On the eve of its seventieth birthday, Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (1952) occupies a unique place in the American canon. On the one hand, it was instantly heralded as a Great American Novel---indeed, as Lawrence Buell notes in his study of GANs, it was the first novel by an African American to be universally admitted to the pantheon of important national fiction. At the same time, the book's subsequent reputation has ridden a rollercoaster of praise and complaint suggesting our uncertainty about what degree an epic novel about race relations should emphasize the political over the aesthetic. But while some critics find the novel a little too conservative in its insistence on the absolute autonomy of individuals to create their own identity in America, there is no doubt that Ellison's tense interrogation of the power institutions like the police and political groups exploit over minorities makes it absolutely relevant to the Black Lives Matter era.
In this episode, we explore how Ellison fused European modernism with African American jazz to create the singular voice of his narrator, whose name we're never told. We examine how the plot's picaresque form differs from Bildungsroman many coming-of-age novelists were rewriting in the 1950s and delve deep into the use of symbolism, perhaps the most telltale trait at the time Ellison wrote of a GAN's "literariness." We ask why Ellison never published a second novel after Invisible Man even as he was able to produce some of the most enduring essays on race in literature and culture until his death in 1994. Most importantly, we ask what it means for people to be invisible in American society, and how Ellison's unique exploration of the issue results in a philosophically complex story that insists that the Self must first retreat from the world to forge itself before emerging to rewrite the cliches and stereotypes the culture imposes on it.
Music in order of appearance: “Old Ralley” by Lobo Loco; "Up in My Jam" by Kubbi; "Rap Dreams" by LOWERCASE_n; and “Inspector Invisible,” also by Lobo Loco. Clips of Ellison courtesy of (respectively) the Iowa State University Library; New York Public Library; and the Oklahoma Historical Society Film and Video Archives.