Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison (New York: Vintage International, 1995; originally published in 1952. 608 pp)
Ralp Ellison was born in Oklahoma and trained as a musician at Tuskegee Institute. After visiting New York and meeting with Richard Wright, he felt called to write fiction. His novel, Invisible Man, won the National Book Award and the Russwurm Award. Ellison taught at Bard College, the University of Chicago, Rutgers University, the University of California, and New York University. He was appointed to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He was a charter member of the National Council on the Arts and Humanities, a member of the Carnegie Commission on public television, a trustee of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and a trustee of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Ellison died in 1994.
Invisibility, even for a minute, frustrates. Because I tend to speak slowly, I face particular instances where I recognize that I am losing the person to which I am speaking. I can see eyes start to dance; I can sense brains working toward a different subject or an entirely new conversation. While I am in no way trying to liken my experiences to Ellison’s harrowing tale, these instances do give me the briefest and most surface level glimpses of what it would be like for someone to give you not even a second thought.
At its core, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man deserves every ounce of praise it has received over the past 60 years.
Invisible to a Degree
Invisible Man details the plot of an unnamed narrator—an invisible man— although he’s not literally invisible.
“I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me” (3).
The story unfolds as a series of successes and injustices meted out in equal measure. The narrator, due to his gifts of rhetoric, earns a scholarship to an esteemed African-American college. Yet he must submit himself to humiliation in order to accept it.
At the college, the narrator enjoys the privilege of escorting a wealthy white trustee around the campus. Yet, the narrator’s desire to please and follow orders leaves the pair grabbing whiskey at a brothel.
Kicked out of college for such an egregious error, the narrator ventures to New York City in search of a job, finding no luck in the typical jobs but an opportunity in “the Brotherhood,” a Marxist organization seeking equality for all.
“What are we doing? What is our mission? It’s simple; we are working for a better world for all people. It’s that simple. Too many have been dispossessed of their heritage, and we have banded together in brotherhood so as to do something about it” (304).
But is this seemingly ideal job anything more than another form of racism?
A View from the Disinherited
To me, Invisible Man feels quite a bit like Sinclair’s The Jungle. In both books, the main characters continually bump up against the systems of injustice that beat them down.
The big difference, however, is Ellison’s focus on race. I don’t pretend to have anything authoritative to say on the subject, but I am appreciative of the opportunity to get a look through Ellison’s window.
Invisible Man sketches what it’s like for a person to feel ignored to the point of invisibility. Considering how much it bugs me when I experience even the slightest bit of indifference, the thought of cultural systems moving to a point where a full person is constantly ignored is maddening.
Invisible Man is a classic. It’s worth the read.
Verdict: 4 out of 5