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Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
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Invisible Man (1952)

by Ralph Ellison

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Ralph Ellison's classic 1952 novel about a black man who is sent away from his Southern college to New York City, where he experiences disillusionment, activism, violence, changes of identity, and absurdity.

My reactions to this are book are complicated. I found the first couple of chapters extremely compelling, but as I read on, I often had trouble making up my mind about Ellison's writing style, sometimes feeling impressed, sometimes impatient. (It probably didn't help, I admit, that I insisted on picking it up at a time when my reading brain apparently would much rather have had some fluffy escapism.) I'm not entirely sure how much I can say I enjoyed reading it, to the extent that it's even reasonable to use a word like "enjoy" for something like this, anyway. But it is a book I feel very, very glad to have read, and I absolutely would not dispute its status as an important work of literature. As a social commentary, it's complex, devastating, and still painfully, horrifically, depressingly relevant all these decades later.

Rating: When it comes to things like this, I think this simple ratings system fails utterly. For my own subjective experience of it, I'm giving it 4/5, but I'm aware that that falls short of recognizing Ellison's accomplishment. ( )
  bragan | Jul 21, 2016 |
'One of the 20th century's most important novels'
By sally tarbox on 22 Aug. 2012
Format: Paperback
Amazing novel, as we follow the unnamed black narrator from his time as a meek, academic youth when he was 'praised by the most lily-white men of the town...considered an example of desirable conduct' through to his more worldly-wise older self.
The cynical older man, marked by his experiences, has at least become true to himself:
'I was never more hated than when I tried to be honest...On the other hand I've never been more loved and appreciated than when I tried to 'justify' and affirm someone's mistaken beliefs...But here was the rub. Too often, in order to justify them, I had to take myself by the throat and choke myself until my eyes bulged and my tongue hung out and wagged like the door of an empty house in a high wind. Oh yes, it made them happy and it made me sick. So I became ill of affirmation, of saying 'yes' against the nay-saying of my stomach- not to mention my brain.'
As a white reader of a different era, I still found plenty that I could identify with in Ellison's work. As he concludes 'Who knows but that on the lower frequencies I speak for you?' ( )
  starbox | Jul 10, 2016 |
Beautifully written.

The hero is strangely naïve. He is very intelligent, but not a deep thinker. He accepts the job with the brotherhood without asking any questions about what they believe and what their goals are. He completely accepts their plans. Only at the end does he begin to question what is going on. ( )
  nx74defiant | Jun 4, 2016 |
I’m embarrassed to admit that for many years I thought this book was the basis for the Claud Rains movie in which his wardrobe consisted largely of sunglasses and Ace wrap. Once disabused of that notion, I still was slow to read it because the title suggested a character that, while not literally invisible, was of so little importance that his very existence wasn’t noted by others. Obviously, this is a treatise on racism and, as I already know that racism is bad, what’s the point of reading it?

Fortunately, I read it anyway and found it to be a stunningly brilliant book, the National Book Award winning story of an unnamed young black man’s rise and fall as a community organizer in Harlem during the 1930s and 40s. It does have a lot to say about racism but does so without finger pointing or animosity, displaying it in all its forms, from the ultra-degrading smoker scene in chapter two to the ill-conceived gaffs by well-meaning acquaintances and Brother Jack’s imperious “The brother does not sing!” In places it felt as if no page was without some subtle, or unsubtle, slight being rendered to the point where I thought of the old torture called death by a thousand cuts.

While no assessment of the black experience in America would be complete without a discussion of racism, Invisible Man is so much more than that. I could talk for hours about the many, many fascinating ideas that Ellison imparts, but I will settle for describing one chapter out of the many great ones Ellison created. In this chapter, our narrator has managed to find a job at a paint factory. Approaching the building he sees a sign that says “KEEP AMERICA PURE WITH LIBERTY PAINTS”. Nothing more is said about the sign but I immediately flashed on a conversation in which a woman once told my aunt that “It’s so rare these days to find someone who is pure” (pronounced PEW-uhh). From there it was an easy leap to picture a Klan rally with a fiery orator expressing the need to “keep America pew-uhh”. Once on the job, our narrator is tasked with mixing Optic White paint, a paint so white you can paint a chunka coal and you’d have to crack it open with a sledge hammer to prove it wasn’t white clear through”. The joke, though is that in order to make this ‘purest white that can be found’ paint, you have to add to it 10 drops, no more and no less, of dead black dope. Again, Ellison makes no comment as to the absurdity of this but he didn’t need to for the day hasn’t passed since I read that chapter that I haven’t pondered and theorized what he meant by it.

Bottom line: Ralph Ellison is one of those brilliant authors who doesn’t tell his readers what to think but he tells you a story and lets you run with it. I suspect I will be running for a long time to come. ( )
1 vote Unkletom | May 16, 2016 |
Finally finished. I'm in the minority, I know, but I found this book less profound than headache-inducing. There were pockets of fascinating storytelling, but I found the main character to be seemingly incapable of conceiving of consequences, such that he constantly was being surprised by what happened next (and the corresponding crises of identity seemed to me overblown and unconvincing). That said, I freely acknowledge that my life experience has been in some ways quite sheltered, so who can day what crises of identity I might manufacture if my behavior were seen as a synecdoche for the nature of my race? ( )
  BraveNewBks | Mar 10, 2016 |
Showing 1-5 of 124 (next | show all)
added by Shortride | editCommentary, Saul Bellow (Jul 15, 2009)
 
this is the kind of multi-layered literary and philosophical performance that we, as citizens concerned about the health of our republic, are obliged to re-read every ten or twenty years in order to check its insights and monitions against our cultural (and personal) progress and failures.
 
"Invisible Man" is tough, brutal and sensational. It is uneven in quality. But it blazes with authentic talent.
 

» Add other authors (29 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Ellison, Ralphprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Ellison, RalphIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed

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Epigraph
"You are saved," cried Captain Delano, more and more astonished and pained; "you are saved: what has cast such a shadow upon you?"

--Herman Melville, Benito Cereno
HARRY: I tell you, it is not me you are looking at,

Not me you arre grinning at, not me your confidential looks

Incriminate, but that other person, if person,

You thought I was: let your necrophily

Feed upon that carcase. . . .

--T. S. Eliot, Family Reunion
Dedication
To Ida
First words
"I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids—and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination—indeed, everything and anything except me."
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0679732764, Paperback)

We rely, in this world, on the visual aspects of humanity as a means of learning who we are. This, Ralph Ellison argues convincingly, is a dangerous habit. A classic from the moment it first appeared in 1952, Invisible Man chronicles the travels of its narrator, a young, nameless black man, as he moves through the hellish levels of American intolerance and cultural blindness. Searching for a context in which to know himself, he exists in a very peculiar state. "I am an invisible man," he says in his prologue. "When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination--indeed, everything and anything except me." But this is hard-won self-knowledge, earned over the course of many years.

As the book gets started, the narrator is expelled from his Southern Negro college for inadvertently showing a white trustee the reality of black life in the south, including an incestuous farmer and a rural whorehouse. The college director chastises him: "Why, the dumbest black bastard in the cotton patch knows that the only way to please a white man is to tell him a lie! What kind of an education are you getting around here?" Mystified, the narrator moves north to New York City, where the truth, at least as he perceives it, is dealt another blow when he learns that his former headmaster's recommendation letters are, in fact, letters of condemnation.

What ensues is a search for what truth actually is, which proves to be supremely elusive. The narrator becomes a spokesman for a mixed-race band of social activists called "The Brotherhood" and believes he is fighting for equality. Once again, he realizes he's been duped into believing what he thought was the truth, when in fact it is only another variation. Of the Brothers, he eventually discerns: "They were blind, bat blind, moving only by the echoed sounds of their voices. And because they were blind they would destroy themselves.... Here I thought they accepted me because they felt that color made no difference, when in reality it made no difference because they didn't see either color or men."

Invisible Man is certainly a book about race in America, and sadly enough, few of the problems it chronicles have disappeared even now. But Ellison's first novel transcends such a narrow definition. It's also a book about the human race stumbling down the path to identity, challenged and successful to varying degrees. None of us can ever be sure of the truth beyond ourselves, and possibly not even there. The world is a tricky place, and no one knows this better than the invisible man, who leaves us with these chilling, provocative words: "And it is this which frightens me: Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?" --Melanie Rehak

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:17:06 -0400)

(see all 5 descriptions)

In the course of his wanderings from a Southern Negro college to New York's Harlem, an American black man becomes involved in a series of adventures. Introduction explains circumstances under which the book was written. Ellison won the National Book Award for this searing record of a black man's journey through contemporary America. Unquestionably, Ellison's book is a work of extraordinary intensity--powerfully imagined and written with a savage, wryly humorous gusto.… (more)

» see all 8 descriptions

Legacy Library: Ralph Ellison

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