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Stanford Report, April 24, 2002

Scholars examine enduring legacy of Invisible Man


When Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man was published in April 1952, it was universally reviewed but not universally acclaimed.

At a symposium Thursday commemorating the 50th anniversary of the novel's publication, three leading Ellison scholars spoke on various aspects of the author and his novel -- the first and last one he saw published during his lifetime -- in front of a large audience at the Stanford Humanities Center.

Arnold Rampersad, the Sara Hart Kimball Professor in the English Department and event organizer, discussed the book's critical reception. Also appearing on the panel were Horace Porter, author of Jazz Country: Ralph Ellison in America, English professor and chair of the African American World Studies Program at the University of Iowa, as well as a former Stanford English professor; and John Callahan, the Morgan S. Odell Professor of Humanities at Lewis & Clark College and Ellison's literary executor, who extracted from an unfinished Ellison manuscript a second novel that was published, posthumously, as Juneteenth. Paula Moya, an associate professor of English, was the moderator.

English Professor Arnold Rampersad, left, and Horace Porter, chair of the African American World Studies Program at the University of Iowa, spoke Thursday at a symposium commemorating the 50th anniversary of Invisible Man. Photo: L.A. Cicero

Given the novel's almost institutional status these days -- it holds "something akin to a tenured position in college curricula," Rampersad noted -- the fact that it attracted any negative criticism at all might seem surprising.

Reviews in the leading mainstream publications -- the New York Times, Time, Commentary -- were, on the whole, exceedingly positive.

Kirkus Reviews called the book "an extremely powerful story" that showed "a skillful handling of the theme of invisibility."

Invisible Man became the first novel by a black author to win the National Book Award for Fiction. And a 1965 Book Week poll of some 200 writers, critics and editors named it the most distinguished novel by an American in the last 20 years.

Black critics, however, were more inclined to give the book mixed reviews, Rampersad said. "They seemed proud that a Negro was garnering such praise across the country, but they were critical of the novel itself," he added. A reviewer for The Crisis, the magazine of the NAACP, described the book as "devoid of focus but epic in purpose."

Others were outraged.

"In the New York Amsterdam News, the columnist Marguerite Cartwright was livid about the extent to which the novel, like Richard Wright's Native Son and others, wallowed in what she saw as, quote, 'self-hate and disesteem among black males,'" Rampersad said.

The book and the author (the distinction is often vague) continue to draw the fire of some critics even today.

In "Failed Prophet and Falling Stock: Why Ralph Ellison Was Never Avant-Garde," which appeared in the Summer 1999 volume of the Stanford Humanities Review, Houston Baker Jr., now a professor of English at Duke University, writes: "Ellison's novel is burdened by belief, overwhelmed by excessive literary 'smartness,' afraid to breathe life into its potentially revolutionary cartoons. ... When Civil Rights and Black Power became American -- indeed global -- realities, Ellison reclined in butter-soft seats at exclusive Manhattan clubs, explaining to whites why he could not take any active part in the Liberation Politics of black Americans. America's industrial, democratic, lobotomizing machine -- like the sleep of reason -- had produced a clubbable monster in Ellison."

Similar criticism of Ellison and the novel has been leveled by some young black writers and black nationalists since its publication. Whether or not the attacks are merited, the novel has stood the test of time.

So how will it be viewed and re-evaluated in the future? This was a question asked by one member of the audience at the symposium.

"I think Ralph Ellison and Invisible Man will continue to hang in there and to deliver its particular message, which I personally find ennobling and realistic," Rampersad responded.

Callahan agreed.

"Ellison's importance will only grow," he said. "[Ellison] tapped into those 'lower frequencies'" -- a reference to the book's last sentence -- "those bass lines which individuals who live their lives in a society of different -- and maybe increasing -- complexity, grab hold of."

John Callahan, the Morgan S. Odell Professor of Humanities at Lewis & Clark College and Ellison's literary executor, discussed the legacy of Invisible Man on its 50th anniversary of publication. Photo: L.A. Cicero

Callahan's talk Thursday was titled "Could Politics Ever Be an Expression of Love?" -- a question the book's protagonist asks himself in Chapter 21 while looking down at the funeral procession for Tod Clifton, a character who is murdered.

Another audience member recalled that people encouraged him not to read the book when he was a college student, calling Ellison "an anti-Communist" and "not a radical -- he's not a revolutionary."

Porter said "the politicization of what was the right way to express black culture" pushed a lot of people, including students, into "a position to question the novel ... in some kind of crude, political way."

"But I think that is, by and large, gone," Porter continued. "What hasn't passed, unfortunately, is a kind of characterization of Ellison himself as someone who is, for lack of a better word, elitist in every sense. ... But he certainly, as an artist, took everything and everybody very seriously. And I think that's one of the great beauties of Invisible Man. It is not in any sense hierarchical in terms of the various sources and the individuals that he brings into the complexity of the narrative."

In speaking on Invisible Man as a "jazz text," Porter said:

"If, as Ellison envisions it, American culture is, quote, 'jazz shaped,' Invisible Man reflects the musical process and form of democratic culture. ... It consciously riffs upon or plays countless variations on familiar literary or cultural themes."