0025 | Invisible Man – Ralph Ellison

Astonishing, simply astonishing. That this book, first published in 1952, is not widely recognised as relevant to our post 11-9 world is an indictment on our literary awareness.

Also astonishing is that this is the only novel that Ellison saw published in his lifetime. I’d forego piles of my writings published to be able to produce one book that comes halfway near to what Ellison has achieved with this.

The novel is a pursuit of identity for someone involved in nothing less than an battle for the answers to questions of ethnic unity. The novel’s pace is relentless as it pursues these answers through emotional, psychological, physical, political and philosophical media. The Epilogue alone is one of the finest pieces of American literature you’ll find.

Having recently read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, I realised that this book stands in stark contrast to it. There was a historian relating a narrative; nothing more. Here, in Invisible Man, was a participant describing reality and questioning it. Ellison has in fact attempted the job of questioning history Brown left undone. And he is the better writer for it.

One example of the quality of the writing comes from observation of a single word. Ellison uses the verb “dun” to describe how his landlady avoids pestering him for rent. But while this word, in this context means, on the surface at least, “to pester and make repeated demands on someone, especially for money due” it has the alternative (subliminal?) meaning of “to darken the colour of something.” Thus, we realise the character of Mary, the landlady, as a woman gracious enough to forgive money due but possibly also a woman who understands the issues of being black and the avoids the traits that complicate these. Remarkable writing.

The power of Invisible Man is that despite ostensibly being concerned with black issues, it is ultimately a question of race and therefore concerned with humanity as a whole. An idea of how powerful this writing is in raising these issues comes from one of the most remarkable lines in the Epilogue:

white…is not a color, but a lack of one

I myself have lived more than half my life out of my own cultural setting. Lacking color, I have often struggled with how I relate to those around me of different ethnicity. I doubt this problem will go away any time soon as I have no plans to return to my passport culture. But even if I do, and for those of you who remain in your own countries, we are truly blind if we fail to see that any community consists of those who can see and those who only see the invisible man.

Oh… on on a less profound aside… this was the first book where I estimated how long it would take me and then timed how long it did:
estimate ~ 8 hours 20 minutes
actual ~ 8 hours 12 minutes
Not bad at all…

I am an invisible man.


a hot red light of such intensity that had Lord Kelvin known of its existence, he would have had to revise his measurements

“You start up Saul and you end up Paul,” my grandfather had often said. “When you’re a youngun, you Saul, but let life whup your head a bit and you starts trying to be Paul – though you still Sauls around on the side.”

I looked at the wall map and laughed at Colombus. What an India he’d found!

Once you get used to it, reality is as irresistable as a club

we were to affirm the principle on which the country was built and not the men, or at least not the men who did the violence.

white…is not a color but a lack of one

polemical: of the art or practice of disputation or controversy
antiphonal: style of music that consists of two or more groups of performers (instrumental or vocal) that answer each other back and forth

Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?

RATING:terrible > poor > mediocre > okay > good > very good > excellent > superb

FINISHED:2007 – Apr

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  1. So, is this John or Sheena I’ve been talking to, or both? 🙂

    Your blog is such a great source for reminding me to read all sorts of classics I never got around to reading. And here’s another one! Thank you.

  2. I recently added this to my to be read list. I’ve known about it for a long time, but never really knew what it was about. Your review may have just moved it up my list a few spots. Thanks.

  3. What a wonderful,wonderful review, Arukiyomi, you have me sold on this book…I will definitely need to add it to my collection of keepers. As you know already, I struggle to meld the ethnicity I inherited with the ethnicity of my adopted country and maybe this book will help.

    I read “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” a few years ago and remember tearing up so often as I read, but from your review, this one seems a lot more engaging. Love the quotes, too, I can tell this book is going to be a wonderful read on several levels.

    Many thanks for your review!

  4. Thanks for the comments everyone… I’m very encouraged that many of you are considering reading this on the basis of this review. I don’t think you’ll regret it…

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