- Ellison’s Vision of COMMUNITAS*
From the time of its first appearance in the spring of 1952 Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man has been thrusting itself forward, ever more insistently with the passage of each year, as a commanding masterpiece in the literature of American fiction—and, now that it has had a career of more than forty years, its priority of place appears indeed to have been solidly consolidated. It stands today as one of the preeminent American novels of the past half-century, and all that I want here to try to do is to suggest something of what it is that accounts for the kind of powerful claim that it continues to exert upon us.
Surely a part of the immense appeal that belongs to a figure like Ellison is an affair of his fidelity to the ethic of classic modernism. For the great masters of this century—Joyce and Lawrence and Mann and Faulkner—were proposing to do what T.S. Eliot in his famous review of Ulysses (in the issue of The Dial for November 1923) descried as Joyce’s central intention: namely, to give a “shape and . . . significance to the immense panorama of . . . anarchy which is contemporary history.” The Magic Mountain and The Death of Virgil, Women in Love and The Sun Also Rises, The Sound and the Fury and Man’s Fate are books that strike us today as having a remarkable kind of weight and contemporaneity, because they are, as it were, taking on the age: with a fierce kind of audacity, they seem to be intending to displace a daunting world, to clear a space for the human endeavor and thus to keep open the door of the future. In short, their rites and ceremonies and plots and arguments are organized toward the end of envisaging new forms of life for the soul, and it is just in this that one element of the genius of twentieth-century modernism lies.
Now it is in this line that Ralph Ellison stands. Immediately after Invisible Man appeared in 1952, the astonishing authority of its art quickly brought it to the forefront of the literary scene, and this at a time when, under the new influence of Henry James, so many representative American writers of the moment—such as Jean Stafford and Frederick Buechner and Isabel Bolton and Monroe Engel—were choosing to seek their effects by the unsaid and the withheld, by the dryly ironic analogy and the muted voice. In the early 1950s Ellison, like Faulkner and Penn Warren, was particularly notable for being unafraid to make his fiction howl and rage and hoot with laughter over “the complex fate” of the homo Americanus: indeed, the uninhibited exhilaration and suppleness of his rhetoric were at once felt to be the main source of [End Page 310] the richness of texture distinguishing his extraordinary book. Yet the kind of continuing life that his novel has had is surely to be accounted for in terms not of sheer verbal energy alone but, more principally, in terms of the cogency of systematic vision that it enunciates. And though something like this has frequently been remarked, what is essential in the basic stress and emphasis of the novel has just as frequently been misreckoned, no doubt largely because the book has so consistently been construed as having an import related exclusively to the experience of black Americans.
The protagonist of Invisible Man is, of course, a young black man (unnamed) who must pick his perilous way through the lunatic world that America has arranged for its Negro minority. In the beginning, he is what the white masters of the Southern world in which he grows up were once in the habit of calling “a good Negro”: he has cheerfully accepted all the promises of that Establishment, so much so that the oily-tongued and cynical president of the college he attends, Dr. Bledsoe, has singled him out as his special ward. But, unhappily, on a certain day he unintentionally exposes a visiting white trustee from the North to the local Negro gin-mill and to the incestuous entanglements of a black...