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Invisible Criticism

Ralph Ellison and the American Canon

Alan Nadel

Publication Year: 1991

In 1952 Ralph Ellison won the National Book Award for his Kafkaesque and claustrophobic novel about the life of a nameless young black man in New York City. Although Invisible Man has remained the only novel that Ellison published in his lifetime, it is generally regarded as one of the most important works of fiction in our century.

This new reading of a classic work examines Ellison's relation to and critique of the American literary canon by demonstrating that the pattern of allusions in Invisible Man forms a literary-critical subtext which challenges the accepted readings of such major American authors as Emerson, Melville, and Twain.

Modeling his argument on Foucault's analysis of the asylum, Nadel analyzes the institution of the South to show how it moved blacks from "enslavement" to "slavery" to "invisibility"—all in the interest of maintaining an organization of power based on racial caste. He then demonstrates the ways Ellison wrote in the modernist/surreal tradition to trace symbolically the history of blacks in America as they moved not only from the nineteenth century to the twentieth, and from the rural South to the urban North, but as they moved (sometimes unnoticed) through American fiction.

It is on this latter movement that Nadel focuses his criticism, first demonstrating theoretically that allusions can impel reconsideration of the alluded-to text and thus function as a form of literary criticism, and then reading the specific criticism implied by Ellison's allusions to Emerson's essays and Lewis Mumford's The Golden Days, as well as to "Benito Cereno" and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Nadel also considers Ellison's allusions to Whitman, Eliot, Joyce, and the New Testament.

Invisible Criticism will be of interest not only to students of American and Afro-American literature but also to those concerned about issues of literary theory, particularly in the areas of intertextual relationships, canonicity, and rehistoricism.

Published by: University of Iowa Press

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pp. ix-x

It goes a long way back, some twenty years." Thus begins chapter 1 of Invisible Man, and thus begins this book on Invisible Man, which is being published almost twenty years to the day from the time I wrote, as an undergraduate at Brooklyn College, my first words on Ellison's novel. The assignment was to compare two books, at least one of which had to...

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pp. xi-xiii

In recent years, the issue of canon formation has attracted a great deal of attention, a phenomenon not incidental to the influence on literary study of poststructuralism, feminism, and ethnic consciousness. At the risk of oversimplifying, we could say that these approaches mandate modes of thinking which urge distance and skepticism, modes which...

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1. The Origins of Invisibility

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pp. 1-26

Iver the thirty or forty years which preceded the writing of Invisible Man, Arnerican criticism can be fairly-if somewhat simplistically-divided into two main camps or, to use Grant Webster's term, "charters." I The older charter I shall, for convenience, call Progressivist Criticism, a perfect example of which can be found at the conclusion of Van Wyck...

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2. Translating Tradition

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pp. 27-62

Since much of my study of Invisible Man relies not only on a complex understanding of Ralph Ellison's use of allusion but also on an understanding of allusion in general, it is necessary now to take an extended look at that literary device so heavily employed by Ellison's stylistic mentors, Eliot and Joyce. This is especially necessary because...

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3. Tod Clifton: Spiritual and Carnal

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pp. 63-84

I want to approach Invisible Man by asking a simple question: who is Tod Clifton? Perhaps the simplest answer is "a character in Invisible Man." That answer, like any other answer, as simple as it may be, implies assumptions. The first, of course, is that I am asking a literary question. Otherwise, the answer might come from a Who's Who directory, a...

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4. Invisible Man in the Golden Day

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pp. 85-103

The next allusion in Invisible Man that I am going to discuss at length is the term "Golden Day." Putting aside, momentarily, the allusory significance of the term, we can safely say that within the structure of the novel, the name, the image, the place haunts the narrator. One of his obsessions is to discover what went wrong in the Golden...

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5. Invisible Criticism: Melville and Emerson Revised

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pp. 104-123

Now that we have seen how Ellison's allusions to Lewis Mumford force us to reevaluate Mumford's text, we have a context wherein we can examine the effect of his allusions on the two authors who represent, for Mumford, the major figures at the opposite ends of his golden spectrum: Melville and...

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6. Invisible Man, Huck, and Jim

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pp. 124-146

Albert Bigelow Paine, in his 1912 three-volume biography of Mark Twain, said of Huckleberry Finn, "it is built of indestructible blocks of human nature; and if the blocks do not always fit, and the ornaments do not always agree, we need not fear. Time will blur the incongruities and moss over the mistakes" (798). Despite Paine's...

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pp. 147-150

Although Invisible Man, as we have seen, presents a perfect example of a novel which, through the use of allusions, can contain a literary-critical subtext-and although our understanding of both Ellison's ideas and the literary climate in which he came of age leads us to see such a subtext as intentional-the implications of this study go beyond...


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pp. 151-161

Works Cited

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pp. 163-172


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pp. 173-181

E-ISBN-13: 9781587291630
E-ISBN-10: 1587291630
Print-ISBN-13: 9780877453215
Print-ISBN-10: 0877453217

Page Count: 197
Publication Year: 1991

Edition: 1st ed.