“Invisible Man”: A Review

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First published in 1952, Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison has been a fixture of the “American Canon” and has found its way on to high school english teacher’s reading list for their students ever since. Only recently have I gotten around to reading it.

I knew it primarily as a book whose cover had been blown up to wall poster size and placed on the walls inside Barnes & Nobles. As such, I found myself dismissing it.

This was a mistake.

Invisible Man is a masterpiece. And while I will not say that it reaches the first tier of books that I have read (like Anna KareninaMoby Dick, The Things They Carried and The Quiet American for example), it is a strong ‘second tier’ book. It is both beautifully written and a powerful psychological and sociological story as well as a meditation on what it means to be African-American and this communities relationship and future with the white majority.

Ellison’s protagonist, which we suspect is heavily autobiographical, undergoes a personal journey which we can read as symbolic for the journey of the African-American community. Born into a poor share-cropper community in the south, he wins an essay contest. Before he can claim this symbolic reward, he undergoes a savage battle royale with other blacks for a blood-thirsty all-white audience of the local “great and good”.

The symbolic reward is a brief case and scholarship to a black college which we gather is the Tuskegee Institute. He proceeds to become a symbol of the “Atlanta Compromise” mindset which acquiesced to Jim Crow laws. This goes disastrously wrong, and expelled, he moves to New York City.

Here, after a spell of working in American industry, which is a disaster, he is treated in a “factory hospital”. But even this hospital is a front for social domination; a pseudo-scientific psychological lobotomy is preformed and the un-named protagonist undergoes a major crisis of identity.

Finally, in the last third of the book, the protagonist falls in with “the Brotherhood” run by “Brother Jack”. This shadowy organisation we can take to be communism; as the references to “dialectics” and “materialism” and being on “the right side of history” come thick and heavy. Brother Jack at a key moment babbles in some foreign language, and the protagonist becomes obsessed with destroying “the Brotherhood” as simply an other form of white social control of the black community.

The first several chapters I thought were pure literary lyricism. I was sweating: how had I not heard of this book earlier? But to be honest, the book did drag a little. Not to say it becomes boring; it simply is unable to maintain the brilliance of the first few chapters. The plot becomes harder to follow after the protagonist leaves the hospital; the book becomes more literal and less literary/symbolic/metaphorical.

But do not let this dissuade you from reading the book.

For those of you interested in philosophy, I wish I could send copies of Foucault’s works back in time to Ellison when he was writing this book; there is an affinity to later philosophical insights that Ellison seems to be chasing after in Invisible Man. Ultimately, Ellison’s protagonist comes to personal conclusions rather than sweeping socio-political programatic solutions. The reader is left skeptical, as regardless of your political persuasion, you will see your favoured program dragged through the harsh street of reality. This novel manages to really explore the options that African-Americans as individuals and as a community are faced with.

True to its title, the protagonist bounces from one situation to another and quickly has his illusions stripped from him as other characters in the book (with varying levels of symbolic intensity) mistake the protagonist for what ever it is they want or expect or fear. This is the best part of the book. Watch as pillars of the community profess their mindset, ulterior motives, and fears, all projected onto this invisible everyman of a protagonist.

Without revealing too much more, there is also a character who is physically black, but thanks to his WWI European experience is white. And of course this character is kept in an insane asylum. A powerful and interesting character who only makes two brief appearances, but is the sort of character I think someone should do a P.h.D. english paper on.

If you where in any way intrigued or angered by what has been happening in Ferguson, you need to read this book. This book should be required reading in American classrooms.

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