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Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
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Invisible Man (1952)

by Ralph Ellison

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“You’re nobody, son. You don’t exist—can’t you see that?” (p. 141). This is how the black president of the Negro college our unnamed protagonist is attending sets the young student straight. And it comes hard on the heels of another bold series of statements about the world both he (our protagonist) and he (the college president) inhabit: “Negroes don’t control this school or much of anything else—haven’t you learned even that? No, sir, they don’t control this school, nor white folks either. True, they support it, but I control it. I’s big and black and I say ‘Yes, suh’ as loudly as any burrhead when it’s convenient, but I’m still the king down here. I don’t care how much it appears otherwise. Power doesn’t have to show off. Power is confident, self-assuring, self-starting and self-stopping, self-warming and self-justifying. When you have it, you know it. Let the Negroes snicker and the crackers laugh! Those are the facts, son. The only ones I even pretend to please are big white folk, and even those I control more than they control me. This is a power set-up, son, and I’m at the controls. You think about that. When you buck against me, you’re bucking against power, rich white folk’s power, the nation’s power—which means government power!” (p. 142).

And as if that weren’t conclusive enough, “(w)ell, that’s the way it is. It’s a nasty deal and I don’t always like it myself. But you listen to me: I didn’t make it, and I know that I can’t change it. But I’ve made my place in it and I’ll have every Negro in the country hanging on tree limbs by morning if it means staying where I am” (p. 143).

For our protagonist, it’s an education of sorts — not in class or race consciousness, but in something much more Machiavellian. And while the context is not the traditional master-slave one we’ve all seen and read so much about, the lesson is at least as brutal—coming, as it does, from one (older) black man to another (younger) one.

A few chapters later, we learn the real truth about this college president — and it’s not pretty, or even collegiate. It’s just downright scoundrelly, manipulative, and evil.

A similar sentiment comes to light further on in Ellison’s novel when our protagonist finds himself in desperate straits in a paint factory on Long Island. He now needs a job, and he’s been steered into this one by circumstances indirectly engineered by the same college president. This sentiment, however, is expressed by another black man whose rung on the social ladder is considerably lower than any our protagonist has yet had to deal with. “‘That’s all right then. I have to watch them personnel fellows. One of them thinks he’s going to git me out of here, when he ought to know by now he’s wasting his time. Lucis Brockway not only intends to protect hisself, he knows how/I> to do it! Everybody knows I been here ever since there’s been a here — even helped dig the first foundation. The Old Man hired me, nobody else; and, by God, it’ll take the Old Man to fire me!’”

Finally, there’s a much longer episode in which our protagonist finds himself part of the Brotherhood — which may in fact be symbolic and based on Ellison’s own life, or may not be. Are the rants of those in the Brotherhood reminiscent of those who considered themselves part of the avant-garde in the early Socialist movement? I could conjecture, but I’d prefer not to. What I will say, however, is that I found it surprisingly easy to substitute ‘Comrade’ for ‘Brother’ every time I read it. Perhaps the following paragraph on p. 505 is most indicative of Ellison’s take on the whole matter (even if only through his mouthpiece character):

“‘Look at me! Look at me!’ I said. ‘Everywhere I’ve turned(,) somebody has wanted to sacrifice me for my good — only they were the ones who benefited. And now(,) we start on the old sacrificial merry-go-round. At what point do we stop? Is this the new true definition, is Brotherhood a matter of sacrificing the weak? If so, at what point do we stop?’”

An Oops! occurs on p. 427: “…but here again I was balked.” That I know of, “balk,” when used as a verb, can only be used intransitively and in the active voice. I have no idea whether Ellison intended it here as a complement or as a passive construction. In either case, it’s incorrect. I frankly also have to question the use of “moil” on p. 486 and again on p. 493. It doesn’t work even in a figurative sense.

What are my gripes about Ellison’s Invisible Man? They’re the same gripes I’d have about most anyone’s debut novel: the dialogue is at times amateurish, and the scene shifts are much too abrupt. Moreover, I feel he exaggerates a great many situations in order to make his point. As a result, his writing frequently feels didactic when not downright propagandistic. Most of the book is just a turgid rant.

Apart from the above nits ‘n’ crits, I felt far too often that scenes were ill-defined, too hastily composed and not reviewed for clarity and narrative logic. It’s as if Ralph Ellison had not only been high on his own art, but also high on the contemplation of its reception in the literary world. ‘Histrionic’ is a word that came readily to mind throughout my reading – which is all very well and good for a college freshman just starting out on a writing career, but certainly not for a National Book Award winner.

And a final nit … if Ellison (or our protagonist) can pull this one off (on p. 511), he’s a better man than I am: “I lay on my stomach, my head resting on the back of my hand thinking, where is it coming from?” I could say as much for the novel — albeit not with the same contortionist’s skill.

RRB
09/27/14
Brooklyn, NY
( )
  RussellBittner | Dec 12, 2014 |
This ground breaking novel is the story of a boy growing up to be a man in America. Except, the boy is black and he very quickly learns that the rules that apply to white young men in the US do not apply to him. Following the Puritan work ethic of toiling to make a living will not guarantee a black man success. What I found very interesting about the reviews of this book is that everyone refers to the racism that was rampant in the US in the 1950s and 1960s. We are now over 60 years after this book was written and a young black man was shot in Ferguson, MO by a police officer and even though the black man was unarmed and had his hands up, the officer was not indicted. It scares me to think that this book shocked the liberal world with an honest description of racism and yet, in parts of this great country, it has not changed. I really hope that more people read this book and decide that racism is not to be tolerated. ( )
  jmoncton | Nov 30, 2014 |
Quotable quotes:
- "I didn't want to be trouble to anyone." I said. "Everybody has to be trouble to somebody."
- "And I knew that it was better to live out one's own absurdity than die for that of others..."
- "It's 'winner take nothing' that is the great truth of our country or any country. Life is to be lived, not controlled; and humanity is won by continuing to play in face of certain defeat."
- “And my problem was that I always tried to go in everyone's way but my own.”
- “And the mind that has conceived a plan of living must never lose sight of the chaos against which that pattern was conceived. That goes for societies as well as for individuals.”
- “It took me a long time and much painful boomeranging of my expectations to achieve a realization everyone else appears to have been born with: That I am nobody but myself.”

As you can see from above, I found this book to be really damn quotable. Except for a few moments (some of his very long descriptions), this book was rather amazing. Ellison had an impressive ability to mask the rise and fall of the unnamed protagonist in a way that didn't make the stories trajectory incredibly obvious.

My mind is kind of out of it, so it seems I can't come up with a good review. To make it short, I thoroughly enjoyed this book and would recommend it to anyone who had anyone interest in reading it (provided they are willing to read some fairly dark stuff). ( )
  michplunkett | Jul 14, 2014 |
A wonderful book about an educated gifted speaker in a white world of prejudice. ( )
  JVioland | Jul 14, 2014 |
This is an extraordinary novel that reads like a jazz rendition of an old New Orleans standard tune; it has themes a plenty, highs and lows, caricatures, exaggerations, is riotously funny and strains at the seams to hold it's central motif. The hero, whose name is kept secret is the invisible man of the title and his story is told in the first person. He is not literally invisible, but it is the "real me" his true self that other people cannot see and Ellison is suggesting that this is the issue for many people. It was particularly applicable to black people in 1952 when the novel was published and was seen as a novel of protest for black people who were striving to achieve equality and who were fighting a white majority.

The book can be read as a bildungsroman as we follow the hero through a number of set piece events; the battle royal, his expulsion from college, his job in the paint factory, his work for the Brotherhood, the death of Clifton his colleague and finally; the riot in Harlem. At the end of these events our hero has learnt much about himself and the world around him; "None of us know who he is and where he is going" he says in an epilogue, but it is evident that some people need to have control over others and these others are the invisible people. Everything our hero attempts to achieve turns to dust and other people suffer; his repeated question is "Did I do something wrong" it is only when he realises that he is not to blame that he can attain some sort of peace with himself.

The set piece events are exaggerated for effect and they can be very funny, but the humour is sometimes black. The first of these is the battle royal where a number of young negroes are rounded up to fight until the last man is left standing at a smokers club. Many of the pillars of the community are present to watch and the atmosphere becomes something akin to an event that could have been staged in the Coliseum at Rome as first the young boys are made to watch a nude blonde woman before starting in on the fighting. The survivors are then encouraged to fight for coins, scraps of metal that have been placed on an electrified metal meshing before their ordeal is over. Our hero has been roped into the event even though he is ostensibly there to make a speech as a reward for his oratorical skills at school. He finally gets to make his speech and impresses enough to win a scholarship to a black college. Other set pieces involving our hero are equally dramatic and equally funny. He chauffeurs a white trustee of his college and takes him to the old slave quarters of the town ending up at a bordello, where he quickly loses control of events. When he moves up to New York he gets a job in a paint factory and succeeds in being unwittingly instrumental in blowing up the plant. Everything seems to happen to him and at times it reads like a particularly rumbustious comedy as he lurches from one disaster to another. Ellison manages to move the story along at a cracking pace during these passages, but sometimes loses a little control as the humour can be in a sort of unnatural tension with our hero's attempts to find a meaning to everything that is cracking off around him. There is no doubting that it is fun to read and elements of illusion and even fantasy add to the mix and the novel borders on being a Rabelaisian nightmare at times; I am thinking here of our hero in the paint factory infirmary, undergoing a kind of lobotomy as a cure for his sickness. Is he mad one wonders? Is it all a dream? these questions contrast with some gritty realism forcing the reader to continually take stock of what is happening.

Illusion and fantasy elements are given extra credence by some unforgettable caricatures of leading characters. Lucius Brockway, the janitor in the basement of the paint factory, who may or may not be have delusions of grandeur, Ras the destroyer; the black activist who charges into the riot in Harlem, spear in hand on an old nag. Brother Jack the red haired one eyed leader of the Brotherhood who imposes a Kafka like discipline and secrecy over much of the Brotherhoods tactics. These larger than life men and women just stray far enough outside of true characterisation to turn them into symbols of a deeper malaise and there is much symbolism in this novel. Darkness and light are the most obvious, but there is also chaos, control, blindness, invisibility, music and illusion.

One mustn't lose sight that the novel is about a 'them and us' situation, blacks and whites. The whites are in control of much that is important and our hero sees his role as raising the consciousness of black people and in doing so Ellison raises the consciousness of the reader to the racial issues affecting America in the 1950's. The book can be seen as a historical document of race relations at the time written by a black man writing with passion and zeal about real issues in America. There are very few shades of grey, but I think it would be a mistake to limit the books message to this idea, as what was true for black people in America is equally true for many minorities today. It is a book that highlights the plight of invisible people everywhere who are subject to unjust control of their lives in an effort to keep them invisible. Our hero comes to a sort of realisation at the end and Ellison starts the novel with a powerhouse of a prologue where he sets up many of the symbols that are key to his text.

The shock value of the novel has dissipated over the intervening years, but the energy and quality of much of the writing is still there to be admired. It is not evenly paced and sometimes gets a little lost in its own energy, but Ellison stops it running away with itself. Some brilliant set pieces and there is much to discuss especially the symbolism, although it can feel a little uneven. An important book and one that I greatly enjoyed. A four star read (probably would have been five stars in 1952) ( )
9 vote baswood | Feb 24, 2014 |
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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.
 

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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 Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:45:00 -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)

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