Last reviewed: June 2017
Essayist and novelist best known for his naturalistic fiction about African American life
March 1, 1914
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
April 16, 1994
New York, New York
Ralph Waldo Ellison’s Invisible Man has a prominent place in the American literary canon. Invisible Man won the 1953 National Book Award for Fiction and the 1992 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Landmark Achievement, the latter of which is given in recognition of work that improves understanding of racism and advances readers' appreciation for cultural diversity. Indeed, some critics have argued that Ellison wrote the great American novel. When Invisible Man first appeared, it was hailed as a masterful depiction of black life in America, and Ellison was received as the first black writer to join the distinguished company of William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway. At the same time, a naturalistic strain was noted in his fiction, which allied him with such writers as Theodore Dreiser and Richard Wright. Ellison enjoyed a unique position among black writers. In the 1960’s, he was attacked by certain Black Nationalists and pan-Africanists for not being black enough, for assimilating his fiction into the conventions of white, Western European literature, but he stood his ground, absorbing influences from everywhere and adamantly refusing to shape his ideas of literature to a political program. Ellison was always his own man, breaking with his mentor Wright when Ellison wanted to go beyond the naturalism of Wright’s Native Son (1940). Naturalism emphasized the way individuals were shaped by society. There was a deterministic quality in the doctrine which suggested that human beings were the products of their environment. Ellison opted for a fiction that was more idiosyncratic and playful, and he developed a view of individuals who were capable of transforming society through their perceptions and manipulations of language.
Invisible Man is about a man’s freedom to be himself. The novel’s black narrator is not even named—a telling point, for it allows his voice, his way of telling things, and not his identity, to predominate. The narrator has retreated from society after a series of defeats—failures in his education, in politics, and in the friendships he has formed. A naturalistically conceived character might have been crushed by these disasters, but the narrator rescues his battered self by retreating to a cellar in New York City, where he has managed to tap into the power of the light company. In every way, the narrator is a subversive. He is underground, a marginal figure in society, whose narrative of his life is also a means of regrouping, of finding a way to emerge from the “hole” he has made out of his career. Ellison’s depiction of society is sometimes surreal, sometimes realistically detailed. He re-creates the oppressive atmosphere of the South, where the narrator has been humiliated by whites and punished by blacks. In New York City, the narrator gets caught up in the rivalries of religious and political cults, each claiming to have the key to human salvation. Although he does not quite say so, it is implicit in the narrator’s account of things that the only true liberation is the liberation of the mind. No political program, religious movement, or organization can deliver human beings from tyranny. Ralph Ellison
In spite of the painful nature of his experience, the “invisible man”—invisible because whites have never really acknowledged, never actually seen, blacks as full-fledged human beings—reveals considerable humor about his predicament. He has been naïve, even stupid, in not learning more quickly about the murderous elements in his society. His self-critical stance sets him apart from the smug, authoritarian dissenters and establishment figures in the novel. Invisible Man is an urbane work that draws upon European models. Fyodor Dostoevski’s Zapiski iz podpolya (1864; Notes from the Underground, 1918), in particular, seems to have influenced Ellison’s existential view of human nature; that is, the invisible man’s character is the result of his response to existence, and it is his responsibility to say what he has become rather than blaming society for his stunted development.
By the end of the novel, the narrator hints that he is almost ready to leave his hole. Implicit in his narrative has been his feeling that his story is every human being’s story, in the sense that each individual must somehow come to terms with society yet preserve his or her own integrity. The narrator’s integrity has been violated repeatedly—by whites and blacks, by medical experiments, and by all kinds of institutions and individuals. Yet through his ability to imagine the scenes of his degradation, he has managed to overcome his humiliation, for he has identified his plight as everyone’s, or as he puts it (characteristically in the form of a question): “Who knows but that on the lower frequencies I speak for you?”
For forty years, Ellison worked on a second novel. Parts of it appeared in various periodicals, but the book remained incomplete at his death in 1994. The manuscript was subsequently edited and revised by Ellison’s literary executor, John F. Callahan, and it finally appeared in 1999. Juneteenth is about a black minister named Alonzo Hickman who takes in and raises a young boy as black, even though the child looks white. The boy, whom he calls Bliss, soon runs away to New England and later becomes a race-baiting senator using the name Adam Sunraider. After he is shot on the Senate floor, Sunraider sends for Hickman, and their past is revealed through their ensuing conversation and flashbacks. The title of the novel refers to June 19, 1865, the day that Union forces announced the emancipation of slaves in Texas, where Juneteenth is an official holiday. In 2010, Callahan reissued Juneteenth as part of the expanded Three Days before the Shooting, based on further unpublished material Ellison left behind at his death.
Flying Home, and Other Stories is a posthumous collection of stories, edited by Callahan, that brings together in one volume all the principal short fiction that Ellison wrote (except for pieces published as excerpts of his novels). Callahan arranged the stories according to the age of the main characters, thereby highlighting the stories’ thematic unity regarding the growth of ideologies in young people.
Nevertheless, Ellison’s influence on American literature is almost exclusively the result of Invisible Man, as well as his brilliant collection of essays Shadow and Act, in which he explores the subjects of race, the artist, and society.