Ralph Ellison

Nearly 60 years after its publication, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man remains one of America’s most powerful novels. In Divided Minds: Intellectuals and the Civil Rights Movement (2001), I described the political disillusion out of which Invisible Man was born. 

Marx’s prediction was coming true: capitalism was going under for the last time. With one-third of the workforce unemployed by the early 1930s, was not revolution imminent? Even literary intellectuals as vaguely political as Lionel and Diana Trilling had been drawn into the movement. “The lure of Communism,” Diana Trilling wrote later, “was everywhere in the city; one had only to be open of mind and generous of heart to accept its promise.”

To African-American writers like Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright, the Communist Party  offered opportunity and hope during the Depression years. The party sponsored newspapers and magazines and social gatherings, a biracial world of ideas at a time when America’s intellectual culture was racially divided. But it was an imperfect world, as Wright learned in Chicago before he moved to New York. Party members squabbled and undermined one another and had little respect for intellectual or artistic independence. Wright hoped things would be better for him in New York, where he went to work for the communist Daily Worker.  He found more of the same. “He was distrusted not only as an ‘intellectual’ and thus a potential traitor,” Ellison later said, “but as a possible ‘dark horse’ in the race for Harlem party leadership, a ‘ringer’ who had been sent from Chicago to cause them trouble.”

By his own account, Ellison stood aside from the fray, though he wrote and edited for communist publications. Whereas Wright was openly communist, Ellison’s affiliation was quieter, but Ellison, too, was a passionate Marxist and probably a member of the party. His letters to Wright in the 1940s would surprise a later generation accustomed to thinking of him as a conservative man. Reading Wright’s 12 Million Black Voices in 1941 had made Ellison “a better Marxist,” he told Wright. He had wept “tears of impatience and anger. When experience such as ours is organized as you have done it here, there is nothing left for a man to do but fight!”

Through Wright, Ellison met C.L.R. James, the brilliant Caribbean intellectual who belonged to the Socialist Workers Party, a Trotskyist group. At the start of 1945, the last year of the war, James joined with Wright, Ellison, Lawrence Reddick, Horace Cayton, and Cayton’s Black Metropolis co-author, St. Clair Drake, to plan a collection of essays on the Negro. But the first meeting disintegrated in argument, and the plan died. In his journal Wright observed that they all seemed caught in “morbid fear.”

Just a few days after that meeting, Wright returned to this theme, recording news from Ellison that a couple of Negro intellectuals had suddenly gone crazy, breaking down (Wright appeared to believe) when they faced the “full meaning of the Negro problem in America.” Ellison was passing through a period of depression himself; he had gone to a psychiatrist, who told him, Wright noted, that he was “thinking too much and too hard. Of course this was because he was a Negro. Ralph said that he wanted to hit the doctor.”

As the war neared its end, Wright described Ellison’s anguished efforts to avoid military service in a Jim Crow army that had given his father a dishonorable discharge and swallowed up his brother. Despite a letter on Ellison’s behalf from a psychiatrist, Dr. Fredrick Wertham, Ellison could not escape. He faced a choice between the draft or the merchant marine. He took the merchant marine. He told Wright he would go to jail before he would fight. On a boat bearing supplies to the Battle of the Bulge, Ellison worked on a prison-camp novel on the experience of Negroes in wartime. He had heard terrible stories of white and Negro sailors arguing on the high seas and naval gun crews called in to restore order. Wright recorded one story that caught the terrible intensity of wartime racial hostility. “The white man told the Negro: I’ll grab you about your fucking goddamn neck and leap into the sea with you, you black bastard, though I can’t swim a single fucking lick! … I’ll get a half-nelson on your black neck and won’t turn loose till we both reach the bottom of the sea!”

Both Ellison and Wright emerged from the war despairing and disillusioned. Whatever faith they had had in the Communist Party had died. Tacking its sails to the winds from Moscow during the war, the party had used Negroes for its own ends. So long as the nonagression pact between the Soviet Union and Germany held, the party urged Negroes to oppose the war. Then, after the Soviet Union came in on the side of the Allies, the party urged Negroes to support it. The waffling compounded the party’s other faults: its rigidity, its lack of support for individual artistic vision. In 1944 Wright publicly announced his defection in an Atlantic Monthly article, disseminated more widely in a book that collected several writers’ similar stories, The God That Failed.

The year after Wright defected from the party, a high-ranking French communist named Jacques Duclos raked the American Communist Party over the coals for its wartime dalliances with liberal reformers. Duclos accused the party of substituting social reformism for Marxist class politics. The Duclos letter, published in the communist Daily Worker, precipitated panic in the American party. In the summer of 1945, confessions of wrong thinking poured through the pages of the Daily Worker. In a resolution passed in July, the communists acknowledged their wartime failures on the Negro question. They had been wrong to expect the bourgeois class to continue wartime concessions after the war was over. Henceforth, they would return to a policy of national liberation for Negroes.

Throughout this flap in the party, Ralph Ellison was recuperating from health problems on a farm in Vermont with his wife, Fanny. It was a beautiful, pristine place. They bathed in an icy brook, drank water from a stream, ate blackberries and raspberries growing along the trails through the woods, watched deer bound through the meadows. At night they heard porcupines chewing on the front porch. For Ralph Ellison, a lover of nature, it was paradise. He set up his typewriter in a barn overlooking a field of goldenrod and hay. There he reflected on Negroes’ betrayal by their own leaders, who seemed to him stand-ins for white power.

He was especially bitter over the communists. In a letter to Wright, Ellison unleashed a torrent of criticism of “the most brass confessions I’ve ever seen anywhere.” Mentioning party leaders by name, he let loose a fury that would have shocked many who knew him in later years as a self-contained man. These party leaders were “as dangerous as Nazis,” he said. “If they want to play ball with the bourgeoisie they needn’t think they can get away with it. If they want to be lice, then by God let them be squashed like lice. Maybe we can’t smash the atom, but we can, with a few well chosen, well written words, smash all that crummy filth to hell.”

In this state of mind Ellison wrote the first words of his novel: “I am an invisible man.” Invisible Man would be widely read as a race novel, especially as time went on and the immediate context of its publication dropped away. But it also belonged to the genre that explored his generation’s great disillusion with communism: it belonged with Lionel Trilling’s The Middle of the Journey, Chester Himes’s Lonely Crusade, Norman Mailer’s Barbary Shore, Whittaker Chambers’s Witness, and the collection to which Wright contributed, The God That Failed.

Disappointed in the party, neither Ellison nor Wright had abandoned Marxism. Discussing the Duclos confessions, Ellison told Wright the Marxist dream was still “the only possible future.” But the Communist Party was not the right vehicle for it. The party was “a broken, swaybacked nag when the times call for a tank coordinated with jet planes.” All around, Ellison saw evidence of “the party’s corruption.” Something had to be done: the explosion of the atomic bomb had upped the ante. “We’ve got to do something, to offset  the C.P. [Communist Party] sell-out of our people; and I mean this, both Negroes and labor. With such power in the world there is no answer for Negroes certainly except some form of classless society.” By 1948, however, Ellison told Wright he was so “so disgusted with politics that [he] hardly read the newspapers.”

In New York, a remnant of the left remained loyal to Soviet-style communism. Ellison expected criticism from those quarters after Invisible Man came out. “The moment that I begin to speak and write like a man they’ll use all their energy to jam me off the airways,” he told Wright. He was right. John O. Killens (whose own first novel, Youngblood, would be published in 1954) contributed a harsh review to actor-singer Paul Robeson’s newspaper, Freedom, a haven for the Stalinist left wing, “Mix a heavy portion of sex and a heavy portion of violence, a bit of sadism and a dose of redbaiting (Blame the communists for everything bad) and you have the making of a bestseller today. Add to this a decadent mixture of a Negro theme with Negro characters as Uncle Toms, pimps, sex perverts, guilt-ridden traitors – and you have a publisher’s dream. The Negro people need Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man like we need a hole in the head or a stab in the back. It is a vicious distortion of Negro life.”

Alienated from the communist left that had for a while given him a literary base, Ellison found a safer place in the broader community of American writers. Politically disillusioned, he had already arrived at the position he would voice in a 1963 review of LeRoi Jones’s Blues People: that ideology was a crude instrument for understanding culture. His revolutionary instrument would be literature.

On a waning afternoon in late January 1953, some five hundred writers, editors, reviewers, reporters, literary agents, and booksellers seated themselves in rows of chairs in a Manhattan hotel. It was time for Harper’s editor Frederick Lewis Allen to introduce the winners of the 1952 National Book Awards – among them, Ellison’s Invisible Man. Not since Richard Wright’s Native Son had a novel by an African-American writer so captured the interest of the white publishing world. Reviewers fixed their attention on Ellison’s unflattering treatment of the Communist Party, although they noted, too, his unconventional narrative approach.

Accepting the ten-carat gold medal at the awards ceremony, Ellison, a formal man on such public occasions, himself touched on his experimental approach, and the political point he had hoped to make with it: “I was to dream of a prose which was flexible, and swift as American change is swift, confronting the inequalities and brutalities of our society forthrightly….”

As Ellison spoke, the Supreme Court had before it a set of appeals that did confront the very inequalities most on Ellison’s mind: the inequalities of race. One of the Supreme Court justices considering the appeals in Brown v. Board of Education, William O. Douglas, followed Ellison as the main speaker at the awards program. Ellison’s allotted  five minutes over, Douglas delivered a twenty-minute speech on the need for unity in Asia to withstand the power of the Soviet Union. After that, as the New Yorker lightly noted in its account of the occasion, “the audience applauded, and in a trice the chairs we had been sitting on were whisked away, two bars were going like blast furnaces on either side of the room, and what is known in literary circles as a reception was under way.” In the milling about that followed, Ralph Ellison got lost in the crowd.

For Ellison’s response to the civil rights movement, see Divided Minds: Intellectuals and the Civil Rights Movement (Norton, 2001), which also includes endnotes for this excerpt. Copyright Carol Polsgrove 2001. Photo (1961) by United States Information Agency photographer.

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