"The Deep Pit"--a review of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man

by Lloyd Brown

in Masses & Mainstream (vol. 5, no. 6 [June 1952])

"Whence all this passion toward conformity?" asks Ralph Ellison at the end of his novel, Invisible Man. He should know, because his whole book conforms exactly to the formula for literary success in today's market. Despite the murkiness of his avant-garde symbolism, the pattern is clear and may be charted as precisely as a publisher's quarterly sales report.

Chapter 1: A 12-page scene of sadism (a command performance of 10 Negro youths savagely beating; each other for the Bourbons reward of scattered coins), sex (a dance by a naked whore with a small American flag tattooed upon her belly), and shock (literally applied to the performers by an electrically charged rug) .

Chapter 2: Featuring a 14-page scene in which a poor Negro farmer tells a white millionaire in great detail how he committed incest with his daughter; and the millionaire, who burns to do the same to his own daughter, rewards the narrator with a hundred-dollar bill.

And so on, to the central design of American Century literature anti-Communism.

Author Ellison will reap more than scattered change or a crumpled bill for his performance. Invisible Man is already visible on the best-seller lists. The quivering excitement of the commercial reviewers matches that of the panting millionaire.

Strangely, there is much truth in their shouts of acclaim: "It is a sensational and feverishly emotional book. It will shock and sicken some readers . . . the hero is a symbol of doubt, perplexity, betrayal and defeat . . . tough, brutal and [again] sensational," says Orville Prescott in the New York Times about "the most impressive work of filction by an American Negro which I have ever read."

"Here," writes Daniel James in the war-mongering New Leader, "the author establishes, in new terms, the commonness of every human's fate: nothingness."

"Authentic air of unreality," exults the reviewer in the Sunday Times, about the part dealing with the "Brotherhood" (Ellison's euphemism for the Communist Party).

The Sunday New York Herald Tribune man knows what he likes too:

"For a grand finale theres the hot, dry August night of the big riot when the hungry looted, when Ras the destroyer of white appeasersalone was out for blood; when Sybil, the chestnut-haired nymphomaniac, was raped by Santa Claus and when the Invisible Man, still clutching his briefease, fell through an open grill into a coal cellarand stayed there to write a book...."

The Saturday Review of Literature is also impressed with this work that is as "'unreal' as a surrealist painting. . . . It is unlikely that Invisible Man is intended to be a realistic novel, although the detail is as teal as the peeling paint on an old house."

At this point a reviewer in M&M might very well say "Amen!" and leave the unpleasant subject. But the commercial claque does more than extol Ellison's "surrealist horror," "well-ordered dissonance," "Dostoyevskianism," and thrill to "Harlem's slough of despond." We see that the same Saturday Review critic who is happily certain that this is not a realistic novel insists that ". . . here, for the first time, is the whole truth about the Negro in America."

The mind reels before a statement such as that, compounded as it is of an ignorance so stupendous that it can only be matched by its arrogance.

Ostensibly set in Negro life, the novel is profoundly anti-Negro and it is this quality which moved several of the chauvinist critics to say that its author has "transcended race" and "writes as well as a white man" the highest accolade they can bestow!

Here, as in James Jones' whine From Here to Eternity, is the one-man-against-the-world theme, a theme which cannot tell the "whole truth" or any part of the truth about the Negro people in America or about any other people anywhere.

Ellison's narrator-hero is a shadowy concept, lacking even the identity of a name, who tells of his Odyssey through a Negro college in the South, then to Harlem where he is hired by the Communists as their mass leader ("How would you like to be the new Booker T. Washington?'') for $300 cash advance and the munificent, depression-period pay of $60 per week; he is quickly disillusioned and, battered in body and soul, finds refuge down a man-hole from whence to write a book about it all.

It would not be in order here to speak of responsibility, for the writer has anticipated and answered that objection in the prologue: "I can hear you say, 'What a horrible, irresponsible bastard!' And you're right. I leap to agree with you. I am one of the most irresponsible beings that ever lived."

Nor will I here attempt to refute the particular variations of the antiCommunist lie that Ellison tells. Some idea of his writing on this subject can be gained when we see even the New Leader, second to none in Redbaiting viciousness, complaining that "Ellison's Communists are hard to believe, they are so unrelievedly humorless, cynical and degenerate (including the black Communists)." And the Nation's reviewerwho says he is "ready to believe" the worst about "Harlem Stalinists"grumbles: "The trouble with such caricature is that it undermines the intention behind it." (Nevertheless he finds the book "exalted." )

And just as thc author makes his irresponsibility undebatable, so does he help establish the fact that his work is alien to the Negro people and has its source in upper-class corruption. According to an interview in the Saturday Review it was "T. S. Eliot's 'The Wasteland' which . . changed the direction of his life: 'Eliot said something to my sensibilities that I couldn't find in Negro poets who wrote of experiences I myself had gone through.'"

Indeed, there is nothing in common between the wailing eunuchs of decay on the one hand, and the passionate strength and beauty of Negro poetry on the other. One can only speculate as to what it was in Ellison's "sensibilities" that drew him to Eliot and away from his peopleand away from all people. But the result of the infection is a tragedy: the firstborn of a talented young Negro writer enters the world with no other life than its maggots.

Ellison is also a disciple of the Richard Wright-Chester Himes school and shares with these writers their bitter alienation from the Negro people, their hatred and contempt of the Negro working masses, their renegades' malice and their servility to the masters. Cut of from the surging mainstream of Negro life and struggle and creativity, they stagnate in Paris, wander on lonely crusades, or spit out at the world from a hole in the ground.

But against them and their inspirers is the growing renaissance of the Negro people's culturewriters, playwrights, poets, singers, musicians, dancers, artists and actors, who are linked with their people, who love their people and who sing with the Negro poet of long ago: "Lord, I don't want to be like Judas In my heart....

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