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Ralph Ellison

Ralph Ellison

Ralph Ellison: Writing Invisible Man

Ellison labored on his book for seven years. A grant from the Rosenwald Foundation supported him, as did his second wife, Fanny McConnell, whom he married in 1946. Finally, in 1952, Invisible Man was published.

It is really hard to summarize the plot of Invisible Man. Many reviewers (and Ellison himself) have likened it more to a jazz composition than to a novel, with themes, riffs, and digressions that build a mood rather than hammering down a straight narrative line. One critic called it the "Moby Dick of the racial crisis."11 The novel's protagonist is an unnamed African-American man whose grandparents were slaves, and who earns a scholarship to a black college after giving a subjugating speech on black humility. He gets kicked out of school and moves to Harlem, where he becomes involved with a quasi-Communist organization known as the Brotherhood. Later, after witnessing violence, race riots, and discrimination, the protagonist decides that he would be better off living in an anonymous underground lair that is illuminated by the light of a thousand light bulbs.

Ellison was adamant that the book was not an autobiographical novel; it was a novel about the search for identity. He was also clear that it was not a so-called "black" novel (or Negro, the term he preferred); it was a novel about humanity. Invisible Man sought to break past the racial boundaries that Americans were so obsessed with, to speak to universal truths instead. "This is not a self-help or self-hate book; it is a plea for common survival," Time magazine wrote after Ellison's death in 1994. "It posed Rodney King's plea more subtly but no less potently: Can we all get along?"12

Invisible Man won the National Book Award just one year later, in 1953, as well as a host of other literary prizes. Critics praised the narrative voice, which broke away from the drumbeat of racial politics and ideology that many expected from minority writers. "I was keenly aware, as I read this book, of a very significant kind of independence in the writing," wrote Saul Bellow, the Jewish writer who also wrestled with questions of racial identity in his work. "For there is a way for Negro novelists to go at their problems, just as there are Jewish or Italian ways. Mr. Ellison has not adopted a minority tone. If he had done so, he would have failed to establish a true middle-of-consciousness for everyone."13

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