In which I review Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison’s phantasmagoric 1952 novel about an unnamed black man coming of age in the Jim Crow South and the tumult of Jazz-Age era Harlem.
What it’s about: Harlem, New York City, the 1950s. An unnamed Black man lives, alone and unnoticed, in the basement of a house wired with hundreds of light bulbs, lit with stolen power from the city’s electrical grid. Introducing himself as “an invisible man… simply because people choose not to see me”, he lives in a state of “hibernation”, which he explains as “a covert preparation for a more covert action“, and relates his life story. Raised in a small town in the South, he is haunted by the advice of his grandfather, a freed slave, to resist white oppression. He wins a scholarship to a prestigious Black university, but is forced to take place in a brutal boxing match for the entertainment of the town’s white dignitaries to receive his prize. After mistakenly escorting one of the college’s white patrons, Mr Norton, to a brothel, he is expelled and makes his way to New York City. He finds work at a paint factory, turning black paint into pure white, but is tricked into causing an explosion, and is briefly institutionalised and given shock treatment. Returning to Harlem, he witnesses the eviction of an elderly Black couple and makes an impassioned speech against injustice. He is recruited into the Brotherhood, a mysterious organisation that claims to fight for social equality. He becomes a renowned public speaker, but is demoted after disagreeing with their views and leaves, disillusioned by their lack of interest in Black lives. He becomes the enemy of Ras the Destroyer, a violent agitator and anti-integrationist, and disguises himself with a hat and green sunglasses to elude Ras’ henchmen. In disguise, he becomes mistaken for a man named Rineheart, a pimp, gambler and bogus preacher. Realising the possibilities of freedom in a world of deception and multiple identities, he concludes that he has been invisible for most of his own life, and works to undermine the Brotherhood. Riots break out in Harlem, encouraged by the Brotherhood to further their own cause. Ras appears on horseback, and incites the crowd to lynch Invisible Man, who escapes and hides in an abandoned house. The novel finishes with Invisible Man in his cellar, announcing that his hibernation is over, and that he must rejoin the world, concluding that “Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?“
Why it’s a classic: Invisible Man, Ellison’s first and only completed novel, was published in 1952 to rave reviews, winning the National Book Award and making him an overnight celebrity. Critics hailed its ambition and complexity, and its radical approach to describing the African-American experience. Before Ellison, novels about Black life in America seldom became mainstream successes, and tended to follow well-established narratives of social realism and biography, following the protagonist’s heroic struggle for acceptance in white society. Invisible Man subverted these tropes and presented a radically different type of narrative – a complex and anti-heroic protagonist, hurtling through a violent and surrealist landscape that is both recognisably America and its nightmarish mirror-image. Gone was the earnest and respectable narrative voice of Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God and Richard Wright’s Native Son: Ellison’s unnamed narrator is highly articulate and fully in control of his story, delivered with an ironic and bitingly satirical tone.
Though Invisible Man has often been read as a bildungsroman, in which the youthful protagonist journeys from naivety into self-knowledge, it arguably has more in common with the Existentialist writings of Camus and Paul Bowles, in which the protagonist stands outside society, negating rather than embracing the social conditions of his times. Unlike many of the Existentialists, Ellison is also wildly funny, sending his narrator into outlandish, larger-than-life experiences like the comic picaresques of Mark Twain and Jonathan Swift or the futuristic dystopias of Orwell and Burgess, told in a heightened, vividly poetic style that heightens the exhilarating adventures. Ellison was quite rightly hailed as a major American writer, and the foremost exponent of a new generation of Black writing, paving the way for novelists like James Baldwin, Toni Morrison and Alice Walker who combined radical politics with idiosyncratic, highly-stylised prose.
It’s difficult to imagine, nearly 70 years later, just how radical Invisible Man‘s politics were in the patsy climate of early 1950s America. When the novel was published, much of the American South still held laws requiring racial segregation; the Supreme Court had not yet given its judgment in Brown vs Board of Education that ordered the desegregation of schools; Martin Luther King was still a theology student in Boston; a young woman named Eunice Waymon (later Nina Simone) had just been rejected from the Curtis Institute of Music; and the Black civil rights movement was still years away.
Invisible Man was the literary equivalent of a hand grenade tossed into this environment of unquestioned white supremacy. He took particular aim at the legacy of Booker T Washington, the founder of Tuskagee University in Alabama, where Ellison studied in the 1940s and which became the model for the black college in the novel. Washington preached a doctrine of black self-reliance, gradual social progress via education, and (controversially) a policy of non-resistance to white violence and discrimination against blacks. From the beginning, Invisible Man questions the logic of this subservience. Gazing at a statue of the college Founder (closely based on the real statue of Washington at Tuskagee University), “his hands outstretched in the breathtaking gesture of lifting a veil that flutters in hard, metallic folds above the face of a kneeling slave“; Invisible Man stands puzzled, “unable to decide whether the veil is really being lifted, or lowered more firmly in place; whether I am witnessing a revelation or a more efficient blinding.”
Invisible Man makes it brutally clear why Washington’s model of black passivity in the face of racist bigotry was not only illogical but self-destructive. Through each of Invisible Man’s misfortunes, the veneer of social progress and tolerance is peeled back to show the ugly truth of racist America festering beneath. The wealthy whites who pay Invisible Man’s college scholarship reduce him to a dancing Sambo in a boxing ring, like the paper dolls he sees sold later in the streets of Harlem. Progressive patrons like Mr Norton are less interested in earnest progressive young college students than in Jim Trueblood, an exemplar of racist white notions of Black depravity and inferiority. Sibyl, the disaffected wife of one of the Brotherhood, sees him not as a person but as an actor in her rape fantasy. The Brotherhood’s colour-blindness and opportunistic exploitation of Black suffering turns them into unfeeling automatons, as terrifying as the boilers in the Liberty Paint Factory and the electric shock machines in the hospital.
Ellison’s fearlessness in speaking truth to power, within the context of a finely-crafted work of literature, was pretty much unprecedented in American cultural life. Invisible Man eloquently gave voice to the frustration and rage of black America, predicting the political revolution of the 1950s and 1960s with eerie accuracy, while helpfully fanning the flames of unrest.
Bouquet or Brickbat: A huge Black bouquet. I first encountered Invisible Man at university, focusing on the opening and closing sequences and (shamefully) skim-reading the rest. Ellison’s central image of a Black man, alone in a cellar surrounded by hundreds of electric lights, has haunted me for thirty years, as has the idea of “invisibility” as a state of enforced existence. Many oppressed groups have spoken about the pain and suffering of being rendered invisible within a white patriarchal society, but few writers have managed it as eloquently as Ellison, or subverted the idea of oppression so dazzlingly by flipping it on his head. For thirty years, I’ve wondered what happened next. Does Invisible Man come out of hibernation, re-enter the world and find “a socially responsible role to play“? Would he lead with a message of love, as he seems to suggest, as Dr King did, or follow Ras the Destroyer (or Malcolm X) into a Pan-Africanist separatism? Or would he stay “hibernating” in his cellar, sardonically commenting on the world without participating in it? What are “the lower frequencies” and is he really speaking for us? Ellison’s reluctance to tie up the ends of his story is part of its enduring appeal, and give the book an uncanny sense of modernity.
I read Invisible Man (all the way through, this time) in the days following the murder of George Floyd, the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, while I and much of the world was still in lockdown, hiding in our own brightly-lit cellars until it was safe to come out again. What struck me, again, is how contemporary and prescient it feels. Ellison’s hallucinatory descriptions of the Harlem Riots could have just as easily described protests in America following Floyd’s killing: “Crowds approached the park from all directions. The muffled drums now beating, now steadily rolling, spread a dead silence upon the air, a prayer for the unknown soldier. And looking down I felt a lostness. Why were they here? Why had they found us? Because they knew Clifton? Or for the occasion his death gave them to express their protestations, a time and place to come together, to stand touching and sweating and breathing and looking in a common direction? Was either explanation adequate in itself? Did it signify love or politicalized hate? And could politics ever be an expression of love?” On one hand, we could express horror that the injustices Ellison described still haven’t gone away; on the other, we could commend him for tapping into something real about racism as part of the human condition, and our persistent tendency to not learn from past mistakes.
If it’s difficult to imagine how Ellison’s first readers must have encountered him, it’s also difficult to describe how thrilling a sensation it is to discover Invisible Man and become immersed in the phantasmagoric carnival-ride of his story. Here is a writer of limitless talent, fierce intelligence and the confidence to take his readers through an unfamiliar world, provoking and undercutting received wisdoms while never really offering a substitute, which somehow still manages to be a profoundly satisfying reading experience. There were moments of such profound beauty and insight in Invisible Man that I wanted to stand up and applaud. His descriptions of the Harlem Riots are particularly stunning: “there was a sudden and brilliant suspension of time, like the interval between the last ax stroke and the felling of a tall tree, in which there had been a loud noise followed by a loud silence” he writes of police gunfire. Later, he hears shop windows being smashed, and “through the blue mysteriousness of the dark the [side]walks shimmered like shattered mirrors“.
It’s a strange and sad type of comfort to know that Ellison was never quite able to answer the questions he so tantalisingly posed in Invisible Man. He published several collections of essays and became an academic and an established man of letters, but never finished another novel. An unfinished manuscript was published after his death, under the title Juneteenth – another title that feels joltingly prescient for 2020 readers. Somehow, that lack of a sequel makes Invisible Man even more important a cultural text, since it leaves room for his readers to make what they will of his ambiguous wisdoms.
In more recent times, Invisible Man has been critiqued for its marginal and borderline misogynist presentation of women. It’s certainly strange that a writer of Ellison’s intelligence and insight should be so uninterested in women. When Invisible Man is demoted by the Brotherhood, he is sent downtown to lecture on The Woman Question amid a series of titters – suggesting that Ellison was alive to sexual inequalities in supposedly egalitarian circles. But as the story continues, neither Invisible Man nor Ellison have anything further to say about women or The Woman Question, and his female characters are a gallery of sexist stereotypes: the smothering Mammy (Mary Rambo), the passive object of desire (the naked woman in the boxing ring) and the sexually perverse temptress (Sybil).
The scenes with Sibyl are especially puzzling. In some ways, I rather admire Ellison for writing a sexually explicit exchange between the Narrator and Sybil, taking on and subverting a pernicious Jim Crow-era stereotype about Black men as potential rapists of white women. In Ellison’s lifetime, there were a number of high-profile cases of young Black men wrongfully convicted of the rape of white women – the Scottsboro Boys in the 1930s, the Groveland Four in 1949, and the execution of the Martinsville Seven in 1951, just a year before the publication of Invisible Man. In that context, casting Sybil as the sexual aggressor and having their role-play end in farce with Invisible Man writing “You Were Raped By Santa Claus” in lipstick on her stomach, could be seen as daring, or even courageous. And yet, this doesn’t quite explain the almost total absence of women from the story, or the contempt with which Invisible Man views them. By contrast, the scene with Mr Emerson’s effete son, who babbles about his analyst, touches the Narrator on the knee and invites him to “Club Calamus” (a reference to Walt Whitman’s homoerotic poems in Leaves of Grass), crackle with an electricity that’s absent in his dealings with women. It’s disappointing, especially for contemporary readers, that Ellison’s elevation of the experiences of Black men came at the expense of reducing women to irritating distractions – a blind spot corrected by subsequent generations of writers like Toni Morrison and Alice Walker.
Despite these shortcomings, Invisible Man is a magnificent book – dazzlingly crafted, epic in scope, disturbing and entertaining and challenging in equal measure. “No matter what the scheme I conceived,” the Narrator says, “there was one constant flaw – myself. There was no getting around it. I could no more escape than I could think of my identity. Perhaps, I thought, the two things are involved with each other. When I discover who I am, I’ll be free.” By presenting his narrator’s journey of self-discovery, with all his flaws intact and unresolved, Ellison prompted generations of readers, Black and white, to examine and hopefully know themselves a bit better, and – maybe, possibly, hopefully – to become free.
Quotable Quote: “[M]y problem was that I always tried to go in everyone’s way but my own. I have also been called one thing and then another while no one really wished to hear what I called myself. So after years of trying to adopt the opinions of others I finally rebelled. I am an invisible man. Thus I have come a long way and returned and boomeranged a long way from the point in society toward which I originally aspired. So I took to the cellar; I hibernated. I got away from it all. But that wasn’t enough. I couldn’t be still even in hibernation. Because, damn it, there’s the mind, the mind.”