I recently read Vivian Gornick’s The Romance of American Communism, in which she spoke with American Communists past and present (1977), and asked what they had to say about it all. Her accounts described people who were perpetually waiting for “the revolution around the corner”; eventually, the revolution proved to be too long in coming. In Gornick’s book, the power that Communism offered its adherents really came through, sometimes in a creepy way, as people described a willingness to abandon spouses and families in service of the party’s aims. But I don’t think I’ve read a book that better conveys the sheer ordering power of ideology, any ideology, than Invisible Man, wherein the advent of Communism, christened “The Brotherhood” by Ellison, actually has a perceptible effect on the novel’s form.
The first half of Invisible Man is meandering chaos as the narrator encounters people who hugely affect his movements in the near- and the long-term. Casting an eye around your frame of reference, you reach for comparable narratives, like the Odyssey or the Divine Comedy, where itinerant heroes have adventures, or bump into people and listen to them say astonishing things at length. But Invisible Man has something else going for it, a nightmarish sense of powerlessness. This is partially a function of events; nothing goes the way it is meant to for the narrator and, by extension, his reader. He is invited to deliver his graduation speech to a gathering of white town fathers, and instead gets thrown into the boxing ring with a bunch of other terrified black boys. At college, he is assigned to ferry around an important white benefactor, and by solicitously catering to the man’s whims, ends up in a black dive full of rioting mental patients and prostitutes. In this interlude I felt that molasses-like feeling characteristic of bad dreams. The narrative brilliantly impels anxiety through its disjointed quality, which it shares with one of Ellison’s great influences, “The Waste Land”:
“What is wrong with this gentleman, Sylvester?” the tall one said.
“A man’s dying outside!” I said.
“Yes, and it’s good to die beneath God’s great tent of sky.”
“He’s got to have some whiskey!”
“Oh, that’s different,” one of them said and they began pushing a path to the bar. “A last bright drink to keep the anguish down. Step aside, please!”
The narrator is then duly punished for letting the benefactor go astray. He is sent to New York, gets a job (no thanks to his evil college president), gets blown up, gets electrically lobotomized, and gets discharged back into the world without knowing his ass from his elbow:
Things whirled too fast around me. My mind went alternately bright and blank in slow rolling waves. We, he, him — my mind and I — were no longer getting around in the same circles. Nor my body either. Across the aisle a young platinum blond nibbled at a red Delicious apple as station lights rippled past behind her. The train plunged. I dropped through the roar, giddy and vacuum-minded, sucked under and out into late afternoon Harlem.
And then the Brotherhood appears, to bring order to the chaos. Discovering the narrator’s remarkable powers as an orator, they send him for his training in the science of social change. Maybe I’m imagining it all, but once I arrived at this point in the novel, I lost my sense of anxiety and impotence. Not only the substance of the narrator’s life, but the text itself, took a form I could more easily follow. That’s the beauty of Marx’s ideas; a man can get control over his own story. Sooner or later, though, he will realize that someone else is writing the story for him: “The world was strange if you stopped to think about it; still it was a world that could be controlled by science, and the Brotherhood had both science and history under control.”
Soon, like many people in the twentieth century, the narrator finds that for all their science, the Brotherhood is thinking at a scale that has ceased to be relevant to the particular circumstances of men like him, or his Harlem neighbors, who worry about getting evicted or shot by the police. The people he calls “the transitory ones”:
…ones such as I had been before I found Brotherhood — birds of passage who were too obscure for learned classification, too silent for the most sensitive recorders of sound; of natures too ambiguous for the most ambiguous words, and too distant from the centers of historical decision to sign or even to applaud the signers of historical documents. We who write no novels, histories or other books.
Reading Invisible Man, I thought about The Adventures of Augie March, which was published a year later, and which also describes meandering and haplessness in the face of unforeseen circumstances. Bellow and Ellison were friends and roommates, and their novels form a pair of sorts. But Bellow’s meanderings seem so often to lead to opportunity; they can be described as “rollicking.” In America it is the privilege of the white man to rollick, even if he is a poor Jew born into moderate squalor. The black man, in this novel at any rate, can only be fucked around; his hope, in this novel, is to discover his own way of doing things. I say “man” because a woman in this novel can only be fucked, full stop; she does haven’t much hope of decent treatment, by the novelist or anyone else. Too obscure for learned classification, women are chattel and bait.
I felt Ellison’s novel invited me to compare its narrator to Augie March and feel sorrowful for the injustice inherent in American life, but Ellison may have protested this. In his great essay “The World and the Jug,” a riposte to the critic Irving Howe, Ellison criticized Richard Wright for his belief in the novel as a weapon. “True novels,” Ellison wrote, “even when most pessimistic and bitter, arise out of an impulse to celebrate human life and therefore are ritualistic and ceremonial at their core. Thus they would preserve as they destroy, affirm as they reject.” And Invisible Man does end, somehow, on an affirmative note, even though the narrator is living underground and philosophizing from some kind of vast coal scuttle. The reader’s chaos and disorientation returns, but this time, things seem like they are in hand:
In going underground, I whipped it all except the mind, the mind. And the mind that has conceived a plan of living must never lose sight of the chaos against which that pattern was conceived…Thus having tried to give pattern to the chaos which lives within the pattern of your certainties, I must come out, I must emerge.
As with American Communism, there is something of a pall over Ellison’s legacy — a sense of things left undone, a general wanting in his solidarity with other black writers and intellectuals. He repudiated the influence of Wright on his literature, when Wright gave him his first leg up as a young writer. He is said to have taken a dim, threatened view of later generations of black writers. But it seems to me that Ellison, as a black writer, was never quite allowed, by himself or others, to relax comfortably into the quirky individuality, even dickishness, that was the birthright of his white authorial contemporaries.
Invisible Man was Ellison’s only novel, his other work a smattering of stories and essays. Among his essays, he is chiefly remembered for the aforementioned stirring and dramatic exchange with Howe, a white man who, evidently, was not expecting pushback when he praised, with offensive qualifications, Invisible Man in an essay about Richard Wright and James Baldwin:
What astonishes one most about Invisible Man is the apparent freedom it displays from the ideological and emotional penalties suffered by Negroes in this country — I say ‘apparent’ because the freedom is not quite so complete as the book’s admirers like to suppose. Still, for long stretches Invisible Man does escape the formulas of protest, local color, genre quaintness and jazz chatter.
Howe’s assessment of Black writing, as something dictated by the social conditions that “formed a constant pressure on his literary work…with a pain and ferocity that nothing could remove,” prompted an exchange that would go three rounds and would lead Ellison to lob this stinger: “Many of those who write of Negro life today seem to assume that as long as their hearts are in the right place they can be as arbitrary as they wish in their formulations.” Referendums on the relative fairness of Ellison’s and Howe’s remarks continue to be published today.
I thought of Ellison when reading a modern-day exchange about race between public intellectuals — Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jonathan Chait. In a powerful essay in The Atlantic, Coates refutes the belief, shared by conservatives and progressives, in some derelict streak in black culture, and points instead to white supremacy as one of the “central organizing forces in American life.” In the context of Coates’s argument, Ellison might seem to willfully downplay this force, emphasizing in his response to Howe that his own influences took the form of Marx, Freud, Eliot, Pound, Stein, and Hemingway, books which “were to release me from whatever ‘segregated’ idea I might have had of my human possibilities.” But in Coates’s piece I heard strong echoes of Ellison’s rejection of white attempts to universalize and pathologize the black experience, as here:
Oddly enough, I found it far less painful to have to move to the back of a Southern bus, or climb to the peanut gallery of a movie house — matters about which I could do nothing except walk, read, hunt, dance, sculpt, cultivate ideas, or seek other uses for my time — than to tolerate concepts which distorted the actual reality of my situation or my reactions to it…I could escape the reduction imposed by unjust laws and customs, but not that imposed by ideas which defined me as no more than the sum of those laws and customs.
While Ellison evidently wanted to be remembered more for his fierce advocacy of the individual and the artist and his need for representation — “All novels are about certain minorities: the individual is a minority,” he once told The Paris Review — his writing to Howe here is a resonant comment on the right of people to say who they are, rather than be told. In this he speaks even for the obscure birds, those men out of time, about whom the Invisible Man asked in his thrilling final line: “Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you”? And still today, people do not hear.
The review of Invisible Man in the New York Times began, amazingly, “Ralph Ellison’s first novel, ‘The Invisible Man,’ is the most impressive work of fiction by an American Negro which I have ever read.” Ellison never completed his gargantuan second novel, Juneteenth, which was Frankensteined and published after his death to thin reviews. For whatever reason, he paid the cost of being, as he put it “an individual who aspires to conscious eloquence.” But if Invisible Man is the most fully-realized embodiment of your conscious eloquence, that’s a hell of a legacy. How else might that Times review have begun? “The most impressive work of fiction by an American”? It would not have been an audacious claim.