In 1945, with no idea what the next words would be or even precisely what the sentence meant, Ralph Ellison sat down at his typewriter and wrote: "I am an invisible man." He spent the next seven years exploring the meaning of those five words, and when he was finished he had a masterpiece. Invisible Man is Ellison's sprawling, ambitious saga about a nameless African-American man navigating the dangers and prejudices of pre-Civil Rights Movement America. When the novel was published in 1952 it quickly emerged as one of the most important novels in American literature. "One is accustomed to expect excellent novels about boys," the writer Saul Bellow wrote in an admiring review, "but a modern novel about men is exceedingly rare."1 It won the National Book Award in 1953 and has sold more than 16 million copies. At a time when black Americans were still expected to give up their seats on city buses, and when historians could only count approximately 100 novels written by African-Americans in the last century, Invisible Man surfaced as a piece of art that cut across racial boundaries to speak to a truth deeper than skin color.
Ellison was an African-American man who was the grandson of slaves, who attended Booker T. Washington's Tuskegee Institute, and who was mentored by such Harlem Renaissance titans as Langston Hughes and Richard Wright. He became famous for a novel whose protagonist was a black man journeying through the treacherous landscape of American racial politics. Yet Ellison made it clear that he did not set out to write a "black novel," to become a spokesman for black America, or to cheerlead for any particular group in the emerging debate on civil rights. "I wasn't and am not concerned with injustice but with art,"2 Ellison once said. He did not wish to be known as a black writer, but simply as a great writer.
His stance alienated many black Americans, who had hoped that Ellison would use his status to further the cause of civil rights. Other critics believe that his position was a correct one—that Invisible Man is a great work precisely because it reaches beyond the parameters of ideology to grasp at universal truths. "Too much has been written about racial identity instead of what kind of literature is produced. Literature is colorblind," Ellison said, "and it should be read and judged in a larger framework."3
The novel that made Ralph Ellison famous turned out to be his last. He spent the forty years between the publication of Invisible Man and his death in 1994 compiling roughly 2,000 pages of material for a second novel that he never finished. (In 1999, part of it was published posthumously as Juneteenth. An even longer version will come out in 2010.) Alongside folks like J.D. Salinger, Joseph Heller, and Harper Lee, Ralph Ellison belongs to the small class of writers who secured their place in literary history with just one great novel. "If I'm going to be remembered as a novelist, I'd better produce [the next book] soon,"4 Ellison jokingly told an interviewer in 1982. He didn't have to. It turns out that one triumph in a lifetime is enough.