Invisible Man | Study Guide

Ralph Ellison

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Invisible Man | 10 Things You Didn't Know

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It's been called "the most influential novel in the second half of the 20th century" and has inspired countless other black authors. Ralph Ellison's groundbreaking 1952 novel, Invisible Man, describes what it was like to live as an African American man in mid-20th-century America. It is told through the eyes of a nameless narrator whose color has rendered him invisible in American society.

Invisible Man was immediately successful, appearing on best-seller lists for weeks after its publication. It was #19 on the Modern Library's list of the best English-language novels of the 20th century, and it was included on Time magazine's list of the best English-language novels from 1923 to 2005.

The influence of Invisible Man has been monumental. As African American writer Charles Johnson said:

Ellison is the writer that other black writers felt that they had to be. And none of us have been able to do that in 50 years, you know, not a single one of us.

1. Invisible Man was the first novel by a black author to win the National Book Award for Fiction.

In his acceptance speech for the 1953 award, Ellison said of writing Invisible Man:

I was to dream of a prose which was flexible, and swift as American change is swift, confronting the inequalities and brutalities of our society forthrightly, but yet thrusting forth its images of hope, human fraternity, and individual self-realization.

2. Ellison did not intend to become a writer.

Ellison's first love was music, and in 1933 he accepted a scholarship to study classical music at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. It was not until a friend encouraged him to try his hand at writing that he changed paths. Richard Wright, the author of Native Son, hired Ellison to write a book review. Impressed with his work, Wright suggested that Ellison try writing fiction. Ellison's first story, titled "Heine's Bull," was deemed unpublishable. Fortunately, he kept at his craft.

3. Ellison turned down numerous offers to have Invisible Man made into a movie.

Ellison did not want Invisible Man made into a movie unless he could have control over the script, leading him to turn down several offers from top directors and filmmakers.

4. Ellison's style was inspired by the poet T.S. Eliot.

Ralph Ellison was "moved and intrigued" by T.S. Eliot's poem "The Waste Land," which he discovered in 1935. In an interview with The Paris Review, Ellison credits the poem with helping him recognize that "ancient myth and ritual were used to give form and significance to the material."

5. Ellison was also inspired by the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground.

One critic has written on the extensive similarities between Invisible Man and Notes from Underground (1864), noting that the first-person narrators of both novels are "filled with rage and indignation because of the humiliation [they are] forced to endure," and they both "explode with fury against those responsible for subjecting [them] to such indignities." In the end, the critic adds, both narrators retreat to their "underground."

6. Invisible Man was written out of frustration with the Communist Party.

In addition to encouraging Ellison to write, author Richard Wright mentored Ellison in Marxism. Both writers, however, eventually became disillusioned with communism and what they saw as the party's betrayal of African Americans. In Invisible Man, the Communist Party is represented by the Brotherhood, "a group that initially helps the narrator but ultimately turns against him."

7. Reviews of Invisible Man in mainstream publications were overwhelmingly positive.

Kirkus Reviews called the novel "an extremely powerful story," and a reviewer for the New York Times called it impressive. A review in The Nation called Ellison "richly, wildly inventive."

8. Black critics were less impressed with Invisible Man than white critics.

Some African American reviewers criticized the book for being too difficult or opaque. A reviewer for the NAACP's magazine called the book "devoid of focus but epic in purpose." Another black reviewer criticized it, and similar novels including Wright's Native Son, for wallowing in "self-hate and disesteem among black males."

9. Ellison left an unpublished 2,000-page manuscript behind when he died.

After Invisible Man, Ellison spent 40 years trying to write another novel, but he never finished it. Following his death, his editor spent five years going through the 2,000 pages of manuscript that Ellison left behind, trying to build something cohesive out of the mountain of pages. The result was the 368-page novel Juneteenth, published in 1999, and later a 1,100-page version of the same book (titled Three Days Before the Shooting).

10. U.S. President Barack Obama was inspired by Invisible Man.

According to the New York Times, Barack Obama modeled his memoir, Dreams from My Father, published in 1995, on Invisible Man. When Obama was a student at Columbia University, he frequently reread Invisible Man in order to better understand his "blackness." One reviewer notes that Obama's memoir "articulates a quest for identity that aspires to the same eloquence and profound complexity of Ellison's novel."

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