Book Review: Invisible Man
Author: Ralph Ellison
Date: 1947, 1952
Length: 503 pages
Quote: "Sylvia, you were raped by Santa Claus."
First the chronological note: Invisible Man was published as a hardcover novel in 1947. What I have is the 1947 hardcover edition. What Amazon has is the 1952 paperback edition. Ralph Ellison no longer needs payment from the Fair Trade Books system, so online readers are welcome to go ahead and buy the paperback. However, it's especially noticeable with long books and I find it outstandingly noticeable with this one that the hardcover edition is easier to handle and read.
A few years before Ralph Ellison died I remember being surprised by an interview in which he told a younger writer that Invisible Man is meant to be a comic novel. Like most of my generation I’d read it as a serious protest novel and judged it a failure. I went back and reread it as comedy. It’s subtle and very noir, because the reality of the segregation era wasn't funny, but as comedy it works. The Invisible Man is done wrong because he's African-American; he also gets opportunities to improve his life, either because or in spite of his ethnicity, but he misses out on them because he's the walking definition of the word "sophomoric."
The nameless narrator, the Invisible Man, would like to be a politician. He’s unlikely to succeed as one. He has some public speaking skills, but he’s not especially intelligent, and people who know him don’t like him much. His family don’t want him to come home. His main childhood memory is of being cursed by a dying grandfather. He doesn’t have friends at college. At the end of the year he’s given letters of introduction to trustees of the college, told that these letters will help him find a summer job, and finally shown that what the letters actually request the trustees to do is to keep the young man waiting so that he won’t find a job that will get him back into college. He finds work in a factory, but he’s useless, even dangerous, on a real man’s job.
Eventually he stumbles across a sight that momentarily distracts his attention from himself. An elderly couple are being evicted from their home. After their things have been set out on the street, the old woman wants to go back in and pray. The Invisible Man makes a speech, leading other observers of this scene to pray with the couple and even take their belongings back into their home, because “We are law-abiding people” who don’t want elders and their things to be littering the street. In this moment of genuine concern for someone else, he becomes visible, and is offered a job.
Unfortunately, he’s tapped by a group who call themselves the “Brotherhood.” All good mid-twentieth-century American readers would recognize these characters as a Communist Front Group. The Invisible Man doesn’t care what their long-term goals are; he’s concerned only with his own long-term goal, which is to get ahead in the organization. He does not make friends in the organization. In fact, when funding drops, he’s laid off.
His association with the Brotherhood makes the Invisible Man unpopular with some people. He has to change names a few times, and finds it useful to adopt a simple disguise: hat, sunglasses, and the fashion disaster known as a “zoot suit.” When this cautious shopper disguises himself as a man who spends money foolishly, he’s mistaken him for a man called Rinehart. The Invisible Man doesn’t know Rinehart. The people who do know Rinehart don’t seem to know him very well either; he has a different reputation on every block, each one more disreputable than the last—the final revelation of his depravity is that Rinehart is a gospel preacher.
In the whole novel, the Invisible Man meets only one other man (and no women) whom he can like or respect. This is Ras, the African Nationalist preacher, his rival in demagoguery. If the Invisible Man were more honest, brave, intelligent, or public-spirited they might become friends. As things are, they become what a more sentimental writer might call noble enemies. Their last scene together might be read as an apocalyptic clash of symbols.
Toward the end of the novel the Invisible Man is ineptly, but willingly, seduced by an older woman who thinks she wants to be raped. This scene is a little too preposterous to be believable in a serious novel, but likewise a little too close to reality to be really funny.
The novel had to be highly acclaimed by people who didn’t completely understand it, and Ellison had to become a distinguished old man, practically a Good Gray Poet, before Ellison could offer the public a clue to understanding his major work. Er, uh, is it possible that minority writers, even in the act of protesting against oppression and disenfranchisement, could have a sense of humor? That the Invisible Man is not an unsuccessful attempt at Everyman, or even Everyblackman, but an individual African-American youth whose misadventures are meant to be read, by African-American youths and others, as the kind of thing that happens when a person persists in being sophomoric? Well, yes...when read that way the novel does make more sense. We always knew that the Invisible Man’s story wasn’t much like the story of Martin Luther King, or Andrew Young or Marion Barry or Arthur Ashe. We didn’t know we had permission to look for closer parallels in the stories of Tristram Shandy, Adrian Mole, or Tom Sawyer in Huckleberry Finn.
Read as comedy, Invisible Man is definitely edgy. A lot of us—not the writer known as Priscilla King, but a lot of other baby-boomers—had parents who thought the Old Left Wing offered valid solutions to real, serious socioeconomic problems, racial and otherwise. Invisible Man, read as a comedy, comes very close to saying that they were immature and sophomoric and deserved the betrayal they got. I’m not sure that that’s what it’s meant to say. I’m not sure exactly what it is meant to say. I think part of what it was meant to say is that even in 1947, when racial discrimination was as potent and as putrid as raw sewage, even a sensitive, talented African-American could still laugh at many things—including a sophomoric shadow-self he or she might be trying to outgrow.
Read as serious mainstream fiction, Invisible Man can seem like a morbid wail to the effect that “This was or is what Everyblackman could expect in life. Everybody always does Everyblackman wrong, even his own immediate family, just because some of his ancestors were African. If he’s dangerous to himself and others on a job, falls for Communist Front Groups, sleeps with idiots, and becomes a homeless has-been before he’s twenty-five, who could have expected anything better?” That, I think we can be reasonably sure, was not what Ralph Ellison meant to say. It’s not true, nor is it what Ellison did say in the rest of his life and work. And this is why I’m glad to have received his official permission to read his best-known book as comedy.
There are fact-based books about what real African-Americans were doing during this period of history—older ones like Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and James Baldwin, and younger ones like Maya Angelou, Eldridge Cleaver, and Joycelyn Elders—that are truer history than Invisible Man. I’m not especially sorry to see Invisible Man disappearing from school reading lists. However, one reason why this novel should disappear from school reading lists is because teenagers are more likely to appreciate it if they discover it for themselves. As comedy Invisible Man is a delightful, snarky send-up of sophomoric kissers-up. Warmly recommended.