|Young Ralph Ellison, author of Invisible Man (1952)|
Invisible Man (1952)
by Ralph Ellison
Invisible Man is one of the greatest one hit wonders of all time. Ralph Ellison lived an entire life after it succeeded. He did write non-fiction, and a novel was published post-posthumously based on notes he left, but Invisible Man was it in terms of novels published by Ralph Ellison in his lifetime. I have a great deal of respect for the one-and-done artistic career. The way I see it, most artists who put something out there for a public audience: studio artists, novelists, musicians, film makers, actors- are super, duper lucky if they have even one work attached to their name that earns them a living, secures long term attention or both. And then there are those who secure a living but fail to earn "respect" from the appropriate critical community. And of course there are those who receive critical respect but fail to earn a living. It's a damned if you do, damned if you don't situation, and good luck even getting to the point where you get to be damned one way or the other.
Thus, for an artist to hit it one the head with one try and then to have the good sense to pack it in for the rest of their life without attempting to match the earlier work- that is the ultimate. And that is what Ralph Ellison accomplished with Invisible Man. He spent the rest of his life teaching. Boom. Done. Invisible Man really is an incredible accomplishment and it holds up in a way that other mid century African American bildungsroman's like Native Son and Go Tell it on the Mountain. Where the narrators in Native Son and Go Tell it one the Mountain are cowering in the shadow of the overwhelming power of 20th century racism, Ellison's unnamed narrator is a community organizer not afraid to stand up to his white superiors in the New York Communist party.
Not that his bravery goes unpunished. The framing device for his narrative is that he is literally living underground, off the grid, stealing power and living in the sub basement of a partially abandoned building. Ellison takes the reader back through the education of the narrator at a historically black college, where he takes a disastrous turn chauffeuring a wealthy white donor around the campus. He is dismissed after an illusion shattering conservation with the head of school, and sent to New York.
There, he has an eventful day working for a company that specializes in white paint and eventually falls in with the Communist Party, recruited on the strength of an impromptu speech delivered on the street during an eviction. Although the term "Invisible Man" is one applied by the narrator to himself, by the end of the book it feels like his status is self imposed, the product of his vast disillusionment with both fellow Africian American activitsts and his white superiors in the Communist party.