American Dreams

06.28.12

American Nightmare: Ralph Ellison’s ‘Invisible Man’ at 60

Sixty years after Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man was published, we still haven’t woken up from the national nightmare he describes. Nathaniel Rich on its terrifying vision.

“I recognize no dichotomy between art and protest,” said Ralph Ellison in his 1955 Paris Review interview, but it is impossible not to recognize this dichotomy in Invisible Man. In Ellison’s novel, art pauses for protest, which usually takes the form of sermons, speeches, and lectures about race and American history. Saul Bellow, an early and vocal champion of Ellison’s, made the point in a private letter: “I myself distinguish between the parts of the novel that were written and those that were constructed as part of the argument; they are not alike in quality.” The sections to which Bellow refers—the speech of the blind preacher, the narrator’s work for the political group known as the Brotherhood, his seduction of Sybil—have aged the least gracefully. But Invisible Man remains a terror. Ellison dramatized, as forcefully as any novelist of the last century, Stephen Dedalus’s vision of history. In Invisible Man we experience American history as a nightmare. Sixty years after the novel’s publication we still haven’t woken up.

The most succinct synopsis of Invisible Man comes from Ellison himself, in a letter sent to his literary agent in 1946, just as he was beginning work on the novel:

The invisible man will move upward through Negro life, coming into contact with its various forms and personality types; will operate in the Negro middle class, in the leftwing movement and descend again into the disorganized atmosphere of the Harlem underworld. He will move upward in society through opportunism and submissiveness. Psychologically he is a traitor, to himself, to his people, and to democracy … He is also to be a depiction of a certain type of Negro humanity that operates in the vacuum created by white America in its failure to see Negroes as human.

Ellison held true to this mission, though Bellow could have gone a step farther in his criticism: Ellison’s argument is strongest when he abandons the essayistic mode entirely and plunges into the realm of imagination. We enter this hallucinatory sphere in the opening paragraph of the prologue. The voice of an invisible man emanates from a dark basement that “is damp and cold like a grave.” The imagery is ghoulish and carnivalesque:

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…you often doubt if you really exist. You wonder whether you aren’t simply a phantom in other people’s minds. Say, a figure in a nightmare …

The narrator’s nightmare begins in earnest in the first chapter, when his grandfather, on his deathbed, gives the narrator an ominous piece of advice. “Live with your head in the lion’s mouth,” he says. “Overcome ’em with yeses, undermine ’em with grins, agree ’em to death and destruction, let ’em swoller you till they vomit or bust wide open.” The old man’s words, Ellison writes, “were like a curse.”

The curse is fulfilled almost instantly. The narrator, having delivered a well-praised commencement speech at his high-school graduation, is invited to repeat it at a gathering of the town’s leading white citizens in the ballroom of a grand hotel. As in a nightmare, the narrator opens the door to the ballroom and finds himself in one of the lower circles of hell. A faceless person casually explains that, since he has “to be there anyway,” he “might as well take part in the battle royal.” As in a nightmare, he takes this bizarre news in stride, accepting it without question or objection. His only misgivings have to do with the boys he will fight against (they’re rough and hostile), and not with the absurdity of his assignment, though it does briefly occur to him that the battle royal might detract from the dignity of his speech. Boxing gloves appear on his fists. Before he can enter the ring, however, another act must finish: a magnificent blonde, completely naked, writhing to the vibrations of a sensuous clarinet, is assaulted by the ravenous, drooling men. But this stunning flare of violence is merely a precursor to the main event.

The reader receives the blows, chokes on the cigar smoke, and begins to perceive the enormity of America’s greatest tragedy.

The black boys are ordered to enter the makeshift ring. The white big shots circle them, standing in tuxedoes, wolfing down buffet food, drinking liquor, smoking black cigars. They urge the boys to kill each other. The boys are blindfolded, and again we are, with the narrator, plunged into darkness. Fists and kicks land from all angles, blood spills on the floor, the narrator chokes on the cigar smoke. The scene is a masterpiece of storytelling, transfixing and indelible. But it is also the purest expression of Ellison’s argument: a race stripped of volition and dignity, divided against itself, callously exploited, rendered both invisible and blind (“the boys groped about like blind, cautious crabs”). It is all there. The reader receives the blows, chokes on the cigar smoke, and begins to perceive the enormity of America’s greatest tragedy.

The narrator’s personal nightmare, however, has only just begun. In the subsequent chapters the narrator is pulled, inexorably, to new depths of disillusionment and wretchedness. At college he is assigned to chauffeur Mr. Norton, a white benefactor who requests to be taken beyond the campus’s neatly manicured grounds to the outskirts of town. There they encounter a series of grotesqueries so abhorrent that the narrator is expelled from the college. Adrift in New York City he finds himself participating in rituals just as brutal and meaningless as what he encountered in the battle royal. His descent reaches its nadir in the hospital of a paint factory where he lies, paralyzed, listening to his doctors speak of electroshock therapy and lobotomy procedures. Though the scenarios feel painfully, vividly real, this is not social realism—a form Ellison explicitly rejected. (“I am not primarily concerned with injustice,” he said, “but with art.”) At his most devastating, Ellison abandons any pretence of literary realism. The mode, instead, is horror. It is Hieronymus Bosch, Francisco Goya, Franz Kafka.

It is also G.K. Chesterton, a writer from a very different place and time who nevertheless wrote a novel that bears much in common with Invisible Man. In The Man Who Was Thursday, subtitled A Nightmare, revolutionaries use subterfuge and disguise to enter the innermost chambers of political power. The novel becomes increasingly fantastic, and chaotic, climaxing in an absurdist celebration of the amorality that lies behind the actions of all ruling governments. Stylistically it is a progenitor of Invisible Man, which Ellison described as “realism that goes beyond and becomes surrealism.” In both novels, power is experienced as a form of madness—think of the red-faced men in the hotel ballroom, reduced to drooling, violent savages. Ellison’s hero, like Chesterton’s, discovers his own identity through a process of negation. Disenchanted and sickened by his experiences in society, he comes to realize the cruel extent of his powerlessness. The only escape available to him appears in the form of a manhole, through which he escapes underground. An invisible man can’t be a college president, a business leader, or a politician. But at least he is spared the indignities of an oppressed class. If you can’t see him, he might be anywhere. He might be everywhere.

Other Notable novels of 1952:

Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov
Giant by Edna Ferber
The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
The Natural by Bernard Malamud
East of Eden by John Steinbeck
Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut

Pulitzer Prize in Fiction:

The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk

National Book Award in fiction:

From Here to Eternity by James Jones

Bestselling novel of the year:

The Silver Chalice by Thomas B. Costain

This monthly series will chronicle the history of the American century as seen through the eyes of its novelists. The goal is to create a literary anatomy of the last century—or, to be precise, from 1900 to 2012. In each column I’ll write about a single novel and the year it was published. The novel may not be the bestselling book of the year, the most praised, or the most highly awarded—though awards do have a way of fixing an age’s conventional wisdom in aspic. The idea is to choose a novel that, looking back from a safe distance, seems most accurately, and eloquently, to speak for the time in which it was written. Other than that there are few rules. I won’t pick any stinkers.

Previous Selections:

1902—Brewster’s Millions by George Barr McCutcheon


1912—The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man by James Weldon Johnson


1922—Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis

1932—Tobacco Road by Erskine Caldwell

1942—A Time to be Born by Dawn Powell