« 1954 | 1952 »


Invisible Man

by Ralph Ellison

Original Publisher: Random House, Inc.
Current Publisher:
Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group

Charles Johnson writes:

Fifty-seven years after its publication in 1952, it is safe to say that Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man is, in addition to being a luminous addition to our literary canon, a novel that has achieved that rare status of becoming an essential cultural artifact for understanding the American experience, much like the addresses of his namesake, Ralph Waldo Emerson. As a college professor, I have read and taught this capacious work since the late 1960s. With each encounter over forty years, I am rewarded by the discovery of something new in Ellison’s text, for this is the kind of multi-layered literary and philosophical performance that we, as citizens concerned about the health of our republic, are obliged to re-read every ten or twenty years in order to check its insights and monitions against our cultural (and personal) progress and failures. As our understanding of liberty, equality, and this nation’s ideals grows and evolves, our experience of Invisible Man deepens, achieving ever greater subtlety, nuance, and prescience.

Obviously, we do Ellison’s masterpiece a great disservice if we read it on the most pedestrian, political, sociological, or surface level, for it is a novel that delights in play and ambiguity (that is, an over-richness of meaning). His central, famous trope of “invisibility” remains universally applicable for any group that is socially marginalized. While black Americans are certainly more “visible” today, especially after Barack Obama became this nation’s first African American president, it is nevertheless true that so many other groups--- Hispanics, Asians, Pacific Islanders, new African immigrants to America, and native Americans to name just a few---can make a case for still being “invisible” men and women in contemporary America. Well might they argue that “on the lower frequencies,” Invisible Man speaks to their daily, lived experience.

Yet even that observation doesn’t entirely do justice to the epistemological profundity of this novel’s central theme. We must admit that on some level we all remain noetic and ineffable---invisible and mysterious---to one another. Men and women. Blacks and whites. Westerners and Easterners. We are all victims of blindness to each other’s open-ended being, and too often victims of the Other’s attempts (from the Left and Right and Center) to define and categorize us, to use us as Ellison’s Bledso, Brotherhood and Ras the Exhorter attempt to shape Invisible Man’s naïve, young protagonist as they think best. If Ellison had lived just a little longer, I believe he would be delighted by the resonance his treatment of “invisibility” has with recent developments in cosmology. Dark matter, and dark energy, which was discovered only eleven years ago, make up 96 percent of the universe, with what we can see and measure accounting for only four percent. 90% of the universe is invisible to us---the unseen, untamed chaos of experience, as Ellison described it, which lies beyond our limited explanatory models, concepts, and the flawed, incomplete interpretations we forever attempt to impose upon what philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty once called “wild Being.” In other words, we find ourselves living in the midst of a great mystery. Art such as Invisible Man is a daily reminder of this cosmic mystery. And, obviously, that mystery is us.

Finally, can anyone look at the remarkable, bi-racial figure of President Obama, with his white mother, Kenyan father, Indonesian stepfather and Indonesian half-sister, and wife from Chicago’s South Side, and not see at the same time how his family’s very biology and cultural orientations are global (covering America, Africa, Asia, and on his mother’s side he is related to former Vice President Dick Cheney), and that his policy decisions during the first 100 days of his administration are an echo of Ellison’s famous statement that, “by a trick of fate (and our racial problems not withstanding) the human imagination is integrative---and the same is true of the centrifugal force that inspirits the democratic process”? And in Ellison and Obama we also glimpse the expansive spirit of Emerson when he wrote in his letters of 1840 that, “Every history in the world is my history. I can as readily find myself in the tragedy of the Atrides as in the Saxon Chronicle, in the Vedas as in the New Testament, in Aesop as in the Cambridge Platform or the Declaration of Independence.” Perhaps more than any president who precedes him, we see in Obama, who proudly calls himself “a mutt,” an affirmation of Ellison’s urgent demand that, “the thing that Americans have to learn over and over again is that they are individuals and they have the responsibility of individual vision”; and his clear-eyed certainty that our lives are already more integrated than we usually dare acknowledge (“There’s always the mystery,” he writes in his second novel Juneteenth, “of the one in the many and the many in the one, the you in them and the them in you---ha!”)

With Invisible Man, we clearly have a narrative vision---a guidebook for a world awash with contradiction and ambiguity---we can trust not only for the second half of the twentieth century but also for the dawn of the twenty-first century as well.

Charles Johnson was a National Book Award Winner in Fiction in 1990 for Middle Passage He is currently chair of the National Book Awards Fiction Panel.


Lee Taylor Gaffigan writes:

I came to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man as an unsuspecting high school student, when I was taking Advanced Placement English. I had enrolled in the class because my friends had, not because I had any particular enthusiasm for literature. This changed within the pages of Invisible Man. I realized that writing is much more than storytelling – writing could be portraiture, abstraction, manifesto. A novel was the culminating efforts of meticulous craft.

In his Paris Review interview from 1955, Ellison carefully explained the brushstrokes of his masterwork, the complex architecture of his symbolism that enthralled me as a teenager. “[Folklore] symbols,” he said, “serve a dual function: they allow the artist to speak of complex experiences and annihilate time with simple lines and curves; and they allow the viewer an orientation...which goes so deep that a total culture may resound in a simple rhythm, an image.” Imagine that, a novel purposefully crafted around its symbols. A novel that was symbols first, characters and plot second. This was magical to me as a young student. While telling the story of his protagonist, Ellison is really telling the story (or history) of a people and simultaneously pulling at the subconscious strings of recognition. Even I (lily white, upper-middle class, suburban I) came to understand the world he rendered and feel its suffocating stagnancy.

Before Ralph Ellison I had waded through the obligatory works, the Twain, Shakespeare and Whitman, reading with superficial commitment. Invisible Man forced me to dissect, delve and uncover; we (this novel and I) found each other in the right place at the right time. It was then that I learned what it really meant to read, and what it really is to “write.”

Lee Taylor Gaffigan, a former musician, is currently an MFA student in creative nonfiction at The New School in Manhattan.

Jane Hirshfield writes:

Invisible Man.—the title goes to the center of the book’s greatness. Inside it is both the dismantling insult of the racism anatomized and descanted over its course and the enormous, exact aria of compassion that makes up the novel’s closing pages. At the beginning, “invisible” is understood as a speaker’s name, as a boy’s heart. By the book’s end, the division lines between one heart and mind and another, one fate and another, one face of society and another, dissolve into the breathtaking and liminal freedom that surrender of identity-allegiance, fully agreed to, allows. A person at ease being no one can inhabit with equal compassion all lives. The task of art is, while not this alone, in no small part the allowance of impossible acts of forgiveness, impossible magnitudes of soul. Art unknots, without ignoring, the brutalities and deafness within us. Invisible Man is one of the two, perhaps three, masterpiece novels to have come from this country’s struggle with its worst and best passions. Its freedoms of pen and of spirit showed—and continue to show—an indispensable way forward amid the insoluble impasses of enmity that do not cease to appear. Besides, the book is simply gorgeous—a feast.

Jane Hirshfield served as a National Book Award judge in Poetry in 2003. Her most recent collection of poems is After.

Patrick Rosal writes:

Around the time I first read Invisible Man, I got to know Chris White, who was a long-time bassist with Dizzy Gillespie, a composer/band leader in his own right, and faculty member at the college where I was then studying. Somehow, I begged from him an informal jam session, just Chris and me. He agreed. I showed up one afternoon at the music department’s studio and gleefully plopped my fakebook down. He pulled out his bass. I slid onto the piano. We played... and I fell off — bad. I got lost in the changes, trying hopelessly to find my way back using the lead sheet. I froze up.

Half way through the tune, Chris, still playing his heart out, says to me (not without a dose of severity), “Close the book.” Two or three times. “Close the book,” he said. “Listen to what I’m playing.” And well, I did.

It’s fitting I was reading Ellison’s novel at the time. The main character is oblivious to what’s in the air. He has yet to learn to reach into the power grid and, in the tradition of tricksters, tap that power for his own uses. In the same tradition, he must learn to live in and against and from down underneath. He must learn what that kind of living requires: counterpoint and improvisation, to play in the opposite direction in which the melody moves, to make his own part up.

It’s a lesson that befuddles the invisible man when the vet from the Golden Day first lays it on him. “For God’s sake, learn to look beneath the surface,” the vet warns. “Come out of the fog, young man... Play the game, but don’t believe in it... play it your own way – part of the time, at least. Play the game, but raise the ante, my boy. Learn how it operates. Learn how you operate.”

Throughout the book, Ralph Ellison’s protagonist struggles with what’s written down, i.e. what’s proscribed, inscribed and prescribed. The question of how a game is supposed to be played, but also how to listen to what’s already in the air, how to figure out the music as we go, is perhaps the central question in the novel. Surely, it’s not just a question of mid-century America, but of our nation today, of our right-now, everyday people. That question (and Ellison’s novel) masterfully yokes together our deadly history, our manifest hope, and our beautifully and terribly imagined destinies.

Patrick Rosal is the author of two full-length poetry collections, Uprock Headspin Scramble and Die and My American Kundiman. He was awarded a Fulbright grant to the Philippines in 2009.


ISBN: 9780679732761

Fiction Finalists that Year:

  • Isabel Bolton for Many Mansions
  • H.L. Davis for Winds of Morning
  • Thomas Gallagher for The Gathering Darkness
  • Ernest Hemingway for The Old Man and the Sea
  • Carl Jonas for Jefferson Selleck
  • Peter Martin for The Landsman
  • May Sarton for A Shower of Summer Days
  • Jean Stafford for The Gathering Wheel
  • John Steinbeck for East of Eden
  • William Carlos Williams for The Build-Up

Fiction Judges that Year: Saul Bellow, Martha Foley, Irving Howe, Howard Mumford Jones, Alfred Kazin

The Year in Literature:

  • The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
  • Winston Churchill won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

More Information: Invisible Man is the only novel Ralph Ellison published during his lifetime.

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