Slipping into Darkness:
Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and Beyond
Originally Published on About.com’s Classic Literature Page
There are many great writers whose reputations rest on one superlative masterpiece, whether they’ve written several works or whether they’ve produced just one unforgettable and unavoidable magnum opus. Because it’s the only book that he was able to spend any serious time on, The Great Gatsby puts F. Scott Fitzgerald in the former category, which makes readers and critics wonder what else he’d have been capable of had he not led such a chaotic life. Then there are the writers who pour everything they have into one perfect life-work and then for some reason never publish another word of fiction. A prime example of this second category of writers is Harper Lee, whose To Kill a Mockingbird is certainly a novel whose tremendous worth at once begs for further literary contributions and merits the author a well-deserved (if not particularly satisfying) retirement after changing the lives of so many readers. Perhaps more fascinating, however, is the example of Ralph Ellison and his only completed novel, Invisible Man, because unlike Lee, Ellison was a vital and vocal member of the world literary scene both before and after his one great book changed the literary landscape in 1952.
Ellison in fact published two other books in his lifetime—Shadow and Act and Going to the Territory—but they were collections of essays, and even though he was a major critical voice, readers were still eagerly waiting for a second novel when Ellison died in 1994. The main reason for Ellison’s inability to finish another novel was probably his own self-proclaimed dissatisfaction with the imperfection of his writing—even with the National Book Award-winning Invisible Man. Soon after his death, Ellison’s literary executor, John F. Callahan, collected and published Flying Home and Other Stories, and then in 1999, manuscripts found in Ellison’s home provided the material for Juneteenth, an unfinished novel that the same literary executor edited down from more than 2,000 pages, written over a period of forty years, to less than 400 pages.
Ellison’s original passion and training were for music, but he also loved literature, and when he was in college at the Tuskegee Institute he fell under the spell of literary Modernism, which eventually led to him writing his one dazzling, challenging, disturbing, and extraordinary novel. While the events of Invisible Man are rooted in very serious modern social events, Ellison himself stated that its main importance as a work was in its style and experimental nature. Ellison never abandoned music, and Invisible Man attains to the perfection of form that’s almost solely available to sonic composers.
The novel begins with the unnamed narrator describing his self-exiled habitat: a forgotten basement annex in a whites-only apartment building where he lives for free and where he’s secretly wired and illuminated a blinding 1,369 light bulbs. The narrator then flashes back to describe his young life in the American south, where after being named valedictorian of his high school class he was invited to re-deliver his valedictory speech before a group of influential white men. This leads to the novel’s infamous “Battle Royal” scene, where the narrator and several other young black men are forced to fight blindfolded while the white men watch with savage delight. I’ve met many fellow readers who have been too horrified by this episode to continue reading the novel, but this astounding overture leads into a symphonically staggering work that no serious modern reader will want to miss, whether for content or style.
Ellison cited T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land as a major influence, but it’s more likely that Invisible Man’s labyrinth of seemingly picaresque but in fact highly controlled progressions are more inspired by James Joyce’s Ulysses. While Ulysses echoed and parodied the form and music of Homer’s Odyssey, Invisible Man resounds with the forms and resonances of music itself. In a rapidly evolving literary scene, which soon introduced the endlessly innovative works of William Gaddis and Thomas Pynchon, this obsession with form and pitch-perfection clearly kept Ellison in constant revision and never again allowed him to achieve such an accomplished and sustained totality/tonality in his writing.
The Modern Library plans to publish all the manuscripts for Juneteenth in 2010 in a massive volume tentatively entitled Three Days Before the Shooting. Perhaps this publication will reveal Ellison’s last work to be his true masterpiece: a towering Virgilian epic crossed with a sprawlingly unresolved and unresolvable Kafka novel. Perhaps this work will be the next step in Modernism and Postmodernism and will open up a goldmine for readers, critics, and anyone concerned with how the mind constantly attempts to shape our world into some kind of form. Or perhaps it will simply show us a brilliant writer attempting to bring more of his struggling mind’s invisible darkness into view. In the meantime, we still, and will always, have Invisible Man to flood our darkest annexes with music and light.