Somehow, in all my years of reading, Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man, 1952, never entered my great river of books, even having read his posthumously published Juneteenth and despite having read Richard Wright’s Native Son more than once and James Baldwin’s Another Country having had a significant impact on my then young life; both of them were significant contemporaries of his. Oh well, better late than never. But earlier would have been even better. It’s a marvelously told odyssey for readers of any time or ethnicity, not of 5th century BCE Mediterranean, but of 20th century America, south to north. If you haven’t read it, now is the time to get started.
“I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allen Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids—and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination—indeed, everything and anything except me.”
I’ve actually been listening to a marvelous Audible reading by Joe Morton, a reader with such a range of voices that every character in Ellison’s novel seems to have his, or her, own — from the College president, Dr. Bledsoe to the white trustee Mr. Norton, from the narrator’s half-day supervisor in the paint factory, Lucius Brockway to Mary Rambo, a rescuing woman in Harlem. I count 38, almost all with speaking parts.
With connections literary connections to T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” frames from Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground, and with a deep feeling for jazz and language, Ellison ranges widely in his first, and only completed novel. President Barack Obama has said his own Dreams from My Father was modeled on the novel.
I’m not going to stop listening long enough to review it myself but here are a few that might interest you
New York Times, 1952, Orville Prescott
Ellison’s Speech at the 1953 National Book Award
Herbert Mitgang’s 1982 review on the 30th anniversary of publication
2002 Stanford Colloquium on the novel.