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John F. Callahan, ed. Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man: A Casebook.

John F. Callahan, ed. Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man: A Casebook. New York: Oxford UP, 2004. 352 pp. $55.00 cloth/ $21.95 paper.

This casebook provides what many college and university professors have sought for a long time, a relatively inexpensive paperback collection of high quality research materials that can serve as a companion to Ellison's Invisible Man in undergraduate and graduate courses. Combining an interesting mixture of classic studies and previously unpublished letters and notes, it provides a solid historical and critical framework for the study of Ellison's great novel.

One of the book's greatest strengths is its unique organizational plan. Like the novel it studies, it is framed by a prologue and epilogue that place the core of the book in an extremely revealing and resonant context. Both prologue and epilogue present Ellison's own voice in the form of his working notes, letters, interviews, and a lecture while the remainder of the casebook consists of 10 scholarly articles focusing on a wide range of topics. In this way, Callahan gives Ellison, who is still one of the wisest readers of his fiction, the first and last words on Invisible Man. Or, to put it another way, the prologue and epilogue sound an intriguing "call" to which the essays answer with a fascinating series of "responses." Ellison surely would have been pleased by this faithful mirroring of the powerful call/response structure he used so brilliantly in Invisible Man.

The prologue and epilogue provide students with a nuanced understanding of Ellison's visions of American and African American experience, as well as the technical challenges he faced while writing Invisible Man over a five-year period. They also clarify Ellison's relationships with his literary "ancestors," including Herman Melville, Mark Twain, T. S. Eliot, and James Joyce, all the while stressing his deep roots in black music and folk art. (As Ellison emphasized in his 1969 lecture at West Point, "I also was one who read a lot, who lived in books as well as music.") His letters to long-time friend and confidante Albert Murray produce extraordinary glimpses into Ellison's methods of composition, his high ambitions for the novel, and his chronic anxieties about the book. Of particular interest to teachers, students, and scholars are the working notes that he made in the summer of 1945 when he was in the initial phases of writing Invisible Man. These previously unpublished remarks from the Ellison collection at the Library of Congress probe Ellison's central metaphor of "invisibility" and also describe preliminary versions of important scenes while analyzing characters that were later deleted from the novel. Contrasting these rough notes with the completed novel published in 1952, one gains a clear appreciation of how Ellison developed as an artist, from an angry writer focused on contemporary social and political issues to a mature novelist intent on distilling the "universal" from his own experiences as an African American man. (As he stressed in his West Point lecture, the writing of Invisible Man made him realize that "it was not enough for me simply to be angry.")

These materials presented in Ellison's own voice bring out, as so very few casebooks do, the deeply human dimension of writing a masterpiece such as Invisible Man. (Ellison's complaining to Murray that writing the novel was "the god-damnedest experience of my life" and that he had come to regard the book as "a rock around my neck" struck me as two especially human moments!) Callahan's book therefore establishes a vivid portrait of Ellison as a man and an artist that nicely contextualizes the 10 critical essays. This text will be immensely valuable to student readers, who often experience masterworks such as Invisible Man in a state of high human excitement only to be later chilled by the coldly abstract anatomies performed on such books by professional scholars.

Callahan, however, in his choice of critical articles is careful to avoid such pedantic studies, centering the casebook on rich and lively pieces that capitalize on the interest sparked by the prologue. Rather than duplicating the work of previous collections on Ellison that often provide a decade-by-decade survey of important articles and book chapters, Callahan has chosen "ten essays which speak to each other, to Ellison's own commentaries, and the central issues which have preoccupied readers of the novel over five decades." In this way, the book becomes a fruitful dialectic between a broad spectrum of critics among themselves and also with Ellison. These essays engage a wide range of important issues such as Ellison's sources, his portrayal of women, his use of African American folk speech and music, and his conception of American democracy.

The book also benefits from an astute introduction that provides a lucid, balanced account of the critical response to Invisible Man and a concise but revealing sketch of Ellison's life and the importance of his work. Characterizing Invisible Man as "one of those rare novels whose commercial and critical success coincide in a continually accelerating rising curve," Callahan points out that the novel has "remarkable staying power" and has been translated into more than 20 languages and has sold over one million copies since Ellison's death.

Callahan appropriately concludes the book with a dialogue between Ellison and the students at West Point after his 1969 lecture. He offers this very open discussion as "a model for what I hope may occur in the classroom where this volume is read and discussed." Conceived as a living conversation rather than yet another dusty anthology, Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man: A Casebook will certainly succeed not only as a tool for student research but also as a catalyst for further critical investigation and discovery.

Robert Butler

Canisius College
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Author:Butler, Robert
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 2005
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