The Critical Response to Ralph Ellison

By Robert J. Butler | Go to book overview

A Review of Invisible Man

Orville Prescott

Ralph Ellison first novel, Invisible Man is the most impressive work of fiction by an American Negro which I have ever read. Unlike Richard Wright and William Motley, who achieved their best effects by overpowering their readers with documentary detail, Mr. Ellison is a finished novelist who uses words with great skill, who writes with poetic intensity and immense narrative drive. Invisible Man has many flaws. It is a sensational and feverishly emotional book. It will shock and sicken some of its readers. But, whatever the final verdict on Invisible Man may be, it does mark the appearance of a richly talented writer.

Ralph Ellison was born in Oklahoma and educated at Tuskegee Institute. He has shined shoes and played the first trumpet in a jazz orchestra. He has studied music and sculpture, lectured on Negro culture and James Joyce, written short stories and literary criticism. In Invisible Man he has written a book about the emotional and intellectual hazards which beset the educated Negro in America. He has written it on two levels. The first is the level of story-telling, the second that of exaggeration, suggestion and symbolism.

Invisible Man is much more successful in the first respect, it seems to me, than in the second. Mr. Ellison has a grand flair for gaudy melodrama, for savage comedy, for emphatic characterization. He is not interested in literal, realistic truth, but in an emotional, atmospheric truth which he drives home with violence, writing about grotesquely violent situations. With gruesome power he has given Invisible Man the frenzied tension of a nightmare.

This is the story of the adventures, shocks, and disillusionments of a young Southern Negro, a naive idealist with a gift for spontaneous oratory, who journeys--almost like Bunyan's pilgrim-through Harlem's slough of despond, but who never reaches the other side. It is told in the first person and is divided into a series of major episodes, some lurid and erotic, some ironic and grotesque. The breathless excitement and coldly sardonic humor of many of these are superb.

The nameless narrator learns his first important lesson in disillusionment at a Southern Negro college when he discovers that the president he admired humbly is a cynical hypocrite. He learns more in a surrealistic horror of a paint factory on Long Island; more still during his service in the "Brotherhood."

The "Brotherhood" is Mr. Ellison's euphuistic synonym for the Communist Party. Why he does not call the party by its real name is a mystery. But the identification is exact, and his befuddled hero's adventures among the brothers are a fine demonstration of

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