Ralph Ellison

Ralph Ellison

Ralph Ellison

Ralph Ellison


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More than a third of a century after its original publication (1952), Ralph Ellison 's Invisible Man is fully confirmed as an American Classic. I remember reading Invisible Man when it first appeared, and joining in the enthusiastic reception of the book. a number of readings since have caused the novel to seem richer, and rereading it now brings no temptation to dissent from the general verdict. One can prophesy that Invisible Man will be judged, some day, as the principal work of American fiction betweenFaulkner's major phase and Gravity's Rainbow by Pynchon.Only West's Miss Lonelyhearts, of all the novels between Faulkner and Pynchon, rivals Invisible Man as an eminent instance of the American imagination in narrative, and West's scope is specialized and narrow, however intense in its superbly negative exuberance.

Rereading Invisible Man, the exuberance of the tale and the strength of its nameless narrator seem to me far less negative than they did back in 1952. I agree with Douglas Robinson that Ellison gave us a Book of Jonah in descent from Moby-Dick, and so I agree also with Robinson's argument against R.W. B. Lewis's distinguished and influential contention that Invisible Man is an apocalyptic work.Ellison's novel is the narrator's book, and not the book of Rinehart or of Ras the Exhorter, and the narrator goes underground only as Jonah does, to come up again, in order to live as a narrator. Like Jonah, like the Ancient Mariner of Coleridge, like Melville's Ishmael, and even like Job, the narrator escapes apocalpyse and returns to tell us his story.

When we first meet the narrator, he is living an underground existence that seems to have suggested to Pynchon the grand invention of the story of Byron the Light Bulb in Gravity's Rainbow (I owe this allusive link to Pamela Schirmeister). Byron the Bulb's war against the System which insists that he burn out is a precisely apocalyptic transumption of the Invisible Man's struggle against Monopolated Light & Power:

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