The Great American Novel

Patrick Giles is associate editor of Interview magazine.

I first read "Invisible Man" when I lived not far from where its author wrote it, while discovering how I, too, could be invisible. I had moved to Harlem with a friend in 1985. We were practically the only whites in that part of town and the first to live on our block.

"I can't remember the last time your kind of people moved in here," an elderly resident admitted. After some surrounding dismay and amusement ("Well, there goes the neighborhood," our next-door neighbor sighed to her husband), we did make friends; perhaps inevitably, we were also harassed by members of a nearby Nation of Islam mosque. But the majority of Harlemites responded to their new white neighbors in a way I hadn't expected: They looked away when we passed, didn't answer when we said "Hello" or "Excuse me," walked around us at the supermarket as though they had simply erased us from sight.

It wasn't long after moving to Harlem that I stumbled onto "Invisible Man," which is now 50 years old and is being commemorated by a reissue of the original edition and a documentary devoted to its author, Ralph Ellison, which aired earlier this year on PBS' "American Masters" series. Although I knew of Ellison and his book, teachers and friends urged me not to read him when I discovered African American fiction; so it wasn't until I picked up a copy of "Invisible Man" at our local library that I fell under its startling, almost unnerving spell.

The novel is the confession--"confession" as St. Augustine used it: a factual and spiritual autobiography--of a narrator who is never called by nor tells us his name (I came to call him "Invisible"). Self-sequestered in a sub-basement somewhere on the outskirts of Harlem, Invisible writes a kind of anti-bildungsroman. Expelled from a prestigious black school for innocently allowing a white benefactor to learn more about the ignoble suffering racism brings to black life than the college's president deems beneficial, the narrator makes his way to New York in hopes of reversing his fall from favor. Then through a series of comical, harrowing, even fantastic experiences, he discovers a world so betrayed by fear, hatred and absurdity that his black identity makes it impossible for anyone to see or understand him. Once full of hopes for a brilliant future, Ellison's narrator ends up living underground in the invisibility of truth, using his words rather than his presence to reach a world unable to recognize him.

Walking to and from the library from which I had borrowed "Invisible Man," I often saw an old gentleman who sat on a nearby park bench. We never spoke, but he almost always gave me a friendly nod, sometimes noticing the pile of books under my arm with an amused expression. Then one day in 1994, I opened the New York Times and, accompanying an article about Ellison (who had recently died), I saw a photo of the man I had passed again and again on my way home.

For a long time I had been obsessed by Invisible's travails, even trying to track down where he fell into a manhole and disappeared. Later, as I studied Ellison's novel and life, I understood better the reasons for my own invisibility: Differences--racial, sexual, economic and religious--challenge Americans and perpetuate their inability to recognize one another as fellows entangled by history, language, hopes, hatreds and dreams. A look at the book's reception, from the year it was published in 1952, shows how many people, in refusing to acknowledge this behavior, unwittingly act it out.

Ellison's work attained almost instant "classic" status. It was avidly praised and discussed by a large circle of critics and readers. More than 10 years after its publication, Book Week magazine in 1965 polled literary critics to select the greatest American novel written after World War II; the novel was their choice. But over time, "Invisible Man" lost much of its audience. The activism of the civil rights era, which drew fire from the book's themes, dissipated in the late 1960s, as nationalist and separatist agendas gained popularity in black communities. The banner of Black Power was picked up by the Black Arts Movement, which emphasized creativity in the service of political agendas and suspected older artists.

Ellison and "Invisible Man" were subject to intense suspicion. His novel was denounced as a betrayal of black life, an attempt to win favor among whites, and its author was heckled during personal appearances. These often shallow and self-righteous misreadings of Ellison endure. (Even in the PBS Ellison documentary, Amiri Baraka, a fervent "Invisible" antagonist, can be seen shaking his head sadly over Ellison.)

As Lawrence Jackson details in his discerning, thorough and much needed biography, "Ralph Ellison: Emergence of Genius" (which concludes, as the subtitle suggests, with the author's acceptance of the 1953 National Book Award for "Invisible Man"), history and temperament rendered Ellison an unlikely champion of his own beliefs. He grew up in Oklahoma, where segregation had existed for only a few decades (and slavery never) and where Ellison witnessed acts of resistance: political, communal and personal.

Later experiences widened and deepened his sense of racism as a collective malaise, one that causes people to mistake and misuse one another. Just as "Moby-Dick" emerged in part from Herman Melville's collision with the world of literature he explored as avidly as he did the seas, so Ellison's "Invisible Man" emerged as his passion for music, folklore and early American fiction collided with the Modernist authors he discovered in his 20s (his novel bears epigraphs by Melville and T.S. Eliot). In "Invisible Man," Ellison depicted "race" with a complexity and versatility far beyond previous (and many succeeding) novels on the subject, making it a more powerful and demanding experience than almost any other in American literature.

But "Invisible Man" remains our literature's invisible classic, awarded honor without profit, cited but unread (or read inadequately). In high school and college, Ellison is infrequently assigned; as an African American novelist, Toni Morrison clearly outpolls him. When I worked in a bookstore, I routinely asked graduate students bearing reading lists what they were studying; even African American studies majors seldom mentioned (or read) Ellison. Author and novel have gained recent defenders, but many Ellison champions tend to be either political conservatives who sentimentalize the novel's message into a we-are-all-brothers coziness or black males who wield Ellison as a weapon against other black writers (especially Morrison)--or both.

Rereading it today, one can only wonder at this novel's being pilloried. How could a book that states, "Whence all this passion toward conformity anyway?--diversity is the word" be accused of conservatism? Where is the Uncle Tom-ism in a novel that renders the permutations of prejudice so authentically that it still bears the power to shock, insult and alienate readers of all kinds, that it indicts its readers in a way no "oppressed" writing ever could?

"Invisible Man's" famous last line, "Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?" has been cited as a statement of racial unity--but its Poe-like eeriness shouldn't be unheard (even though the narrator implicitly rejects such a comparison: "I am an invisible man," the novel begins. "No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe.... "). Nor should the sentence that precedes the novel's final words: "And it is this which frightens me." Could it be that Invisible's testimony is so true a reflection of how we continue to live in "[this] simple yet confoundingly complex arrangement of hope and desire, fear and hate" that our own responses to it frequently replicate Ellison's illumination of our society's desperate dependency on the decision not to see?

Fifty years on, "Invisible Man's" readers remain so used to that blindness that we continually self-aggrandize it into new functions. (In this light, Morrison's insistence on her fiction not being compared to the older, whiter, male literary canon becomes less liberating and more troubling.) It is just one irony of Ellison's life and work that critics who deplored him often became part of a movement called "identity politics," placing premium importance on "visibility."

And yet whether we recognize him or not, Ellison's fictional conscience hovers just beyond our sight, his awakening still too demanding a revelation for many readers. A great work of art can expose its audience to aspects of its existence beyond the reach of politicians, therapists and activists. Many of us remain prisoners of agendas and histories we find difficult to understand or surmount. But Ellison demonstrates how such obstacles can be confronted through the integrity of fiction. If he cannot exist in his own world, Invisible migrates from the middle passage of oppression to the emancipation of our collective imagination; his story challenges the stories we live by and share. The narrator's non-emergence at the end is often puzzled over, but it is clear that in keeping his hero underground, Ellison is throwing a dare at us. Invisible cannot appear, after all, because he is only a creation: It is we--Ellison-Invisible's readers--who can learn to witness each other.

When I walk around Harlem now (where I no longer live), I can still be startled by a sigh from a smoking manhole or attracted to an electrical hum pulsing from a back alley filled with barred basement entrances, Invisible's liberating cell still haunting me. I guess this is the highest compliment I could pay Ellison: I want to believe the unprecdented consciousness he wrested into American literature from his own life and wounds truly lives, so I can search for him and find him and discover if he and I could see one another

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