Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man is a monolith of 20th century literature, praised as an exemplary American novel, a modern counterpart of Dante’s Inferno. Published in 1952, Invisible Man traces the odyssey of an articulate, young, black man who leaves the Jim Crow South in search of greatness. When the budding orator makes his way to New York — a countrified Alice in a big-city Wonderland — he gets trapped in a fun house of distorted self-images that are thrust upon him by fraudulent communists, black militants, and the followers of a mysterious preacher / pimp. After an apocalyptic Harlem riot, he emerges from the sewers a half-sane Brer Rabbit convinced that the truth lies in living outside of history.
The Oklahoma-born Ellison weaved black Southern oral traditions and disciplined literary forms into a narrative as fierce and poetic as the jazz that drew him to New York in the first place. At Ellison’s funeral in 1994, Wynton Marsalis told of how the writer, who studied the trumpet at Tuskegee University, forfeited an opportunity to blow with Duke Ellington because he missed the gig. Luckily for us, Richard Wright, whom he met through Langston Hughes, became Ellison’s mentor and encouraged him to pursue literature instead.
The resulting novel transformed Ellison into an instant star of the African-American intelligentsia. In a 1965 poll of hundreds of authors, Invisible Man was voted the most distinguished work of the era, topping novels by Ballow, Salinger, Mailer, and Nabokov. But when the political mood shifted in the ’60s, black radicals like Amiri Baraka slammed Ellison for placing aesthetic concerns over political ones. Ellison said, “I’m a novelist, not an activist,” and dedicated the rest of his life to lecturing and essay writing.
In 1999, Juneteenth, Ellison’s unfinished second novel, which was presumed to have been destroyed in a fire in 1967, was published posthumously. More important, Ellison outlasted the criticism to see Invisible Man lionized as a precursor of the postmodern literary movement. Commentaries by Stanley Crouch and Tupac Shakur, and movies like Deep Cover and The Brother From Another Planet, are all the spiritual sons of Invisible Man‘s cryptic warning: “Being a disembodied voice, who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?”