Larson, Charles R., The World and I
A collection that includes newly discovered, previously unpublished stories chronicles Ralph Ellison's early literary development.
The first time I read Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man was in 1962, ten years after its original publication, when I was a Peace Corps volunteer, a 24-year-old white guy teaching English in a boys' secondary school in eastern Nigeria. My background in no way had prepared me to understand anything about what I will broadly call negritude. I had an M.A. in American literature but had never read a single work by an African-American writer. I had written a thesis on William Faulkner's Snopes characters, directed by a distinguished black professor who had never once mentioned an African-American writer during the several years I worked with him.
I mention these facts by way of emphasizing the narrowness of the curriculum in American schools when I was an undergraduate and beginning graduate student. Fortunately, during my Peace Corps training I was exposed to African writers (Chinua Achebe and Cyprian Ekwensi), but I got to Africa never having read a single work written by a black American. What happened to me was the reverse of what happens to many students today. An awareness of African writing led to my own discovery of the huge hole in my education in American literature.
I knew Ellison was in a class by himself the moment I began reading Invisible Man. It was Ellison who, after I returned to the United States, convinced me that I had to do something about the earlier gaps in my education. It was Ellison who helped me make my decision to start a Ph.D. at Howard University, one of the few places in the country where I could study Negro--as the term was used then--American writers. Although I subsequently veered back to African literature, it was Invisible Man that I kept reading and rereading in subsequent years and then teaching again and again in one course after another. I suspect that I've read the book and taught it twenty or thirty times and hope to live long enough to read it that many times again. There is no other postwar American novel of the twentieth century that can be reread that many times and still reveal layer after layer of meanings.
Like most readers of Invisible Man, I've longed and I've waited for the appearance of Ellison's second novel. We're accustomed to that with American writers, since most successful writers in our country are driven by their publishers (and by themselves) to keep producing. Ideally, that means a new novel every year--or at least every two or three. But with Ellison, as with his novel, things were never like that. Some of us feared he was writing it with invisible ink. And his essays, for all their brilliance, are not something most people can sink their teeth into, the way you can with a great novel. So we waited, year after year, decade after decade, sometimes even with rumors that the second novel was finished and would shortly appear.
But it didn't, for one very good reason, which was so obvious that practically everyone missed it. If you've already written the great postwar American novel (and perhaps the greatest novel of the century), what's the thrill of writing the second-greatest one?
Sense of cultural syncretism
Ellison didn't win over all of his readers. No writer does. Late in the '60s and in the early '70s, when black power was suddenly visible and the curriculum in schools across the country was finally beginning to reflect the country's cultural diversity, Ellison lost some of his African-American readers. In a cover article in the Atlantic titled "Invisible Man," James Alan McPherson described an incident at Oberlin in 1969, related to him by a black student.
"[Ellison's] speech was about how American black culture had blended into American white culture. But at the meeting with the black caucus after the speech, the black students said: `You don't have anything to tell us. …