Ellison, Ralph (Vol. 3)
Ellison, Ralph 1914–
A Black American whose reputation as a major novelist still rests on Invisible Man, his first and only novel, Ellison is also a short story writer and essayist. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)
What astonishes one most about Invisible Man is the apparent freedom it displays from the ideological and emotional penalties suffered by Negroes in this country—I say "apparent" because the freedom is not quite so complete as the book's admirers like to suppose. Still, for long stretches Invisible Man does escape the formulas of protest, local color, genre quaintness and jazz chatter. 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….
Ellison has an abundance of that primary talent without which neither craft nor intelligence can save a novelist: he is richly, wildly inventive; his scenes rise and dip with tension, his people bleed, his language sings. No other writer has captured so much of the hidden gloom and surface gaiety of Negro life….
The observation is expert: he knows exactly how zootsuiters walk, making stylization their principle of life, and exactly how the antagonism between American and West Indian Negroes works itself out in speech and humor. He can accept his people as they are, in their blindness and hope:—here, finally, the Negro world does exist, seemingly apart from plight or protest. And in the final scene Ellison has created an unforgettable image: "Ras the Destroyer," a Negro nationalist, appears on a horse dressed in the costume of an Abyssinian chieftain, carrying spear and shield, and charging wildly into the police—a black Quixote, mad, absurd, unbearably pathetic.
Irving Howe, in his A World More Attractive: A View of Modern Literature and Politics (© 1963; reprinted by permission of the publisher, Horizon Press, New York), Horizon, 1963, pp. 112-14.
Because he refuses to join the chants for "black power," Ellison is sometimes dismissed as an "Uncle Tom"; but since his temper is hardly servile or humble and he has the courage of his convictions, often to the point of personal pain, as well as refuses to repress his anger, and has long supported the cause, that derogatory stereotype is no more appropriate than other reductionist clichés. Ellison does not deny that injustice, discrimination, hypocrisy, and poverty all exist; but he insists, partly from personal experience, that these disadvantages are not as totally determining as certain social commentators make them out to be.
Richard Kostelanetz, "Ralph Ellison: Novelist as Brown-Skinned Aristocrat," in Shenandoah (copyright by Shenandoah; reprinted from Shenandoah: The Washington and Lee University Review with the permission of the Editor), Summer, 1969, pp. 56-77.
Threatened by his own unfolding personality as much as by the whites, the Negro learns to camouflage, to dissimulate, to retreat behind a protective mask. There is magic in it: the mask is a means of warding off the vengeance of the gods….
In his own prose, Ellison employs various masking devices, including understatement, irony, double entendre, and calculated ambiguity. There is something deliberately elusive in his style, something secret and taunting, some instinctive avoidance of explicit statement which is close in spirit to the blues. His fascination with masquerade gives us two memorable characters in Invisible Man: the narrator's grandfather, whose mask of meekness conceals a stubborn resistance to white supremacy, and Rinehart, whom Ellison describes as "an American virtuoso of identity who thrives on chaos and swift change"…. A master of disguise, Rinehart survives by manipulating the illusions of society, much in the tradition of Melville's Confidence Man, Twain's Duke and Dauphin, and Mann's Felix Krull.
Masking, which begins as a defensive gesture, becomes in Ellison's hands a means of altering reality. For if reality is a process of becoming, that process can be partially controlled through manipulation of a ritual object, or mask….
Naming likewise has its origin in negation, in the white man's hypocritical denial of his kinship ties….
Having been misnamed by others, the American Negro has attempted from the first to define himself. This persistent effort at self-definition is the animating principle of Negro culture….
For personal as well as historical reasons, Ellison is fascinated by the distinction between one's given and achieved identity. Named for a famous poet, it was half a lifetime before he could define, let alone accept, the burden of his given name. Acknowledging in retrospect the prescience of his father, he speaks of "the suggestive power of names and the magic involved in naming"…. We are dealing here with the ritual use of language, with the pressure which language can exert upon reality. This is the special province of the poet, and broadly speaking Ellison claims it as his own. He regards the novel as an act of ritual naming; the novelist, as a "moralist-designate" who names the central moral issues of his time.
"The poet," writes Ralph Waldo Emerson, "is the Namer or Language-maker." As such, he is the custodian of his language and the guarantor of its integrity. In performance of this function, Ellison has discovered that the language of contemporary America is in certain ways corrupt…. The bursting forth of Negro personality from the fixed boundaries of southern life is Ellison's essential theme. And it is this, at bottom, that attracts him to the transcendentalists….
Ellison's debt to transcendentalism is manifold, but what is not acknowledged can easily be surmised. He is named, to begin with, for Ralph Waldo Emerson. In this connection he mentions two specific influences: the "Concord Hymn" and "Self Reliance." The poem presumably inspires him with its willingness to die that one's children may be free; the essay, as we shall see, governs his attitude toward Negro culture. He admires Thoreau, plainly enough, for his stand on civil disobedience and his militant defense of John Brown. Whitman is congenial, for such poems as "The Open Road" and "Passage to India" are squarely in the picaresque tradition.
In broader terms, it may be said that Ellison's ontology derives from transcendentalism. One senses in his work an unseen reality behind the surfaces of things. Hence his fascination with guises and disguises, with the con man and the trickster. Hence the felt dichotomy between visible and invisible, public and private, actual and fictive modes of reality. His experience as a Negro no doubt reinforces his ironic awareness of "the joke that always lies between appearance and reality" … and turns him toward an inner world that lies beyond the reach of insult or oppression. This world may be approached by means of the imagination; it is revealed during the transcendent moment in jazz or the epiphany in literature. Transcend is thus a crucial word in Ellison's aesthetic.
Above all, Ellison admires the transcendentalists for their active democratic faith…. Ellison reveals, in his choice of ancestors, the depth of his commitment to American ideals. When he describes jazz as "that embodiment of a superior democracy in which each individual cultivated his uniqueness and yet did not clash with his neighbors" …, he is affirming the central values of American civilization.
It remains to place Ellison in his twentieth-century tradition. What is involved is a rejection of the naturalistic novel and the philosophical assumptions on which it rests. From Ellison's allusions to certain of his contemporaries—to Stein and Hemingway, Joyce and Faulkner, Eliot and Yeats—one idea emerges with persistent force. Man is the creator of his own reality. If a culture shapes its artists, the converse is equally the case: "The American novel is in this sense a conquest of the frontier; as it describes our experience, it creates it"…. This turn toward subjectivity, this transcendence of determinism, this insistence on an existential freedom, is crucial to Ellison's conception of the artist. It finds concrete expression in his work through the devices of masking and naming….
He proposes a rectification of the language, and therefore of the nation's moral vision. For accurate naming is the writer's first responsibility….
[Ellison's] contribution to a theory of American Negro culture [is also important]. Previous work in the field, whether by Negro or white intellectuals, has stressed the autonomous character of Negro culture, viewing it as an alien or exotic tributary to the main stream of American life. Ellison proposes a more integrated view. Negro folk culture, to his way of thinking, is an indestructible monument to the national past. Embodying as it does three centuries of American history, it is a bittersweet reminder of what we were and are as a people. Far from being isolated from the main stream, it marks the channel where the river runs deepest to the sea….
He insists upon the relevance of folk experience to the conditions of modern urban life, and more important still, to the condition of being man. The assimilationist demands that in the name of integration the Negro self be put to death. But Ellison regards this proposal as a projection of self-hatred. To integrate means to make whole, not to lop off or mutilate; to federate as equals, not to merge and disappear. Anything else is a denial not only of one's racial identity, but one's national identity as well. For slavery really happened on American soil, and it has made us both, Negro and white alike, what we are today.
Negro nationalism is a natural response to the experience of rejection. Rebuffed by the whites, the Negro nationalist rebuffs in turn…. All that is distinctive in Negro life is thus exalted as a matter of racial pride. Traditionally this point of view has been fortified by some sort of African mystique, the current version being the concept of Négritude.
Here Ellison would counter with the richness of the dominant tradition. European civilization, of which he is a part, cannot be written off so lightly. Emerson and Einstein, Mozart and Michelangelo, Jefferson and Joyce are part of his tradition and he has paid for them in blood. He is not about to bargain them away in exchange for Négritude….
While assimilationism and Negro nationalism make opposite evaluations of Negro folk culture, they both regard it as in some sense un-American. To all such formulations Ellison objects that they abstract distinctive Negro qualities from the concrete circumstances of American life. The American Negro is different from his white countrymen, but American history and that alone has made him so….
Ellison argues, in effect, that the life-style of the Negro ghetto is more American than the so-called standard American culture of white suburbia because the latter, in the very impulse that gave it birth, denies a vital dimension of American experience. There is no possibility, he warns, of escaping from the past. What is required is that we bring our distorted image of ourselves into line with the historical reality.
Robert Bone, "Ralph Ellison and the Uses of Imagination," in Modern Black Novelists: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by M. G. Cooke, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1971, pp. 45-63.
Many readers consider Ellison not only the best black writer but the best novelist of the twentieth century. Many believe that no single American novel of our century stands up well against Invisible Man….
Ellison's perspective … as revealed in Invisible Man and in his essays and interviews, is highly individualistic. His concerns seem finally to be far more personal and subjective than social. He is a strongly self-reliant individual who has gone to great lengths to protect and to prove his distinctiveness, his difference from any preconceived notions of his identity. He refuses to be defined in terms of his race. He admits his racial heritage proudly, but he will not allow assumptions about him as a Negro to define his reality. He resists being categorized in racial terms. This is understandable, for he knows very well that he is not personally the entity which is conjured up in the heads of the majority of Americans when they think of "Negro." However, in a paradoxical way, he denies his relation to the group of black people by insisting on his individuality, by going to great lengths to prove that he is not like them, but a unique individual who has escaped their limitations….
Ellison's desire to be recognized as an individual, understandably and sympathetically viewed as it may be, has political ramifications when that impulse is put forward in the American social context, for the most politically reactionary elements of the society say something of the same kind: Every American has the opportunity to succeed, and if he does not, it is because of some limitation in him and not because of inequities or other limitations within the system. More important, however, is the implication in Ellison's novels and in his other works that the resolution of complex social problems lies in the proper response of the individual.
This is finally the implication of Invisible Man. There is no way for black people to deal with the racial problem, the novel asserts, and the best that can be done is for us to withdraw into the inner recesses of our own psyches. Ellison may indeed not have intended to say this, but the political imperative of Invisible Man is clear enough: Given the complexities of the functioning of power, black people, and all others victimized by the system ("perhaps on the lower frequencies I speak for you"), should maintain Joycean "silence, exile, and cunning," though "cunning" may not be very meaningful when practiced "silently" and in "exile." There is no point in being, as the central character's grandfather was, "a spy in the enemy's territory" if the force one represents (spies for) is simply one's indignation.
Ellison's novel turns out finally to be the opposite of what it ostensibly is. It seems at first to suggest radicalism and then anarchy, but it ultimately denies both, for Ellison carefully and systematically closes off all avenues of action or retreat for the main character. Every possibility for him to change his situation turns out to be a sham or otherwise not viable. The central character turns out to be a modern Hamlet who out-Hamlets Hamlet. "To be or not to be" is not a question he can ask, for he has answered all such questions and furthermore can make no decisions. (It is significant that he does not decide to go underground; he fortuitously falls into the manhole.) His whole sense of reality has been so altered that he has no touchstone, no frame of reference which will allow him to make distinctions and hence judgments.
The novel seems initially a radical novel because of the force with which it rejects in its opening chapter the status quo in regard to racial matters. Its attack on institutions, its negative assessment of the worth of institutions in regard to their value to the individual, is anarchistic. But in the end the political thrust of the novel is negated, for the central character's response after he has examined the institutions of his society, and after he has examined what is intended to represent all the viable alternatives for action, is to feel powerless to do anything, powerless to accept or to reject…. The novel symbolically asks all the questions to be asked about the relation between men and social institutions and then explores in representative fashion the full range of possible response. On the one hand, there is for him the value of the order which institutions establish; on the other hand, there is his fear of the chaos which ensues when institutions do not exert their controlling influence. In the face of such an overwhelming dilemma the central character is completely paralyzed—the conflicts within him unresolvable….
The opposition of and the tension between order and chaos prevail from beginning to end. Throughout the narrative the central character finds himself repressed by those forces ostensibly functioning as means to preserve order and repelled by chaos. He craves order, but the agents of orderliness seek to destroy him; the alternative, from his perspective, chaos, he cannot give himself over to, for chaos, too, threatens to destroy. The novel consists of a repeating series of encounters during which the central character confronts and deals with apparent order only to see it turn to chaos before his very eyes. Ultimately he cannot distinguish between the two….
The paradox involved in the very conception of invisibility is relevant here. The black man, that highly visible entity in a predominantly white society, is said to be invisible. As a black man, he is not invisible. He is constantly identified as a black man, as the anecdote told by the central character at the beginning of the prologue indicates. He bumps into a man who calls him an insulting name—undoubtedly "nigger." Now, was he invisible to the man, or was he very, very visible? "Invisibility" means here that the man did not recognize the central character's particularity. He did not recognize that the narrator of the tale is a discrete individual who has characteristics which distinguish him from all others of his group. But what is also clear is that the narrator depends entirely upon external definitions to define not only reality but also his own existence. What the central character finds out finally is that he is nobody—and that he is in no better position at the end of the novel than he was at the beginning. He is nobody because by the end of the novel he has cut off any possibility of social identification, and unless identity is conceived as metaphysical in character, it cannot exist apart from a social context.
Donald B. Gibson, "Ralph Ellison (1914–) and James Baldwin (1924–)," in The Politics of Twentieth-Century Novelists, edited by George A. Panichas (reprinted by permission of Hawthorn Books, Inc.; copyright © 1971 by The University of Maryland; all rights reserved), Hawthorn, 1971, pp. 307-20.
In Ellison's terminology, invisibility is the result of the relationship between the two realms that he calls "chaos" and "reality," or sometimes "history." Ellison's thesis is this: each man, and every society, conceives of reality in a certain way, agreeing on a definition of what is real and true and placing a pattern of order on life according to that definition; whatever lies outside this definition, or fails to fit into this pattern of order, is assigned to chaos and is invisible, since men rarely can "see" that which is dissonant with their conception of reality. Through his experiences Ellison's hero has recognized that "chaos" and "reality" are relative terms and are intimately mixed, that they are in fact often one and the same, depending on the point of view. One man's reality is another man's chaos. The hero has been invisible, and will remain involuntarily and inherently invisible, because his own identity has no place in any "reality" in which he has lived. But he has also been, like McKay's "ghost," without vital identity, because he has never established the pattern of his own reality or defined his own identity, but has simply worn the various masks assigned to him. Like Tod Clifton's doll, he has been a puppet of all those who "named me and set me running with one and the same stroke of the pen."… However, in the creative act of writing the invisible man succeeds in giving form to the pattern of his own reality and in the process defines himself. Although this effort requires the total removal of all masks and thus "disarms" him of the minor advantages and strategies of invisibility that have long been used by the black man for survival, he has gained a greater sense of possibility….
In writing Invisible Man, Ellison has not created new forms of expression so much as he has developed and synthesized two strands of metaphor that have long been of use to black writers. His synthesis leads him to a disavowal of mask-wearing and an acceptance of the inherent, unalterable invisibility that pertains not only to blacks but to all men. For all men, unless their identity corresponds completely to someone else's image of reality, are at least partially invisible in Ellison's terminology. By finally viewing his situation within this larger perspective, Ellison expands invisibility from a metaphor embodying the cultural experience of the black man in America to a statement of the human condition, thus lighting the way for the invisible hero to take his place within a larger social whole. Most significant, perhaps, with regard to the development of black literary tradition, is the fact that Ellison, through his synthesis and expansion of the metaphors, has been able to "make music of invisibility" …; that is, he has made the metaphor a vehicle for the expression, not of despair, but of affirmation and for an assertion of the possibility of true freedom and responsibility without the surrender, assimilation or destruction of his own identity.
Todd M. Lieber, "Ralph Ellison and the Metaphor of Invisibility in Black Literary Tradition," in American Quarterly (copyright, 1972, Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania), March, 1972, pp. 86-100.
While not usually discussed in connection with the [Harlem] Renaissance, Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man must be considered in the present context. Ellison begins, in this novel, to plant on some of the fertile ground first turned by Renaissance writers. His use of Black music as symbol and rhetorical device, his use of folklore and folk character are all within the realm of convention utilized so extensively in the works of Sterling Brown, Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer, Rudolph Fisher and Claude McKay. As in the best works by these authors, Ellison's use of Black styles never degenerates to the level of mere exoticism or decoration. And, unlike most of his immediate contemporaries, Ellison used the Black experience as a commentary upon the plight of humanity—rather than using the plight of the Black man as an end in itself. He fuses symbols from Black life with symbols from Western literary tradition to create a symbolic language which is uniquely personal, yet uniquely universal….
The novel itself might almost be characterized as a journey from certainty to uncertainty, and the protagonist's very ambivalence about the meaning of his experiences, an ambivalence which is his one mainstay at the end of the novel, points toward a direct existence in his own mind. The protagonist is sure that whatever the significance of his own personal trip, he is not the American's Negro, whether that American be capitalist or communist, white liberal or Black something else. He sees the necessity of redefining himself in his own terms, terms which, while rooted in his history and traditions, take account of his present and future possibilities. And, in redefining himself in his own terms, he must create a new language to describe his new point of reference.
Sherley Anne Williams, in her Give Birth to Brightness: A Thematic Study in Neo-Black Literature (copyright © 1972 by Sherley Anne Williams; used with permission of The Dial Press), Dial, 1972, pp. 46-8.
Though not a political novel, Invisible Man is based on a cultivated political understanding of the modern world. It stubbornly affirms the worth and dignity of the individual in spite of forces which conspire to render him invisible.
Ellison repudiated naturalism and turned to the broad tradition established by Joyce, Kafka, and Faulkner. Like these writers he found the shattered forms of postimpressionism most effective in portraying the chaos of the modern world. Ellison insisted that his unique experience required unique literary forms. He tried to provide these from the raw material of Negro culture.
An important part of Ellison's consciousness and his style is formed by jazz and the blues. However, a distinctive Negro style is not to be overstated. He was influenced somewhat by Melville and Mark Twain and even by Flaubert. Closer at hand was his debt to Faulkner and Eliot; Invisible Man contains direct echoes of Eliot. But this author's insistence upon the importance of tradition constitutes Ellison's real debt. Doestoevsky's Notes from Underground pinpoints the influence in the novel of a particular literary work.
James A. Page, in English Journal, May, 1973, pp. 714-15.
The cultural situation that produced "The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man" [written by James Weldon Johnson and published in 1912], the manner in which the story is set forth, and the antecedent works that influenced its author lead one easily to the informing sensibility and significant patterns of action in "Invisible Man." "Invisible Man" begins with the same situation that opens the "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass"  and "The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man": the narrator is writing a retrospective account of his life from a position of impunity (his warm hole in a basement). Like the fugitive Douglass, who risked capture by writing his story, and the "passing" narrator of Johnson's novel, he is outside the white laws of the land, for he is covertly drawing substance from the white world above and has assaulted one of its inhabitants. These similarities are heightened by the presence of black American slavery at the opening of "Invisible Man."… Johnson's narrator, since his work begins "a few years after the close of the Civil War," uses the slave past and surrounds it with several literary conventions that were popular in the Plantation Tradition; Ellison's narrator, on the other hand, purports to back away from this past, stating that "hearing around corners" is unbearable. In reality, the invisible man is just as concerned with the origins of his culture as the ex-colored man, and the brief view presented in the "Prologue" must be grasped if one is to understand the novel fully. The issue is the definition of freedom, and the antagonists are, first, the narrator's unwillingness to look beneath the surface of things, and second, those members of his race who act as agencies for a brutal white world….
The invisible man's briefcase serves the same function as the ten-dollar gold piece in "The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man"; the nature of the American situation makes it a worthless item that plagues the narrator for the remainder of the novel. The images and themes of the battle royal scene in toto share this treadmill effect; most of them recur in slightly altered forms throughout the narration….
"Invisible Man" is surely a rich and complex work of art, but it does not seem far from the mark to say the battle royal episode constitutes its most significant projection and fully justifies its comparison with "The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man." The narrators of both works undergo many restless turnings within what appears to be a circular pattern (with the end in the beginning), each repeatedly colliding with the indisputable facts of the American situation—its denial of the black man and its avid willingness to coopt and exploit his talents. In "The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man," both the narrator (by his millionaire patron) and his mother (by her aristocratic lover) are treated as pawns to relieve the ennui or further the designs of the white world, and in "Invisible Man," the narrator is ricocheted from one brutal and dehumanizing episode to the next by a society bent on securing ideological and materialistic advantages. Ellison's narrator does not make as many physical journeys as Johnson's, but his emblematic and imaginative scenes carry the reader over much of the same ground….
Informing both "The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man" and "Invisible Man" are the cultured stance and carefully delineated "double consciousness" found in W. E. B. Du Bois's "The Souls of Black Folk." Both the invisible man and the ex-colored man are concerned with their relationship to what Du Bois calls "the Problem of the Twentieth Century … the color line"; each modulates between an exclusive dedication to black American culture and an attempt to secure the privilege, acclaim, and freedom from (again in Du Bois' words) "the other world which does not know and does not want to know our power." The paradox here is that the narrators' accomplished designs and carefully stated black themes make both "The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man" and "Invisible Man" resolutions of the alternatives. Both works have gained plaudits from the larger American community, and both have secured freedom and privilege for the black American writer, who finds both an object lesson in his craft and the singular achievements of his culture rendered by the novels. And the dedication of "The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man" and "Invisible Man" to the spirit of black American culture and the liberation of its citizens abides the questions of both militant ideologues and adherents to the codas of a highly structuralist criticism….
[The] best justification for comparing the works of James Weldon Johnson and Ralph Ellison is to be found in the criticism that has been devoted to proving "Invisible Man" a prime example of twentieth-century symbolism or "The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man" a latter-day picaresque without treating the singularly black American character of either novel. This, of course, is not a call for that time-honored formula—"the Negro novel"—nor is it meant as a blanket condemnation of efforts such as those mentioned above.
Houston A. Baker, Jr., "A Forgotten Proto-type," in Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 49, No. 3 (Summer, 1973), pp. 433-49.
Dear Ralph Ellison:
You once told me you felt incompetent as a critic of poetry. So, I hope you will be patient with me as I discuss the possibilities of seeing your novel, Invisible Man, as a poem.
For several years now, I have been deeply concerned with poetry as fiction and fiction as poetry. They can be inter-changeable. The good poem, in its compression, its severe demands on language, is the "ideal" the novel sometimes matches. Though, what a poem is, exactly, is not clear, what a novel can be, is less clear….
I suspect it is primarily the time and space, the spiritual and physical areas, of a novel that makes it different from a poem….
Good poems have the same qualities found in good fiction—that secret design you once wrote about, often called plot; and, internal tension, a certain thrust, tone, setting, structure, and sometimes characters….
Like any serious poem, Invisible Man takes on a powerful, eternal theme: it is concerned with the search for human and national identity.
Its nameless narrator is very much concerned with the way he relates to other blacks; the narrator, at the end of the book, begins to realize he is in control of everything except his own mind, but here is a man, speaking to the reader, as Auden would speak, saying, in effect, that the chaos—in all its formlessness must not be forgotten. He is concerned with the meaning of human strength, with love and the nature of art….
His life, and the texture of the book's method, demonstrates a sort of wonderful, surrealistic absurdity. The invisibility itself, like a cartoon trick, a metaphor, sets the stage for a plunge into the endless world of unconscious possibilities. This is where poetry lives….
Also the blues and Negro folklore, the jokes, the puns, and the sexual symbolism, all, correspond, in terms of material and technique, to poems by Countee Cullen, Claude McKay, and Jean Toomer.
Invisible Man is a kind of metaphor for the concerns of human seasonal rhythms. And the "sense of season," as you once spoke of, are operating here at a level below that of speech, and certainly below that of the written word. But it was not to be had by reading between the lines.
If Invisible Man had been set in free verse form, I am convinced people would have raved about what a great poem it is.
Clarence Major, in American Poetry Review, November/December, 1973, p. 17.
Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, published in 1952, has proved the most believable of the many current novels of the embattled self's journey through an American reality defined as inherently "absurd." Certainly more than any other Black writer Ellison achieved as dramatic fact, as a rounded whole, beyond dreamy soliloquy or angry assertion, a demonstration of the lunatic hatred that America can offer, on every face of its society, to a Black man. This irrationality is more real, more solidly grounded to Blacks writing out of actual oppression than is the idea of an irrational society to white writers dislocated in the country they used to take for granted and who now find so much of America "meaningless."…
Ellison's book is about the art of survival, a subject that has made tragic comedians out of many ordinary blokes in the literature of our time. And it turns on the self-deceptions of eloquence—a problem among all oppressed people, a special resource of Blacks, and a problem-theme in all Ellison's work: "God's trombone" is the phrase for a masterful Negro preacher in a published fragment from his work-in-progress. But eloquence is the seat of all contradiction, the gift that is the hero's only chance for life but that also works against itself in the life of Ellison's "Invisible Man." And this complex use of eloquence comes out of a tradition of monologue—American, nineteenth-century, frontier-revivalist, musical—that reflects Ellison's passion for the trumpet as much as it does the famous "single voice" in Melville, Mark Twain, Faulkner, that gave Ellison the courage to discover an Oklahoma Black's affinity with them….
Ellison was working consciously with so many literary symbols and rituals in the book that he clearly thought less about making the hero's character complex than he did about putting into his book his lessons in the symbolhunting fashionable literary criticism of the time….
Whatever else Ellison's nonhero or antihero may be, he is not a complex, rounded, subtle figure. He is not flexible in the least. That seems to be a condition of all "novels of the absurd." Although Ellison's tale is told in monologue and emphasizes the rhetorical variety possible to the single voice, the protagonist is audibly manipulated by a novelist who is fascinated by "eloquence."…
We get from Invisible Man a sense of real experience, real suffering, the mad repetitions of the outsider's efforts to get a foothold and the resonances of his failure….
Ellison still believes in the sufficiency of art. His own voice in Invisible Man conveys his faith in the tradition, from Benito Cereno to Light in August, that race differences have made the strongest writing in this country….
Invisible Man endures because it is representative, truthful, "real." It came just before the great age of derision. So much of the whole modern urban Negro experience is included in the life cycle of the hero! The believable element of absurdity—of a life situation thoroughly presented in all its contradictions to human sense—does not lie in the histrionic shifts of consciousness portrayed at the beginning (where the whipped-up Negro sermons remind one too much of famous sermons in Moby-Dick and The Sound and the Fury), or in the hallucinations and "illuminations" of the hero as he talks to us from his cellar while all that stolen electric light tapped from every circuit within reach makes a hideously bright operating room for us to stare right into his mind. It lies in the rushed total coverage of the book, which steams through so many improbabilities-as-actualities that the reader gets as trapped in the lunacies of history as the hero does.
Alfred Kazin, in his Bright Book of Life: American Novelists & Storytellers from Hemingway to Mailer (copyright © 1971, 1973 by Alfred Kazin; reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Co. in association with the Atlantic Monthly Press), Atlantic-Little, Brown, 1973, pp. 245-54.