More than forty years after its publication in July 1952, Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man retains its freshness and its extraordinary aesthetic distinction. Clearly it is a permanent American book, and is perhaps the most eminent novel produced in our country after the major phase of William Faulkner.Since it remains Ellison's only novel, an aware reader who returns to it can find himself or herself shadowed by a sense of loss. Though he is a remarkable essayist, Ellison seems fated to enjoy literary immortality for a solitary endeavor. And yet pragmatically this has been an American tradition; we tend to enshrine a single novel by most of our major figures.Henry James is the largest exception, and Faulkner nearest to him.Hawthorne 's The Scarlet Letter, Melville's Moby-Dick, Twain's Huckleberry Finn, Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby are a sequence of triumphs never again matched by their authors. A century hence, Invisible Man will join these works and only a few more, and new readers will be surprised to discover that Ellison never published a second novel. Since one could argue that Invisible Man is the principal African-American aesthetic achievement to date outside of the great procession of jazz genius that includes Armstrong, Ellington, Parker, and Bud Powell, there is a singular importance to Ellison's impasse after 1952. Can anything crucial about African-American literature be gleaned from Ellison's story-telling silence, or was the blocking agent implicit in Ellison's own stance as a novelist?
The "narrative of ascent and immersion" first traced by Robert B. Stepto in Ellison's novel was later developed by Douglas Robinson, who named it "the Jonah motif." Ellison, subtly aware of his book's link to Father Mapple's sermon on Jonah in Moby-Dick, explicitly invokes Jonah in the Invisible Man's Prologue.The protagonist listens to a recording of Louis Armstrong playing and singing "What Did I Do to Be So Black and Blue," and hears a music within the music. In that inner sphere he locates a preacher and congregation answering one another, with the preacher proclaiming: "It'll put you, glory, glory, Oh my Lawd, in the WHALE'S BELLY." A Jonah is a failed prophet, but he is also a survivor, and one remembers that the Book of Jonah is read aloud in the synagogue on the Day of Atonement. As the author of his own Book of Jonah, Ellison also wants his narrator's prophecy . . .