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...
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