Invisible Man (1953) Written by Ralph Ellison
The struggle for identity amongst a social group, the search for one’s place in their nation, a longing to separate all that assails their senses night and day from that which is born within; Ralph Ellison’s book isn’t simply about the journey of a young black man through 1930’s America but the journey of anyone through life, trying to find a home in themselves. There’s a million stories of that same journey written throughout time, set in every corner of the world, but the tale Ellison unfolds in so uniquely American, an almost solitary voice from the dark corners of our national conscience, and for this reason alone it remains important.
How I was never assigned this book in school mystifies me. We had Joy Luck Club, we had Barrio Boy and I know that I read Let the Circle Be Unbroken in middle school, but somehow this one slipped through the cracks. I first heard of it on Undercover Blackman and noted the title, then had that desire to check it out re-enforced when Kellybelle began to work on her play adaptation of it. There’s little question that this book merits the attention because the story resonates through time, equally universal and unique in a way that only an honest encapsulation of the human condition can be all things.
We begin in the Deep South as our protagonist, Valedictorian of his graduating class, renowned for his rousing and eloquent speeches, is invited to a white gentlemen’s club to accept an award. Surrounded by the town leaders, the misers of political power, he and a collection of peers are taunted and tormented, made to stand stripped and watch as a burlesque dancer warms the crowd, then blindfolded and thrown into a fighting pit. Blind, scared and confused the kids lash out, attacking one another as the crowd roars, everyone on their own to survive. Beaten, bleeding, but not forgotten, our protagonist is brought before the store-owners and bankers, school superintendent and other socialites, to impress one and all with his renowned skills of oration. The crowd mocks him, jeers, demands that he repeat himself as they talk over his quavering voice, and almost rise up in violence when he misspeaks, saying “social equality” instead of “social responsibility”. They throw a briefcase at him, containing a scholarship to a prestigious Southern University, and he is free.
Free to leave, but not free. His years studying are happy ones, good grades and proud family back home. He looks up to the benevolent white founders of the school and admires the strength and integrity of the administrator. His prestige earns him the opportunity to chaperone a visiting Northern white through the surrounding countryside, a man who professes nothing but hope in the future of this young black man– his legacy, as he calls it. But the visiting white dictates wrong turns and they confront the black shame of poverty: a incestuous sharecropper family; the rage fueled bar and brothel popular with the local mangled black veterans. Amidst the sudden violence and chaos the white founder falls victim to a series of collapses, and when finally returned to the college our protagonist has found that, despite doing everything he was told, he has failed.
Free to leave, but not free. With letters from the school written to friends of the university he travels to New York and delivers each with brimming pride and great hope. Politics dictated the student must be punished although he did no wrong, and here was the proof that he would be taken care of until the matter settled down and he could return to his studies. However, no appointments are made, and as his last letter changes hands it is revealed that his recommendations were actually condemnations, that his revered college president had sent him off to disappear.
Left on his own in Harlem, amongst the free blacks of the North, but not free. Ashamed by his failure and unwilling to return home he takes a day-laborer’s job in a paint factory and is injured in an industrial accident. Experimented on in the factory hospital, then cast out, a kind woman on the subway catches him collapsing and takes him in. His first true friend, the mother of the block, and as his health recuperates his mind dissolves reliving each betrayal.
His triumphant moment of self-expression comes against his will, wandering the winter streets of Upper Manhattan sunk in a deep depression as he stumbles upon the eviction of an old couple from their tenement. Rustled by the enraged but passive crowd, lost in thought staring as a lifetime’s accumulation of pathetic trinkets and broken dreams thrown on the snowy concrete of an alleyway, he leaps before the crowd and delivers an impromptu speech against injustice– not only of a winter’s eviction but the injustice of broken lives. The crowd thrives on his words and begin to attack the warden and his henchmen, a riot breaks out and in the confusion he escapes over rooftops, constantly pursued by a mysterious figure. Not the police, as he had suspected, but a white man in Harlem. As strangers they sit in a coffee shop while the white man offers him a job as an orator for their cause. Distrustful at first he rejects the deal but the next morning, in the cold apartment he sleeps at for free as all the neighbors bang on the water pipes for the boiler to be turned on, penniless and lost, he realizes he has no more options.
Into the elite bourgeois world of armchair politics he finds himself the great black hope of a Communist cell. After indoctrination and training he unleashes fiery condemnations from the pulpit, rousing the crowds but alarming his brothers. After petty inter-party squabbling he is assigned to the Harlem division where he builds upon the disparate community, unifying them to serve themselves and pull one another from the bottom rung of this New York-styled freedom they cling to so proudly. With his rise to infamy comes jealousies which give way to more party politics, and he finds himself stripped of what authority he had thought he had earned and put back in his place. After a former comrade is executed in broad daylight by the police riots engulf Harlem, and hurrying to his former headquarters he finds himself torn between his former obligations and the opportunity of rebirth in the flames of blind rage. Free to be himself, and for himself alone, the struggle to identify what the struggle is completed, he can disappear into the teeming masses of people as an isolated, invisible man.
Ellison’s writing is, at its best, strong and clear and driving, guiding the tale forward without too much embellishment. At its worse he sinks into odd fits of misplaced elegance, twisting a paragraph to fit an ill-devised phrase. This habit of trying to add too much polish to particular passages is a consistent fault and leads to much eye-rolling, but the impulse is understandable and forgiven. He paints his characters so delicately, their mannerisms clearly captured, so that even a brief exchange brims with color and a life of its own. It’s as though he’s trying to squeeze every ounce of meaning into every sentence, to bleed out every observation and late night rumination, so that nothing is missed. It becomes overwhelming at times and self-defeating; in his attempts to show you everything much is lost in the need for focus. This is not detrimental to enjoying or becoming immersed in this novel but it demands future readings or a most patient and careful reader. Written from the perspective on an unnamed narrator we are privy to Ellison’s own condemnations and blind hopes, and each is meticulously written out in a desperate attempt to communicate. The passion, the anger, the hurt and somehow love envelop you. Somehow it’s not an entirely bleak read as Ellison sees too clearly to omit the subtle joys and humor of every day life.
What almost derails this train is Ellison’s great leap of faith in the latter half of the book. The Communists are all picture-perfect, self-assured caricatures, as intimately captured by Ellison’s pen as other characters, but he’s stopped sketching from life and started painting from postcards. As fantastic as the story from the South to New York is the suspension of disbelief suffers greatly when our protagonist joins the party. However, this political entity and the mechanizations run by shadowy intelligentsia also allows Ellison to pull back the lens and comment more on America during a particular time and place. The social movement, the greater picture, becomes a part of one man’s story and even if that one man’s place in it could be laughed off as contrived the benefit remains.
That this book would examine race relations between blacks and whites is a given, but what surprised me most was the ferocity with which Ellison attacks the blacks our protagonist encounters along the road. The bowed and broken blacks are looked down upon the yessir black gentry in The South, who are looked down upon by the high-fashion ghetto dwelling blacks in Harlem. The air of sophistication, decried as an affectation of whiteness, clashes against the switchblade attitudes of a brand of black power that revels in poverty, back alleys and numbers rackets. The school president sells out the innocent for the sake of the whites, the black engineer fights the innocent over a the thought of being replaced, the black preacher smiles and manipulates his young acolytes. At times it seems that our protagonist has more to fear from his own people than the whites who cast long shadows over all their lives, but everyone is constantly aware of that shadow. The violence and betrayal takes place in full view of it so willingly that the shadow never needs to become flesh and blood to intimidate or destroy.
My only comparison for a book capturing the black experience during this time period is Richard Wright‘s Black Boy, and as much as I was awestruck by that preceding memoir Invisible Man is, stripped of historical importance, a much better book. It’s never perfect and at times it almost collapses under the weight of Ellison’s pretensions, but the heart beats so strong and the story breaths so much life that it triumphs over its faults. Within the context of American history I would even say that it’s invaluable, a confused collection of emotions so strong and unrefined that they continue to need examination, nurturing and understanding today. It’s a shame that Ellison spent most of his life dedicated to critical essays and reviews, always working on his second novel but unable to complete it. Perhaps he understood that he could never write another book which could be judged solely on its own merit, and that must have been an intimidating challenge.
My copy was published by the Vintage Books division of Random House. Book cover stolen from some commercial website; portrait of Ellison appropriated from Wikipedia and is unattributed.