Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Invisible Man quickly gained recognition as a landmark of African American, and American, literature on publication in 1952. Together with James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), it was taken to signal a black literary renaissance, a breakthrough from supposed “Negro protest fiction” such as Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940), Ann Petry’s The Street (1946), or Chester Himes’s Lonely Crusade (1947). Supported by writers such as Saul Bellow as well as by a host of fellow black writers, Ellison won, among other major prizes, the National Book Award for Invisible Man.

There has long been agreement that the novel represents a pinnacle of African American literary achievement, with perhaps Jean Toomer’s Cane (1923), Native Son, Go Tell It on the Mountain, and Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon (1977) as matching companion pieces. Its rich, startling ventriloquy, command of image, and skillful use of vernacular ensure a rare feast of narration. Such qualities carried over into Ellison’s essay work, too, as collected in Shadow and Act (1964) and Going to the Territory (1986). Occasionally, well-meant talk has arisen of a “School of Ellison,” composed, among others, of such writers as Leon Forrest, Toni Morrison, John Wideman, Clarence Major, Ishmael Reed, and James Alan McPherson. Ellison, however, remained resolutely his own man, and Invisible Man remains the upshot of a uniquely endowed imagination.