review of: Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man

by Irving Howe

published in The Nation May 10, 1952

  • Links to Ellison material

    This novel is a soaring and exalted record of a Negro's journey through contemporary America in search of success, companionship, and, finally, himself; like all our fictions devoted to the idea of experience, it moves from province to city, from naive faith to disenchantment; and despite its structural incoherence and occasional pretentiousness of manner, it is one of the few remarkable first novels we have had in some years.

    The beginning is nightmare. A Negro boy, timid and compliant, comes to a white smoker in a Southern town: he is to be awarded a scholarship. Together with several other Negroes he is rushed to the front of the ballroom, where a sumptuous blonde tantalizes and frightens them by dancing in the nude. Blindfolded, the Negro boys stage a "battle royal," a free-for-all in which they pummel each other to the drunken shouts of the whites. "Practical jokes," humiliations, terrors--and then the boy delivers a prepared speech of gratitude to his white benefactors.

    Nothing, fortunately, in the rest of the novel is quite so harrowing. The unnamed hero goes to his Southern college and is expelled for having innocently taken a white donor through a Negro gin-mill; he then leaves for New York, where he works in a factory, becomes a soapboxer for the Harlem Communists, a big wheel in the Negro world, and the darling of the Stalinist bohemia; and finally, in some not quite specified way, he finds himself after witnessing a frenzied riot in Harlem.

    Though immensely gifted, Ellison is not a finished craftsman. The tempo of his book is too feverish, and at times almost hysterical. Too often he tries to overwhelm the reader; but when he should be doing something other then overwhelm, when he should be persuading or suggesting or simply telling, he forces and tears.

    Because the book is written in the first person singular, Ellison cannot establish ironic distance between his hero and himself, or between the matured "I" telling the story and the "I" who is its victim. And because the experience is so apocalyptic and magnified, it absorbs and then dissolves the hero; every minor character comes through brilliantly, but the seeing "I" is seldom seen.

    The middle section of novel concerns the Harlem Stalinists, and it is the only one that strikes me as not quite true. Writing with evident bitterness, Ellison makes his Stalinists so stupid and vicious that one cannot understand how they could have attracted him. I am ready to believe that the Communist Party manipulates its members with conscious cynicism, but I am quite certain that this cynicism is both more guarded and more complex than Ellison assumes; surely no Stalinist leader would tell a prominent Negro member, "You were not hired to think" -- even if that were what he secretly felt. The trouble with such caricature is that it undermines the intention behind it, making the Stalinists seem not the danger they are but mere clowns.

    Equally disturbing is Ellison's apparent wish to be intellectually up-to-date. As his hero quits the Communist Party, he wonders: "Could politics ever be an expression of love?" This portentous and perhaps meaningless question, whatever its place in a little magazine, is surely inappropriate to a character who has been presented mainly as a passive victim of experience. Not am I persuaded by the hero's final discovery that "my world has become one of infinite possibilities," his refusal to be the invisible man whose body is manipulated by various social groups. Though the unqualified assertion of individuality is at the moment a favorite notion of literary people, it is also a vapid one, for the unfortunate fact remains that to define one's individuality is to stumble over social fences that do not allow one "infinite possibilities." It is hardly an accident that Ellison's hero does not even attempt to specify those possibilities.

    These faults mar Invisible Man but do not destroy it. For Ellison has an abundance of that primary talent without which neither craft nor intelligence can save a novelist; he is richly, wildly inventive; his scenes rise and dip with tension, his people bleed, his language stings. No other writer has captured so much of the confusion and agony, the hidden gloom and surface gaiety of Negro life. His ear for Negro speech is magnificent: a share-cropper calmly describing how he seduced his own daughter, a Harlem street-vender spinning jive, a West Indian woman inciting her men to resist an eviction. The rhythm of the prose is harsh and tensed, like a beat of harried alertness. The observation is expert: Ellison knows exactly how zoot-suiters walk, making stylization their principle of life, and exactly how the antagonism between American and West Indian Negroes works itself out in speech and humor. For all his self-involvement, he is capable of extending himself toward his people, of accepting them as they are, in their blindness and hope. And in his final scene he has created and unforgettable image: "Ras the Destroyer," a Negro nationalist, appears on a horse, dressed in the costume of an Abyssinian chieftain, carrying spear and shield, and charging wildly into the police -- a black Quixote, mad, absurd, yet unbearably pathetic.

    Some reviewers, from the best of intentions, have assured their readers that this is a good novel and not merely a good Negro novel. But of course Invisible Man is a Negro novel -- what white man could ever have written it? It is drenched in Negro life, talk, music: it tells us how distant even the best of the whites are from the black men that pass them on the streets; and it is written from a particular compound of emotions that no white man could possibly simulate. To deny that this is a Negro novel is to deprive the Negroes of their one basic right: the right to cry out their difference.


    Document URL:
    Last modified: Thursday, 31-May-2007 09:42:21 EDT