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Rhetorical Strategy in Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man Gerald T. Gordon New Mexico State University "He who is educated to Angst is educated to possibility" The above inscription from Sóren Kierkegaard is not frivolously appended, for throughout Ralph Ellison's serio-comic Invisible Man the narrator not only exploits the Dane's dictum—"the world is possibility," and "somewhere between Rinehart and invisibility there were great potentialities" (Ellison 154, 499)—, but also explores the permutations of identity and the unsteady steps to selfhood. "All sickness," argues the "I" of the "Prologue," "is not unto death, neither is invisibility" (14). These ritualistic discoveries are nowhere better evinced than in the very self-conscious and retrospective protagonist's rhetorical strategies employed throughout his story. The Invisible Man is the consummate spokesman to illustrate the uses to which rhetorical voice, polemic, and dialect are put, since he himself from adolescence has staked his reputation on oratory—to exhort and cajole, to dig his "buggy jiving," to sculpt the parameters of all language that is and is not him. As the action progresses, other contiguous voices help shape, deepen, and chart the course of his emerging personality. By the "Epilogue," he becomes something more than a vengeful "disembodied voice" hibernating in a hole. His book becomes an intimate, probing, and extended apologia pro vita sua. Ellison's rhetorical architectonic has been largely ignored by those who dismiss the novel as "talky" and "tedious" (Baumback 85), as discursive (Klein 109), as offering "No social message, no system of beliefs, no intellectual conclusions . . . other than [the narrator's] own consolation in telling it" (Margolies 132). Only the "black and blues" leitmotif has been convincingly addressed (O'Meally 78-104). Quite clearly, a revaluation of the fabulist's tactics is in order. In his polemical "Rejoinder" to Irving Howe, Ellison qualifies the "rhetorical strategy" of his initial argument in "The World and the Jug" by declaring that "to the extent that I am a writer . . . the American language, including the Negro idiom, is all that I have" (Shadow 126). And later, toward the close of the same essay, love of language and the act ofwriting become the nexus for his assessment ofHemingway's, and not Richard Wright's, genius (141). That same controlled cultivation offirst-person and pluralistic voices 199 200Rocky Mountain Review imbues Invisible Man with much of its vitality. It is no wonder then that the Fs Odyssey is conspicuously colored by a baroque admixture of language—sentimental, stridently discordant, technocratic, parodie, and reflective—as well as by discernible borrowings from Faulkner and Hemingway. The shifts in voice suggest and parallel more fundamental changes in attitude, values, and ideals of the naif from Greenwood, U.S.A., who ultimately realizes that Bledsoe's references are worthless, that no business opportunity awaits a black man, even one who repudiates "colored people's time," body odor, and soul food, that the self-serving scientific realism of the Brotherhood promotes only dialectical tautologies and chaos, not the aspirations of Harlem, and that the inherently racist Gestalt of Liberty Paints' surgeons serves to transform him into a "walking zombie," a "black amorphous thing," and not an individual. Much as Joyce translates Dedalus's experiential growth from child to maker through progressively orchestrated gradations of sophisticated language, so too does Ellison map the misadventures ofhis anti-hero, until he finds his own slightly sardonic, breezy, blues-saturated, and meditative tongue. From the outset, the Invisible Man is pulled in several different directions at once. The language of actual and proto-Northern powerbrokers (Norton, Bledsoe, the surgeons, the Brotherhood, Ras) is mitigated by the limp and occasionally allusive metaphorical speech of nostalgia and the Academy (Norton, Trueblood, Barbee, Emerson fils, the I-as-greenhorn), while the displaced idiom of transplanted Southerners (Rambo, Wheatstraw, the yam man, Tarp) contrasts sharply with the counterculture hip of zootsuiters, deadbeats, and rascals. In rejecting the austerity of naturalistic fiction, Ellison instead opts for "the rich babble of idiomatic expression ... a language full of imagery and gesture and rhetorical canniness ..." (Bone 198). The radical greening of the Invisible Man's language and political and social perceptions is provocatively foreshadowed by the "nutty" vet en route...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-2833
Print ISSN
1948-2825
Pages
pp. 199-210
Launched on MUSE
2016-01-06
Open Access
No
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