- Wrestling with the Left: The Making of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man
Nearly twenty years ago, Barbara Foley's seminal Radical Representations: Politics and Form in U.S. Proletarian Literature, 1929-1941 reshaped the way we read radical fiction. Along with Cary Nelson, Alan Wald, and a handful of others, Foley helped instantiate "radical literature" as a valid and rich—albeit still marginal—area of study. By [End Page 161] offering both a functional definition of and extensive taxonomy for proletarian literature, Radical Representations crystalized the often-fragmented field, providing a touchstone for subsequent studies of radical fiction. Two decades later, Foley's latest effort, Wrestling with the Left: The Making of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, is perhaps even more ambitious. In it, she takes on not a collection of little-known and marginally canonical works that typically comprise "radical literature," but one of the most studied twentieth-century novels. Foley continues her critical fascination with literary Leftism, yet Wrestling with the Left holds value for all students and scholars of Ellison, African American literature, and literary modernism, demonstrating the far-reaching impact of the twentieth-century American Left and the continued importance of politically engaged scholarship.
As Foley consistently reminds us, the popular reading of Invisible Man finds its genesis in the contemporaneous New Critical reception of the novel and in Ellison's self-aware construction of his intentions. While retaining the critique of American racism, he stripped the novel of any overt involvement in the post-World War II ideological battle and, after its publication, sought to avoid being "branded a 'Negro writer'" by claiming literary kinship with Shakespeare, Virgil, Aeschylus, Herman Melville, Henry James, Ernest Hemingway, and T. S. Eliot (69). In part a reaction to the political exigencies of the Cold War and in part literary self-fashioning, Ellison's insistence that the book owed a great debt to classical mythology, Freudian criticism, Burkean rhetorical theory, and high modernism—while ignoring and denying any impact by his earlier dalliance with the Left—established parameters for the analysis of his novel that were consonant with the predominant political and aesthetic sensibilities of the era and that have lingered for more than fifty years. Wrestling with the Left is designed to correct this narrow perspective, not by denying Ellison's claimed influences, but by detailing Ellison's engagement with Left political discourse throughout his career, thus adding the Left as an ambivalent opponent that complicates and informs earlier readings of Invisible Man.
Foley adds this layer of content/context in two ways: in Part I, she analyzes previously unknown and severely understudied works that reveal Ellison's explicit involvement with Leftist literary magazines, his attraction to Marxian political philosophy, and his praise for others writing from Leftist perspectives. Wrestling with the Left does not portray Ellison as an uncritical champion of pre-World War II communism, thus avoiding the prototypical, pre-war Leftist, Cold War conservative trajectory of rejection of many 1930s radicals. Instead, Foley produces a shifting snapshot of a writer drawn to the Left, yet profoundly troubled by the American Communist Party's and [End Page 162] the international communist movement's actions vis-à-vis race as anti-fascism changed strategies and Black Americans were asked to make difficult (perhaps untenable) wartime sacrifices. Part I argues that Ellison's intellectual engagement with the Left—with proletarian fiction, with left-leaning anthropologist Stanley Edgar Hymen, and with Richard Wright (who himself struggled to address cohesively the intersection of race and Left politics)—structured political and aesthetic stances that are a necessary prehistory to Invisible Man. Only through the type of careful attention to Ellison's early writing that we find in Wrestling with the Left can we come to terms with the content and the absences of his magnum opus.
Part II then builds from this foundation with an exhaustive reading of Invisible Man. Foley's extensive analysis weaves together the novel as it was published in 1952 with the large number of available excerpts, rewrites, and revisions that show a...