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The Great American Novel

INVISIBLE MAN, By Ralph Ellison, Random House: 440 pp., $23 RALPH ELLISON: Emergence of Genius, By Lawrence Jackson, John Wiley: 498 pp., $30

September 15, 2002|PATRICK GILES | Patrick Giles is associate editor of Interview magazine.

I first read "Invisible Man" when I lived not far from where its author wrote it, while discovering how I, too, could be invisible. I had moved to Harlem with a friend in 1985. We were practically the only whites in that part of town and the first to live on our block.

"I can't remember the last time your kind of people moved in here," an elderly resident admitted. After some surrounding dismay and amusement ("Well, there goes the neighborhood," our next-door neighbor sighed to her husband), we did make friends; perhaps inevitably, we were also harassed by members of a nearby Nation of Islam mosque. But the majority of Harlemites responded to their new white neighbors in a way I hadn't expected: They looked away when we passed, didn't answer when we said "Hello" or "Excuse me," walked around us at the supermarket as though they had simply erased us from sight.

It wasn't long after moving to Harlem that I stumbled onto "Invisible Man," which is now 50 years old and is being commemorated by a reissue of the original edition and a documentary devoted to its author, Ralph Ellison, which aired earlier this year on PBS' "American Masters" series. Although I knew of Ellison and his book, teachers and friends urged me not to read him when I discovered African American fiction; so it wasn't until I picked up a copy of "Invisible Man" at our local library that I fell under its startling, almost unnerving spell.

The novel is the confession--"confession" as St. Augustine used it: a factual and spiritual autobiography--of a narrator who is never called by nor tells us his name (I came to call him "Invisible"). Self-sequestered in a sub-basement somewhere on the outskirts of Harlem, Invisible writes a kind of anti-bildungsroman. Expelled from a prestigious black school for innocently allowing a white benefactor to learn more about the ignoble suffering racism brings to black life than the college's president deems beneficial, the narrator makes his way to New York in hopes of reversing his fall from favor. Then through a series of comical, harrowing, even fantastic experiences, he discovers a world so betrayed by fear, hatred and absurdity that his black identity makes it impossible for anyone to see or understand him. Once full of hopes for a brilliant future, Ellison's narrator ends up living underground in the invisibility of truth, using his words rather than his presence to reach a world unable to recognize him.

Walking to and from the library from which I had borrowed "Invisible Man," I often saw an old gentleman who sat on a nearby park bench. We never spoke, but he almost always gave me a friendly nod, sometimes noticing the pile of books under my arm with an amused expression. Then one day in 1994, I opened the New York Times and, accompanying an article about Ellison (who had recently died), I saw a photo of the man I had passed again and again on my way home.

For a long time I had been obsessed by Invisible's travails, even trying to track down where he fell into a manhole and disappeared. Later, as I studied Ellison's novel and life, I understood better the reasons for my own invisibility: Differences--racial, sexual, economic and religious--challenge Americans and perpetuate their inability to recognize one another as fellows entangled by history, language, hopes, hatreds and dreams. A look at the book's reception, from the year it was published in 1952, shows how many people, in refusing to acknowledge this behavior, unwittingly act it out.

Ellison's work attained almost instant "classic" status. It was avidly praised and discussed by a large circle of critics and readers. More than 10 years after its publication, Book Week magazine in 1965 polled literary critics to select the greatest American novel written after World War II; the novel was their choice. But over time, "Invisible Man" lost much of its audience. The activism of the civil rights era, which drew fire from the book's themes, dissipated in the late 1960s, as nationalist and separatist agendas gained popularity in black communities. The banner of Black Power was picked up by the Black Arts Movement, which emphasized creativity in the service of political agendas and suspected older artists.

Ellison and "Invisible Man" were subject to intense suspicion. His novel was denounced as a betrayal of black life, an attempt to win favor among whites, and its author was heckled during personal appearances. These often shallow and self-righteous misreadings of Ellison endure. (Even in the PBS Ellison documentary, Amiri Baraka, a fervent "Invisible" antagonist, can be seen shaking his head sadly over Ellison.)

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