I found myself.
At 19 Ellison won a scholarship to study music at the Booker T. Washington Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, where he was introduced to the ideas of philosopher Alain Locke (1886-1954), who had studied at Harvard under William James. Locke, the first African-American Rhodes scholar at Oxford University, edited The New Negro: An Interpretation (1925), in which he argued that African-American life in the 1920s was ‘not only establishing new contacts and founding new contents, it is finding a new soul’.
Ellison then moved to Harlem to study sculpture. From 1938 to 1942, he worked for the Federal Writers’ Project (established as part of Roosevelt’s New Deal), interviewing ordinary people and recording their stories. Between 1937 and 1944, he published reviews in journals like Negro Quarterly, which he briefly edited, and in 1943 reported on the Harlem race riot, an event that came the climax of Invisible Man. Following the Second World War—during which he served in the US Merchant Marines—Ellison married Fanny McConnell and they moved to Vermont. With the assistance of a Rosenwald Fellowship, Ellison devoted himself to writing, and spent the next seven years working on a novel about black identity and heroism, which was published in 1952 as Invisible Man. His impassioned, surreal novel was on the bestseller list for 16 weeks and won the 1953 National Book Award for Fiction. Following its publication, Ellison lectured extensively on African-American culture and struggled to write his second novel, which remained unfinished upon his death in 1994.