Ellison, Ralph 1914–
Ellison, a Black American, won the National Book Award in 1952 for his first novel Invisible Man. He has since published essays, stories, and parts of a second novel. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 11-12.)
Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man is a series of episodes, but the screaming crescendo on which the book opens—the hero in his Harlem cellar, all the stolen lights ablaze, collaring the reader and forcing him to notice and to hear—is an unforgettably powerful expression, at the extreme of racial experience, of the absurdity, the feeling of millions that the world is always just out of their reach.
Alfred Kazin, "The Alone Generation," in Harper's, October, 1959, pp. 127-31.
Ellison's Invisible Man is comic … almost in spite of its overtly satirical interests and its excursions into the broadly farcical. Humorous as many of its episodes are in themselves—the surreal hysteria of the scene at the Golden Day, the hero's employment at the Liberty Paint Company, or the expert dissection of political entanglements in Harlem—these are the materials which clothe Ellison's joke and which, in turn, suggest the shape by which the joke can be comprehended. The pith of Ellison's comedy reverberates on a level much deeper than these incidents, and as in all true humor, the joke affirms and denies simultaneously—accepts and rejects with the same uncompromising passion, leaving not a self-cancelling neutralization of momentum, but a sphere of moral conquest, a humanized cone of light at the very heart of the heart of darkness. Invisible Man, as Ellison has needlessly insisted in rebuttal to those critics who would treat the novel as fictionalized sociology or as a dramatization of archetypal images, is an artist's attempt to create a form….
Invisible Man achieves an expert evocation of that "mid-kingdom," that demimonde of constant metamorphosis where good and evil, appearance and reality, pattern and chaos are continually shifting their shapes even as the eye strains to focus and the imagination to comprehend. The Kafkaesque surrealism of the novel's action, the thematic entwinement of black-white and dark-light, and the psychic distance from the plot-development which the use of the Prologue and the Epilogue achieves posit the moral center of the novel in that fluid area where experience is in the very process of being transformed into value. The narrator, the author, and the reader as well are caught in the "mid-kingdom" which seems to me to be the characteristic and unavoidable focus of American literature. For this mid-kingdom, this unutterable silence which is "zero at the bone," seems to me to be the one really inalienable birthright of being an American.
Earl H. Rovit, "Ralph Ellison and the American Comic Tradition," in Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 1, No. 1, 1960 (© 1960 by the Regents of the University of Wisconsin).
Anger and art: these are … the poles which define Ellison's pursuit of the old question of an American Negro identity, masks black or white shimmering in a vortex of light. For there is nothing simple, nothing that does not reek of violence and betrayal, in this question of identity; nothing that can be resolved in the spirit of liberal generosity or romantic primitivism….
Ellison, who has the formal sense of a jazz musician and the instinct of a singer of blues, understands that anger or agony is transient without art. Turbulence, in private or political life, amounts to a denial of the dignity of man. To acknowledge the innate dignity of mankind is also to reconcile the idea of freedom prescribed in the founding political documents of America with the violence of a Harlem race riot. The act of reconciliation is an action of what Ellison calls Mind, a fact of form. The "Negro question" becomes a question of determining the essence of the human in a way that the questioning and tormented Mind can grasp. This, if any, is the artistic credo of Ellison. The credo is one that requires him to exploit the resources of irony. And it prompts him … to draw upon the healing powers of the American joke and Negro blues.
The world of Invisible Man is vividly real and surreal, charged with insane violence and crazy humor. It is a world of magic transformations, for nothing in it is exactly what it seems…. Acceptance, humiliation, and rebellion—these are the emotions we sometimes associate with the various characters. But in this phantasmagoria of fact and fiction, no character is solid or stable enough—they are sleepwalkers all, captives of their particular illusion, hence grotesques in the sense Sherwood Anderson gave to that word—no character is "real" enough to make his emotions hold more than a fragment of reality. For the simple and astounding fact of the novel is this: no one is more visible than the invisible hero, no one is visible to another.
Ihab Hassan, in his Radical Innocence: Studies in the Contemporary American Novel (© 1961 by Princeton University Press; Princeton Paperback, 1971; reprinted by permission of Princeton University Press), Princeton University Press, 1961, pp. 168-70.
[As one of several consequences of its circularity,] Invisible Man has many endings. The novel sets out to gain clarity but no new discovery. Its ending is in its beginning. Therefore, with every gain in illumination, the novel concludes. There is a constant increase of wattage, but what is to be seen remains the same. And then the consequence of that fact is that—except in the Prologue and the Epilogue to the novel, where the hero speaks in time present and out of all his experience—the hero is fitted with a perceptiveness that is far inferior to Ellison's. Or, if not always, that becomes a fault. He is sometimes an ingénu, sometimes a naïve Gulliver when gullibility should be impossible, sometimes, suddenly, the author. There is a constant struggle between the two, Ellison straining not to let his protagonist know too much because that will give the book away, and sometimes failing. And finally the consequence of this latter fact is that a great deal of the novel is in a great density of symbols and puns. They don't, as the danger is, clog the action. They do contain the material. But they don't always contribute to the material. Because the hero can't know too much, because every discovery risks being the last discovery, because Ellison knows very well what each of his hero's experiences comes to, much of the hero's experience is converted into tantalizing hieroglyphics. The puns, which should be devices of compression, mount on each other and, like the major episodes of the novel, they tend each of them to tell the same and the whole story.
But then if at the end Ellison cops a plea—"what else could I do? What else but try to tell you what was really happening when your eyes were looking through?"—his plea is in every way valid. The novel's task is just the preception of obvious repeated facts which no one sees. The task itself must be constantly emphasized and repeated in a great variety of ironic symbols, because that is a dramatic necessity in the nature of the task. The repetition is the proof that the task is authentic. The hero is first a high-school boy in a Southern town, then a college student at a Negro university, then briefly, a laborer in a Northern factory, then a leader in what in the novel is called the Brotherhood, and finally an underground man. That is his whole story, all of it devoted to one struggle which is perpetual and obsessive because all his experience does really come to the same thing, an unremitting and fruitless attempt to achieve visibility. The book is filled by a lifetime of events, all of them leading back to the same meaning….
The constant technical flaw in Invisible Man is that it so frequently comes to an end, and Ellison is put at every point to a greater muscularity to make the next scene more intense, more thoroughly revealing of what has already been largely revealed. It is the concomitant of that flaw that Invisible Man is a death-driven novel. Its movement is to confirm again and again that the hero doesn't exist, and Ellison's difficulty, to put it another way, is to resurrect the hero for each subsequent adventure. The novel's series of ironic negations is, after all, a series of negatives. It can and does reach its last possibility….
It is the huge achievement of Invisible Man, meanwhile, that it has got a vastness of experience as Negroes particularly must know it—there can be very little that it has left out—into a single meaning. The novel creates a negative metaphor, invisibility, that is fully analytic and fully inclusive, that does hold together for a moment the long experience of chaos that has met Ellison's vision.
Marcus Klein, "Ralph Ellison" (© 1964 by World Publishing Co.; reprinted by permission), in his After Alienation, World Publishing, 1964.
Ellison is a writer of the first magnitude—one of those original talents who has created a personal idiom to convey his personal vision. It is an idiom compounded of fantasy, distortion, and burlesque, highly imaginative and generally surrealistic in effect. It possesses at bottom a certain mythic quality….
Though not in the narrow sense a political novel, Invisible Man is based on a cultivated political understanding of the modern world. The first half of the novel portrays the disillusionment of the protagonist with the shibboleths of American capitalism—a social system which he apprehends through the institutional structure of the Southern Negro college. The latter half treats of his disillusionment with Stalinism, which he encounters through a revolutionary organization known as the Brotherhood. By means of this carefully controlled parallel development, Ellison penetrates to the heart of the two great illusions of his time….
In the end, Ellison succeeds brilliantly in rendering blackness visible. By far the best novel yet written by an American Negro, Invisible Man is quite possibly the best American novel since World War II. In any event, Ellison has set a high standard for contemporary Negro fiction.
Robert A. Bone, in his The Negro Novel in America, Yale University Press, revised edition, 1965, pp. 196-212.
I hesitate to call Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man … a Negro novel, though of course it is written by a Negro and is centrally concerned with the experiences of a Negro. The appellation is not so much inaccurate as it is misleading. A novelist treating the invisibility and phantasmagoria of the Negro's life in this "democracy" is, if he tells the truth, necessarily writing a very special kind of book. Yet if his novel is interesting only because of its specialness, he has not violated the surface of his subject; he has not, after all, been serious. Despite the differences in their external concerns, Ellison has more in common as a novelist with Joyce, Melville, Camus, Kafka, West, and Faulkner than he does with other serious Negro writers like James Baldwin and Richard Wright. To concentrate on the idiom of a serious novel, no matter how distinctive its peculiarities, is to depreciate it, to minimize the universality of its implications. Though the protagonist of Invisible Man is a southern Negro, he is, in Ellison's rendering, profoundly all of us.
Despite its obvious social implications, Ellison's novel is a modern gothic, a Candide-like picaresque set in a dimly familiar nightmare landscape called the United States. Like The Catcher in the Rye, A Member of the Wedding, and The Adventures of Augie March, Ellison's novel chronicles a series of initiatory experiences, through which its naïve hero learns, to his disillusion and horror, the way of the world. However, unlike these other novels of passage, Invisible Man takes place, for the most part, in the uncharted spaces between the conscious and the verges on reality and the external world has all the unconscious, in the semilit darkness where nightmare aspects of a disturbing dream. Refracted by satire, at times, cartooned, Ellison's world is at once surreal and real, comic and tragic, grotesque and normal—our world viewed in its essentials rather than its externals. (p. 68)
Since Ellison is at once prodigiously talented and prodigiously reckless, Invisible Man is astonishingly good at its best. By the same token the book is uneven; on occasion it is very bad as only very good novels can be. Given the nature of his vision, Ellison's world seems real—or alive—when it is surrealistically distorted, and for the most part made-up or abstract—when it imitates the real world. (pp. 77-8)
Much of the experience in Ellison's novel is externally imposed; that is, each scene, through allusive reference, is made to carry a burden of implication beyond that generated by its particular experience. Consequently the weight of the novel, its profound moral seriousness, resides primarily in conception rather than rendering. Given the problem of transforming large abstractions into evocative experiences, Ellison is nevertheless able more often than not to create occasions resonant enough to accommodate his allegorical purposes. Finally, one senses that the novel, for all its picaresque variety of incident, has a curiously static quality. This is not because the episodes are the same or even similar—on the contrary, one is compelled to admire the range and resourcefulness of Ellison's imaginative constructions—but because they are all extensions of the same externally imposed idea; they all mean approximately the same thing. (p. 85)
Jonathan Baumbach, "Nightmare of a Native Son: Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison," in his The Landscape of Nightmare: Studies in the Contemporary American Novel, New York University Press, 1965.
Ellison [has portrayed in Invisible Man,] perhaps the best balanced and most complete and comprehensive image of the American Negro that has yet been presented by any contemporary writer. Some realism, some pessimism, a considerable amount of disillusionment, some bitter irony and satire, and even some hate are all found in this unusual novel. But since Ellison is definitely a romanticist and an optimist, some humor, some hope, and some love are also found in it.
Therman B. O'Daniel, "The Image of Man as Portrayed by Ralph Ellison," in CLA Journal, No. 10, 1967.
Ellison's novel [Invisible Man] is written in the picaresque tradition, and it goes far beyond strictly racial themes. Invisible Man is, in fact, an American odyssey which captures the whole of the American experience and reflects an employment of the best American literary traditions. The protagonist is not only a black man, but also a complex American searching for the reality of existence in a technological society characterized by swift change. Ellison's protagonist is perhaps the best example of the multifaceted, complex, Americanized black character…; and the acclaim which Invisible Man has received offers more than ample evidence of the broader and more complex audience available to the black writer.
Houston A. Baker, Jr., in his Black Literature in America, McGraw, 1971, p. 16.