Critical Overview

(Short Stories for Students)

Standing as the first chapter of Ellison's 1952 novel Invisible Man, ‘‘The Invisible Man’’ (a.k.a. ‘‘Battle Royal’’ or ‘‘Smoker’’) shares in critics' emphatic acclaim for the novel and the subsequent rise of the novel to fundamental literary importance. The story first appeared as "The Invisible Man'' in the October, 1947 issue of the British literary periodical The Horizon (edited by Cyril Connolly). In adapting the story to the first chapter of the novel, Ellison made some minor alterations and added three final sentences to the story:

It was a dream I was to remember and dream again for many years after. But at the time I had no insight into its meaning. First I had to attend college.

The critical review of the 1952 novel was immediately appreciative; Wright Morris reviewed the book in the New York Times on April 13, 1952, and wrote, ‘‘With this book the author maps a course from the underground world into the light. Invisible Man belongs on the shelf with classical efforts man has made to chart the river Lethe from its mouth to its source.’’

Irving Howe reviewed the novel for The Nation, giving it a generally favorable review while criticizing its facile appeal to an "unqualified assertion of individuality.’’ Howe begins the review with a description of the opening chapter, "The beginning is nightmare. A Negro boy, timid and compliant, comes to a white smoker in a Southern town. Together with several other Negroes he is rushed to the front of the ballroom, where a sumptuous blonde tantalizes and frightens them by dancing in the nude. Blindfolded, the Negro boys stage a 'battle royal,' a free-for-all in which they pummel each other to the drunken shouts of the whites.’’

Saul Bellow, in his review of the novel in Commentary, mentions having read ‘‘The Battle Royal’’ scene in Horizon five years before. Bellow writes: ‘‘A few years ago, in an otherwise dreary and better forgotten number of Horizon devoted to a louse-up of a life in the United States, I read with great excitement an episode from Invisible Man. It described a free-for-all of blindfolded Negro boys at a stag party of the leading citizens of a small Southern town . . . This episode, I thought, might well be the high point of an excellent novel. It has turned out to be not the high point but rather one of the many peaks of a book of the very first order, a superb book.’’

Much criticism of the novel echoes Bellow's endorsement that Ellison shuns a "minority tone'' in his writing. The last sentence of the novel's "Epilogue'' draws attention to the universal reach of the narrator's voice: "Who knows but that, on lower frequencies, I speak for you.’’ Saul Bellow's early review represents this approach in according Ellison a general, humanistic voice that speaks to more than just the experience of race. Bellow writes: ‘‘... keenly aware, as I read this book, of a very significant kind of independence in the writing. For there is a way for Negro novelists to go at their problems, just as there are Jewish or Italian ways. Mr. Ellison has not adopted a minority tone. If he had done so, he would have failed to establish a true middle-of-consciousness for everyone.'' While such a move toward humanistic value is possibly meant to be a compliment and to demonstrate the importance of the...

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