Ellison’s Is Published Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, a complex portrayal of the role of blacks in the United States, won recognition as one of the best post-World War II novels and provided new themes for later black authors.

Summary of Event

Ralph Ellison was born in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, on March 1, 1914, the son of Lewis and Ida Ellison and the grandson of slaves. He received a good education in Oklahoma and in 1933 moved to Alabama to study at the Tuskegee Institute. He studied classical music and read avidly, devouring the works of major Western literary and intellectual masters. Invisible Man (Ellison) African Americans;writers [kw]Ellison’s Invisible Man Is Published (1952)[Ellisons Invisible Man Is Published] [kw]Invisible Man Is Published, Ellison’s (1952) Invisible Man (Ellison) African Americans;writers [g]North America;1952: Ellison’s Invisible Man Is Published[03690] [g]United States;1952: Ellison’s Invisible Man Is Published[03690] [c]Literature;1952: Ellison’s Invisible Man Is Published[03690] [c]Social issues and reform;1952: Ellison’s Invisible Man Is Published[03690] Ellison, Ralph

Ralph Ellison.

(National Archives)

In July, 1936, Ellison went to New York and was captivated by the city’s vibrant cultural life. Writing soon replaced music as his main interest, and he began to write reviews, essays, and short stories. He worked for the Federal Writers’ Project and as managing editor of Negro Quarterly, and in 1945 he was awarded a Rosenwald Fellowship to write a novel. The result, Invisible Man, took nearly seven years to write and was published by Random House in 1952.

Ellison’s book is narrated by a nameless “invisible man,” who, in a prologue, explains that he has literally gone underground, where he lives in a sealed-off basement in a whites-only apartment building bordering Harlem. He has become invisible, he says, as a result of having accepted other people’s names and labels for himself: “I was looking for myself and asking everyone except myself questions which I, and only I, could answer.” The narrator then recounts the incidents that have brought him to his current state.

As a child in the South, the narrator encounters several wise people who try to teach him that he alone is responsible for his destiny. The young man’s dying grandfather tells his family that he has been “a spy in the enemy’s country.” The grandfather advises the narrator how to deal with whites.

Live with your head in the lion’s mouth. I want you to overcome ’em with yeses, undermine ’em with grins, agree ’em to death and destruction, let ’em swoller you till they vomit or bust wide open.

Carrying out such a strategy in the “enemy country,” though, requires self-knowledge that the young man does not have.

When the young man is a senior in high school, a group of prominent white men invite him to speak to them. He feels honored, seeing himself as a race spokesman in the manner of Booker T. Washington Washington, Booker T. . The white men, though, let him speak only after subjecting him to ritual humiliation. His speech is a naïve parody of Washington’s message: that blacks should accept social segregation, renounce political agitation, and win acceptance from whites through hard work. The drunken white men then give him a briefcase and a scholarship to a college for blacks.

That night, the young man dreams that his grandfather appears and shows him a document inside the new briefcase. “To Whom It May Concern,” the document reads, “Keep This Nigger-Boy Running.” The narrator awakens to the sound of his grandfather’s laughter.

The narrator learns that the enemy country contains blacks as well as whites. He goes to a famous college for blacks (much like Tuskegee) that is run by Herbert Bledsoe, a Washington-like figure. Bledsoe uses his influence with rich white northerners to exercise great power; the narrator, though, describes his ambiguous view of a statue of the college’s founder lifting a veil from the face of a slave: “I am standing puzzled, unable to decide whether the veil is really being lifted, or lowered more firmly in place; whether I am witnessing a revelation or a more efficient blinding.” He then meets a wise man, a veteran, who tells him, “Be your own father, young man. And remember, the world is possibility if only you’ll discover it.” The narrator, though, does not yet understand the message.

The young man goes north to Harlem, long a symbol to blacks of freedom and cultural vitality. He intends to take advantage of New York’s freedom and wealth to achieve success, but he soon finds that he is everywhere met with a more polite version of his grandfather’s dream-letter: “Keep This Nigger-Boy Running.”

The narrator comes to a clearer understanding of the enemy country, but he still cannot fathom how to fight on this terrain. He has to learn a few more hard lessons. He meets Brother Jack, a white man who controls the Brotherhood, a radical political organization. The narrator joins the Brotherhood, but he finds that he is expected to sacrifice the people of Harlem for some larger ideological goal. The narrator thus learns that political leaders turn people into abstractions and exploit their trust.

The narrator also comes into contact with Ras the Exhorter, a black nationalist. Ras challenges the young man to confront the meaning of his own blackness, but the narrator comes to see that Ras, like Brother Jack, uses people to enhance his personal power.

The narrator at last finds one person who has mastered the terrain of the enemy’s country. B. P. (Bliss Proteus) Rinehart assumes different forms to fit his environment. Some people see him as a minister, some as a gambler and numbers runner, some as an underworld boss and corrupter of the police, some as a lover. “His world was possibility and he knew it,” the narrator says. “He was years ahead of me and I was a fool. I must have been crazy and blind. The world in which we lived was without boundaries.” Now he understands the message of the veteran: One can, in fact, be one’s own father, remaking oneself as one desires. The narrator recalls that the revelation at first frightened him: “The world seemed to flow before my eyes. All boundaries down, freedom was not only the recognition of necessity, it was the recognition of possibility.”

Finally, trapped in a riot in Harlem and caught between agents of the Brotherhood and Ras the Exhorter, he is chased by white racists. The narrator pops into a hole and finds protection in the surrounding darkness.

As the book ends, the narrator is not hiding in his basement but hibernating. He will emerge, he says, with the wiliness of Br’er Rabbit and the strength of Br’er Bear. When he emerges, his message will not be one of abstractions and hate but one of love, based on his understanding of shared humanity and culture.


When it was published in 1952, Invisible Man quickly established its reputation as one of the most important and influential post-World War II novels. Random House recognized the book’s potential and sent advance copies to reviewers equipped to deal with such a challenging work. The novel received favorable reviews from such major literary figures as Saul Bellow, Wright Morris, Delmore Schwartz, and Langston Hughes and won the National Book Award National Book Award in 1953.

The literary establishment readily accepted Ellison. Although he faced criticism for not being outspoken during the Civil Rights movement, Invisible Man survived all changes in political moods and movements, and Ellison continued to receive recognition as a major cultural figure. He received the Medal of Freedom and in 1964 was appointed to the American Institute of Arts and Letters. Invisible Man became firmly established in the American literary canon.

While black civil rights leaders mobilized masses of people to wage a political and moral battle against racism and segregation, Ellison fought for freedom on another battlefield. His victory helped free young black authors from limiting racial labels. Previous black writers, including Ellison’s friend Richard Wright Wright, Richard , were frequently given such condescending labels as “black author,” “race spokesman,” or “protest novelist.”

Some reviewers went too far and ignored Ellison’s race altogether. Ellison, however, explored ways in which blacks were subjected to social segregation, political manipulation, and economic exploitation. He wrote from a black point of view and drew from black culture. It was black folklore and music that gave characters such as the narrator’s grandfather their moral and intellectual strength. The narrator was a product of the same racist society as Wright’s famous character, the culturally impoverished Bigger Thomas. In contrast to Wright, though, Ellison saw a richness in black culture that nourished its people and allowed them to transcend the limitations of their surroundings while giving them the strength to fight for change.

While Ellison explored racial discrimination, he raised deeper questions about American culture and the role of black writers within it. Ellison argued that his culture could be described neither as African nor as an American subculture. He wrote as a Westerner, as an heir to all the rich complexity of Western civilization. Whites had tried to confine blacks but had failed; blacks had absorbed all the richness of American and Western culture. Blues music, for example, was distantly related to African music, but it was much more closely related to Western religious music, European ballads, and southern musical traditions, enriched in theme by black folklore and cultural concerns.

Ellison did not see himself limited in his literary ancestry to black writers such as Hughes and Wright. Homer, Dante Alighieri, and Virgil were as much his ancestors as they were for any Western writer. If Ellison introduces blues and jazz references in Invisible Man, he also alludes to Homer, William Shakespeare, and Walt Whitman. From the opening line of the novel, Ellison carries on a continuous dialogue with such predecessors as William Shakespeare, Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville, Fyodor Dostoevski, James Joyce, T. S. Eliot, and Ernest Hemingway. The novel itself draws on symbolic, realistic, and surrealistic traditions in Western literature. In later decades, it was seen by some as an example of Magical Realism, a style usually associated with post-World War II Latin American writers, and as an early example of postmodernist writing.

Ellison’s work allowed later writers, white and black, to free themselves from the one-dimensional approach that often characterized works about black men and women. While Ellison showed readers the pain and humiliation that blacks faced in the United States, he also celebrated the diversity and democratic chaos of American culture that prevented blacks from being turned into creatures of whites. Whites could never prevent blacks from enjoying the cultural richness that was part of the American heritage.

At another level, Ellison helped bring into postwar American literature the existential themes shaping European literature. He dealt with the plight of a young man thrust into the chaos of the world. He was concerned with the way that men and women of all races met their individual doom. He explored the fictional structures that people imposed on a world that had no structure. The world had many names, Ellison said, and they all spelled chaos. Before humans could discover even one of those names, they must name themselves. This was the trial that the narrator faced: to name himself before he began his ambiguous struggle for freedom in the world. Ellison wrote that life is a formless sea into which humans are thrust; art is the ship that reduces it to form and course.

Ellison was a major influence on the experimental fiction of white and black writers after World War II. His approach to the novel influenced white writers such as Joseph Heller and freed black writers from the confines of the protest novel. Younger black writers explored the territory opened by Ellison, carried on their own dialogues with him in their fiction, and adopted his experimental mode of writing. Ellison left such later black writers as Ishmael Reed, Alice Walker, and Toni Morrison a richer literary terrain than the one that he had inherited from Wright. Invisible Man (Ellison) African Americans;writers

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Benston, Kimberly W., ed. Speaking for You: The Vision of Ralph Ellison. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1987. A collection of nearly thirty articles on aspects of Ralph Ellison’s life and works, focusing on Invisible Man. Includes several interviews with Ellison, who is one of the best critics of his own work.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Busby, Mark. Ralph Ellison. Boston: Twayne, 1991. An excellent short introduction to Ellison’s life and work. Busby introduces readers to the major critical approaches to Ellison’s work and provides a bibliography of Ellison’s writings and studies of him.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Covo, Jacqueline. The Blinking Eye: Ralph Waldo Ellison and His American, French, German, and Italian Critics, 1952-1971. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1974. Covo summarizes international biographical and bibliographical sources on Ellison and provides a chronological summary of the principal reviews of Invisible Man.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hersey, John, ed. Ralph Ellison: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1974. Hersey includes studies of Invisible Man by some major literary critics and writers, including Robert Penn Warren, Saul Bellow, Irving Howe, and Tony Tanner.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jackson, Lawrence. Ralph Ellison: Emergence of Genius. New York: Wiley, 2002. The first book-length study of Ellison’s life. A good source on the novelist’s early life and career.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Morel, Lucas E., ed. Ralph Ellison and the Raft of Hope: A Political Companion to “Invisible Man.” Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2004. An in-depth discussion of Ellison’s political views, the view he expresses in Invisible Man, and the political debate engendered by the novel.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nadel, Alan. Invisible Criticism: Ralph Ellison and the American Canon. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1988. A fine, close reading of Invisible Man focusing on Ellison’s brilliant and subtle use of allusion, which draws into Invisible Man virtually the whole canon of American literature.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">O’Meally, Robert G. The Craft of Ralph Ellison. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1980. A biographical overview of Ellison’s life, as well as a critical examination of all of his work up to 1980. O’Meally focuses on black folklore as a key to understanding Ellison’s work.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______, ed. New Essays on “Invisible Man.” New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988. Contains excellent essays, including insightful studies by O’Meally, Thomas Schaub, and others.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">“Ralph Ellison.” In Notable African American Writers. Vol. 1. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 2006. A 24-page biography of Ellison that introduces and analyzes his major works, including Invisible Man. Extensive bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Reilly, John M., ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of “Invisible Man.” Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1970. Includes provocative studies of motifs in Invisible Man, Ellison’s attitude toward black leadership, and his use of satire and the absurd.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tracy, Steven C. A Historical Guide to Ralph Ellison. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. Examines Ellison’s literary, political, and musical influences and impact. Bibliography and chronology.

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