Ralph Ellison | Critical Essay by Herbert Mitgang

This literature criticism consists of approximately 5 pages of analysis & critique of Ralph Ellison.
This section contains 1,605 words
(approx. 6 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Essay by Herbert Mitgang

SOURCE: "Invisible Man, As Vivid Today as in 1952," in Conversations with Ralph Ellison, University Press of Mississippi, 1995, pp. 378-82.

In the following essay, which originally appeared in The New York Times, March 1, 1982, Mitgang uses the occasion of the thirtieth anniversary of the publication of Invisible Man to reflect on Ellison's life and career.

Ralph Ellison is 68 years old today. Relaxing in his art-and-book lined apartment on Riverside Drive above the Hudson the other day, he took a little time away from his electric typewriter to talk about his working life.

"My approach is that I'm an American writer," he said. "I write out of the larger literary tradition—which, by the way, is part Negro—from Twain to Melville to Faulkner. Another element I'm aware of is American folklore. And then all of this is part of the great stream of literature.

"Americans didn't invent the novel. Negroes didn't invent poetry. Too much has been written about racial identity instead of what kind of literature is produced. Literature is color-blind, and it should be read and judged in a larger framework."

In March 1952, Mr. Ellison's first novel, Invisible Man, was published, and Random House is marking the occasion this month by bringing out a 30th-anniversary edition, which is also being distributed by the Book-of-the-Month Club. Since 1952, Invisible Man has gone through 20 hardcover and 17 Vintage Books paperback printings, and there has been a Modern Library edition.

The novel can also be read in Czech, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, French, German, Hebrew, Hungarian, Italian, Japanese, Norwegian, Portuguese, Slovak, Spanish and Swedish. The author's wife, Fanny, who magically finds just about everything he has written in their home files, says that a request came in for a Polish edition just before martial law was declared in Poland. He says that the Russians are aware of his writings, but that if a translation exists in Russian, he hasn't seen any edition.

What provides the greatest continuity for Invisible Man is that it is recognized as an essential 20th-century American literary work in just about every high school and college in the country. Anne Freedgood, a Random House editor, enjoys telling the story of the 17-year-old student she knows who recently learned that Mr. Ellison had not written a second novel. "How could he?" the young woman said. "This novel has everything in it."

It won the National Book Award in 1953 and, in 1965, some 200 authors, editors and critics, polled by The New York Herald Tribune, picked Invisible Man as the most distinguished novel written by an American during the previous 20 years.

The novel, which defies easy summary because of its subtleties (a thumbnail description: It is about one nameless black man's dilemma about his position in the white world), builds from one of the most memorable opening paragraphs in modern American fiction:

I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids—and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.

Mr. Ellison revealed that he had meant to write a different novel—a war story rooted in some of his own experiences at sea and observations ashore as a merchant seaman in Europe in the 1940's—when he was seized by the notion of invisibility.

"I had come back on sick leave from my service in the Merchant Marine and, after a hospital stay, in the summer of 1945, my wife and I went to a friend's farm in Waltsfield, Vt. Sitting in a lumberman's cabin, looking at the hills, I wrote the first line of the book: 'I am an invisible man.'"

The original interest in his book came from Frank Taylor, who had read his short stories, and Albert Erskine, who were with the publishing house of Reynal & Hitchcock after the war. When those respected editors moved to Random House in 1947, the contract for Mr. Ellison's book went with them. Mr. Taylor went to Hollywood, and Mr. Erskine remained as his editor.

Mr. Ellison said, "Once the book was gone, it was suggested that the title would be confused with H. G. Wells's old novel, The Invisible Man, but I fought to keep my title because that's what the book was about." Mr. Erskine recalled. "His novel doesn't have the article in its title, although the mistake keeps cropping up, and I've been telling people to drop the word 'the' ever since the book came out."

The author was born in Oklahoma City, educated at Tuskegee Institute, worked as a researcher on the New York Federal Writers' Project before World War II and hoped to enlist as a trumpeter (he still has a trumpet, but he says, no lip anymore) in the Navy—"but they were not taking any more musicians. So, instead, I became a second cook on a Liberty ship. I was in charge of making breakfast, and I also turned out cornbread, biscuits and fried pies."

The war background—his own experiences in Europe and his father's as a soldier during the Spanish-American War—led to planning a novel that would show how Negroes (the word he usually uses rather than "blacks" in conversation, explaining that it has historical roots) fought not only for their country but for their own recognition and rights.

He had the unwritten novel's theme worked out. It was focused on the experience of a captured black American pilot who found himself in a Nazi prisoner-of-war camp. As the officer of highest rank, the pilot became the spokesman for his white fellow prisoners. The resulting racial tension was exploited by the German camp commander for his own amusement. "My pilot was forced to find support for his morale in his sense of individual dignity and in his newly awakened awareness of human loneliness," Mr. Ellison notes in an introduction to the 30th anniversary edition of Invisible Man.

But then, creatively, "the spokesman for invisibility intruded," and he was captured by a richer theme that grew more out of himself—"the voice of invisibility issued from deep within our complex American underground." Today, he says, he doesn't know where the manuscript about the captured black pilot is—"I probably tore it up."

Inevitably, a talk with Mr. Ellison turns to his long-awaited work-in-progress. It will be his third book. Shadow and Act, a book of essays, came out in 1964. It can be reported that his second novel is progressing, and apparently it is working—certainly, the author is, steadily, every day. He has given the novel his full attention since he retired in 1980 from his teaching duties as a Schweitzer Professor of Humanities at New York University.

Author and novel suffered a setback in the summer of 1967, when 300 pages of manuscript were lost in a fire in Mr. Ellison's home in the Berkshires. "It was quite a traumatic experience watching the house burn and losing typewriters, cameras and other personal property," he said. "The only thing we saved was our Labrador retriever. After that, I tried to put together as much as I could, and I began to reconceive some of the characters; Now, we have a photocopier at home and I keep at least two copies of what I write."

Some Ellison fans, waiting so many years for his next novel, have wondered if he had writer's block.

"If so, it's a strange kind of thing, since I write all the time," Mr. Ellison replied. "The blockage is that I'm very careful about what I submit for publication. I learned long ago that it's better not to have something in print that you feel isn't ready. It's not a difficult thing to turn out more books. I had a hell of a lot more material that didn't get into Invisible Man. It may be a wasteful way of writing but I'm careful about what is published. There is a lot of formula writing today. I can't do certain things as a writer, but I enjoy the act of writing even if it isn't published immediately."

There is a strong metal file cabinet containing much of the manuscript of the untitled novel. He unlocked it for a visitor, pulled out the drawer and measured the sections of manuscript with a tape measure: it came to 19 inches.

"It looks long enough to be a trilogy," he said, smiling. "It all takes place in the 20th century. I'm convinced that I'm working with abiding patterns. The style is somewhat different from Invisible Man. There are different riffs in it. Sections of it are publishable and some parts have already appeared, in American Review, Noble Savage, Partisan Review, Iowa Review, the Quarterly Review of Literature.

"I'm dealing with a broader range of characters, playing with various linguistic styles. Quite a bit of the book is comic. The background is New York, the South, an imaginary Washington—not quite the world I used to encounter on the board of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts there."

He has seen Washington from on high, in public service positions, such as membership on the Carnegie Commission on Educational Television. He was given the highest civilian honor, the Medal of Freedom, from President Lyndon B. Johnson, and he is a member of the American Academy-Institute of Arts and Letters, the ranking cultural body in the country.

"The novel has to be more than segments, it has to be a whole before it's ready for publication." He didn't say, nor was he asked, when. "But if I'm going to be remembered as a novelist, I'd better produce it soon," he said cheerfully.

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This section contains 1,605 words
(approx. 6 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Karl Miller
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