- Wrestling With the Left: The Making of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man
Fans of Ralph Ellison must put Barbara Foley’s Wrestling with the Left on their reading list. This substantial critical study, some fifteen years in the making, returns to early drafts of Invisible Man to offer a bold new reading of one of the most acclaimed American novels of the twentieth century. Foley painstakingly details the evolution of the novel from 1945, when Ellison conceived it on a Vermont farm, to 1952, when it was finally published. While writing the novel, Ellison wrestled with ideas he had held as a young Communist, ideas that left a lasting impact on him despite his withdrawal from the Communist Party. In Invisible Man, he directed his criticism at a fictional version of the Party, a doctrinaire political organization called the Brotherhood. Yet earlier drafts of the same novel contained many proletarian elements that reveal the author’s sympathies for the radical Left.
Foley’s choice of the photograph on the book’s cover indicates her intention to uncover the Invisible Man’s radical associations. It is an image of a black man, holding a manhole cover over his head as he appears to rise up from the netherworld. But the photo is obscure: is he coming or going? Taken by Gordon Parks in 1952, the photo’s subject is John Bates, a Communist sympathizer who helped Ellison find a job in the Merchant Marine. It was on the Vermont farm of Bates’s brother that Ellison first envisioned Invisible Man. The photo thus suggests the political and cultural milieu from which Ellison both emerged and simultaneously tried to suppress.
Biographers have documented the young Ellison’s support of various leftist causes, including the campaigns to free the Scottsboro boys and Angelo Herndon, and the Loyalist fight during the Spanish Civil War. He published in the left-leaning journals New Masses, New Challenge, and Negro Quarterly, and for this last, he was its managing editor in its final year. After World War II, he severed ties with the Communist Party and other political organizations he had joined in the 1930s. In their separate biographies, Arnold Rampersad and Lawrence Jackson portray an ambitious writer who willfully cleaned up his act in order to succeed in his career. Both agree that Ellison’s abandonment of the Communist Party was a wise decision and an inevitable course for those advancing black freedom.
In Foley’s view, however, Ellison’s break with the Left was neither as sudden as previously believed, nor a necessary step in his intellectual journey. Too often, Foley suggests, critics have read Invisible Man backwards through the lens of the Cold War [End Page 721] ideology that Ellison eventually adopted. She argues that by “reading forward” from Ellison’s significant engagement with Marxism, readers can fully understand how Invisible Man became a modern classic. This concept of “reading forward” is the most usable method scholars will take from Foley’s book. As in Ellison’s case, the experiences of black writers such as Richard Wright, Chester Himes, and Harold Cruse have come to represent a mass defection of African Americans from the Communist Party. Foley’s work suggests we revisit these well-known examples. She also notes other black writers and artists—Frank Marshall Davis, Alice Childress, Lorraine Hansberry, and Ollie Harrington, among others—who remained committed to the radical Left. She warns scholars against reproducing what she refers to as “the rhetoric of anticommunism.”
Those familiar with Foley’s earlier books, Radical Representations, and Spectres of 1919, will again be impressed by her rigorous research. In Wrestling with the Left, she draws from thousands of pages of early drafts, notes, and outlines for Invisible Man, in addition to short stories, articles, and correspondence found in the Ellison papers at the Library of Congress. There is no doubt, Foley admits, that Ellison wished to write a story of political disillusionment. In a 1946 letter to his publisher, he expressed his hopes to complete a novel about...