Critical Overview

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 772

Invisible Man was published to instant acclaim, though its complexity did not necessarily make it an easy read. Writing in Commentary in 1952 Saul Bellow called it ‘‘a book of the very first order, a superb book,’’ praising in particular the episode in which Jim Trueblood tells his tale of incest to Mr. Norton. ‘‘One is accustomed to expect excellent novels about boys, but a modern novel about men is exceedingly rare.’’ Anthony West wrote in The New Yorker that Invisible Man was ‘‘an exceptionally good book and in parts an extremely funny one’’ and praised its ‘‘robust courage,’’ though he recommended skipping the Prologue and Epilogue and ‘‘certain expressionist passages conveniently printed in italics.’’ Like Bellow, West congratulated Ellison on having written a book ‘‘about being colored in a white society [that] yet manages not to be a grievance book’’ and noted Ellison's ‘‘real satirical gift for handling ideas at the level of low comedy.’’ In his study Native Sons, Edward Margolies noted the importance of jazz and the blues to the narrative and commented that what Ellison ‘‘seems to be saying [is] that if men recognize first that existence is purposeless, they may then be able to perceive the possibility of shaping their existence in some kind of viable form—in much the same manner as the blues artist gives form to his senseless pain and suffering.’’ However, Margolies bemoaned the thematic weakness of the novel, which is that ‘‘Ellison's hero simply has nowhere to go once he tells us he is invisible.’’ In a 1963 article in Dissent, Irving Howe called the novel a brilliant though flawed achievement. ‘‘No white man could have written it, since no white man could know with such intimacy the life of the Negroes from the inside; yet Ellison writes with an ease and humor which are now and again simply miraculous.’’

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The style of the novel has occasionally been criticized as excessive—Howe found Ellison ‘‘literary to a fault’’—but even the novel's critics found much to praise in the symbolism, style, and narrative structure. Opinion was divided over the section dealing with the Brotherhood. West called it ‘‘perhaps the best description of rank-and-file Communist Party activity that has yet appeared in an American novel,’’ but Bellow found it less than convincing, and Howe wrote that ‘‘Ellison makes his Stalinist figures so vicious and stupid that one cannot understand how they could ever have attracted him or any other Negro.’’

The biggest controversy over the book has always had to do with whether or not it was intended for a universal audience. Bellow praised Ellison for not having ‘‘adopted a minority tone. If he had done so, he would have failed to establish a true middle-of-consciousness for everyone.’’ Howe felt rather that ‘‘even Ellison cannot help being caught up with the idea of the Negro … for plight and protest are inseparable from that experience,’’ though he did not say whether this was good or bad. Warren French asserts in Reference Guide to American Fiction that the book has frequently been misread: it is neither unique to the black experience nor ‘‘picaresque,’’ but both broader and more sophisticated. David Littlejohn straddled the debate, called Invisible Man ‘‘essentially a Negro's novel … written entirely out of a Negro's experience, … [b]ut it is not a ‘Negro novel.’ … It is his story, really, not the race's, not the war's, except insofar as he is of the race and in the war.’’ Black nationalists argued that Ellison was not stringent enough, and John Oliver Killens and Amiri Baraka were particularly vocal critics. Ellison's defense was that he had never been a propagandist.

In 1953, Invisible Man was awarded the National Book Award for fiction. But controversy over what it meant and to whom continued. In his preface to the 1981 commemorative edition of the novel, Charles Johnson, whose Middle Passage won the National Book Award in 1990, remembers a time in the 1960s when ‘‘both Ellison and poet Robert Hayden were snubbed by those under the spell of black cultural nationalism, and when so many black critics denied the idea of ‘universality’ in literature and life.’’ This attitude was largely reversed during the 1970s when white critics tired of waiting for Ellison's hypothetical second novel and black readers began to be more appreciative of the book's portrayal of black experience. Whatever the nature of the critical debate, Invisible Man has proved its staying power. Leonard Deutsch wrote that for all its brutal realism and cynicism, Invisible Man ‘‘is basically a comic and celebratory work, for the hero is ultimately better off at the end: he has become the shaping artist of his tale.’’

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