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At a Loss for Words | The Nation

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At a Loss for Words

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The novel is also a response to Richard Wright. Almost upon Ellison's arrival in New York, Wright had elevated the Oklahoma yokel through the heady atmosphere of black Communist literary life, commissioning his first book review and first piece of fiction, discussing and recommending books, sharing his own writings. The former lonely, fatherless child who had lost himself in books--the segregated branch of the Oklahoma City library had been "a boon to Ralph," Rampersad writes; "Novels fed his chronic daydreaming" ("I read Last of the Mohicans ten times")--found a soul mate in another once fatherless (through desertion, not death) and solitary child, who recalled, ''Whenever my environment had failed to support or nourish me, I had clutched at books." Is it any surprise that Ellison so closely modeled his early attempts at fiction on Wright's that Wright responded, "You have copied my ideas, my words and my structure"?

About the Author

Michael Anderson
Michael Anderson is writing a biography of the playwright Lorraine Hansberry.

"The sons must slay the fathers"--Wright's other protégé, James Baldwin, even more sadly orphaned than Ellison (his father unknown, himself shamefully illegitimate), spoke for the two of them, case studies in the anxiety of influence. Indeed, both sought to slay Wright, as a cultural figure (Baldwin strove to be a moraliste in the French manner; Ellison succeeded in becoming a cultural mandarin American-style) and as a fiction writer; each created his own version of that specter haunting black American literature, Bigger Thomas. As in his efforts to be an extra-literary figure, Baldwin failed, with Rufus Scott in Another Country; Ellison subversively turned Bigger into a comic figure in Invisible Man.

For all its disparities in style, tone and theme, Ellison's novel shares striking similarities with Wright's Native Son, not only in plot details--each protagonist suffers excruciating sexual temptation from a white woman, each spurns a speech exhorting him to join a social movement, each flees police over rooftops, each takes an automobile ride with Communists, each rejects a maternal figure--but also as a description of an individual consciousness (the tirelessly repeated allegations, including many by Ellison, that Wright wrote partisan propaganda ignores his authorial insistence on Bigger's individuality: "He looked at the other black people near him. Even though black like them, he felt there was too much difference between him and them to allow for a common binding and a common life''), one that rejects imposed social identities and attempts its own definition of authenticity. (Both novels also share drastic flaws in structure, with some episodes threatening to unbalance the whole; and both suffer from what Baldwin proposed was the void at the heart of black novels, that violence resided where sex should be: Bigger's sexual stirrings are followed by two murders, the Invisible Man's by the Battle Royale and the Harlem riot.) For all his denials, Ellison obviously took his main image from Wright's novella The Man Who Lived Underground ("the first time," Wright wrote his agent, "I've really tried to step beyond the straight black-white stuff"). And Ellison's pastiche style, his self-conscious literary allusiveness--"the possibility of creating depth and resonance in my fiction by taking the gambler's chance of alluding to things I'd read in the Bible, in literary classics, scientific works, folklore, or to anything else that might be conveyed through the written word"--had its predecessor not only in Ellison's oft-cited reading of The Waste Land but closer to home, or the Harlem office of the Daily Worker, where Wright labored over his first effort at a novel. "Modernist in its bleak, despairing tone," Rampersad writes, the book, posthumously published as Lawd Today!, "bristles with devices lifted from contemporary writers such as James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Theodore Dreiser, and James T. Farrell."

Both Bigger Thomas and the Invisible Man proclaim that they have achieved identity, each in what could be argued is a nihilistic victory--but what a contrast in tone! Bigger shouts, "I didn't want to kill! But what I killed for, I am!" Surrounded by his 1,369 light bulbs, the Invisible Man says smugly, "I am one of the most irresponsible beings that ever lived.... And wait until I reveal how truly irresponsible I am." As Ellison so often and so proudly announced, he was not a protest writer; what could be considered the most metaphysically despairing opening line in American literature, "I am an invisible man," is said not in revolt but with pride.

As Rampersad emphasizes, Ellison was not writing biography in Invisible Man. Instead, he was creating his own myth: a black youngster, innocent and idealistic ("I visualized myself as a potential Booker T. Washington"), cruelly victimized by a cynical black college ("You're nobody, son. You don't exist--can't you see that?"), deracinated in New York ("coming North was a jump into the unknown"), given prominence by the Communist Party ("I found that most downtown audiences seemed to expect some unnamed something whenever I appeared"), only to feel betrayed once again--not only by the party but by the indifference of the masses ("It didn't matter because they didn't realize just what had happened, neither my hope nor my failure. My ambition and integrity were nothing to them") and forced to confront his barely suppressed dread of existential annihilation ("the traitor self that always threatened internal discord"). In the riot that engulfs Harlem, the Invisible Man is presented with a vision of senselessness--"The world in which we lived was without boundaries. A vast seething, hot world of fluidity"--and the ultimate temptation is surrender, a temptation that Ellison named Rinehart: "Rine the rascal was at home. Perhaps only Rine the rascal was at home in it." As Rampersad writes, the Invisible Man has become "chaos incarnate."

"A crisis of spirit and technique haunts this last section" of Invisible Man, Rampersad writes. "The book was not finished. Ralph needed to add something in order to reassert a final measure of control over his epic." The novel's epilogue imposes a meaning not justified by what precedes it; Rampersad joins a host of previous commentators in pointing out how undefined are the "infinite possibilities" the Invisible Man claims for himself. How could they be? This lack of definition was what Ellison called "complexity" ("Ralph was ever so fond of the word 'complexity,'" his friend the poet Richard Wilbur told Rampersad. "I think that his favorite expression was the 'complexity of the American experience'"); yet for Ellison "complexity" was the flip side of "chaos." It was where he found his creative freedom--as he wrote of Rinehart, "His world was possibility and he knew it. He was years ahead of me and I was a fool"--yet it also carried his deepest emotional danger: "Creative experience," he wrote to Albert Murray, brought "only a fighting chance with the chaos of living."

A final paradox: In the end Ralph Ellison was alienated even from the wellspring of his creativity. His muse pulled him toward the sort of creation ("Despite the historical past and the injustices of the present," he once said, "I have to affirm my forefathers and I must affirm my parents or be reduced in my own mind to a white man's inadequate--even if unprejudiced--conception of human complexity") his will and his psyche would not permit him to sustain. Though the sections of Invisible Man dealing with the Brotherhood are the most emotionally felt, the ones with the greatest artistic power--Trueblood with his ribald tale of incest, the mental patients in the Golden Day, the nightmarish Harlem riot--describe a world gone mad. Norman Mailer, in his notorious "Quick and Expensive Comments" on his fellow writers, hit a bull's-eye when he judged that "Ellison's mind, fine and icy, tuned to the pitch of a major novelist's madness, is not always adequate to mastering the forms of rage, horror, and disgust which his eyes have presented to his experience, and so he is forever tumbling from the heights of pure satire into the nets of a murderously depressed clown." That Ellison was not fitted for the art he professed to admire is his pathos. He sought to be the black T.S. Eliot when he could have been the black Beckett.

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