10 Facts About Ralph Ellison's 'Invisible Man'

Ralph Ellison, author of Invisible Man
Ralph Ellison, author of Invisible Man
Keystone/Getty Images

For a generation marked by civil rights battles, the arrival of Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man in 1952 signaled a new chapter in how people of color were depicted in literature. Ellison’s unnamed protagonist was a rejection of cultural stereotypes, grappling with his identity in a prejudiced world and attempting to make sense of the unease around him.

Since its publication, Invisible Man has been heralded as one of the most important novels of the 20th century. Ellison won a National Book Award for Fiction in 1953, and it’s been heavily circulated in classrooms ever since. Take a look at some things you might not know about Ellison and his landmark work.

1. ELLISON EXPECTED TO BECOME A MUSICIAN.

Picking up the cornet at the age of 8, Ralph Ellison (1914-1994) fell deeply in love with music while growing up in Oklahoma City. An appreciation for jazz and classical music led to his enrolling at the Tuskegee Institute as a music major at 19. When he visited New York City during his senior year, he was unable to return to finish school due to a lack of funds both on his end and Tuskegee’s—it had closed its music program. While in the city, he befriended author Richard Wright. Ellison’s passions turned to writing instead.

2. INVISIBLE MAN TOOK SEVEN YEARS TO WRITE.

Following the end of his service as a cook in the United States Merchant Marine during World War II, Ellison acted further on Wright’s encouragement and began to write what would become Invisible Man. The work took from 1945 to 1952, a seven-year stretch that would foreshadow Ellison’s difficulties in finishing future projects.

3. IT STARTED WITH JUST ONE LINE.

Although they shared similar experiences, Ellison has warned that the protagonist of Invisible Man is not a stand-in for the author. The novel began when Ellison was home from the war and visiting a friend in Vermont. Ellison recalled that he typed “I am an invisible man” almost spontaneously, without having any additional idea of where he was going or what the sentence meant.

4. THE FIRST CHAPTER WAS PUBLISHED YEARS EARLIER.

While still toiling on the complete novel, Ellison published the first chapter in Horizon magazine in 1947. The emotionally-charged nature of the scene—Ellison writes of black students forced to box blindfolded for the amusement of white spectators—led the literary community to brace for a potent novel by Ellison, even though he was first-time author.

5. HE WAS HIGHLY CRITICAL OF HIS ACCOMPLISHMENT.

Invisible Man was an instant success, spending 16 weeks on bestseller lists and hailed by critics as one of the most impressive novels of the century. But in accepting his National Book Award in 1953, Ellison referred to the book as an “attempt” at a great novel.

6. THE FBI KEPT A FILE ON HIM.

Ellison's considerable success in articulating the civil rights climate of the mid-20th century, and his tangential relationship to the Communist Party, prompted J. Edgar Hoover’s infamously paranoia-fueled FBI to keep a close watch on the author. The bureau amassed more than 1400 pages of information about his political and professional activities. Agents were even able to preview Invisible Man prior to publication thanks to informers in the publishing industry.

7. THE BOOK WASN’T INTENDED TO BE ONLY ABOUT DISCRIMINATION IN AMERICA.

Although Invisible Man has been heralded as a definitive exploration of how people of color are minimized in America, Ellison said that that is only one interpretation of the book—another is that it’s a parable about integration. “When I was a kid, I read the English novels. I read Russian translations and so on,” he said in 1983. “And always, I was the hero. I identified with the hero. Literature is integrated. And I'm not just talking about color, race. I'm talking about the power of literature to make us recognize again and again the wholeness of the human experience."

8. QUINCY JONES WANTED TO PRODUCE A FILM VERSION.

Like Catcher in the Rye, Invisible Man has never been translated into film or television. Music producer Quincy Jones once inquired about the rights, but nothing materialized: Ellison thought no film could capture what he had in the novel. It wasn’t until 2012 that Ellison’s estate allowed a stage production in Boston and Washington to be mounted, providing no new dialogue was added.

9. HE DEVELOPED SERIOUS WRITER’S BLOCK.

Invisible Man took years to finish, but it eventually saw the light of day. In the following four decades, Ellison would try and fail to complete a second, ambitious novel about a white child raised by a black minister. Theories abound as to why Ellison could never seem to complete the work, from a 1965 fire that destroyed a portion of the manuscript to his anxiety over how it would be received. After Ellison’s death in 1994, the novel appeared posthumously under the title Juneteenth.

10. IT WAS BANNED IN NORTH CAROLINA SCHOOLS IN 2013.

Following a complaint lodged by a parent that objected to the book’s language and content as being unsuitable for 11th graders, Invisible Man was pulled from the Randolph County school district libraries in North Carolina in 2013. The board that had voted in favor of the ban quickly reversed course after a local and national protest, with one bookstore handing out free copies to area students.

Virginia Woolf Calls D.H. Lawrence and James Joyce 'Overrated' in Newly Unearthed 1923 Survey

James Joyce
James Joyce
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Don’t feel too bad if you’ve ever struggled to get through James Joyce’s Ulysses or one of D.H. Lawrence’s long-winded books. Virginia Woolf and several other well-respected writers of the 20th century had a few choice words for Joyce and Lawrence, labeling them the "most overrated" English writers in a recently rediscovered 1923 survey.

As Smithsonian reports, these thoughts were recorded in a journal that was passed around British literary circles that included Woolf and nine other writers in the early 20th century. Within the “literary burn book,” as Vox dubbed it, writers recorded their answers to a 39-question survey about their thoughts on popular writers of the time, both living and dead. For example, they were asked to choose the greatest literary genius of all time, as well as the author most likely to be read in 25 years’ time. (In response to the latter question, author and poet Hilaire Belloc simply answered, “Me.”)

Titled Really and Truly: A Book of Literary Confessions, the book eventually ended up in novelist Margaret Kennedy’s possession. It was recently rediscovered by her grandson, William Mackesy, who, along with his cousin, is one of the literary executors of Kennedy's estate.

“Within were pages of printed questions with 10 sets of handwritten answers dated between 1923 and 1927,” Mackesy explained in The Independent. “Then the names came into focus and our eyes popped. Here were Rose Macaulay, Rebecca West, Hilaire Belloc, Stella Benson—and Virginia Woolf. And our granny.” It's unclear who originally wrote the survey.

In addition to taking jabs at Lawrence and Joyce, one unnamed respondent called T.S. Eliot the worst living English poet as well as the worst living literary critic. In response to a prompt to name the dead author whose character they most disliked, the participants name-dropped Samuel Johnson, Oscar Wilde, George Meredith, Marcel Proust, and Lord Byron. Woolf, for her part, answered, “I like all dead men of letters.” (If the respondents had known about the misdeeds of Charles Dickens, he may have ended up on the list, as well.)

“It is interesting how perceptions change, especially how little mention there is of now-most-celebrated writers from that era,” Mackesy notes. This little activity wasn’t entirely petty, though. Shakespeare, unsurprisingly, won the most votes for greatest literary genius. Homer, author of The Iliad and The Odyssey, received one vote.

[h/t Smithsonian]

Connecticut's Traveler Restaurant Gives Diners Free Books With Their Meal

Bobbie Johnson, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0
Bobbie Johnson, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Well-traveled bibliophiles know that books can sometimes be found in unusual places, like barges, abandoned sheds, and decommissioned postal trains. In northeastern Connecticut, you can find free books in a place where you'd normally just expect to find a hot meal. The Traveler restaurant lets customers take home up to three free books to read after finishing their meal, the Hartford Courant reports.

Traveler Food and Books, an unassuming diner off I-84 in Union, Connecticut, gives away roughly 100,000 free books to diners each year. The restaurant's original owner, Marty Doyle, started adding books to the "menu" in the mid-1980s, when his personal library became too big to fit in his home. He kept his collection under control by bringing excess books to the Traveler and offering them to any guests looking for new reading material.

The restaurant has been owned by Karen and Art Murdock since 1993, and today books are donated by libraries and community groups in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island. Visitors get to pick out up to three free books from the restaurant's collection, either while waiting for their meal or on their way out the door. And if that isn't enough for them, there's a used bookstore downstairs called The Book Cellar, where they can browse and purchase additional titles.

Small-town restaurants aren't the only establishments giving out books with meals. Earlier this year, McDonald's in New Zealand replaced Happy Meal toys with excerpts from Roald Dahl novels.

[h/t Hartford Courant]

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