Instead of Cormier’s often mentioned classic, I have decided to offer for your consideration the most important book of fiction I have ever read. Ralph Waldo Ellison’s Invisible Man is sometimes included on must-read lists of English literature, but it’s more often forgotten. Like the book’s protagonist, this is a work of fiction that lives in the shadows of literature. When it emerges, it is powerful, shocking, and eloquent.
This isn’t a science fiction book. If you’re looking for a literally invisible man in this book, you won’t find one. The invisible man of science fiction resides in the H.G. Wells classic. The invisible man of Ellison’s book is figuratively invisible. He’s a black man living in America in the first half of the twentieth century. As the book’s prologue explains:
I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allen Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids—and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.The plot begins with our narrator (who is never given a name) as a young man, soon to enter college, at his grandfather’s deathbed. The grandson is given advice on how to navigate a complex social world where his race constantly puts him at odds against whites. “I want you to overcome ‘em with yeses, undermine ‘em with grins, agree ‘em to death and destruction, let ‘em swoller you till they vomit or bust wide open.” This is a surprise to the young man and his family who didn’t imagine these words coming from the patriarch. It was dangerous advice in the Jim-Crow-era South. Our main character is a model citizen, a valedictorian, a striver. The advice would reverberate in his mind. His desire and ability to be careful and successful would slowly unravel.
We follow our narrator to college, and soon trouble finds him. He escapes to New York, a place very different from the South for blacks. Despite the new freedoms and signs of cultural renaissance, there are dangers and trials at every turn. It is amidst these new difficulties that the young man discovers that he is invisible. He tries to define himself and stand up for ideas that begin to emerge from facing the chaos, but he is constantly put down. What kind of man can emerge from this constant misfortune?
Invisible Man is a challenging book, with dense symbolism and complex themes, but it is by no means above the reach of a young adult reader. I read it during my senior year of high school, and I was absolutely absorbed. I’ve read it a number of times since, and each reading reveals new layers and brilliant details. Ellison aimed to produce a work of fiction that read like a Duke Ellington jazz piece—riffs on themes and rapid-fire solos—and what emerges from the explosive and lyrical prose is the kind of book that stirs the soul of the reader and American literature.
Ralph Ellison published one novel during his lifetime, Invisible Man, in 1952. It was met with positive reviews and won the National Book Award. In some ways, the success of Ellison’s first novel hobbled his writing career. Ellison had a distinguished career as a scholar, but the public eagerly waited for a novel. An early draft of Ellison's second novel was lost to a house fire. Friends and writers knew Ellison continued to work on a novel throughout his life, but the second novel from the first-rate mind never emerged. Juneteenth was published after his death, but it was not Ellison's final draft.
Ellison believed that the nature of art was to demonstrate excellence, to shed light where the shadow fell. Invisible Man is truly a work of excellence.