Invisible Man (Ralph Ellison, 1952)

M. Keith Booker, University of Arkansas

Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952) is a complex, multi-layered book that has exercised a massive influence on American literature, partly because it was one of the very first novels by an African American author to have gained canonical status as a central work of the American literary tradition. Indeed, the glowing reception of Invisible Man by the American literary establishment has led some to think of Ellison as the Jackie Robinson of American literature. At the same time, the book gained (and maintained) its canonical status for complicated (and, for some, controversial) reasons. On the one hand, aesthetically, Invisible Man was in the right place at the right time. It is a sophisticated work of modernist art, heavily influenced by modernist masters such as James Joyce and T. S. Eliot. And it was published at a time when modernist literature was just moving to the center of the Western literary canon, just coming to be recognized as the epitome of aesthetic achievement. At the same time, the canonization of modernism occurred within a very specific Cold War political climate in which modernist art and literature were held up against Soviet socialist realism as supposed evidence of the superiority of Western culture to Soviet culture. And Invisible Man was in the right place at the right time in this sense as well, given its extremely negative vision of the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA, represented in the text as “The Brotherhood”) as a false friend of African American liberation. Indeed, Ellison’s book is a virtual catalog of fashionable 1950s motifs, of which its anticommunism is only one. For example, its overall pessimistic tone is quite typical of American literature in that decade, and its inability to see a clear path to a better future is symptomatic of a general collapse of the American utopian imagination in a peak Cold War context that tended to associate utopianism with communism[1]. However, more than seventy years after its publication, well separated from its original context, Invisible Man remains a powerful and eloquent statement of the African American experience. It also remains a central work of American literature, even though the specific political conditions that furthered its initial canonization no longer apply.

Invisible Man as Modernist Novel

Invisible Man displays almost all of the characteristics that we tend to associate with modernist fiction. The book is rhetorically complex and uses language in innovative and at times even extravagant ways as it seeks new ways to express aspects of modern existence that had not previously been comprehended by more conventional literary language. Moreover, while one long section of the book is set in what we can take as a relatively rural portion of Alabama, its primary setting is in New York (mostly Harlem) in the 1930s, a time of intense crisis, not only for African Americans but for American society as a whole. It thus echoes both the urbanism and the crisis mode that are typical of modernist literature. Finally, Invisible Man, narrated in the first person by a nameless protagonist who makes no effort to hide his innermost feelings, achieves a level of psychological depth that we have come to associate with the finest modernist fiction.

Invisible Man also conducts a complex modernist dialogue with its literary predecessors, even if it is less overtly allusive than the works of key modernists such as Joyce and Eliot. Ellison does, though, occasionally drop in references that are highly reminiscent of the casual use of predecessors by Eliot and (especially) Joyce. Thus, early in the novel, the narrator notes that he can gain a deeper appreciation of music while under the influence of marijuana, in which condition he has found that “I not only entered the music but descended, like Dante, into its depths” (8).

Given such characteristics, it is little wonder that so much of the published criticism of Invisible Man reads the novel within the context of modernism, though a great deal of this criticism has focused less on the specific modernist properties of the novel than on the relationship of Ellison’s novel with its modernist predecessors. For example, William Lyne, discussing the ways in which the modernism of Invisible Man resonates with the notion of African American double consciousness (as made famous by W.E.B. Du Bois), notes that there has been some controversy over the fact that Ellison’s adoption of a modernist aesthetic seems to have occurred partly as a rejection of his African American predecessors: “Ellison himself adds fuel to this fire by dwelling on the merits of highly crafted art, by insisting on his right to choose Euro-American literary ancestors (especially against those who would have him replicate Richard Wright), and by explicitly identifying T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, and Fyodor Dostoevsky as direct influences on Invisible Man” (321). At the same time, Lyne also argues that Invisible Man is a rhetorically complex text that employs the notion of African American “signifying” to interrogate and critique its modernist predecessors as well, rather than accepting them uncritically.

I will deal with the potential political implications of Invisible Man’s dialogue with both its modernist predecessors and his African American predecessors below. For now, I would like to focus on the modernist properties of the text itself, which I see as residing first and foremost in the characterization of its intensely self-conscious and alienated protagonist. For one thing, the novel’s psychological depth is partly enabled by the fact that the protagonist is so extremely introspective, constantly looking inside himself for answers in the midst of an external world that consistently seems to make no sense. The protagonist, bitter, frustrated and cynical as he often is, still provides a strong moral center for the novel because he is so fundamentally honest as opposed to a world that is anything but. Thus, the invisible man is a reliable narrator in a sense that he conveys his feelings and perceptions to us honestly, even though he is an unreliable narrator in the sense that he often does not fully understand what is going on around him and is constantly forced to reassess his opinion of figures such as the African American academic leader Bledsoe and the white communist leader Brother Jack, seeming champions of the downtrodden who turn out to be interested primarily in furthering their own personal power.

The principal characteristic of the “invisible man” of Ellison’s novel is his radical alienation, his radical sense of being different from the people around him and of not fitting into the world around him. Indeed, the book’s central trope of invisibility is primarily a metaphor for this alienation, the narrator’s sense of not being seen indicating the way in which he is not acknowledged as an equal participant in the world around him. To an extent, this alienation is thus a matter of race, a matter of being a black man in a white-dominated world that refuses to grant him equal status—or even fully human status. At the same time, the narrator’s sense of alienation clearly goes beyond the matter of race, taking on more existential dimensions, placing the narrator in a tradition of alienated characters that goes back at least as far as Dostoevsky’s Underground Man[2].

Michael André Bernstein identifies the Underground Man as a key example of the modern form of what he refers to as the “abject hero,” a figure with roots that go back to ancient texts such as the satires of Horace, but who is an “essentially modern” character who “makes his first full appearance” in Denis Diderot’s Horace-influenced Le Neveu de Rameau (Rameau’s Nephew,mostly written in 1761–1762, but not published until 1805) (18). The abject hero, for Bernstein, is a contradictory figure whose grandiose sense of his own worth is balanced by an equally powerful sense of self-doubt and self-loathing. With a genealogy that dates back to traditional figures such as the wise fool and the holy fool, the abject hero is also tormented by an intense awareness that his character is derivative and thus potentially ridiculous.

For Bernstein, the abject hero begins to take on a new, and even more modern form in the fiction of Dostoevsky, whose innovation is to add to the initial abjection of this hero figure a further note of Nietzschean ressentiment, a key ingredient of the slave morality that Nietzsche rails against in The Genealogy of Morals (1887). For Nietzsche, ressentiment is the refuge of a particularly debased sort of modern character who seethes with resentment, endlessly replaying insults (real or imagined) in his head, but unable to take true revenge, thus becoming even more resentful of his own impotence and responding with repeated fantasies of imaginary vengeance instead. Nietzsche had particular praise for Notes from Underground as a literary demonstration of the kind of psychology he is describing here, and Bernstein, following Nietzsche, identifies Notes as a key text as well, noting that “in fiction, it is hard to think of any work that has chronicled the inscape of ressentiment with greater narrative flair than Notes from Underground” (102).

For Bernstein, the sense of being a mere imitator of others becomes, in the Underground Man, not only an intense awareness that even his most seemingly insightful thoughts are actually derived from the literary works he has read but a resentment against temporality itself, to which he responds by refusing to “acknowledge any moral or psychological continuity linking his present to the future” (106). This refusal allows him to assume the pose of the genuinely monstrous villain who has no remorse because he refuses to acknowledge the continuity between his past actions and his current self. This strategy, though, ultimately collapses beneath its own inauthenticity, because “he is far too lucid to believe his own pose” (106). This refusal of continuity is also doomed to fail to release the Underground Man of his sense of being, as Bernstein puts it, nothing more than “a pastiche of countless prior texts,” a realization that is made worse by the “additional burden of finding this existence-as-pastiche intolerable” (109). Even his worst suffering, which he desires to think of as monumental and unprecedented, is merely a secondary and degraded copy of the sufferings he has read about in books, a fact of which he is intensely and bitterly aware.

Eillison’s invisible man is often similarly aware of the unoriginal nature of his actions. For example, in one key scene in which he delivers an impromptu sidewalk speech that rouses a crowd to oppose the eviction of an elderly couple, he then has to flee across the neighborhood rooftops, after which he steps back onto the street “with a nonchalance copied from characters I had seen in the movies” (286). Meanwhile, the invisible man is constantly aware through much of the text of his strong physical resemblance to a neighborhood numbers runner named “Rinehart,” whom he sometimes imitates and to whom he is constantly comparing himself. On a more historical level, the Brotherhood recruits him to become a potential leader in their efforts to connect with African Americans, envisioning him as a second Booker T. Washington, a vision against which he rebels: “But to hell with this Booker T. Washington business. I would do the work but I would be no one except myself—whoever I was, I would pattern my life on that of the Founder. They might think I was acting like Booker T. Washington; let them” (311).

There is, of course, a subtle irony in the invisible man’s insistence that he would rather pattern himself on the “Founder” than on Washington. What the Founder is the founder of is the southern black college that the invisible man attends in the first part of the novel. But that college is quite clearly based on the Tuskegee Institute, which Ellison himself attended. And the first head of Tuskegee was none other than Washington, who essentially served as its founder and is quite clearly the model for the Founder of the novel. In short, the invisible man vehemently rejects Washington in favor of the Founder, yet attentive readers will realize that the two are essentially the same person.

Such motifs point toward a potentially comic undermining of the invisible man’s status as a bearer of genuine ressentiment, something of which the Underground Man is a master. And, ultimately, the Underground Man’s ressentiment is driven by alienation, a quintessentially modern experience that Fredric Jameson has suggested is no longer possible in the postmodern era. As Jameson points out, “alienation is, first of all, not merely a modernist concept but also a modernist experience (something I cannot argue further here, except to say that “psychic fragmentation” is a better term for what ails us today, if we need a term for it)” (11). Psychic fragmentation certainly describes many aspects of the predicament of the invisible man, who can in this sense be seen as a sort of later modernist figure who is already transitioning toward postmodernism, moving toward a situation in which his psyche is so shattered that he has no sense of self stable enough to even experience alienation. The Underground Man, on the other hand, might experience a certain psychic fragmentation, but he at least has enough of a sense of his own identity to be able to position himself as a stable entity in opposition to everyone else. The Underground Man is crippled not from an inability to distinguish between reality and fiction but by an awareness of the difference so powerful that it overwhelms him, leaving him bitterly resentful of the fact that he must live in reality when in fact it would be much easier to be a character in fiction.

To situate the invisible man in relation to modernism, however, it might be better to compare him with a more purely modernist character than the Underground Man. T. S. Eliot’s Prufrock, a natural successor to Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, might be seen as such a fully modern version of the resentful abject hero of which the Underground Man, still rooted in many ways in the quasi-medieval world of nineteenth-century Russia, was only a proto-modern and predictive form[3]. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” first published in 1915, can be seen as an announcement of the arrival of a genuinely modernist form of poetry, not only because of its many formal innovations but also because of the quintessentially modern nature of its protagonist, a balding, middle-aged man so self-conscious that he is virtually paralyzed. In many ways, he is a paradigmatic version of Bernstein’s abject hero, and his poem, like Notes from Underground is essentially an interior monologue outlining the bitter, conflicted, and alienated nature of its protagonist. “Love Song”is riddled with allusions to the cultural past, from its Dantean prologue, to Prufrock’s frequent vision of women (whose slights he bitterly resents, even before they happen) “talking of Michelangelo,” to several references to Shakespeare plays, including Prufrock’s declaration that he himself is merely an attendant lord and no Prince Hamlet. Of course, this declaration ironically suggests that he sometimes feels as if he might be Prince Hamlet. Such contradictions, which run throughout the poem, are a key characteristic of the abject hero, per Bernstein, and his further description of his role recalls Bernstein’s evocation of the fool, as well. Prufrock is, by his own declaration,

Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse

At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—

Almost, at times, the Fool.

Prufrock, meanwhile, makes many other contradictory declarations as well, as when Prufrock will at one moment wonder if his slightest action (such as eating a peach) might “disturb the universe,” then at the next moment compare himself to an insect specimen “pinned and wriggling on the wall,” recalling the frequent use of insect imagery in Notes from Underground.

Similarly, the invisible man sometimes imagines himself as participating in genuinely revolutionary action that might shake the universe, though that action never really comes to anything. Rather than disturbing the universe and shaking the white-dominated American system of political power to its core, the invisible man scores his most successful victory over the system of American power by the much more mundane act of literally stealing power from “Monopolated Light & Power” in order to brightly light the basement lair in which he hides out from mainstream society in much of the novel.

The Politics of Invisible Man

Despite its intensely literary modernist technique, Invisible Man is also a highly political novel. A great deal of the plot, for example, is driven by the police shooting of former Brotherhood member Tod Clifton, which leads to riots and looting among the African American population of Harlem. This general motif gives the novel a highly contemporary air, given the ongoing prevalence of police killings of African Americans in the United States, killings that have sometimes led to violent protests on the part of African Americans and their allies. However, there are also particular details of the Clifton case that seem somewhat foreign to our own historical moment, including most obviously the fact that Clifton had formerly been an operative of the Communist Party–like Brotherhood. Frustrated by his experiences with the Brotherhood, Clifton apparently suffers some sort of breakdown and is discovered on the street by the narrator, displaying and selling dancing “Sambo” dolls that are outrageously racist and demeaning to African Americans. Such dolls and related images have long been a part of American culture, of course, but it is particularly shocking for the invisible man to see the former black activist Clifton distributing such material[4]. What is even more shocking, however, is to see Clifton shot down in cold blood by a policeman after Clifton resists the cop’s harassment (436). Official efforts to downplay the killing fail, leading to all-out rioting in Harlem, which Invisible Man suggests was encouraged by the Brotherhood to further their own agenda, despite the fact that the outbreak is harmful to most of Harlem’s black citizens.

The Sambo doll enacts some key racist clichés in ways that the invisible man finds humiliating. Meanwhile, racist clichés are also central to what is perhaps the most problematic and potentially embarrassing sequence in the entire novel. This scene involves a long encounter between the invisible man and one Sybil, a self-declared “nymphomaniac,” the white wife of “George,” a white Brotherhood leader who plays no other role in the novel other than being Sybil’s husband. But this sequence is also complex and extremely enigmatic. On the one hand, Sybil is an exaggerated and carnivalesque figure who functions most obviously as parody of the racist stereotype that black men have a special sexual power and that white women are particularly attracted to this power. Sybil even takes this stereotype to its next level version: not only does she fantasize about having sex with a black man, but she fantasizes that this man will use his brutish phallic power to overcome and rape her.

While this scene has an obvious satirical function in commenting on racist stereotypes, it might have easily descended into (potentially offensive) farce. In the context of Ellison’s complex modernist narrative, however, this scene does a great deal more work than it might have been expected to do. For one thing, Sybil’s name links her to the Cumaean Sibyl, a mythic figure who served as a sort of bridge between the living world and the afterlife, just as this scene with Ellison’s Sybil transitions into the race riot sequence that is clearly figured in the text as a sort of descent into the underworld. Such descents (complete with mythic resonances) often occur in modernist literature, of course, as in the “Circe” chapter of Ulysses or the ghostly unreal city of The Waste Land. In this case, moreover, Eliot’s poem seems particularly relevant due to the fact that it begins with an epigraph from Petronius that deals specifically with the chaos that could sometimes be created by the Sibyl’s prophecies, which were written on multiple leaves that tended to be scattered by the wind, thus making them a perfect emblem of for the chaotic fragmentation of The Waste Land, which itself echoes the fragmentation that Eliot saw in the modern world around him.

At the same time, the Sybil episode in Invisible Man also takes on a surprising human dimension. Sybil herself might have been an absurd grotesque, but she actually comes off as a very human character whose loneliness and marginalization mirror those of the invisible man himself. Meanwhile, the often rather nasty invisible man, perhaps recognizing what he has in common with Sybil, is at his best in this episode, when he seems to develop a genuine sympathy for this woman, to whom he is ultimately quite kind. Ellison demurely leaves it unclear whether they actually have sex, choosing to break off after the narrator tells us that “she moved into my arms” (526). But it is certainly clear that the invisible man refuses to rape Sybil, even in a mode of role-playing. Moreover, while he at one point plays the cruel prank of scrawling with her lipstick on her belly the notation that she has been raped by Santa Claus, he ultimately thinks better of it and removes the lipstick before she sees the inscription (522). Later, after he leaves her and emerges into the chaos of the race riot, the invisible man continually worries about Sybil’s safety, after he has attempted to send her home in a cab.

As the mythic resonances of the Sybil episode indicate, readings of Invisible Man as a modernist novel are inseparable from readings of its political content. In particular, the championing of modernism by the right-wing New Critics and the obvious ways in which the canonization of modernism was deployed in the interests of the anticommunist rhetoric of the Cold War resonate with the anticommunism of the novel. Amiri Baraka thus argues that the book’s “ideological content couched in the purrs of an obviously elegant technique” are the reasons why Ellison and Invisible Man “are so valued by the literary and academic establishments in this country” (147).

Such a response by a leftist critic such as Baraka is not surprising, given the cartoonishly negative depiction of the Communist Party in Invisible Man. Indeed, the most frequent criticisms of the novel have involved its exaggerated view of the Communist Party, especially given that, during the 1930s time period of the action of the novel, that party was unquestionably the one political organization that fought most effectively for equality for African Americans[5]. It is thus not surprising that those sympathetic to the party felt that Invisible Man was something of a betrayal (and responded to it accordingly). Thus, the original response to the novel in the Communist Party organ Daily Worker was quite negative—as when Abner N. Berry derided Invisible Man in 1952 as “439 pages of contempt for humanity, written in an affected, pretentious, and other worldly style to suit the king pins of world white supremacy.” In addition, Berry argued that Ellison’s protagonist is “made to move through a novelization of just about every anti-Communist cliche which has poured from the poison pens of stool-pigeons, both literary and political” (7)

Even critics less sympathetic to the Communist Party have complained of Ellison’s unrealistic depiction of the party. Thus, the prominent critic Irving Howe, while still taking a slap at the Communist Party, argues that “Ellison makes his Stalinist figures so vicious and stupid that one cannot understand how they could ever have attracted him or any other Negro. That the party leadership manipulated members with deliberate cynicism is beyond doubt, but this cynicism was surely more complex and guarded than Ellison shows it to be” (363).

There are political problems with Invisible Man that go beyond its unfair depiction of the Communist Party. Lloyd Brown noted in a contemporary interview of Invisible Man in the leftist publication Masses and Mainstream that the book’s critique of American racism has no political punch because Ellison’s protagonist reserves his bitterest feelings of alienation for the African American masses, making him a representative not of his race but of the one-man-against-the-world theme that was so popular in the decade. It is certainly the case that Ellison’s narrator/protagonist systematically rejects most of the major contemporary organized attempts to improve the situation of African Americans in American society. But this rejection, I would argue, arises not so much from Ellison’s own lack of sympathy for the stated goals of these organized projects (some of which he himself had participated in extensively) as from his frustration at the lack of success of these projects in achieving their goals. In this sense, Invisible Man stands as something of a summation of the broken and frustrated status of the historical project of liberation for African Americans at the beginning of the 1950s. And, if Invisible Man does not envision a way beyond this status, it does provide an excellent picture of the reasons why the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s was both necessary in its motivation and revolutionary in its success.

Invisible Man examines three different forces that were presumably working to improve life for Native Americans in the 1930s, when the action of the novel takes place. Of these forces, it is the Brotherhood (which almost all critics of the novel have related directly to the Communist Party) that plays the most prominent role in the plot of the novel and to which the narrator looks to most extensively as a potential advocate for Native Americans. Also important in the text is a radical form of Black Nationalism, a forerunner of the Black Power movement of the 1960s. Led by the seemingly fanatical Ras the Exhorter (who ultimately morphs into Ras the Destroyer), this movement is not represented in much detail, other than to make it clear that the nationalists are extremist and are also rivals to the Brotherhood, with whose members they engage in an all-out street fight at one point in the novel. It is probably not quite accurate to say that Ras is a direct stand-in for the Jamaican political activist Marcus Garvey (1887–1940), who became an important figure in African American politics between 1916 and 1935. It is, however, clear that Ras is a Garvey “type,” and that he displays the kind of radicalism represented by Garvey, a brilliant orator whose policies (including his opposition to socialism and his commitment to racial separatism) remain controversial in the African American community today but who is widely regarded as a hero in Jamaica, where his legacy was an important influence on the rise of the Rastafari movement.

In addition to these radical approaches, Invisible man also interrogates the moderate approach to reform represented by Booker T. Washington and embodied in attempts to improve African American education through institutions such as Tuskegee. After a brief opening segment that outlines the alienated situation of Ellison’s protagonist as “invisible” to an American society that refuses to acknowledge his humanity, Invisible Man moves into an extensive account of the narrator’s earlier experience as a student at what we could now call a Historically Black College or University (HBCU). The college involved is not named in the novel, but this segment is clearly based on Ellison’s own somewhat frustrating stint at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama from 1933 to 1936, during the depths of the Great Depression. Thus, while HBCUs are typically thought of as making an extremely positive contribution to African American life, the novel’s Tuskegee stand-in does not come off at all well in Invisible Man, becoming a bastion of opportunism through which individuals such as Bledsoe can cynically further their own careers.

Despite all the emphasis on Ellison’s anticommunism—an emphasis that was crucial to the canonization of Invisible Man during the Cold War years—I would argue that he actually represents communism more favorably than either moderate black reformism or black nationalism in the book. Indeed, Barbara Foley—in what is surely the most nuanced and detailed analysis of Ellison’s dialogue with communism in Invisible Man—argues that this dialogue is far more complex than it has often been seen to be, rooted as it is in Ellison’s own extensive engagement with communism and the Communist Party during the 1930s context in which Invisible Man is set. Crucial to Foley’s argument is a demonstration that foundational critics of Invisible Man, reading the novel within a Cold War context in which rejection of communism was typically assumed to be a given, have often projected their own simplistic rejection of communism onto Ellison, whose attitude was much more complex, at least up until the time of the publication of the novel. For Foley, Ellison did not use Invisible Man simply to express his opposition to communism. Instead, he used the writing of the novel to attempt to come to grips with his attitude to communism, producing a “conflicted and contradictory text bearing multiple traces of his struggle to repress and then abolish the ghost of his leftist consciousness and conscience” (7).

Looking at Ellison’s writing before Invisible Man and at the various drafts of that novel that Ellison produced before the final published text, Foley concludes that Ellison was not firmly opposed to communism until the pressures of the peak Cold War years after the publication of the novel pushed him in that direction. Well into the writing of Invisible Man, Ellison was still quite conflicted about his political views, still attempting to work out those conflicts in writing the novel:

“Read in tandem with the contradictory views that Ellison continued to articulate into the late 1940s, however, his early fictional writing displays not the substitution of a simplistic naturalism by a nuanced modernism, an immature Marxism by a seasoned humanism, but his continuing, if finally failing, struggle to find a ground where his warring tendencies might coexist in dialectical tension” (111).

In any case, one thing for sure is that Ellison’s political choices are inseparable from his aesthetic choices where Invisible Man is concerned. Among other things, working through his feelings about communism also involves working through his attitudes toward other African American artists who had been associated with the Communist Party in the 1930s. One such figure is the important African American actor, singer, and activist Paul Robeson (1898–1976), who is widely regarded as one of the most talented performers in American cultural history, but whose career was seriously damaged by his leftist political inclinations. Robeson is only mentioned by name in Invisible Man, though only in passing ways, as when the invisible man complains, during his encounter with Sybil, that she seems to hold up Robeson (along with champion boxer Joe Louis) as a model of African American manhood that the invisible man is expected to live up to.

Foley, however, demonstrates that Ellison’s intellectual engagement with Robeson was extensive. Even more extensive, however, was his engagement with his personal friend Richard Wright (1908–1960), a figure whose influence on Ellison’s writing was so great that Ellison had to wrestle with it extensively in order to carve out his own path as a novelist. Among other things, Ellison sought to dismiss Wright’s influence on his work, claiming instead that his most important influence was T. S. Eliot. Meanwhile, partly because it could be read as anticommunist, Invisible Man supplanted Wright’s Native Son (1940) as the most prominent novel in the modern African American literary canon. After all, Native Son is a monumental literary achievement, but its essentially naturalist aesthetic fell out of fashion in the 1950s. More importantly, the staunchly pro-communist politics of Wright’s novel made it almost entirely unacceptable in the 1950s, even though many critics worked to try to ignore the book’s political message (even though that was really the whole point to the book). Widely acknowledged as one of the central works of African American literature, Native Son is also one of the most effective works of leftist fiction to have emerged from the complex political climate of the 1930s. Soon after its publication, the book was identified by communist cultural guru Mike Gold as one of the culminations of the movement for proletarian literature that he had been promoting during the past decade. For Gold, the publication of Native Son, along with that of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath a year earlier, announced that “after ten years of fumbling, and experiment, of great visions and uneven fulfilments, our American social realism, our American proletarian literature … has finally culminated in two sure classics” (2.7). Native Son was written during the years when Wright was a loyal and devoted member of the Communist Party, and, as Keneth Kinnamon notes, “as a fervent party member, Wright maintained a thoroughly Communist point of view in Native Son” (125). For Kinnamon, the book “equates racial and class prejudice, both being based on economic exploitation” (125). Wright also suggests in the book clear parallels between racism and anticommunism, while presenting the Communist Party as the central organization working to protect African Americans from the brutal injustices of an American capitalist system that employs racism as an important tool of economic and social manipulation.

Thus, in turning away from his earlier flirtation with communism, Ellison also turns away from the communist legacy of Wright (as, in fact, would Wright himself in the 1950s). Invisible Man is clearly a much more moderate text than is Native Son, seemingly becoming even more so in its closing segment, in which the invisible man delivers one final, highly conciliatory monologue/epilogue. Ultimately, in fact, Ellison’s book assures white American readers that its nameless narrator/protagonist is just like them, even as it demonstrates that Ellison can write just like a white modernist. Of course, we are all, according to the dictates of individualist ideology, supposed to be unique. Therefore, in order to be just like us, Ellison’s eponymous protagonist must be like no one else, a position he assumes when he tells us near the beginning of his narrative that all of the experiences he is about to relate contributed to one central realization: “That I am nobody but myself” (15). Nevertheless, at the end of the narrative, he asks his readers whether his existential predicament of radical alienation is really so different from their own. “Who knows,” he wonders in the book’s final sentence, “but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?”

There is, of course, a hint of warning about this question, and Ellison is enough aware of the problematic American attitude toward the Other that he knows it will not necessarily be comforting to many white Americans to be told that African Americans are just the same as they are and might be able to speak for them. If, in some obvious ways, this identity between the races makes African Americans seem less sinister and threatening, it is also the case that, if the races are really the same, then African Americans must logically be granted the same rights and privileges as everyone else. Moreover, if African Americans are just like white Americans, then American history looks baleful indeed, slavery and other forms of racist oppression having had no basis whatsoever, even an illegitimate one.

Meanwhile, Ellison’s invisible narrator ends his narrative with a thoroughly conventional complaint about the dangers of the thoroughly conventional, warning against the tide of conformity in America by extolling the richness that is provided by diversity. “America is woven of many strands,” he announces with no hint of irony. “I would recognize them and let it so remain. … Our fate is to become one, and yet many” (577). This “one and yet many” (echoing the “E pluribus unum” unofficial motto of the United States)is not only one of the central clichés of bourgeois ideology but a central expression of the existential predicament of the American psyche in the 1950s: conformism and routinization demand that we all be alike; alienation and individualism demand that we all be different.

Ultimately, though, what is most important about the seemingly conciliatory epilogue that closes the book is the rather absurdist situation in which it occurs. Chased by white racists, the invisible man has descended into a subterranean realm where he apparently plans to remain indefinitely and where he ends the book. In short, he declares his solidarity with all Americans in a situation in which he has been driven underground by lynch-minded white Americans, symbolically staying underground because he is not welcome in the open. He might be holding out an olive branch to white Americans, but they are not necessarily responding in kind. Still, whether the irony of this final monologue is intended to deliver a specific message that undermines the literal meaning of the text or whether it simply reflects Ellison’s own ambivalence in writing the novel is a matter for interpretation by the reader, as are so many other things in this complex modernist text.

Works Cited

Baraka, Amiri. Daggers and Javelins. Quill, 1984.

Bernstein, Michael André. Bitter Carnival: Ressentiment and the Abject Hero. Princeton University Press, 1992.

Berry Abner. “Ralph Ellison’s Novel ‘Invisible Man’ Shows Snobbery, Contempt for Negro People.” Daily Worker, 1 June 1952, p. 7.

Booker, M. Keith. The Post-Utopian Imagination: American Culture in the Long 1950s. Greenwood Press, 2002.

Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. 1952. Vintage-Random House, 1995.

Frank, Joseph. “Ralph Ellison and a Literary ‘Ancestor’: Dostoevski.” Modern Critical Interpretations of Invisible Man. Edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House, 1999, pp. 45–60.

Foley, Barbara. Wrestling with the Left. Duke University Press, 2010.

Gold, Mike. “Dick Wright Gives America a Significant Picture in Native Son.” Sunday Worker (March 31, 1940): 2.7.

Howe, Irving. “Black Boys and Native Sons.” Dissent, vol. 10, no. 4, Sept. 1963, pp. 353–68.

Kinnamon, Keneth. The Emergence of Richard Wright: A Study in Literature and Society. University of Illinois Press, 1972.

Lyne, William. The Signifying Modernist: Ralph Ellison and the Limits of the Double Consciousness.” PMLA, vol. 107, no. 2, March 1992, pp. 319–30.

Pope, John C. “Prufrock and Raskolnikov.” American Literature, Vol. 17, no. 3, Nov. 1945, pp. 213–230.


[1] I examine this phenomenon in considerable detail in my book The Post-Utopian Imagination.

[2] In his introduction to a 1982 edition of Invisible Man, Ellison identified Dostoevsky’s Underground Man as the most important literary forerunner of the Invisible Man. For more on the influence of Dostoevsky on Invisible Man, see Frank.

[3] Eliot is known to have been an admirer of Dostoevsky, and “Prufrock” has been argued to have been influenced by the Russian novelist since Pope’s article in 1945, though Pope links Eliot’s poem primarily to Crime and Punishment.

[4] For a useful overview of racist imagery in American media and advertising, see Spike Lee’s film Bamboozled (2000). “Sambo” was a derogatory term for African Americans widely in use during the Jim Crow period. The name is especially associated with a children’s book entitled The Story of Little Black Sambo (1899) by Helen Bannerman, which features a southern Indian boy named “Sambo” who outwits a group of hungry tigers. “Sambo’s” was the name of a restaurant chain in operation between 1957 and 1981, whose restaurants were decorated with imagery from the children’s book. The flagship restaurant of the chain remained in operation under the Sambo’s name until the summer of 2020, when the name was finally changed in response to protests surrounding the police murder of George Floyd.

[5] However, by the end of the 1930s, the CPUSA had agreed to back off of its criticisms of American racism in favor of Popular Front solidarity in the battle against fascism. Many African Americans saw this change in strategy as a betrayal, though it is certainly understandable in light of what was going on in Europe at the time. The invisible man is clearly among those we sees the Popular Front as a betrayal; he is clearly unimpressed by the explanation that the Brotherhood is changing course because the are ”making temporary alliances with other political groups and the interests of one group of brothers must be sacrificed to that of the whole” (501).