An American novel evokes the long nightmare of racism
Ralph Ellison’s centennial is being celebrated this year, and it seems a good time to look at this writer’s most durable work, Invisible Man. The novel, published in 1952, has a structure that often overwhelms and exhausts the reader. In each section the unnamed narrator embarks on long, nightmarish rambles in which, having set out to do one simple thing, he gets deeper and deeper into difficulties. There are harangues, sermons and public speeches. Ellison’s writing, inspired by jazz, is hard to define, improvisational, spontaneous, restless and freewheeling in its rhythms. The author is playful, even when playing with dynamite, but he is also allusive and controlled.
Ralph Ellison himself was far from invisible. His childhood was filled with music and learning and he became a respected essayist, novelist, professor and critic. The hero of his novel is also talented and earnest, but he is battered by forces that have the weight of centuries behind them. As a schoolboy, he stands out for his oratory skills, but the day he wins a college scholarship, he is drawn into a bare-bodied fight with other young Black men for the entertainment of rich White spectators, a fight that ends in a humiliating scramble for coins scattered on the floor. He dreams that night that instead of a scholarship letter in his envelope he finds only a racist taunt.
In college, our hero walks on a knife edge. It is here that the nightmarish structure of the novel flowers. While chauffeuring an elderly donor of the college, he exposes the old man to the squalor surrounding the beautiful campus and brings him home sick and distraught. The reader knows the young man’s education will end here, but the president of his college devises a retribution that will keep him running.
In New York City, Ellison’s hero futilely searches for an office job, settles for work in the bowels of a paint factory, and becomes injured in an accident there. In the hospital, doctors experiment on him with electric shocks. One day on the street he sees a family being evicted and successfully rallies bystanders to defend them and put them back in their home. His gift for oratory is discovered by the Brotherhood, and he is recruited to make speeches to fire up the people.
Then his troubles begin. Suddenly he has an apartment, an office, attention from women, and a prominent role within the movement, but the Brothers expect him to toe the line, not think or speak on his own responsibility. His identity first slips when the Brotherhood gives him a new name. It fragments when he wears another man’s hat to walk incognito and no one can tell them apart. It collapses when he falls through a manhole and lives literally underground for months. That’s where the invisible man started telling us how he came to be this way. But he doesn’t end there. Ellison’s hero sheds yet another skin to emerge again, still invisible but ready to speak.