“Because the book is written in the first person singular, Ellison cannot establish ironic distance between his hero and himself, or between the matured “I” telling the story and the “I” who is its victim. And because the experience is so apocalyptic and magnified, it absorbs and then dissolves the hero; every minor character comes through brilliantly, but the seeing “I” is seldom seen.” –Irving Howe on Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, 1952
Link to the full article: http://writing.upenn.edu/~afilreis/50s/howe-on-ellison.html
I wonder sometimes to what extent is this book almost autobiographical. Did Ellison ever experience his own “battle royal”? Was he affiliated with a group similar to the Brotherhood? Well, I think it’s safe to say that Ellison did not end up in the bottom of a hole somewhere. That is probably metaphorical for the position he felt himself in after all these experiences. “I’m invisible, not blind,” says the narrator in the Epilogue. Ellison has most definitely proved that he is not blind either; he has written a novel filled with detailed observations and chilling accounts.
While the narrator at the end of the book might not know what his next step will be, Ellison’s next step is writing this novel. He is “trying to make sense out of chaos” (see quote below), and literature is precisely the way he thinks he can possbily change the world. “Step outside the narrow borders of what men call reality and you step into chaos–ask Rinehart, he’s a master of it–or imagination,” the narrator says (Epilogue). According to the invisible man, there’s either chaos or imagination when one decides to challenge everyday “reality”. We can see this echoed in the two great figures of the Civil Rights Movement: Malcolm X on the side of chaos (“By any means necessary”), and Martin Luther King, Jr. on the side of imagination (“I had a dream…”).
It seems to me that Ellison is trying to be a bridge between chaos and imagination, using one to understand the other.
“I am a novelist not an activist,” [Ellison] says, “but I think that no one who reads what I write or who listens to my lectures can doubt that I am enlisted in the freedom movement. As an individual, I am primarily responsible for the health of American literature and culture. When I write, I am trying to make sense out of chaos. To think that a writer must think about his Negroness is to fall into a trap.” –From John Corry’s “Profile of an American Novelist, A White View of Ralph Ellison”