Ellison Felt U.S. Pulse in `Invisible Man' 2nd Novel, in Manuscript, Far Different from '52 Hit

By Hillel Italie Of The | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), April 19, 1994 | Go to article overview

Ellison Felt U.S. Pulse in `Invisible Man' 2nd Novel, in Manuscript, Far Different from '52 Hit


Hillel Italie Of The, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


NOW THAT Ralph Ellison is gone, his second novel still only a manuscript, he is in danger of being remembered by one or two unfortunate labels. He was a "black" writer, a chronicler of the "black experience." He was a one-shot novelist, another Margaret Mitchell or Harper Lee.

Nonsense.

Ellison's book may have been written and narrated by a black man, but it was influenced by everyone from Mark Twain to Dostoevsky, and it was addressed to all races. As far as completing just "one" novel, you could write a hundred books in the time it takes to exhaust the possibilities of "Invisible Man," which was published in 1952.

"What he really wanted was to get a sense of the pulse of things in America," recalled John Callahan, an old friend of Ellison and the dean of arts and humanities at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Ore.

"Whatever else he is, Ellison would say, the true American is black," Callahan said. "At the same time, he felt all Americans were white. Ellison just felt things were mixed."

Ellison died Saturday at age 80, with a number of factors holding up that second work of fiction. A manuscript was destroyed in a fire. Friends spoke of his impossibly high standards. The author himself said the assassinations of the 1960s, which seemed to mirror the worst nightmares of his novel, "really chilled me - slowed down the writing."

"Invisible Man" follows a nameless narrator's journey from campus life in the South to political activism in the North. Nothing works out: At college he is alienated both from students and faculty; at a factory job, he is alienated both from management and labor; in New York, he winds up underground, hunted by both whites and blacks.

There is a double meaning to Ellison's withholding of the narrator's name. He is saying the narrator is nobody, a member of no class or organization, unidentified and unidentifiable. He is also saying the narrator could be anybody, not "the" invisible man, but "an" invisible man. …

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