The Critical Response to Ralph Ellison

By Robert J. Butler | Go to book overview

Frequencies of Eloquence: The Performance and Composition of Invisible Man

John F. Callahan

In Their Eyes Were Watching God Zora Neale Hurston is her own narrator in collaboration with Janie Crawford. But Janie remains a storyteller and a participant solely in the oral tradition; it is Hurston who brings that tradition to bear on the written word and the literary form of the novel. For the sake of rhetorical intimacy, Hurston adapts the call- and-response between Janie and Pheoby (and potentially the community) to her relationship with the individual reader and perhaps a constituency of readers. But in Ralph Ellison Invisible Man, the narrator is a failed orator. Because he is unable to communicate directly with those he meets in American society, Invisible Man abandons the oral tradition in favor of a "compulsion to put invisibility down in black and white." 1 Yet Invisible Man moves back and forth over frequencies of both the spoken and the written word. After giving up as a speechmaker, he writes an improvisatory, vernacular narrative of utterance. Both the prologue and epilogue with which he frames his tale reveal a continuing, obsessive pursuit of an audience. In the prologue he is too hurt and vulnerable to risk intimate address even with readers he cannot see. So he puts on a defiant, sometimes hostile mask of invisibility impenetrable to readers except on his terms. Then, as he writes down his story, he does the tough psychological rhetorical work of creating a resilient, genuine voice. After he has told his story, he feels liberated enough to write an epilogue. There he converses with readers in an intimate, ironic voice whose democratic eloquence calls us to respond with our own dangerous, courageous, socially responsible verbal acts.

Three decades after the 1952 publication of Invisible Man, Ellison explores the fluctuating, often ambiguous, sometimes contentious relation between his novel and the oral tradition in an introduction that is both a meditation and a tall tale about the birth of Invisible Man. In the beginning, there were only Ellison and his protean character's voice. And they faced each other not in friendship but opposition, not in intimacy but confrontation. Ellison reveals that Invisible Man's passage from the spoken to the written word involved an initial struggle between his voice and Invisible Man's until, in a sustained act of "antagonistic co-operation," 2 Invisible Man performed and he composed the novel. Earlier, Ellison observed that "although Invisible Man is my novel, it is really his memoir." 3 Now, still the trickster, he writes his introduction as a factual and fictional interpretive response to Invisible Man's last call: "Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?" ( IM, p. 439, my italics).

Thirty-seven years after Invisible Man announced his presence, Ellison identifies the improvisational beginnings of his form. As he tells it, Invisible Man intruded on him in

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