'Invisible Man' is Published

Invisible Man is a remarkable first novel that gives 38-year-old Ralph Ellison a claim to being the best of U.S. Negro writers.*It makes him, for that matter, an unusual writer by any standard.

His story of one Negro's effort to find his place in the world becomes at times a picaresque nightmare, full of bravura scenes in the South and in Harlem that are as original as they are imaginative. Not even patches of overwriting and murky thinking can dull the final powerful effect. For Invisible Man is no simple catalogue of hard-luck adventures in a world where might is white. Before it is over, Novelist Ellison's hero can face up to one of life's bitterest questions, "How does it feel to be free of illusion?" and give an honest answer: "Painful and empty."

In writing INVISIBLE MAN in the late 1940s, Ralph Ellison brought onto the scene a new kind of black protagonist, one at odds with the characters of the leading black novelist at the time, Richard Wright. If Wright’s characters were angry, uneducated, and inarticulate — the consequences of a society that oppressed them — Ellison’s Invisible Man was educated, articulate, and self-aware. Ellison’s view was that the African-American culture and sensibility was far from the downtrodden, unsophisticated picture presented by writers, sociologists and politicians, both black and white. He posited instead that blacks had created their own traditions, rituals, and a history that formed a cohesive and complex culture that was the source of a full sense of identity. When the protagonist in INVISIBLE MAN comes upon a yam seller (named Petie Wheatstraw, after the black folklore figure) on the streets of Harlem and remembers his childhood in a flood of emotion, his proclamation “I yam what I yam!” is Ellison’s expression of embracing one’s culture as the way to freedom.