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Freedom is the abiding theme of America, and race its most abiding reality. It follows that American literature should be concerned with the tension between the two, and its artistic legacy for the world is almost always concerned with questions of self-determination, black history, and the role of the outsider in shaping the very society that spurns them.
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison is quite possibly the most eloquent and far-reaching exploration of these concerns and the one book that has shaped how generations regard the social novel. In fact, the phrase ‘social novel’ is a problematic one when applied to Invisible Man, as part of what makes the book such an enduring document of black experience is its ambiguity.
High school students typically read the straightforward-by-comparison To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee, with its clear moral authority, and no less a voice of civil rights than James Baldwin ridiculed Native Son by Richard Wright and Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe in ‘Everybody’s Protest Novel’ as sanitized versions of the African-American experience.
But there is nothing sanitized about Invisible Man, which from its opening lines announces itself as a more nuanced testament. The Invisible Man’s blackness is his invisibility, and yet it is his very visibility that makes him a monster, not “one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms,” but an outcast who narrates his journey from a secret room in a Harlem basement, from where he considers his upbringing, battles with racism, and uncertain destiny.
Ellison’s breakthrough is that his novel is more than a reckoning with white attitudes, as many of his hero’s most arduous challenges come at the hands of the black community, which is sometimes rendered as equally biased or self-consciously blind to injustice. Raised in the south and educated at an all-black college, he becomes politically active in a Harlem-based “Brotherhood,” with which he is gradually disenchanted.
No synopsis can do justice to Ellison’s all-encompassing prose, the humanity of which is deeply inspiring, nor the philosophical thrust of the book, which is nearly Biblical in scope. Invisible Man is not a book to be idly picked off the shelf at random, nor to save for one’s mid-thirties: its concerns are seasoned, global, and imperative.
Ellison labored over his follow-up, Juneteenth, for the rest of his life, only for it to be released posthumously—his great book had already been written, and it is as definitive a novel as it is possible to conceive of. This is a story worth savoring, discussing with strangers, and carrying inside your soul. It gets to the heart of things and is ideally the centerpiece of a long life of reading, changing, and thinking in the world.
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