In modern American letters, the development of African American literature has followed a zigzag course. The literary movement of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920’s saw the flourishing of black writing, but the Great Depression dealt it a serious blow. The popularity and success of Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940) and Black Boy: A Record of Childhood and Youth (1945) resurrected African American literature in the 1940’s. The emergence of Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin in the 1950’s helped push the development of African American literature to a new height. Invisible Man, the only novel that Ellison published, won the National Book Award for fiction in 1953. In a Book Week poll of two hundred critics and writers in 1965, the book was voted the “most distinguished single work” published between 1945 and 1965 in the United States.
Besides drawing inspiration from Wright’s works, Ellison was also influenced by T. S. Eliot’s insistence upon the importance of tradition. Wright’s use of lengthy sentences, rapid flow of consciousness conveyed by a string of participles, and long lists of abstract nouns joined together by overworked conjunctions in Invisible Man reminds the reader of William Faulkner’s writing style. Ellison’s originality, however, lies in his skillful depiction and enthusiastic celebration of African American culture. Ellison believed that black vernacular, black folklore, and black music were highly developed cultural forms that helped shape the mainstream culture in America. African American writers who either looked down upon or ignored their own cultural heritage in their writings were often trapped in using stereotypes to portray African American experience; a conscious study and celebration of African American culture could release them from the bondage of stereotypes.
In Invisible Man, Ellison took pains to exploit African American culture to the fullest. His portrayal of Rinehart, for example, follows the trickster tradition in African American literature. Rinehart has several identities: He is a lover, a numbers runner, a preacher, and a con man. Meeting Rinehart helps the narrator understand why his grandfather had two identities: a public one (false) and a private one (real). It also makes him realize that the relationship between having an identity and not having an identity is dialectical: A person’s invisibility also gives that person an opportunity to create and adopt whichever identity he or she would like to have.
Ellison’s use of black-oriented humor in Invisible Man produces an effect similar to that of the blues. According to Ellison, blues is an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one’s aching consciousness, “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.” Ellison revealed that several of the book’s themes and motifs were inspired by jokes that circulated among African Americans. The theme of invisibility, for instance, was developed from the joke that some blacks were so black they could not be seen in the dark. The paint factory’s slogan If It’s Optic White, It’s the Right White originated from another joke: “If you’re black, stay back; if you’re brown, stick around; if you’re white, you’re right.”
Invisible Man reverberates with the lyrical, musical, and rhythmic cadence of black English. Ellison borrowed phrases freely from different sources and used them effectively to accentuate his thematic concerns. Invisible Man abounds with phrases and sentences such as “I’ll verse you but I won’t curse you—,” “I yam what I am!” and “Stephen’s problem, like ours, was not actually one of creating the uncreated conscience of his race, but of creating the uncreated features of his face.” The first part of the last sentence is taken from James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1914-1915) and the second part is added by the author with a bearing on the theme of the book.
The tone of Invisible Man is bitter, ironic, and sometimes pessimistic. The style is vivid and flexible. When commenting on the style of the book, Ellison said: “In the South, where he (the protagonist) was trying to fit into a traditional pattern and where his sense of certainty had not yet been challenged, I felt a more naturalistic treatment was adequate.”
As the hero passes from the South to the North, from the relatively stable to the swiftly changing, “his sense of certainty is lost and the style becomes expressionistic.” Later on, “during his fall from grace in the Brotherhood it becomes somewhat surrealistic.” Surrealism permits itself to develop nonlogically in order to reveal the operation of the subconscious mind. Ellison’s use of incongruous images in Invisible Man works well with his thematic accentuation of the protagonist’s phantasmal state of mind and the chaotic state of society.
Even though Invisible Man is about African American experience, the novel illuminates the common plight of people who are in earnest search for their true identity. Ellison’s thematic treatment of the conflict between dream and reality, between individual and society, and between innocence and experience appeals to both black and white readers. This thematic concern is highlighted by the fact that the book opens with the narrator’s claiming that his invisibility is not “exactly a matter of a biochemical accident to” his “epidermis” and it ends with the narrator’s making a foreboding declaration to the reader: “Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?”