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The Long Shadow of Invisible Man

By Lisa Rogers | HUMANITIES, January/February 2002 | Volume 23, Number 1

I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids—and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.
-- Prologue,
Invisible Man

So begins one of the most influential American novels of the twentieth century, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. It recounts the epic journey of an unnamed black narrator from his familiar but oppressive home in the South to new, dangerous freedoms in New York City. In 1952 it brought Americans a complex black protagonist, an educated man of broad intellectual curiosity and eloquence. The novel was an instant success and laid the foundation for Ellison’s career over the next forty years. Although he never published another novel during his life, Ellison continued to write and teach, and his views helped shape American society in the second half of the twentieth century.

Ellison, his career, and his time are the subjects of a new documentary by filmmaker Avon Kirkland for the Public Broadcasting Service’s American Masters series. Ralph Ellison: An American Journey explores how Ellison and his writings fit into the milieu of social struggle in America, from the rise of socialism and communism after the Depression to the far-reaching changes brought by the Civil Rights Movement and the rise of black nationalism in the 1960s and 1970s.

“I first had the idea for a documentary in 1996 when I read an article about Ellison and learned for the first time that his career had been quite controversial in the sixties and seventies,” says Kirkland. “Mr. Ellison, as important as he is in our cultural and literary history, has never been the subject of a biography or documentary, and that just doesn't seem right. The arc of his life was extraordinary.”

He was born in Oklahoma in 1914. His parents had recently moved to the new frontier state where discrimination was not yet entrenched and opportunities abounded. The death of Ellison’s father in 1917 brought an end to the family’s rise into middle-class life, but it did not dampen his son’s ambition to expand his intellectual horizons, to become a Renaissance Man, as he put it:

Anything and everything was to be found in the chaos of Oklahoma; thus the concept of the Renaissance Man has lurked long within the shadow of my past, and I shared it with at least a half dozen of my Negro friends. How we actually acquired it I have never learned, and since there is no true sociology of the dispersion of ideas within the American democracy, I doubt if I ever shall. Perhaps we breathed it in with the air of the Negro community of Oklahoma City, the capital of that state whose Negroes were often charged by exasperated white Texans with not knowing their “place.” Perhaps we took it defiantly from one of them. Or perhaps I myself picked it up from some transplanted New Englander whose shoes I had shined of a Saturday afternoon. After all, the most meaningful tips do not always come in the form of money, nor are they intentionally extended.
--Introduction, Shadow and Act

Ellison did not at first intend to become a writer. His first love was music. He excelled at the trumpet and idolized the jazz performers of the day. But when he took up a music scholarship to Tuskegee Institute in Alabama in 1933, it was to study classical music, not jazz.

I wanted to be a composer, but not a jazz composer, interestingly enough. I wanted to be a symphonist . . . there wasn’t always this division between the ambitions of jazz musicians and the standards of classical music; the idea was to master both traditions. . . . I suppose my own desire to write symphonies grew out of an attraction to the bigger forms and my awareness that they moved many people as they did me in a different way.
-- ”That Same Pain, That Same Pleasure: An Interview,” Shadow and Act

In 1936, after his third year at Tuskegee, Ellison went to New York City, intending to earn enough money to return to his studies. Instead he met poet Langston Hughes and author Richard Wright. It was Wright who coaxed the musician to try his hand at writing. The realignment was complete by 1938 when Ellison began work with the Federal Writers’ Project. Over the next seven years Ellison wrote reviews and articles for a range of periodicals and published several short stories. In the mid-1940s he began work on the novel that would become Invisible Man. It was published in 1952 to critical acclaim and lasted four months on the bestseller list. In 1953 Ellison won the National Book Award, the first black author to receive it; Alice Walker would be the next, thirty years later.

For Ellison, Invisible Man filled a gap in American literature. In his 1981 introduction to a new printing of the novel, he wondered “why most protagonists of Afro-American fiction (not to mention the black characters in fiction written by whites) were without intellectual depth. Too often they were figures caught up in the most intense forms of social struggle, subject to the most extreme forms of the human predicament but yet seldom able to articulate the issues which tortured them. . . . I felt that one of the ever-present challenges facing the American novelist was that of endow-ing his inarticulate characters, scenes and social processes with eloquence. For it is by such attempts that he fulfills his social responsibility as an American artist.”

While Ellison viewed Invisible Man as a story of affirmation and of the importance of the quest for individual identity, the novel rests on a life-denying concept: social and cultural invisibility.

“Invisibility is Mr. Ellison’s central metaphor,” says Kirkland. “It is a profound explanation of what it is like in the black experience to feel alienated. Ultimately, however, the metaphor of invisibility speaks for all of us -- blacks, whites, women, homosexuals, the handicapped -- anyone who sits at the margin of society, who feels voiceless, whose humanity is not acknowledged. It is a very commonly and widely used metaphor for that kind of situation where people are not seen as fully human.”

By exposing this invisibility to the penetrating light of his novel, Ellison intended to effect social change. As he told the writer Roger Rosenblatt in 1973, “That the Invisible Man writes a story at all makes a social statement. . . .The protagonist’s story is his social bequest. And I’ll tell you something else: The bequest is hopeful.”

Literary critic Henry Louis Gates, Jr. describes Ellison as “a militant integrationist.” In the 1960s and 1970s, his vision of “black and white fraternity” put him increasingly at odds with the black nationalist and black arts movements. During this time, Ellison was teaching, first at Bard College, then at Rutgers, and later Yale. Kirkland describes Ellison’s growing isolation from the emotions of the time.

“He really caught hell from the students,” Kirkland says. “He wasn’t acting as they thought he should. He was seen as formal and disengaged. What the poet Amiri Baraka and others at that time wanted was some acknowledgment from blacks in prominent positions or highly thought of across the country. But Ellison was very critical of them. He never got down and talked with them. He was aloof.”

A crisis came in 1967 at what should have been a celebratory party in Iowa. A young black man denounced him as an Uncle Tom. Ellison, always cool and assured in public, broke down and cried. That same year, the draft of his second novel was destroyed when the Ellisons’ summer home burned. “Mr. Ellison and his wife gradually withdrew from many of their friends during the seventies and eighties,” says Kirkland.

Ellison continued to write and teach. Between 1970 and 1980 he was the Albert Schweitzer Professor of Humanities at New York University. He was awarded the National Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, in 1969. In 1985 he received the National Medal of Arts from President Ronald Reagan. He published his collection of essays, reviews, and interviews called Shadow and Act in 1964. Another collection of essays and reviews, Going to the Territory, appeared in 1986. And Ellison worked on his second novel until he died in 1994.

That second novel was to remain unpublished until 1999. Ellison’s literary executor, John Callahan, sifted through the two thousand manuscript pages to select the story that became Juneteenth. In his introduction, Callahan writes, “Like a great river, perhaps the Mississippi . . . Juneteenth draws from many uniquely African American (and American) tributaries: sermons, folktales, the blues, the dozens, the swing and the velocity of jazz. Its form borrows from the antiphonal call-and-response pattern of the black church and the riffs and bass lines of jazz.”

Jazz is a recurring theme throughout Ellison’s life and work. “It was seminal in his approach to writing,” Kirkland says, “and in jazz he found a metaphor for America. Mr. Ellison thought that a jazz performance in which the individual performer is encouraged to express his individuality within the context of the whole of the musical group is a sort of quintessential metaphor for democracy.”

Ellison scholar Robert O’Meally agrees. “He felt art was an assertion against chaos in general. I think that the idea that a jazz band is a perfect example of democracy is a masterful point in Ellison's writing . . . I think he will be known as the one who said, ‘American culture is jazz shaped.’” For all its influence, Invisible Man has never been made into a movie. Kirkland, when he inquired into the possibility of making a film of the book in the 1980s, discovered why. “I was surprised to learn that the rights were available, but that Mr. Ellison required script control,” Kirkland explains. “That effectively killed the project. I have since come to learn that Mr. Ellison had received a large number of offers from some of the most successful directors and filmmakers.” He turned them all down.

Kirkland worried about what such a restriction would mean to his documentary on Ellison. “We were able to convince the estate . . . that it would be impossible for us to do a show on Ralph Ellison without having some scenes to show the public from the book,” he says. “Fortunately the estate . . . agreed to let us do a few scenes, no more than fifteen minutes or so. We were able to keep to the spirit of Mr. Ellison’s rule of script control when we agreed to proceed with the production of the scenes adapted from the novel only after the script for those adaptations had been approved by the literary executor, John Callahan.” Kirkland’s documentary marks the first dramatization of any part of Invisible Man.

Working on the documentary brought Kirkland a couple of surprises. “Mr. Ellison had great talent in a large number of areas,” Kirkland explains. “He repaired his own cars. He was an excellent hunter and accomplished fisherman. He made money occasionally by assembling and repairing radios. His haberdasher at the Andover Shop in Cambridge, Massachusetts, said he never met a person who was so well versed in cloth, textiles, and tailoring methods. Ellison even knew various kinds of stitching.

“But the main surprise was that I discovered how wide-ranging and profound had been Mr. Ellison’s essays. Mr. Ellison wrote two masterpieces: Invisible Man and Shadow and Act. . . . He wrote essays on the novel and its potential use for reforming democracy, and essays on important black musicians.”

As the fiftieth anniversary of Invisible Man approaches, Ellison’s influence widens. Books on Ellison are appearing more regularly -- a biography of his early years, a collection of his correspondence with friend and writer Albert Murray, and a study of how Ellison used jazz to form and inform his work. In 1999, Modern Library published surveys of the one hundred best fiction and nonfiction books published in English in the twentieth century. Ralph Ellison is the only author to appear on both lists.

Kirkland points to these surveys as indicators of Ellison’s stature. “Mr. Ellison was a very learned man, a man of letters. No mere storyteller, he was an accomplished intellectual.”

About the Author

Lisa Rogers is a writer in Bethesda, Maryland.

Funding Information

New Images Productions, Inc. received $532,311 from NEH to produce Ralph Ellison: An American Journey, which airs February 19 on PBS. It premieres in January at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah.