Raddatz 1 Ralph Ellison`s Invisible Man: An Assessment of the

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Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man: An Assessment of the Novel’s Modern Sociocultural Voice and
Influence in the Post-Modern Era
By: Michelle Raddatz
Not all published novels are widely read; some remain unseen by the public classroom,
the avid reader, or the community book club. Invisible Man, however, surely deserves to be seen.
Written by Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man recounts the story of an African American individual in
the 1930’s who struggles to find his identity, despite racial inequality. The narrator, unnamed,
dabbles in a world where whites thrive and blacks strive to be seen. Throughout his journey, this
“invisible man” finds himself humiliated, electrocuted, deceived, and, at the conclusion of his
story, in a man-hole; a series of traumatic events tackle his inner self, questioning the political
and social inequality of Harlem as well as his own place in society. The novel, saturated in rich
language, African American culture, symbolism, and racial conflicts, rightfully deserves the
National Book Award and Russwurm Award it received after its publication. Invisible Man
provokes the conscience, demanding readers to consider questions not typically explored. Was
Ellison’s novel nothing more than a political outcry? What of the controversial issues Ellison
does not include? If Ellison was truly tied with Communism, did he knowingly incorporate
Marxist ideals within his story? As an African American author, Ellison tackles these questions,
experiencing criticisms and reproaches, although he vehemently claims his novel is not
autobiographical (“Ralph Ellison, the Art of Fiction”). Writers in the Modern Era were beginning
to putter in forbidden topics—the mere mention of sex or feministic ideals within literature, or
any form of publication, would lead to outrage prior to and during the early 1900’s—Ellison,
however, ignores the controversies that come with African American narrators of that time. He
takes a step outside of his own man-hole, facing the Post-Modern world with a novel that would
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change not only literature, but society itself. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, a novel born out of
the fading Modern Era, shapes not only literature in the Post-Modern world, but sociocultural
and political aspects as well.
Being published in 1952 at the start of the Civil Rights Movement, Invisible Man
addresses the inexistence of African American representation in America through the protagonist
of the novel and takes a controversial stance on interracial cooperation. Carol Anelli and Richard
Law, authors of an article that examines racism in the United States primarily by studying the
works of Ellison and Gould, recount a “famous literary skirmish” in regards to Ellison’s view;
the upset, a disapproval of Ellison’s “integrationist stance” lead to a harsh reproach in the 1960’s
from literary critic Irving Howe (85). Similarly to his main character in Invisible Man, Ellison
received rebuke for his harmonious suggestions. Another critic by the name of Abner N. Berry
responds to Invisible Man in 1952, calling it “439 pages of contempt for humanity … to suit the
kingpins of world white supremacy” (qtd in Lyne “The Signifying Modernist” 320). While these
critics, along with several others, condemned Ellison’s work, he himself never let the
disparagements change the way he felt about his writing. When asked in an interview three years
after the publication of Invisible Man, Ellison merely accepts that “writing is, after all, a form of
communication” ("Ralph Ellison, the Art of Fiction"). He also references his critics’ literary race
riot accusations, frankly labeling them as differences between their life and his (2). He takes no
credit for upheavals in political reform and refuses to see his work as solely a tool for
government alterations. Ellison claims in another interview titled "A Conversation with Ralph
Ellison," that white critics “have the easy satisfaction of feeling morally superior” when
critiquing work by African Americans (3). Although literary analysts, for the most part, neglect
Ellison’s statements of personal motivation, there is a definite sense of encouraged interpretation
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within his novel: the use of a first-person African American narrator, for instance, allows the
reader to form interracial opinions of their own, depending on how they view the narrator’s
actions and drives. This idea of self-opinionated racial views developed in the Post-Modern
Era—marking the way for the advancing Civil Rights Movement—however, these free-thinking
assessments emerged as a result of the Modern Era when femininity became a gateway to
Critics do not only attend to the most obvious points of controversy, such as Ellison’s
interracial stance addressed above, but they also explore the treatment of women in Invisible
Man. More specifically, Invisible Man is primarily what literary scholars would call an AfricanAmerican bildungsroman or picaresque novel. While there are elements of the novel being a call
to action—contrary to Ellison’s frank assertions—Women’s Rights is not one of them. Because
of its primary focus on African American racism, few take note of the secondary issues
underneath the surface. In her article “Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man: A Critical Reevaluation,”
Yvonne Fonteneau addresses this absence of amiable, female qualities:
In reevaluating Ellison criticism we find that these categories of women are
silenced …. Moreover, there is an inability to see black women who step outside
their role as a victim and become agents in negotiating their freedom …. Perhaps
we are ready to turn from the silence to the text, where women, if not heard, are
felt. (409)
Here, Fonteneau acknowledges that women do indeed have a role in Ellison’s Invisible Man, but
it is one that does not portray them as strong individualists, as the current times would advocate
for. Having been written after several feminist novels in the 20th century—novels by Virginia
Woolf and Rebecca West, for example—Invisible Man takes a subtle step backwards. The novel
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does not condemn woman’s suffrage. However, in her article “Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man and
Female Stereotypes,” Carolyn W. Sylvander states that “[Ellison] remains blind to his women
characters” (77). She concludes her article by affirming that Ellison’s use of female characters
was an “unconscious choice:” females are “nothing more than symbol” and are “not … fully
human” in Invisible Man (79). Ellison’s response to the “almost love affairs” in his novel was
merely one of humor when discussing women during his interview with Alfred Chester and
Vilma Howard: “Look,” Ellison frankly remarks, “didn’t you find the book at all funny?”
(Ellison). Critics might be more keen to analyze Ellison’s novel with a new approach—an
approach that looks at the invisible woman.
Despite critic’s harsh vocalizations regarding Ellison’s racial and feminist viewpoints, his
use of rich style throughout Invisible Man, unlike any other of that time, receives a fair amount
of praise. Throughout his novel, similes, metaphors, and symbols can be found on nearly every
page. Robert Bataille, author of an article—“Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man: The Old Rhetoric
and The New”—that acknowledges Ellison’s brilliant, if not excessive, desire for literary
devices, addresses this notion of resourceful writing: Bataille states that “there can be no doubt
as to the importance of rhetoric in Invisible Man … there is hardly a key scene in the novel that
does not present itself as a rhetorical situation” (43). Even names within Ellison’s novel are not
arbitrarily chosen; names such as “Trueblood” and “Rinehart”—or, conversely, those who lack a
name, such as the narrator—serve a purpose to further the rhetorical intention of the story. In his
1953 Fiction Award Speech, Ellison testifies to these rhetorical indulgences, claiming that he
aspired to create “a prose which would make use of the richness of our speech, the idiomatic
expression, and the rhetorical flourishes from past periods which are still alive among us.” This
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reference to the past not only explains Ellison’s stylistic representation, but also stirs up inquiry
as to which literary predecessors influenced Ellison.
Ernest Hemmingway and Richard Wright, both noteworthy authors of the time, inspired
Ellison in his own writings—although, authors such as Joseph Conrad, James Joyce, Gertrude
Stein, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky played a similar role in Ellison’s developmental writing stage.
Ellison himself accredited Hemmingway as particularly inspirational, stating that he “read
[Hemmingway] to learn his sentence structure and how to organize a story” ("A Conversation
with Ralph Ellison"). Hemmingway’s “Remembering Shooting-Flying” figuratively—and also
quite literally—sustained Ellison in his writing career. After the death of his mother, Ellison kept
this work of Hemmingway’s near as he struggled to survive, homeless in the Ohio Valley. Not
only did the work provide practical information on hunting in the wilderness, but it persuaded
Ellison to continue pursuing a professional writing career (Hochman 514). In 1964, Ellison
reflected on the motivation he sought through Hemmingway, explaining how “[Hemmingway]
appreciated the things of this earth which [he] love[d]” (513). To demonstrate Hemmingway’s
influence on the aspiring Ellison, Gerald T. Gordon in his article “Rhetorical Strategy in Ralph
Ellison's Invisible Man” compares Hemmingway’s The Sun Also Rises with Ellison’s Invisible
… [both show] a dispassionate, reportorial style that conveys a heightened
emotion without tricks; a solemn, dirge-like tone throughout; an overloading of
run on sentences connected mainly by “and” to approximate the uninterrupted
flow of time and experience; and a heavy reliance on nouns which suggest
“things” in the phenomenal world. (205)
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In this excerpt from Gordon’s article, one notices the similarities between novels and the
author’s stylistic intentions; Ellison—clearly inspired by Hemmingway’s way of writing—
learned to adopt the same techniques so famously associated with him. Wright on the other hand,
was “too driven or deprived or inexperienced,” according to Ellison (qtd in Hochman 513).
Although he publically endorsed Wright’s radical depiction of the inadequate African American
life, Ellison criticized fellow African American writers who endeavored to do the same (Jackson
72). This, in turn, signified writers of the Post-Modern Era to be vigilant with their own works
regarding racial discrepancies.
Written works by Hemmingway and other authors were not the only things that inspired
Ellison, however. Music in the Post-Modern Era, for example, is especially key to considering
Invisible Man. Culture on the rise of the Post-Modern Era was considered sepia-toned, music
particularly being thought of as both saccharine and bland (Davis 296). Ellison speaks to this
description in Invisible Man by referencing one of his favorite musical pieces: “What Did I Do to
Be So Black and Blue?” by Louis Armstrong. Similar to Ellison, Armstrong himself claims that
his music, specifically this song, is not intentionally “about marching and equal rights;”
although, at one point, “[he] used to sing it serious[ly]” (qtd in Hersch 372). In Invisible Man,
Ellison deems Armstrong as being able to “mak[e] poetry out of being invisible” (8). Alan J.
Rice, in an article on the development of jazz style in African American Prose, includes Ralph
Ellison as an author who incorporates music—jazz and blues, specifically—in his novel during
the Harlem Renaissance (105). Rice goes on to further express the inclusion of jazz within novels
of that period: he explains how “the conscious use of alliteration, antiphony, non-standard
punctuation, signifying, and repetition to build up passages” resembles that of jazz (105). While
studying the works of T.S. Eliot—another author whom he modeled after—Ellison himself
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remarked how “[he] saw a style of improvisation—that quality of improvising which is very
close to jazz” (“An Interview with Ralph Ellison”). The lyrics Ellison includes in his novel—
“What did I do to be so black and blue”—play an essential part in understanding Ellison’s
themes: alienation from the self, inequality and unfairness of African-American treatment, pain
inside the individual. These themes or motifs link directly to the culture of the novel’s
publication. After the devastation of two World Wars, most Americans themselves felt black and
blue. Bebop, a new musical art form taking root around the publication of Invisible Man, played
a noteworthy role in Ellison’s novel, in addition to its effect on contemporary jazz. A. Timothy
Spaulding, in his article on the bebop aesthetic, cleverly connects this emerging musical art form
with Ellison’s protagonist. Spaulding asserts that because both bebop and Invisible Man were
“products of Post-World War II sensibilities,” one can recognize how Ellison’s main character
possesses “an individual identity through the creation of a unique improvisational voice” that is
characteristic of bebop (482). When studying music’s relationship to Ralph Ellison and his
novel, it is crucial to remember its inspiration and purpose: in the case of Invisible Man—and
most art forms from the early to mid-1900’s—World War I and World War II stir up the
emotional responses known to that culture. From a more narrowed perspective, Ellison’s work,
evidently shaped by these devastating world events, not only pays tribute to a struggling nation,
but creates a foundation for literary expectations.
While music played a large piece in literature amidst the Post-Modernists, considering
Invisible Man’s effect on a Post-World War II society also helps to understand the novel’s
influence in the Post-Modern Era. Christopher Z. Hobson in his article on Invisible Man and
African-American radicalism in World War II, explains how Ellison captures the African
Americans’ response to the war:
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Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man bears a complex, ambiguous, and ultimately
extraordinary rich relation to the milieu that gave it birth …. Further, Invisible
Man’s continuing relation to the African American radicalism of its time helps
explain … its conclusion on … individual as opposed to group freedom. These
aspects of the novel reflect [African American’s] … responses to World War II.
In short, Hobson credits Invisible Man with the ability to relate with African Americans after
war; the novel, according to this passage from Hobson, mirrors an uncertainty and intricateness
inherent of that period in history. Specifically within Invisible Man, Ellison includes scenes of
violence, murder, rioting, and financial hardships. While these plot markers are generally present
in a wide range of published novels, Invisible Man targets African Americans during this Post
World War II period. Titles like All Quiet on the Western Front that were published in the 1920’s
as a direct result of a sudden literary war-boom, were openly aimed at a Post-World War I
society (Eksteins 346). Ellison’s novel, however, takes a drastically more subtle route: while
clearly not writing directly about the war, he pays tribute to a war that impacted an already
grieving society. Invisible Man easily identifies itself as an African American novel—one that
addresses the treatment of African Americans prior to the Civil Rights Movement. However,
James Alan McPherson, a longtime friend of Ellison and current professor at the University of
Iowa, understands Invisible Man as speaking “eloquently and equally for both the black
American condition of its day and the human condition of any day” (“Listening to the Lower
Frequencies” 445). Ellison’s novel goes beyond the expected, dabbling in a multitude of social
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Similar to his tact in integrating opinions on war and “The Lost Generation,” Ellison
incorporated hints of his Marxist background within Invisible Man. War and The Great
Depression left the United States in a desperate, despairing state; for some, Communism
provided a general sense of comradeship that was absent in that time of history. Among these
Americans searching for a sense of communion in a broken world, were Ellison and Wright.
With a few reviews and short stories published in the late 1920’s, both Ellison and Wright sought
to radically change American politics for, what they believed to be, the better (Jackson 71).
Ellison included this idea of Communism through his depiction of “The Brotherhood:” in a time
of racial instability in Harlem, the narrator of Invisible Man joins a committee of “brothers” who
seek to better the central issues of their region. As the novel progresses however, the narrator
finds himself humiliated and outcast from The Brotherhood. Ellison found himself in a similar
position by 1943 whereupon he re-evaluated his role in the Communist Party (Jackson 71).
Despite these facts and inferences, Ellison himself denied having been a member of the
Communist Party: he argued that "[he] did not want to describe an existing Socialist or
Communist or Marxist political group primarily because it would have allowed the reader to
escape confronting certain political patterns”(Going to the Territory 13). This “escape of
confrontation” that Ellison speaks on questions those living in the Post-Modern Era: it asks them
if they themselves have addressed the “political patterns” of corruption and decay found within
their own government. Democracy, the indicated form of corrupted government, actively
presents itself within Invisible Man as well. In an article titled “Awakening to Race: Ralph
Ellison and Democratic Individuality,” Jack Turner argues that Ellison “makes black people
democracy’s final trustee” (661). Turner clarifies by asserting Ellison’s condemnation of “an
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inversion of American racial hierarchy” (661). This view is not only portrayed through Ellison’s
main character, but can be seen in a nation on the verge of desegregation and equalization.
With such social and political controversy interwoven within Invisible Man, it is not
difficult to accept Ellison’s lack of ensuing literary publication. When questioned by Richard
Kostelanetz in “A Conversation with Ralph Ellison,” about writing a second novel, Ellison
admits that he had “a deep uncertainty about what [he was] doing” (9). Ellison went on to further
explain why his writing periods generally last several years: “There is such a tendency to reduce
the American experience,” Ellison describes, “especially when it centers around the Negro
experience” (9). Ellison only published what he approved of; if it was not true to the “American
experience,” the work did not enter the public realm. This American experience, such as The
Great Migration, increase in African American urbanization, effect of World War I, and the
impending Second World War, influenced literature in the Modern Era—prior to the publication
of Invisible Man (Lucy 258). Ellison’s novel, however, entered the world when American’s
experience had changed: the United States, facing the internalized struggles of the Post-Modern
Era, adapted from the literary involvement represented through physical, foreign, and
argumentative literature exposed in the Modern Era.
After gathering the sociocultural and political effects of Ellison’s Invisible Man on the
American society, one must conclude that the Post-Modern Era would be viewed as a radically
different time period had Ellison deemed this novel unfit for public viewing. In perspective,
Ellison’s novel captivated an audience in the tumult of the Civil Rights movement, yet still
manages to inspire and fascinate readers in the 21st century. Thankfully, the period of his life
after Invisible Man he dedicated to teaching, reviewing other’s work, and public speaking
(Lawrence P. Jackson 75). Though he died in 1994, Ellison’s legacy remains potent (73). His
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themes spoke to those who felt invisible after an age of despair, large-scaled conflicts, and
industrialized advances, associated with the Modern Era. For those on the rise of the PostModern Era, however, Invisible Man sets the mood, the expectations for an emerging generation:
not only must one pursue self-visibility, one must also search for the hidden social inequalities
and injustices within a community. The novel suggests a need to understand one’s beliefs—by
spending time in contemplation alone away from persuasive activists, though perhaps not
literally in an underground dwelling—and then put these opinions to action in a self-rebirth.
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