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Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

Invisible Man (original 1952; edition 1952)

by Ralph Ellison

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10,179117282 (3.98)491
Title:Invisible Man
Authors:Ralph Ellison
Info:Vintage (1995), Edition: 2, Paperback, 608 pages
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Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison (1952)

1950s (25)
1940s (34)

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Classic, wonderfully read, and with a devastating view of being black in America... The unnamed narrator is not all that likable, and there really isn't much of a plot... at 18-1/2 hours, it does drag a bit, but an important piece of American literature nonetheless. ( )
  DavidO1103 | Sep 12, 2015 |
"I am an invisible man," states the forever nameless narrator. "When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination--indeed, everything and anything except me." So starts the story. Expelled from a southern Negro college for nothing he did wrong our young nameless guide goes to New York to find his fortune. Sadly he learns that things and people are not often what they seem and even the best intentioned folks will use you to meet their ends and then stab you in the back.

Through vignettes shared from the narrators life the reader gets a taste of what life was like for a black man living in a time of social and racial upheaval. Some are humorous, some are heart wrenching and some are truly disturbing. So disturbing that our narrator finds it preferable to live as a recluse in a basement than to encounter society.

In discussing this book with another avid reader we discovered that is speaks to different people in different ways, which is always the sign of a truly good book well worth reading. We never did agree on what the ending meant! This is a beautifully written book well deserving of the accolades and awards it received when first published. And, unfortunately despite the fact that it was published 60 years ago many of the issues are still unresolved.
( )
2 vote ChristineEllei | Jul 14, 2015 |
In his vivid, dreamlike prose, Ellison ably explores race, identity, power, and powerlessness in mid-century America.
  ashtron | Jul 14, 2015 |
Even though I knew this novel is consistently lauded as one of the best ever written it still exceeded my expectations in every way. The novel feels nothing like the writing of Richard Wright or James Baldwin. I deeply respect those writers but a lot of their creative force seems muted--it's tied up in the need they perceive to explain things to white people. Ellison's creative force in contrast shoots out in all directions, and from every page, without apology, without fear. The character of Ras the Exhorter expresses a belief in black separatism that would never have appeared in a Wright novel. I loved the way every black character is eloquent and expressive, too, no matter what his situation--even Jim Trueblood, who manages to defend his incestuous relationship with his daughter in a way that leaves his white listener, a 'multimillionaire' from New England, feeling drawn in, and sympathetic, almost as if Trueblood has somehow exonerated himself.

I still really don't know what to think, or what it means, but I know this is one of the great books I've read. ( )
1 vote poingu | Jan 31, 2015 |
“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.

Brooklyn, NY
( )
  RussellBittner | Dec 12, 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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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Ellison, Ralphprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Ellison, RalphIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed

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"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
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)

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