Can it really be a mere three decades since the publication of Ralph Ellison's great novel? "Invisible Man" bulks so large in our literature that it seems at least as ancient, at least as monumental, as "Moby Dick" or "Huckleberry Finn." Yet here we have incontrovertible evidence of its relative youth: a handsome "30th Anniversary Edition," complete with an interesting and characteristically self-mocking introduction by the author.
"Invisible Man" has been subjected to so much scholarly exegesis--it's been turned upside down and inside out, examined with microscopic scrutiny from every conceivable angle--that there is nothing new to be said about it. All the same, it is perhaps worth a few paragraphs to stress once more a few familiar points: that "Invisible Man" is more an "American novel" than a "black novel," that its energy and complexity are extraordinary, that its narrative voice is among the most distinctive and arresting in our literature.
That voice asserts itself at once, in the remarkable opening paragraph:
"I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids--and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination--indeed, everything and anything except me."
This man (whose name we never learn) is invisible because he is black. Yet he is also an American, and he is quick to emphasize this: "Though invisible, I am in the great American tradition of tinkers. That makes me kin to Ford, Edison and Franklin." He feels no roots except American ones, yet he is mocked and rejected ("Please hope him to death, and keep him running") by the society to which he belongs; hence his invisibility, and hence his struggle to find out his identity. No journey is more American than this one, this conscious and deliberate exploration of the mysteries and possibilities of self:
"I had no doubt that I could do something, but what, and how? I had no contacts and I believed in nothing. And the obsession with my identity which I had developed in the factory hospital returned with a vengeance. Who was I, how had I come to be? . . . I throbbed with guilt and puzzlement. I wanted peace and quiet, tranquility, but was too much aboil inside. Somewhere beneath the load of the emotion-freezing ice which my life had conditioned my brain to produce, a spot of black anger glowed and threw off a hot red light of such intensity that had Lord Kelvin known of its existence, he would have had to revise his measurements . . . While walking along the streets words would spill from my lips in a mumble over which I had little control. I became afraid of what I might do. All things were indeed awash in my mind. I longed for home."
The journey of self-discovery on which this young man is launched is not precisely picaresque, but it is as varied and surprising as any taken by Tom Jones or Augie March. It begins in his southern home town, moves on to the state college for Negroes, then arrives in New York for the major part of the novel. It includes a dazzling array of brilliantly executed set pieces, among them the narrator's bizarre trip through the southern countryside with a white trustee of the college; his encounter with Dr. Bledsoe, the wily and cynical president of that college; his inadvertent appearance at a union meeting while working for a paint company; the eviction of an elderly woman from her flat in Harlem; the funeral of his friend Tod Clifton; and, of course, the riot in Harlem that brings the novel to its stupendous conclusion.
In his quest to find himself and his mission in life, the narrator is pulled in opposite directions by two equally malign forces: the white chieftains of "the Brotherhood," for which he works, and the black-nationalist fanatic Ras the Exhorter, who ultimately becomes Ras the Destroyer. At last the narrator comes to understand that each of the forces wants only to manipulate and exploit him and his fellow blacks, for its own sinister purposes. And at last, out of the ashes of the riot, the narrator learns his lesson:
"Whence all this passion toward conformity anyway?--diversity is the word. Let man keep his many parts and you'll have no tyrant states. Why, if they follow this conformity business they'll end up by forcing me, an invisible man, to become white, which is not a color but the lack of one. Must I strive toward colorlessness? But seriously, and without snobbery, think of what the world would lose if that should happen. America is woven of many strands; I would recognize them and let it so remain. It's 'winner take nothing' that is the great truth of our country or of any country. Life is to be lived, not controlled; and humanity is won by continuing to play in face of certain defeat. Our fate is to become one, and yet many--This is not prophecy, but description."
The novel, Ellison says in his introduction, was "fashioned as a raft of hope, perception and entertainment that might help keep us afloat as we tried to negotiate the snags and whirlpools that mark our nation's vascillating course toward and away from the democratic ideal." That is a tall assignment for a government, let alone a novelist, yet Ellison fulfilled it. "Invisible Man" has as much claim to being that mythical, unattainable dream of American literature, the "great American novel," as any other book in our literature. Its 30th anniversary is therefore an occasion for joy and gratitude.