The Nation, May 10, 1952
Review of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man
by Irving Howe
This novel is a soaring and exalted record of a Negro's journey through
contemporary America in search of success, companionship, and, finally,
himself; like all our fictions devoted to the idea of experience, it moves from
province to city, from naive faith to disenchantment; and despite its
structural incoherence and occasional pretentiousness of manner, it is one of
the few remarkable first novels we have had in some years.
The beginning is nightmare. A Negro boy, timid and compliant, comes to a white
smoker in a Southern town: he is to be awarded a scholarship. Together with
several other Negroes he is rushed to the front of the ballroom, where a
sumptuous blonde tantalizes and frightens them by dancing in the nude.
Blindfolded, the Negro boys stage a "battle royal," a free-for-all in which
they pummel each other to the drunken shouts of the whites. "Practical jokes,"
humiliations, terrors -- and then the boy delivers a prepared speech of gratitude
to his white benefactors.
Nothing, fortunately, in the rest of the novel is quite so harrowing. The
unnamed hero goes to his Southern college and is expelled for having innocently
taken a white donor through a Negro gin-mill; he then leaves for New York,
where he works in a factory, becomes a soapboxer for the Harlem Communists, a
big wheel in the Negro world, and the darling of the Stalinist bohemia; and
finally, in some not quite specified way, he finds himself after witnessing a
frenzied riot in Harlem.
Though immensely gifted, Ellison is not a finished craftsman. The tempo of his
book is too feverish, and at times almost hysterical. Too often he tries to
overwhelm the reader; but when he should be doing something other then
overwhelm, when he should be persuading or suggesting or simply telling, he
forces and tears.
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.
The middle section of novel concerns the Harlem Stalinists, and it is the only
one that strikes me as not quite true. Writing with evident bitterness, Ellison
makes his Stalinists so stupid and vicious that one cannot understand how they
could have attracted him. I am ready to believe that the Communist Party
manipulates its members with conscious cynicism, but I am quite certain that
this cynicism is both more guarded and more complex than Ellison assumes;
surely no Stalinist leader would tell a prominent Negro member, "You were not
hired to think" -- even if that were what he secretly felt. The trouble with
such caricature is that it undermines the intention behind it, making the
Stalinists seem not the danger they are but mere clowns.
Equally disturbing is Ellison's apparent wish to be intellectually up-to-date.
As his hero quits the Communist Party, he wonders: "Could politics ever be an
expression of love?" This portentous and perhaps meaningless question, whatever
its place in a little magazine, is surely inappropriate to a character who has
been presented mainly as a passive victim of experience. Not am I persuaded by
the hero's final discovery that "my world has become one of infinite
possibilities," his refusal to be the invisible man whose body is manipulated
by various social groups. Though the unqualified assertion of individuality is
at the moment a favorite notion of literary people, it is also a vapid one, for
the unfortunate fact remains that to define one's individuality is to stumble
over social fences that do not allow one "infinite possibilities." It is hardly
an accident that Ellison's hero does not even attempt to specify those
These faults mar Invisible Man but do not destroy it. For Ellison has
an abundance of that primary talent without which neither craft nor
intelligence can save a novelist; he is richly, wildly inventive; his scenes
rise and dip with tension, his people bleed, his language stings. No other
writer has captured so much of the confusion and agony, the hidden gloom and
surface gaiety of Negro life. His ear for Negro speech is magnificent: a
share-cropper calmly describing how he seduced his own daughter, a Harlem
street-vender spinning jive, a West Indian woman inciting her men to resist an
eviction. The rhythm of the prose is harsh and tensed, like a beat of harried
alertness. The observation is expert: Ellison knows exactly how zoot-suiters
walk, making stylization their principle of life, and exactly how the
antagonism between American and West Indian Negroes works itself out in speech
and humor. For all his self-involvement, he is capable of extending himself
toward his people, of accepting them as they are, in their blindness and hope.
And in his final scene he has created and unforgettable image: "Ras the
Destroyer," a Negro nationalist, appears on a horse, dressed in the costume of
an Abyssinian chieftain, carrying spear and shield, and charging wildly into
the police -- a black Quixote, mad, absurd, yet unbearably pathetic.
Some reviewers, from the best of intentions, have assured their readers that
this is a good novel and not merely a good Negro novel. But of course Invisible
Man is a Negro novel -- what white man could ever have written it? It is
drenched in Negro life, talk, music: it tells us how distant even the best of
the whites are from the black men that pass them on the streets; and it is
written from a particular compound of emotions that no white man could possibly
simulate. To deny that this is a Negro novel is to deprive the Negroes of their
one basic right: the right to cry out their difference.