Surreal Encounters in Ralph Ellison’s ‘Invisible Man’

This essay is a part of T’s Book Club, a collection of articles and occasions devoted to traditional works of American literature. Click right here to R.S.V.P. to a digital dialog about “Invisible Man,” to be led by Adam Bradley and held on June 17.

I first noticed Ralph Ellison once I was 19 years previous and he had already handed away. On a summer time night in 1994, he appeared to me in the attic of an previous manor home on the campus of a small faculty in the Pacific Northwest. I had encountered him — simply as I had Langston Hughes and Jane Austen and Geoffrey Chaucer — by extra standard means the 12 months prior, as an attentive reader of his revealed work. I learn Ellison’s 1952 novel, “Invisible Man,” for the primary time as a part of a category on African American literature and was drawn to his wise-foolish protagonist with whom, wanting again now, I shared greater than a passing resemblance: a younger Black faculty pupil with imprecise aspirations for management who stumbles upon writing as a way of illuminating his identification. Nonetheless, Ellison — like Hughes and Austen and Chaucer — remained intangible to me, aloof, distanced each by time and by achievement.

That may have been the top of it. But, as Ellison was fond of claiming, “it’s a crazy country” — by which he meant that the variety of the American expertise usually events surprising confluences of individuals and circumstance. Soon after Ellison’s demise, on April 16, 1994, on the age of 80, or maybe 81 (proof uncovered after his passing suggests he was born in 1913, not 1914, as he all the time claimed), Ellison’s spouse, Fanny, referred to as on their longtime buddy John F. Callahan, my professor, to imagine the literary executorship of his property. Callahan requested me to be his assistant — to assist him collect analysis, photocopy paperwork and kind supplies — which explains why I ended up carrying shipments arriving from the Ellisons’ Riverside Drive deal with up a creaky staircase to the manor home attic on my faculty campus. My first process was to unpack the packing containers and array the pages contained inside throughout a protracted mahogany convention desk, getting ready them for Callahan’s inspection. Among the papers have been drafts of Ellison’s unpublished second novel, round 40 years in progress; dot-matrix printouts from his pc, some with penciled edits; and handwritten notes scrawled on scraps of paper and on the backs of used envelopes.

Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” revealed by Random House in 1952.A portrait, circa 1950, of Ellison by Gordon Parks, which was used as the author’s creator photograph for “Invisible Man.”Credit…© The Gordon Parks Foundation

It was whereas analyzing one such observe that I noticed Ellison — or, fairly, that I noticed previous my very own veneration of him to the human being he had as soon as been. He was in the feel of the paper as I held it, as he might need held it, between thumb and forefinger. He was in the slant of his spidery script. He was in the faint scent of cigar smoke that had settled into the fibers of the fantastic bond paper and lain dormant for months, even years, till my nostril woke it up. It startled me to understand that I used to be doubtless solely the third individual, after Mr. and Mrs. Ellison — maybe even the second, after Ellison alone — to have held this web page, to have learn this observe. I felt exhilarated and unsettled.

Though I couldn’t have articulated it again then, I used to be overtaken in that second by an ambivalence akin to that which Ellison’s unnamed protagonist expresses in the ultimate line of “Invisible Man” — “And it is this which frightens me: Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?” I knew intellectually, as a result of Callahan had defined it, that the decrease frequencies have been the registers of our shared humanity. Through his protagonist’s voice, Ellison was making the audacious declare that he, a younger Black author in segregated America, may conceive a younger Black character with the capability to talk to the universalities of human expertise via the dogged particulars of his personal. But I used to be puzzled, and would stay so for a few years, by the foreboding tone of that final line.

I now imagine that the narrator’s ambivalence comes from his understanding that talking for anybody means assuming a heavy burden of accountability, for oneself and for others. Perhaps it stems, too, from understanding the horrors that a few of these for whom he dares to talk, these for whom he stays invisible, are succesful. And I do know from spending numerous hours amongst Ellison’s papers, now housed on the Library of Congress, that when composing “Invisible Man,” Ellison bore the load of each his personal exacting requirements of craft in addition to his conviction that he should write fiction that mirrored the depth and variety of Black life as he knew it.

A contact sheet of photographs of Ellison, circa 1948, photographed in Harlem by Gordon Parks.Credit…© The Gordon Parks Foundation. Ralph Ellison Papers, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. Courtesy of The Ralph and Fanny Ellison Charitable Trust.

RALPH ELLISON WAS PRIVATE however not reclusive. In a phrase he favored, he was complicated. His letters reveal a person able to great humor and self-reflection in addition to stubbornness and occasional vainness. Born in Oklahoma City, he was a proud Southwesterner to the final, although, after attending the Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University) in Alabama, he lived the overwhelming majority of his life in New York City. He was decidedly old-school in his literary passions — his tastes ran from Henry James to Dostoyevsky — however was additionally a gearhead: an fanatic of excessive constancy audio gear and an early adopter of the private pc. The creator of just one novel, two books of essays (1964’s “Shadow and Act” and 1986’s “Going to the Territory”) and a clutch of occasional items and revealed excerpts from his second novel, he nonetheless wrote always, forsaking 1000’s of pages, a few of which have now appeared posthumously, together with two iterations of his second novel — 1999’s “Juneteenth,” the core of the narrative, edited by Callahan and simply launched in a brand new version; and 2010’s “Three Days Before the Shooting …,” the sprawling sequence of manuscripts and variants that Callahan and I edited collectively.

“Invisible Man,” for which Ellison is greatest recognized, is a giant guide, in each sense. At practically 600 pages lengthy, winnowed from greater than 800 manuscript pages, it’s teeming with characters like a Charles Dickens novel, and has the roving geography of a picaresque, like Mark Twain’s “Huck Finn” (1884). We observe Invisible Man from his highschool commencement via his early years at a Southern Black faculty earlier than his personal naïve ambitions and eagerness to please these extra highly effective than he consequence in a fateful error in judgment, setting off a series of occasions resulting in his dismissal from college and his journey via the chaos and pleasure of 1940s Harlem. Searching for employment in the town, he experiences the dislocation and uncertainty felt by so many Black Americans who made the transfer from the agricultural South to the city North throughout the years of the Great Migration. Soon he catches the eye of white leaders of a leftist group referred to as the Brotherhood that, noticing his expertise for transferring a crowd, grooms him for management. The Brotherhood offers him an identification — fairly actually, they assign him a brand new title that, like his given title, the reader by no means learns. The motion of the novel follows his dawning consciousness of his personal predicament: that he’s an invisible man in the eyes of those that refuse to see him as something apart from a projection of who they need or want for him to be.

A draft of the prologue of “Invisible Man.”Credit…Ralph Ellison Papers, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress. © The Ralph and Fanny Ellison Charitable Trust.A draft of the final web page of “Invisible Man.”Credit…Ralph Ellison Papers, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress. © The Ralph and Fanny Ellison Charitable Trust.

Early on in the novel’s greater than six-year composition course of, Ellison discarded the dominant literary modes amongst Black writers on the time: naturalism (the concept that setting is determinant of human character) and realism (the hassle to symbolize on the web page lived expertise in concrete phrases), each powerfully exemplified in his buddy Richard Wright’s 1940 traditional, “Native Son.” That form of fiction, Ellison believed, was too restrictive to seize the raucous humor, the standard of mind and the improvisational spirit of his protagonist. He additionally resisted, and maybe resented, the impulse of many white critics and readers to confuse Black fiction with sociology. With “Invisible Man,” Ellison got down to write a novel that may be not possible merely to file and neglect.

It ought to come as no shock, then, that unusual and surprising issues occur all through the novel. Blindfolded Black boys, stripped bare to the waist, combat one another in a boxing ring, then acquire their reward by scrambling for cash strewn throughout an electrified carpet whereas a jeering viewers of rich white males look on in anger and amusement. A Black sharecropper impregnates his spouse in addition to, in a dream state, his teenage daughter, then takes an ax to the cheek from his spouse in retribution and one way or the other survives to sing the blues. A paint manufacturing facility boasts a state-of-the-art hospital with a machine able to executing a noninvasive equal of a prefrontal lobotomy. An eyeball falls out of the dry socket of an incensed celebration chief, throughout a leftist committee assembly the place a room of largely white males resolve to desert a complete neighborhood of Black supporters in the title of political expediency. A younger, unarmed Black man dies by the hands of a white policeman, gunned down in the road for a criminal offense no larger than the unlicensed sale of dancing paper dolls. And Ellison’s narrator, his Invisible Man, writes all of this Ellison’s novel is his character’s memoir — from his underground retreat in an deserted coal cellar someplace “in a border area” of Harlem, illuminated, he tells us, by exactly 1,369 gentle bulbs.

From Ellison’s clipping file, a March 1946 article in The Amsterdam News on blindfolded boxers.Credit…Ralph Ellison Papers, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress. Courtesy of The Ralph and Fanny Ellison Charitable Trust.

In 1948, Ellison revealed an excerpt from his novel in progress, the episode of the blindfolded battle royal, in a journal referred to as ’48: The Magazine of the Year. In these pages, which might turn into, 4 years later, Chapter One of the revealed novel, Ellison generates dissonance between the fanciful particulars of the scene (essentially the most startling of which is the electrified carpet) and his naturalistic consideration to his characters’ bodily capabilities (they sweat and bleed and even turn into sexually aroused, although that final element was excluded from the revealed excerpt). Enough readers questioned if the story was, in the phrases of the publication’s editors, “grounded in actual experience” for them to ask its creator to put in writing an explanatory observe, revealed 4 months later underneath the title “Ralph Ellison Explains.” “The facts themselves are of no moment,” he writes. “The aim is a realism dilated to deal with the almost surreal state of our everyday American life …” With this declaration of literary independence, Ellison calls for two exceptional issues: that he, and by extension that different Black writers, be granted the total and free train of their imaginations; and that realism should essentially broaden to comprise the absurdity of on a regular basis American life underneath segregation and white supremacy: “For all life seen from the hole of invisibility is absurd,” observes Ellison’s protagonist in the novel’s epilogue.

Dilating realism, in different phrases, means opening up an area in one’s fiction to succeed in a verisimilitude of feeling inaccessible via a direct account of incident alone. This strategy has radical and needed worth for Black writers and writers from different communities for whom the normative patterns of literary illustration fail to account for his or her lived expertise. It’s a technique of understanding why Octavia E. Butler invokes time journey to revisit the ravages of slavery in “Kindred” (1979). It illuminates Ishmael Reed’s fugitive slave novel, “Flight to Canada” (1976), which broadens its narrative body via wild anachronisms — his characters take business airline flights, they watch tv information, they take care of the publishing trade, with expertise brokers — in order that the reader can’t neglect that the evils of racism and white supremacy nonetheless canine us.

Ralph and his spouse, Fanny McConnell Ellison, with copies of “Invisible Man,” circa 1952.Credit…Ralph Ellison Papers, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. Courtesy of The Ralph and Fanny Ellison Charitable Trust. Photo: Layne’s Studio.

In spite of important acclaim and business success — “Invisible Man” was a nationwide greatest vendor and earned Ellison the 1953 National Book Award, beating out Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea” — Ellison continued to face criticism from those that rejected a novel that didn’t play by the principles. Reviewing for The Atlantic, Charles J. Rolo praised the guide however argued that “it has faults which cannot simply be shrugged off,” essentially the most damning of which is “a tendency to waver, confusingly, between realism and surrealism.” But this wavering is exactly Ellison’s level. Four years after the novel’s publication, Ellison answered a letter from a professor at a small New Jersey faculty who requested in regards to the novel’s narrative fashion: “If you go back to the beginning of the book you will notice, after the Prologue, that the action starts on a fairly naturalistic level,” Ellison explains. “The hero accepts society and his predicament seems ‘right’ but as he moves through his experiences they become progressively more, for the want of a better word, ‘surrealistic.’ Nothing is as it seems and in the fluidity of society strange juxtapositions lend a quality of nightmare.”

ONE OF THE MOST NIGHTMARISH — and subsequently most surreal — scenes comes close to the novel’s finish. The closing chapter begins with gunshots — “like a distant celebration of the Fourth of July” — in retaliation for the homicide of Tod Clifton, a charismatic Black youth chief of the Brotherhood who was shot to demise in Midtown Manhattan by a white policeman. Following Clifton’s demise, Ellison’s protagonist leads the funeral procession and delivers the eulogy for his slain buddy, repeating his title again and again to the gang. “The story’s too short and too simple,” he says. “His name was Clifton, Tod Clifton, he was unarmed and his death was as senseless as his life was futile.”

As evening descends on the town, the individuals stand up, some in anger over Clifton’s homicide; some impressed by the protagonist’s oration; some incited by Ras the Exhorter, now the Destroyer, a magnetic Pan-African neighborhood chief who opposes the Brotherhood — particularly the protagonist, whom he sees as a race traitor — and channels the individuals’s rage as a weapon; others take to the streets merely to revel in the chaos. As his anonymous narrator walks via Harlem, Ellison floods our senses with impressionistic photographs, illusions that by no means fairly resolve into tangible kind. Looters push a financial institution protected via the streets amid energetic gunfire between protesters and police; a ricocheting bullet grazes the narrator, who passes a lifeless man mendacity in the road, a crowd gathering across the corpse; a milk wagon, pulled by a number of males, turns into a makeshift throne upon which “a huge woman in a gingham pinafore sat drinking beer from a barrel” belting out the blues; pale and bare feminine figures suspended from lampposts, a macabre spectacle, reveal themselves to be store-window mannequins hanged in effigy.

Gordon Parks’s photograph “Harlem Rooftops, Harlem, New York” (1948), from Ralph Ellison’s papers on the Library of Congress.Credit…© The Gordon Parks Foundation. Ralph Ellison Papers, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. Courtesy of The Ralph and Fanny Ellison Charitable Trust.

In maybe the novel’s best dilation of actuality, Ras makes his means via the streets of Harlem on horseback, dressed as “an Abyssinian chieftain” and brandishing a spear towards the white policemen. Ras, the narrator observes, is a “figure more out of a dream than out of Harlem, than out of even this Harlem night, yet real, alive, alarming.” When Ras sees Invisible Man, he cries out “Betrayer!” launching the spear at him, lacking large. The narrator makes one closing rhetorical attraction to the gang, however quickly realizes its futility — “I had no words and no eloquence.” He is shocked, in the end, into consciousness. With Ras calling for his demise, the narrator finds his fingers on the spear. Reality and symbolism collapse upon each other. The narrator lets the spear fly and he watches it rip via Ras’s cheeks, locking his jaws. Ras wrestles with the spear because the narrator flees the uncanny scene.

All of this, nevertheless, could be too tidy a decision — the hero vanquishing his antagonist, claiming his personal identification as an invisible man — for a guide as defiant as this. Just because the novel’s focus closes in on the protagonist, Ellison expands the body. Still wandering the streets, the narrator overhears a dialog amongst a small group of Black males; unnoticed, he stays to hear. Over the following a number of pages, the lads move a bottle forwards and backwards as they speak and shout and snicker about Ras and the riot, conjuring tall tales out of tragic circumstances. Some of the strains learn just like the supply materials for Redd Foxx and Richard Pryor stand-up riffs: the Black Everyman as wry observer of the foibles each of white of us and his personal of us. “I was drinking me some Budweiser and digging the doings,” considered one of these down-home rants begins, “when here comes the cops up the street, riding like cowboys, man; and when ole Ras-the-what’s-his-name sees ’em he lets out a roar like a lion and rears way back and starts shooting spurs into that hoss’s ass fast as nickels falling in the subway at going-home time — and gaawd-dam! that’s when you ought to seen him! Say, gimme a taste there, fella.” With chaos, even demise, across the nook, these males are one way or the other nonetheless relaxed. As readers, it places us relaxed, too, the humor serving to metabolize the surreal scene that precedes it by bringing it inside the command of the tragicomic eloquence of those street-corner chroniclers. It baffles the protagonist. “Why did they make it seem funny, only funny?” he wonders.

Ralph Ellison, photographed at residence in New York City, in 1986.Credit…Keith Meyers/The New York Times

IT TOOK ME UNTIL 2021, on maybe my 40th time via the guide, to offer this passage the eye it deserves. Opening my tattered copy of “Invisible Man,” the identical one I carried with me up these manor home steps greater than half my life in the past, my notes seem as palimpsest: layers of considering and rethinking, circles and underlines, query marks and exclamation factors written in a riot of pencil and ink. But I left these pages in the guide clean, whether or not out of puzzlement or neglect. Reading them at present, I notice that I now see myself in Ellison greater than in his protagonist.

In these pages Ellison understands — I believe I do, too — one thing that his protagonist doesn’t: that these males are exercising their tragicomic consciousness of life, a capability to comprise chaos and to not fall sufferer to nihilism. Their laughter is important gear for residing whereas Black in America, one thing the narrator should write his memoir to be taught — one thing that Ellison himself needed to be taught. In a long-labored-upon essay titled “An Extravagance of Laughter,” revealed in “Going to the Territory,” Ellison recollects his personal expertise confronting Jim Crow racism as a school pupil in Alabama throughout the 1930s. “My problem,” he writes, “was that I couldn’t completely dismiss such experiences with laughter. I brooded and tried to make sense of it beyond that provided by our ancestral wisdom.”

“Invisible Man” calls for to be learn, then, not solely as an indictment of white supremacy’s obliterating gaze, however as a tall story that dilates our body of actuality to entertain us, and by entertaining us maybe to avoid wasting us. During a 1955 interview with The Paris Review, Ellison responded with exasperation at his interviewers’ self-serious line of questioning about his novel. “Look,” he lastly asks, “didn’t you find the book at all funny?” When questioned by those self same interviewers about whether or not his novel would nonetheless be learn in 20 years, Ellison was doubtful. “It’s not an important novel … many of the immediate issues are rapidly fading away.”

Behind this humility is a exceptional declare. Ellison believed — as somebody who grew up in segregation maybe he needed to imagine — that the situations his novel exposes (racial discrimination, the erasure of Black identification, the failings of American democracy) may quickly enhance to the purpose that the guide would now not resonate. Almost 70 years after his novel’s publication and practically 30 years after his demise, we now know what Ellison couldn’t: that most of the situations he described haven’t solely continued however propagated. This reality, together with Ellison’s timeless expertise, is why the novel endures. Its energy lies in the way it confronts racism and white supremacy with a realism that dilates to comprise the surreal nature of American life. It lies in its blues-toned understanding of how individuals endure and even make magnificence out of brutal expertise by, as Ellison elsewhere describes it, selecting “to finger its jagged grain, and to transcend it, not by the consolation of philosophy but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism.” This is the problem that “Invisible Man” units out. And it’s this which frightens me: Who is aware of however that, on the decrease frequencies, it speaks for us?