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National Book Award Classics

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The following essay appeared in the April, 2003 issue of Ingram's Advance e-letter, as part of National Book Award Classics, a monthly series of essays by Neil Baldwin, highlighting past Winners of the National Book Award.

Ralph Ellison (1913-1994)
Invisible Man

Winner of the 1953 National Book Award for Fiction

Ida Millsap and Lewis Alfred Ellison of Oklahoma City - the children of slaves -- named their new-born son Ralph Waldo, after the great 19th century American transcendentalist philosopher and poet, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882). Little did they know how completely that optimistic, prescient gesture would be fulfilled. The elder Ellison died when Ralph was only three years old. Mother Ida worked as a domestic in the Avery Chapel Afro-Methodist Episcopal Church. To save money, the family moved into the parson's home, where Ralph spent hours perusing the books in the minister's library. Taking note of her boy's intellectual inclinations, Ida brought home old books and magazines for him from the houses she cleaned.

At Frederick Douglass High School in Oklahoma City, Ralph took trumpet lessons; jazz became the second big force in his life. Weekends, he played background music at receptions and parties in the homes of wealthy blacks. In 1933, Ralph left Oklahoma City armed with a music scholarship for the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, where he also performed in several plays, and was introduced to the vibrant literature of the Harlem Renaissance. Restless, he dropped out after the junior year, and headed for New York City, where he would live for the rest of his life. Ellison soon met Alain Locke, Richard Wright, Langston Hughes - and Edna St. Vincent Millay. He honed his writing skills over the coming decade, publishing dozens of freelance book reviews, and his first short stories, then editing The Negro Quarterly in the late '30's.

Turning to Invisible Man with an awareness of these and other details of Ralph Ellison's life, we are tempted to extrapolate into his fiction - James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man springs easily to mind. This approach is viable only up to a point, as we follow the nameless protagonist, a black boy from the South breaking the constraints of his conservative education and upbringing to find a job and make a name for himself in the Big Apple.

The similarities are reassuring insofar as they keep us tuned to the narrative structure while our hero, an introspective fellow who has been raised to respect his elders, navigates his path with uncertainty in the world. Providing the truer aesthetic structure, however, is a virtuosic, chiaroscuro pattern of black and white, permeating every single page of this American masterpiece. Black and white - or, perhaps preferably, black in white, is Ellison's obsessive motif.

An inexhaustible succession of metaphors play upon this theme, so that before too long we are sucked into Ellison's ambitious agenda. He wants nothing less than to get under the skin of a black man in a white world, to convey the inescapable ties that bind him with us; the symbiotic relationship which can turn from ennobling to pernicious with the turn of a page; the subservient undercurrent, simmering with anger, bursting forth into acts of shocking violence. The violence of the book is redemptive, at least for this white reader. I did not feel threatened by the essential violence of black against white; rather, I felt chastened, as if the author were trying to teach me an overdue history lesson. I felt that the author was a subversive force of the most sophisticated kind, knowing the collective psyche of his audience in the larger (dominant) culture all too well, knowing the pressure points, and skillfully playing upon them, page after page.

Invisible Man on the surface of the text, is about one man's power struggle to achieve equilibrium - albeit unrealistic - in a world 'owned' by others. This man is motivated by a desire to be heard, in his own voice, with his own words. These words emanate from a terrain of language invented by Ralph Ellison and rarely equalled since. The voice of the book is beyond the labels of 'black man,' or 'brother,' or "Negro.' In the incendiary denouement, the protagonist falls in with a radical community organization. He is anointed as the next spokesman, as a reluctant and ultimately tragic messiah, perplexed about the nature of his so-called 'freedom.'

This inherent perplexity came through on the night of January 27, 1953, when Ralph Ellison stepped to the podium in the ballroom of the Commodore Hotel in New York City to accept the National Book Award for Fiction. He conceded to the audience that Invisible Man was a "not quite fully achieved attempt at a major novel…"

Nevertheless, he concluded, "There must be possible a fiction which, leaving sociology to the scientists, can arrive at the truth about the human condition, here and now, with all the bright magic of a fairy tale."

I will never forget a chilly November night thirty-seven years later, in the Grand Ballroom of the Plaza Hotel in New York, when Charles Johnson stepped to the podium to accept the 1990 National Book Award for Fiction for his novel, Middle Passage. Johnson paused in his acceptance remarks to say that there was one man in the audience that night without whom this National Book Award would not have become possible.

He pointed to the center of the room. And slowly, Ralph Ellison stood up, and waved gently, and the assembled multitudes broke into prolonged applause.

-- Neil Baldwin, Executive Director

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