Ralph Ellison–A Visionary of American Literature

Ralph Ellison has a distinct role amongst American authors, and yet, he chooses not to emphasize that role.  As an African American novelist, Ellison had the credibility as well as experience to talk about race politics in America.  In his novel Invisible Man, it’s clear that he uses these abilities to full capacity; however, in his interview, the story is very different.  Repeatedly throughout, he stresses that what he does aligns with the role of the American author, not the black-American author.  I think that distinction is very important, particularly when we’re talking about Invisible Man. When it comes to the discussion of race, it’s often easy to mentally segregate the black experience from the white experience- and albeit, they’re very separate.  However, African Americans are just as much a part of the American archetypal journey as say—Huck Finn is.  We shouldn’t solely talk about Ellison’s novel as a African American novel.  His novel, in his own words, is about trying to get “the minimum sense of diversity and variety”(0:25-0:30).  As an author, his role isn’t solely to reflect his insights, which underscores his talent, his role is to identify and exemplify the American journey.

The pressure to contribute to the American experience seems to weigh on Ellison throughout the interview.  When talking about his own novel, he cites that “continuity was was ultimately a problem of self-confidence on my part”(13:00-13:15).  He leans forward and his stance is clearly less self-assured.  This notion is highly ironic, especially considering the success of Invisible Man. However, this pressure informs the novel itself.  To read it as an example of every American’s experience would be wrong but to read it as a contribution to the American identity is enlightening.  Suddenly, TIM’s failures and triumphs aren’t solely a result of his race; rather, his ambitions and blindness is part of our sense of American identity.  America is a community of people seeking to achieve but often unwilling to listen and look in our periphery.  Similarly, the narrator is so determined to overcome the hindrances of his race that he often becomes naive to the betrayal in his periphery.  Ellison himself in the interview argues that “power for the writer, seems to me, lies in his ability to reveal a little more about the complexity of humanity”(4:37-3:55).

One of the most interesting things he said about his works was his commentary regarding the Negro church.  Here, he plays up his own experience, stating that “I bring to fiction from my Negro background is the eloquence which you find within the Negro church, wherein the minister, who might preach variations on the same sermon a hundred times a year or more, but who must at the same time believe that as he is initiated; he is a manipulator of emotions and of eloquence and of sacred vision, so to speak.”(23:56-24:29).   The rhetoric of the black ministers becomes evident in Invisible Man through Homer A. Barbee’s sermon and even the narrator’s speeches.  It is often a sort-of blind arousal that results from this eloquence.   In the novel, the black church is definitely not the enemy, but when the eloquence and ability to unify is wrongly used, the message becomes empty.  Homer A. Barbee’s speech isn’t corrupt in its own right; however, its ability to keep blacks in subservience plays into the power of this eloquence.  Similarly, TIM speaks frequently to audiences in Harlem, but the message is often ambiguous or empty.  Ellison talks about how this eloquence has the ability to inform white readers as well–even if it isn’t their own experience.   Once again, Ellison seeks to emphasize that the black experience is woven into the fabric of American society.

Ellison’s role as an American author of the highest degree is often diluted by critics or readers more concerned with is racial identity.  In the beginning of his speech he even implies that the meaning of his works are confused by those who will interpret what he says as his racial perspective.  As I look at Invisible Man once again, I see it for an American novel above all else.


2 thoughts on “Ralph Ellison–A Visionary of American Literature

  1. I’m actually quite happy that I found somebody, who obviously put in a lot of effort in analyzing Elliot’s interview and connecting it to his novel, Invisible Man. Frankly, I had “more important things” (simply too lazy) to do besides the blog post. I like how you pointed that Ellison tries to contribute to the American experience and identity, that is constantly evolving and changing. The Invisible Man superbly analyzes the different view, perspectives, peoples and their interactions which all contribute to the American identity, and by extent to humanity as a whole.

    Great Blog, Marley!


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