Invisible Man and African American Radicalism in World War II

Article excerpt

Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man bears a complex, ambiguous, and ultimately extraordinarily rich relation to the milieu that gave it birth, African American social radicalism in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Rather than simply providing background for a shift toward a more individualistic, artistic, or private life stance, Invisible Man's relation to the radicalism of its author's youth is the source of its definition of an alternative basis for African American social struggle after the Brotherhood experience, its continuing (if muted) affirmation of possibilities for social reform, and its forecast of the actual content of civil rights actions in the decades after its publication. Further, Invisible Man's continuing relation to the African American radicalism of its time helps explain the oft-noted ambivalence of its conclusion on such matters as artistic and political action and individual as opposed to group freedom. These aspects of the novel reflect the overlapping contexts of African Americans' experiences in the Communist Party (hereafter CP) and, even more centrally, their responses to World War II, elements of history that are presented with specificity yet with mythic scope and resonance.

Until recently, these contexts, especially the latter, received rather little emphasis in scholarly criticism of Invisible Man. In the most fruitful period of interpretation, the 1970s and 80s, the novel was treated primarily as a narrative of the self-creation of individual and racial identity, and it was contextualized both culturally, through studies of its affinities with African American narrative traditions, folkways, blues, jazz, and so on, and generically, in commentaries on Ellison's appropriation of the classics and especially the US canon. (1) In this period, in The Craft of Ralph Ellison (1980), Robert O'Meally could remark as axiomatic, "Invisible Man is not a historical novel, of course" (103). During and before these years, a counter-trend of political criticism, by such commentators as Irving Howe (1963-64), Donald B. Gibson (1981), and Thomas H. Schaub (1991), charged Ellison with evasion of political realities. Most neglected Invisible Man's prewar and wartime contexts in favor of the critic's own or that of the Cold War. Schaub, exceptionally, does note the novel's relation to wartime radicalism, but contends that Ellison subordinates historically concrete depiction to "the a historicism of mythic form and tragic vision so typical of postwar [liberal] critical thought," creating a debilitating tension between "political specificity" and "a discourse that obscures those politics" (American 92, 101). Yet Schaub assumes, rather than demonstrates, that universalizing techniques must dilute socially specific observation, and he says little about the novel's specific treatments of prewar and wartime radicalism. Indeed, Schaub does not comment at all on Invisible Man's ideas concerning African American identity, style, or relations to the United States. (2)

Several more recent studies emphasize Ellison's complexity and continuing commitment to communitarian democratic values. Julia Eichelberger's sections on Ellison in her Prophets of Recognition (1999), for example, stress that he deconstructs US ideologies, especially the linkage of individualism to domination, through a Ricoeurian "hermeneutics of suspicion," and credit him with a "vision of an as-yet-unrealized democracy" (2-3, 22, 57). Meili Steele, in two important articles and sections of two books (1996-97), argues that Ellison neither fully affirms nor fully rejects US liberalism and that he juxtaposes the "ethical vocabularies of liberals, communitarians, and radicals" to create a "space that is indispensable for improving our deliberations about democracy" (Theorizing 176; "Metatheory" 473). But these interpreters, too, disregard historical contexts and largely ignore socially radical ideas in Invisible Man, as when Steele defines her focus as Ellison's "understanding of the subject in deliberations about identity in a liberal democracy" (Theorizing 185). …