Ralph Ellison remembered.
In his magnificent novel Invisible Man, Ellison, as artist, helped to save the life of the mind and spirit by giving his nation something to live for and to live by, even as he challenged his readers to think profoundly and analytically about the disease of racism and the contradictions between our democratic ideals and the capricious attitudes that characterize our rigged value system.
No novel has so brilliantly captured or imaginatively projected the black American's ambiguous status in "the land of the free and the home of the brave." The book has never been out of print since it was first published in 1952. I have been teaching the novel for the last 21 years at Northwestern University. Each autumn I look forward to teaching it, with the excitement of a schoolboy out on his first date and with the zeal of a middle-aged professor ever alive to its sources of renewal and instruction.
An ever-consuming and challenging work of fiction to teach, Invisible Man is fun to read on the primary level of engagement - a book whose author possessed a riveting power and narrative drive and an enriching way of feeling his way into the grain of chaos, societal dislocation and the will for a formulaic order that shields the deeper agonies of our country.
In an uncanny, almost mystical manner, Ellison was able to bring to his writing desk the "felt knowledge" of nearly every avenue into black consciousness: music; the dance; a full scope of black vernacular; the grand preacher tradition; slave heritage; political intrigues and entrapments; the relationship between the Southern Negro tribunal and the Northern; duplicity-streaked encounters with racism; and the profound, bewitching yet wrenching way in which blacks are represented by uncommon uses of eloquence and often profanely duped by high-powered word artists who distort the cry for freedom. One finds eloquence as an instrumentality for justice and eloquence as a source for murder-mouthing by certain Afro-centric souls in the name of a false-faced brotherhood: thus the huge role speech making of all kinds plays in the novel.
The novel also continues to intrigue because of the rowdy power and the sharp delineation of a vast landscape of black and white characters. Dedicated to removing all stereotypes, Ellison also avoids sentimentalizing attributes of black figures. As he once said: "America is a land of tricksters," and Invisible Man is full of tricksters both black and white. These are especially riddled figures, often cunning, engrossing yet troubling, with memorable links to Melville, Twain and Faulkner. Here, Ellison not only reveals how the black American had been set up by racist forces but also notes the duplicity of certain Negroes who occupy positions of leadership and authority.
The novel's structural underpinning comes from a joke played by whites when an African-American outsider would come to a town looking for a job. The white man would give him a sealed note to carry to another white man down the road, who supposedly had work. He would read the note, send its bearer in search of another man down the road and so forth and so on. Finally, the frustrated outsider would unseal the note and read these words: "To Whom It May Concern, Keep This Nigger Boy Running."
That is a joke played not only on the narrator of Invisible Man but also on black people, in one way or another, throughout their history. My students, black, white, Hispanic and Asian, often reveal to me how they feel alienated, invisible like the novel's hero, and how they've had jokes played on them similar to the harsh joke of "Keep This Nigger Boy Running." The novelist was no doubt hoping for this kind of connectedness, for Invisible Man ends with the words: "Who knows but on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?"
Ellison's book meant so much to the black writers of my generation. Invisible Man made literary breakthroughs on the national and international level, in ways that no other novel by a black writer had then achieved. A perfectionist (the novel was at least seven years in the writing), Ellison revealed to us the significance of the transformation of oral tradition and verbal virtuosity to the scripture of literary eloquence. He unfolded the way to get our denied history into the heartbeat of the literary enterprise. Prodigiously well-read, he knew how to incorporate the techniques of a vast library into his work. A magician with the language, he handled the furious fire of his literary vocabulary with harpooning, Hemingway-like precision, amid a robustness for language that Papa rarely possessed.
Ellison had all the tools: the proper balance of artistic arrogance, ego and a fundamental humility before the grief of his peoples' heritage; enormous ambition; a fury for sustained work; the sweep and depth of the African-American story; the jagged-edged arsenal of symbolic lyricism. And he brought to the novel form a will to reshape its structure with the artistic influences of the jazz instrumentalist's art.
His novel often sings like the sound of a tenor saxophonist pitched to the tune of grieving, cracking-up, riffing - screaming our American failures and projecting the new consciousness in a spirit that combined Coleman Hawkins, at one end of the stage, and Charlie Parker, at the other. It was this lyricism - the poetic power of the epic-making tragedian - that Ellison brought to his fiction and that still gives hope to us as we reread Invisible Man and reflect upon the American possibility of art out of chaos.
Even though Ralph Waldo Ellison had won the National Book Award for the Invisible Man and the Chevalier de l'Ordre des Artes et Lettres, he was likely to start off a conversation with some hard-won lesson learned when he worked in a restaurant as a butter boy or a short-order cook. But this might lead to some enriching insight he had gleaned about presidential power from a 40-minute conversation he had in the Oval Office with Lyndon Johnson after LBJ had conferred the Presidential Medal of Freedom upon him in 1967.
He often wept when he watched the Alvin Ailey Dancers' ceremonial tribute to the saga of black life, titled "Revelations." He also grieved over the fact that not enough black Americans were learning of the intellectual possibility of evolving an expanded, enriched inner life - for Ellison, a self-made man, went back to the tradition of the "race man."
In a black bar or barbershop you would find many of the cultural attributes that went into the fashioning of his complex vision of life as a race man. There you would find truant officer, NAACP man, black nationalist, local operative for the Democratic Party, community hustlers, businessmen and a handful of professional men, preachers and railroad men. All were zealots about what we must do to uplift the "Negro race." Hours of conversation would center about this imperial theme. Ellison's own hard-won vision evolved to an extent out of this kind of collective: Attack racism and build within the race, build within the individual. Books were a key.
Perhaps one driving force behind Ralph's rage for perfection was the fact that his mother had, in his words, "died at the hands of an incompetent Negro surgeon." He saw precision of practice as a matter of life and death, and writing as "a very stern discipline." Every chapter in Invisible Man represents scores of rewrites.
Pointing to the highest position on his library shelf, in his book-lined apartment on Riverside Drive in New York City, Ellison once told me: "Leon, I'm not up there; but I know what you must do to get up there." Upon that shelf, at the highest level, were the works of James Joyce, Thomas Mann, Dostoyevsky, and Tolstoy.
On an evening in late October 1988, my wife and I were visiting the Ellisons. Ralph and I had been discussing the complexity of black-Jewish relations, and the connections between Jews and blacks in the world of ideas and letters he had known at one time in New York. Then I had started to question Ellison about certain influences of Joyce's Ulysses on Invisible Man. Soon Ralph went into the front room, which housed his vast library, and reemerged with a slender volume of "Pomes Penyeach," published in 1927 and printed by Shakespeare and Company, the original publishers of Ulysses.
Ralph explained that a Jewish bookseller in New York who admired him for being a serious student of literature had sold this book of Joyce's poems to the young writer in the late 1940s for a mere $1. When I opened the volume, I discovered how much this one-on-one relationship had apparently meant (to say nothing of money the bookseller could have made), for there to my delight and surprise was the neat signature of James Joyce.
LEON FORREST is Chair of African American Studies and Professor of English at Northwestern University, where he has taught since 1973. From 1965-1968, he edited local newspapers in Chicago, and he continued his editing career with Muhammad Speaks from 1969 until 1973.