Friday, February 6, 2009

Current Reading: Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

Ralph (Waldo) Ellison (1914-1994)

African-American writer, teacher, whose novel INVISIBLE MAN (1952) gained a wide critical success. Ellison has been compared to such writers as Melville and Hawthorne. He has used racial issues to express universal dilemmas of identity and self-discovery but avoided taking a straightforward political stand. "Literature is colorblind," he once said. Many artists of the Black Arts movement rejected Ellison for his insistence that America be a land of cultural exchange and synergy. Talented in many fields, Ellison also was an accomplished jazz trumpeter and a free-lance photographer.

"''I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan 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." (from The Invisible Man, prologue)

Ralph Waldo Ellison was born in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Lewis Ellision, his father, named his son after the famous American poet and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, telling that he was "raising this boy up to be a poet." Lewis, who had spent his youth as a soldier and as an entrepreneur, was a vendor of ice and coal; he died accidentally. Ellison admired his father greatly, seeing him as a hero. His mother, Ida Ellison, supported herself and her children by working as a domestic. Ida, whom close friends called "Brownie," belived in Socialism and was arrested several times for violating the segregation orders. While growing up, Ellison began performing on the trumpet during high school years. Among his friends were the blues singer Jimmy Rushing and trumpeter Hot Lips Page. With the help of a music scolarship, Ellision studied at the Tuskegee Institute in Macon County, Alabama (1933-1936). However, the atmospere in Tuskegee was conservative and jazz was considered primitive. Ellision dropped out to pursue a career in the visual arts.

Invisible Man (1952) tells a story of a nameless Afro-American man, who is losing his sense of identity in a world of prejudice and hostility. He has an underground cellar to solve his relationship with the rest of the society. In the dark there is no colors and to fill the space with light he burns 1,369 bulbs. Before becoming free from all illusions, the narrator makes a feverish, Dantesque journey through his experiences in a segregated community in South to the North. With the prologue's theme song, 'What Did I Do to Be So Black and Blue', Ellison suggests that jazz might represent a fusion of different cultural influences in American society, but it also serves as a key to the mind of the narrator. Education and class consciousness do not help him in his despair but adds to his difficulties. Finally he is ready to enter the world and says: "Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?" Invisible Man was rewarded with National Book Award in 1953. It was considered in 1965 in an inquiry of 200 authors and critics among the most important works after World War II. Ellison insisted that he wrote the novel thinking not of its sociological insights into injustice, but strictly of the art of writing. He was deeply interested in the works of Russian authors, with the most obvious influence being Feodor Dostoevskii's Notes from the Underground, and its parallel 'The Man Who Lived Underground' by Richard Wright. But unlike Dostoevskii's protagonist, Ellison's hero is not ready to yield and retire, he is not an outsider and his retreat is only temporary.

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