And my problem was that I always tried to go in everyone’s way but my own. I have also been called one thing and then another while no one really wished to hear what I called myself. So after years of trying to adopt the opinions of others I finally rebelled. I am an invisible man.


Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man


This section will grow in the coming week or two!

ChapterSection of NovelRead By
Prologue –The End is the BeginningTues. 9/17
Ch. 1SmokerTues. 9/24
Chapters 2-6IM at College: Norton & Trueblood; Golden Day; Barbee; BledsoeFri. 9/27
Chapters 7-9North for Dignity:  Vet; EmersonFri. 10/4
Chapters 10-11World of Work:  Liberty Paint; Brockway;Hospital ResurrectionTues. 10/8
Chapters 12-15Transitions:  Mary Rambo; Oration; Brother JackTues. 10/15
Chapters 16-24The Brotherhood: Tod Clifton; Ras the Exhorter; Tarp; Wrestrum; the “Woman Problem;” Funeral; Rinehart; The SybilTues. 10/29
Chapter 25The RiotsThurs. 11/7
EpilogueThe End is the BeginningFri. 11/8

Ralph Ellison: A Quick Biography


Ralph Waldo Ellison was named after the celebrated poet Ralph Waldo Emerson by his father who wanted his son to become a poet. His novel Invisible Man won the National Book Award in 1953.  Ellison lost his father Lewis Alfred in the year 1917 in an accident when the younger Ellison was three.  His mother encouraged Ellison’s habit of reading, and a black priest succeeded in giving African American people in Oklahoma City the opportunity to use the public library, a privilege which exposed Ellison to a different world entirely.

He went to study music in Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute in 1933 on a scholarship. While at the university library, he particularly recalls reading “The Waste Land” by T. S Eliot as an inspiration.

Ellison left Tuskegee and moved to New York City in 1936 after his third year as a result of financial issues, planning to complete his education in due time.  The major turning point for Ellison in New York was meeting with Richard Wright. It was Richard Wright who pointed Ellison in the direction of writing and motivated Ellison to write for him.  Ellison’s work appeared in various publications including Antioch Review, New Challenge and New Masses. He would write short stories, reviews and essays.

He started writing Invisible Man when WWII ended. His wife Fanny McConnell who he married in 1946 proved to be a valuable asset and great support to Ellison. She supported him financially, working as a photographer and would help edit his work and even type his text. Invisible Man was published in 1952 by Random House.

Afterwards, Ellison published more of his works. Ellison began to teach both American and Russian literature at Bard College. He also began to work on Juneteenth; his second novel. He released a collection of essays, Shadow and Act, in 1964. He also started to teach at Yale University and Rutgers University, while still working on Juneteenth. In 1965, Ellison received the honor of his book Invisible Man being declared the most important novel since the end of WW2 by survey of 200 prominent literary figures.  He taught at New York University from 1970 to 1979. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1969.

In 1994, Ralph Ellison died of pancreatic cancer. Following his death, scripts were found in his home which were published in Other Stories and Flying Home in 1996.

Ellison’s Juneteenth, was published under the leadership of John F. Callahan, a professor at Lewis and Clark College. The book had been compressed into 368 pages originally being above 2000 pages. On January 26 2010, Modern Library made the remaining manuscripts of the unfinished novel available in print, naming it Three Days Before the Shooting.

” Ralph Ellison.” 2012. 18 October,      

Invisible Man Discussion Questions

Washington & DuBois
Washington —

Ex-slave, educator, lecturer, author, and founder and head of the famous Tuskegee Institute, Booker Taliaferro Washington advocated agricultural and industrial education for blacks. Received an honorary Master’s degree from Harvard.

No race can prosper until it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem. It is at the bottom of life we must begin, and not at the top. Nor should we permit our grievances to overshadow our opportunities. . . . In all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.

Washington didn’t mean to keep blacks down at the lowest levels forever. He saw that blacks would eventually grow to become independent and “socially useful.”

DuBois —

Educator, sociologist, author, and militant spokesperson, William Edward Burghardt DeBois promoted classical liberal arts education for blacks. He earned a Ph.D. from Harvard.

DuBois believed that Washington’s gradual stages of social growth (such as receiving economic aid from the whites in return for skilled labor education) was actually an admission of inferiority of blacks and a surrendering of civil and political rights. In short, this status quo was unacceptable; blacks must achieve economic rights, civil rights, political rights, and education all together. Blacks, he said, must immediately attack all myths of inferiority. American and African ancestry are both sources for pride.

After the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian, the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world–a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels this twoness,–an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings, two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder. The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife,–this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. He would not Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He would not bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of opportunity closed on his face.

DuBois insisted that the future of blacks rested upon a “Talented Tenth,” an educated elite which would lift the race up and lead it to full equality.

"To Whom It May Concern"
The letters from the briefcase in the dream, the letters that Bledsoe, and other chapters all recount this same image.

But this is also a common theme in black folklore and literature, connected even to the idea of the escape from slavery.  It was quite common in slave songs and folktales (as we’ve discussed surrounding the uses of Brer Rabbit and others) to encode ideas of resistance and escape.  Some slave songs mapped out safe routes for escape; others found ways to express resentment or resistance.

Here’s a quick version from Dorothy Scarborough’s On the Trail of Negro Folk-Songs:

Dis nigger run, he run his best
Stuck his head in a hornet’s nest,
Jumped de fence and run fru de paster;
white man run, but nigger run faster.

Another verse reads:

Wid eyes open and head hangin’ down,
Like de rabbit before de houn’,
Dis nigger streak it for de pasture;
Nigger run fast, white man run faster.

Jack the Rabbit, Jack the Bear
These two are Trickster figures, popular in a number of cultures around the world, the idea of the individual able to trick up or escape the social order through humor, “common” sense, and, perhaps most importantly, misdirection.

Anyone should ask you who made up this song
Tell them Jack the Rabbit, he’s been here and gone.

Anonymity was important to blacks who encoded messages into their tales and songs during times of slavery and oppression. The Bear figures largely in convict work songs; the word “jack” is also equated to magic, a charm, or a conjure.

Note how the IM in Chapter 11 says, “sing a song in silence in a strange land, Jack it up, bear it in the dark, it’s heavy as the world.” The narrator also hibernates, having escaped what Peter Wheatstraw calls the bear’s den of Harlem; he calls himself Jack the Bear.

Jack the rabbit! Jack the bear!
Can’t you line him just a hair,
Just a hair, just a hair?
Annie Weaver and her daughter
Ran a boarding house on the water.
She’s got chicken, she’s got ham,
She’s got everything I’ll be damned.
Old Joe Logan he’s gone north
To get the money for to pay us off.

The Dog

As you might expect, the Dog figure is one despised by blacks who were hunted by them in times of slavery. The dog chases the blacks, keeps them runnin’. Here’s a story that recounts how.

Why Mr. Dog Runs Brer Rabbit

One morning, Mr. Buzzard he says he stomach hungry for some fish, and he tell Mrs. Buzzard he think he go down to the branch, and catch some for breakfast. So he take he basket, and he sail along till he come to the branch.

He fish right smart, and by sun up he have he basket plum full. But Mr. Buzzard am a powerful greedy man, and he say to hisself, he did, I just catch one more. But while he done gone for this last one, Brer Rabbit he come along, clipity clipity, and when he see basket full of fine whitefish he stop, and he say, “I ‘clare to goodness, the old woman just gwine on up to the cabin, ’cause they got nothing for to fry for breakfast. I wonder what she think of this yer fish,” and so he put the basket on his head, Brer Rabbit did, and make off to the cabin.

Direc’ly he met up with Mr. Dog, and he ax him where he been fishing that early in the day, and Brer Rabbit he say how he done sot on the log ‘longside of the branch, and let he tail hang in the water and catch all the fish, and he done tell Mr. Dog, the old rascal did, that he tail mighty short for the work, but that Mr. Dog’s tail just the right sort for fishing.

So Mr. Dog, he teeth just ache for them whitefish, and he go set on the log and hang he tail in the water, and it mighty cold for he tail, and the fish don’t bite, but he mouth just set for them fish, and so he just sot dar, and it turn that cold that when he feel he gin up, sure’s you born, Mr. Dog, he tail froze fast in the branch, and he call he chillens, and they come and break the ice.

And then, to be sure, he start off to settle Ole Brer Rabbit, and he get on the track and he run the poor ole man to beat all, and directly he sight him he rum him round and round the woods and holler, “Hallelujah! hallelujah!” and the puppies come on behind and they holler, “Glory! glory!” and they make such a fuss, all the creeters in the woods, they run to see what the matter. Well, sah, from that day, Mr. Dog he run Brer Rabbit, and when they just got gwine on the wing in the big woods, you can hear old Ben dar just letting hisself out, “Hallelujah! hallelujah!” and them pups just gwine “Glory! glory!” and it surely am the sound what has the music dar, it surely has the music dar.

Ellison on Harlem, 1948
To live in Harlem is to live in the very bowels of the city.  Harlem is a ruin—many of its ordinary aspects are indistinguishable from the distorted images that appear in dreams, and which, like muggers haunting a lonely hall, quiver in the waking mind with a hidden and threatening significance.

For if Harlem is the scene of the folk-Negro’s death agony,  it is also the setting of his transcendence.  Here the grandchildren of those who possessed no written literature examine their lives through the eyes of Freud and Marx, Kierkegaard and Kafka, Malraux and Sartre.  They feel alienated and their whole lives have become a search for answers to the questions:  Who am I, What am I, Why am I, and Where?  Significantly, in Harlem the reply to the greeting “How are you?” is very often, “Oh, man, I’m nowhere—“  Negroes are not unaware that the conditions of their lives demand new definitions of terms like primitive and modern, ethical and unethical, moral and immoral, patriotism and treason, tragedy and comedy, sanity and insanity.

His family disintegrates, his church splinters; his folk-wisdom is discarded in the mistaken notion that it in no way applies to urban living; and his formal education (never really his own) provides him neither with scientific description nor rounded philosophical interpretation of the profound forces that are transforming his total being.  Yet even his art is transformed; the lyrical ritual elements of folk jazz—that artistic projection of the only real individuality possible for him in the South, that embodiment of a superior democracy in which each individual cultivated his uniqueness and yet did not clash with his neighbors—have given way to the near-themeless technical virtuosity of be-bop, a further triumph of technology over humanism.  His speech hardens; his movements are geared to the time clock; his diet changes; his sensibilities quicken and his intelligence expands.  But without institutions to give him direction, and lacking a clear explanation of his predicament—the religious ones being inadequate, and those offered by political and labor leaders obviously incomplete and opportunistic—the individual feels that his world and his personality are out of key.  The phrase “I’m nowhere” expresses the feeling borne in upon many Negroes that they have no stable, recognized place in society.  One’s identity drifts in a capricious reality in which even the most commonly held assumptions are questionable.  One “is” literally, but one is nowhere; one wanders dazed in a ghetto maze, a “displaced person” of American democracy.

Invisible Man Essay

Basic Directions:

Form:A formal literary analysis essay
Length3-6 MLA-formatted pages
Theoretical Frameworks:Modernism, New Criticism, Formalism, Psych Theory (choose)
ResearchCite using MLA if used
Prompt:Explore the multiple layers of meaning found in any single symbol or motif from Invisible Man and how those meanings impact the larger work (theme).
Due:Before the December break. Consider setting your own deadline earlier than Dec. 22.