Constant Reader
WebBoardOrientationReading ListsHome WorksActivities

Buy the paperback

Invisible Man
by Ralph Ellison

To: ALL Date: 09/22
INVISIBLE MAN by Ralph Ellison . . . . . . This book was my suggestion for the slo-mo reading group, and while some of those whose suggested titles that were also included later shelled out and were not present for the discussion of those very same books, I am determined to be here. I suggested this book for very selfish reasons. It is probably safe to say that the big three among Twentieth Century black writers are Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and Ralph Ellison. I certainly do acknowledge the existence of Maya Angelou, Alice Walker, and the others who have recently done so well, but these three broke it loose. A couple of years ago I started pecking away at these three because I had read nothing--and I mean nothing--by any of them. It has been a tremendous experience. Down side of all this is that I have had nobody with whom to discuss any of these works. Hence, the following request:

Would someone else kindly read this book and talk with me about it here? Not everyone need do this. Just one or two would be great. It is admittedly a big book and, it's also fair to say, not for everyone. However, I would surely appreciate the sacrifice from a couple of you. One of the meatier paragraphs from it follows, which might spark someone's interest:

"Whence all this passion towards conformity anyway? Diversity is the word. Let man keep his many parts and you will have no tyrant states. Why, if they follow this conformity business, they'll end up by forcing me, an invisible man, to become white, which is not a color but the lack of one. Must I strive towards colorlessness? But seriously and without snobbery, think of what the world would lose if that should happen. America is woven of many strands. I would recognize them and let it so remain. It's winner take nothing that is the great truth of our country or of any country. Life is to be lived, not controlled, and humanity is won by continuing to play in face of certain defeat. Our fate has become one and yet many. This is not prophecy, but description. Thus, one of the greatest jokes in the world is the spectacle of the whites busy escaping blackness and becoming blacker every day and blacks striving towards whiteness, becoming quite dull and gray. None of us seems to know who he is or where he's going."

Now, surely, someone here is interested in reading a work by a writer who could get off a line like "humanity is won by continuing to play in face of certain defeat" . . . . . maybe? I hope.

Uncle Steve @ 9/22/97 6:11PM CT


RALPH ELLISON was born in 1914 in oklahoma city..the son of Lewis eLLISON..a construction worker and his wife IDA..a domestic worker.. he was introduced to literature by his mother...who used to bring him books she borrowed from the homes she cleaned.. a further exposure was provided by the ironies of the 1920's...oklahoma city had no black library and books from the library's main branch were shelved haphazardly in a pool hall..where the young RALPH might find a volume of fairy tales alongside one of Freud..with no well meaning librarian telling him what a child ought or ought not to be reading...

ELLISON attended ALABAMA'S tUSKEGEE Institute on a music scholarship..but in 1936 he moved to NEW YORK CITY..where he began writing short stories while supporting himself as a freelance photographer and audio engineer...

after serving inthe merchant marine during world war two ..he spent seven years writing INVISIBLE MAN..working out of an office located in the bAck of a jewelry store on FIFTH avenue...the book was published in 1952 and was awarded the NATIONAL BOOK has been translated into 17 languages....

the manuscript of Ellison's second novel was destroyed by a fire in 1967..he spent the remaining years of his life painstakingly reconstructing it...while publishing two volumes of nonfiction...SHADOW AND ACT...1964.. and GOING TO THE TERRITORY 1986.. he taught and lectured widely..was appointed to the AMERICAN ACADEMY OF ARTS AND LETTERS..served on the NATIONAL COUNCIL ON THE ARTS AND HUMANITIES and the CARNEGIE COMMISSION on public television and was a trustee of the john f kennedy center for the performing arts.... ralph ellison died of cancer on april 16, 1994 at his home in new york ciy..

gail..hp...a passionate reader in the wee small hours of the to read A VERY LONG ENGAGEMENT by sebastian japrisot.. ..a few of my 'BOOKIES' have rang me up to is not a BARNBUSTER ...however it is an assignment for class.....

hope this peaks some curiosity within the troops of CR' a lively discussion can ensue...

reporting from san francisco..where it is black as night....


Dear Steve, I am definitely planning a re-read. But it will take me a little while. I'm trying to coordinate the discussions with CC so that people can read both if they so desire. I'm going to read THINGS FALL APART and then tackle IM, but I'm still reading PARADISE HOTEL by Martha Grimes that Jane gave me in Denver.

BTW your quotation is remarkable. It makes you wonder if he was using a crystal ball.

Sherry back in Milwaukee

From: KDEX08B RUTH BAVETTA Time: 11:46 AM

Steve, you can count on me, too. Actually, I could swear that I've read this one long ago, but your quote rang no bells so maybe I haven't. (I prefer that conclusion to the alternative one---that I have no bells to ring.) Perhaps I'm mixing it up with another book. I read James Baldwin and Malcomb X and a number of other black authors, must have been about 1972. (That Baldwin can WRITE.) I tend to read (pre-CR, that is) in streaks so I was sure I did INVISIBLE MAN, then, too. Well, we shall see.


From: TQWX67A ANN DAVEY Time: 5:45 PM

You talked me into it. I'll be there for the discussion.


To: TQWX67A ANN DAVEY Date: 09/23

Great, Ann, Ruth, and Sherry! Just great! This is all I could have asked for. But now let's not kill ourselves. I need to read this Achebe book. I really do. So we'll get to _Invisible Man_ sometime in the latter half of October or shortly thereafter. It is a fairly long book. Kay, Sherry? Sound reasonable? (And I promise to read _The Bone People_, too. Promise.)

Uncle Steve @ 9/23/97 6:32PM CT


It's a deal, Steve. I was thinking maybe Oct.15, since the CC selection starts the first. And I'm really looking forward to your thoughts on THE BONE PEOPLE.


To: ALL Date: 10/16
From: WSRF10B SHERRY KELLER Time: 12:43 PM

INVISIBLE MAN by Ralph Ellison

I am not finished with this book yet, but I promised to start the discussion middle of the month. My edition is one my husband used 30 years ago in college. The blurb on the back says "INVISIBLE MAN is the blazing story of a young Negro's (thirty years ago they didnt say African-American) experiences in the North and in the South. It is the odyssey of one mans search for his own identity. It is an epic of modern life."

Do people think that the book has weathered well? Have the questions it raises been answered? Is the book still thought of as "[a] resolutely honest, tormented, profoundly American book" as The N.Y. Times Book Review said in its review in 1947?

I'll be interested in hearing what you all have to say.



Sherry, I'm starting to wonder myself whether it has "weathered" well. I will drive on and give you my conclusion this weekend.

Steve @ 10/16/97 4:32PM CT

From: KDEX08B RUTH BAVETTA Time: 5:35 PM

I think, perhaps, it hasn't weathered as well as we might have thought. However I need to cogitate on the whys offline in an effort to appear at least minimally coherent.

Ruth, in southern California, where the santana doth blow, and blow and BLOW

To: MXDD10A DALE SHORT Date: 10/17
From: KDEX08B RUTH BAVETTA Time: 12:05 PM

I'm back, having given this a think or two. I may have read this book before. I thought I had, but the only thing that I recognized was the scene with all the teenage boys thrown in the ring together. I wonder if I may have read that as a self-contained story.

As to whether it's worn well, or not. Seems to me this book will be more remembered for the ground it broke, than for its literary excellence. It is indeed, searing. Especially in the beginning. But the electroshock (that IS what it was, isn't it?) pulled a serious halt to my "willing suspension of disbelief". Electroshock? In a paint factory? Say what?

From that point on I became acutely aware of the polemical aspects of this novel. And by the time I was 3/4 of the way through, I became acutely TIRED of the polemics. Ellison should have put a muzzle on his hero. Whatever happened to show don't tell?

I can see why this book was a shocker at the time it was written. But I think the years have exposed its weak points. It's too talky, it's not always believable, it's more and more of more and more. Ellison could write, but he couldn't edit. Saying a thing well once, or even twice is more effective, and infinitely more readable, than saying it again and again and again, no matter how you try to vary the circumstances.

An interesting artifact, this book, but not one I'm likely to recommend on its literary merits.

Ruth, hoping she hasn't tarnished her hard-boiled liberal beliefs

To: KDEX08B RUTH BAVETTA Date: 10/17
From: TQWX67A ANN DAVEY Time: 6:18 PM

I still have 100+ pages to go on this book and I will finish it this weekend. The first part was extremely painful for me to read because the hero was so meek in submitting to all the abuse. Once he became a communist organizer (at least I am assuming that is what the "brotherhood" represented), it got a lot easier because he was no longer a total victim.

Ellison reminds me of Toni Morrison -- such crippling bitterness. In 1952 this book must have been absolutely shocking. I think that this story of a self so divided by its racist environment still has something to say to us. I was confused by the electric shock segment (yes, I think that is the only thing it could have referred to). I have heard that in the 1950's this treatment was absolutely terrifying to those forced to submit to it. But why would they have tried this on the unnamed hero of this book??

Ann, wondering

To: TQWX67A ANN DAVEY Date: 10/17
From: KDEX08B RUTH BAVETTA Time: 11:53 PM

I agree, Ann, that there is much to learn from this book, but that doesn't necessarily equate with literary merit. I'm not saying there isn't literary merit here, but perhaps there's not as much as formerly thought.

Yes, that electro-shock scene was weird. Are we really to believe that a paint company's little health facility would have electro-shock, or someone who knew how to use it? Come on...


From: FAVB99B JANE NIEMEIER Time: 11:00 PM

Hi Sherry and all,
I feel like I deserve the "Nerd of the Monthe" award. When I read the reading list, I took note of the books that I had already read such as PERFUME, POSSESSION, PARIS TROUT, and INVISIBLE MAN (plus TONY AND SUSAN which I nominated). I decided not to reread any of the above other than the novel that I nominated because I have so many books on my TBR list. When I began reading your notes on INVISIBLE MAN, I realized that I had read a different INVISIBLE MAN. The one I read is actually THE MEMOIRS OF AN INVISIBLE MAN by H. F. Saint. It is a very good story about a man who is made accidentally invisible by an industrial accident. My point is that I will probably be skipping this INVISIBLE MAN for the time being because I am immersed in two other books and don't have time to get to the library or the bookstore until next week. That is a big DUH on my part that you hear in the background. Jane who is enjoying THE BOOK OF RUTH by Jane Hamilton and NIGHT SINS by Tami Hoag

To: KDEX08B RUTH BAVETTA Date: 10/19
From: TQWX67A ANN DAVEY Time: 11:50 AM

And what would be the purpose of giving the hero electric shock? It seemed to be an alternative to a lobotomy, or were they just experimenting on him for the h**l of it? One minute, he is injured in an industrial accident, and the next he is part of a medical experiment. Did I miss something?

Also, I am very curious what you thought about the incest incident at the beginning. Much of this book seems to wallow in scenes of humiliation.


To: TQWX67A ANN DAVEY Date: 10/19
From: KDEX08B RUTH BAVETTA Time: 12:33 PM

Ah, yes, the incest thing. I think it was there to show how the young hero identified with white people. He wanted nothing more than to rise above such people as were described in that scene.

What did you make of the nutcases in the roadhouse?


To: KDEX08B RUTH BAVETTA Date: 10/19
From: KDEX08B RUTH BAVETTA Time: 11:06 PM

UNCLE STEVE? Where are you Uncle Steve? This is your baby isn't it??? Please present yourself front and center and give us the benefit of some of your long and well thought out notes.


To: KDEX08B RUTH BAVETTA Date: 10/20
From: XJKD19F JOY HUOTT Time: 1:35 AM

Yeah! Uncle Steve, come on out and talk to us.

We see you in there in the CLASSICS CORNER! Come out of the Corner once in a while so we too can enjoy your down-to-earth uncommon sense.

I don't want to actually READ this book. It's too heavy. I'd rather listen to you talk about it.

Joy in NY, joining Ruth in her plea

To: XJKD19F JOY HUOTT Date: 10/20

Patience, my friends. Patience. I must actually go to court today and squabble with the opposition on behalf of some folks who are paying me money to demean myself by actually working in my chosen profession. (Can you believe that?) And in fact I may be required to go back into court tomorrow and squabble some more. And perhaps even the next day. This has ruined my weekend, my reading, and everything else that is truly important for the time being. However, I shall return to paw over poor ole Ralph Ellison, God rest his sainted soul, very shortly.

Steve @ 10/20/97 4:46AM CT


Truman Capote

In Association with