Understanding Ellison
Reason magazine|April 2020
In a new collection of letters, the great Invisible Man author is further revealed.
RICHARD KOSTELANETZ

I FIRST MET THE American novelist Ralph Ellison in the summer of 1963, when he gave a reading to a small audience at Columbia University. Beside me was the critic Stanley Edgar Hyman, who introduced me to the author. Since I then lived at the southern end of Harlem (as it bordered on Columbia) and Ellison lived in a northwest enclave on Riverside Drive, he invited me to his home.

Few writers visited that apartment—it was off their map, even though it was only a few miles north of Manhattan’s Upper West Side, the favored cultural turf for Ellison’s literary generation. Overlooking the lordly Hudson, it was filled with art, the latest technologies, and musical instruments, some of which he played for me. On one visit I recall him fingering part of a Brandenburg Concerto on his recorder.

In 1965, when the BBC asked me to do film portraits of New York writers, Ellison was my first choice. A little later, when contracted to do a book of extended profiles of major American artists and intellectuals, it seemed appropriate to feature him alongside John Cage, Reinhold Niebuhr, Robert Rauschenberg, Marshall McLuhan, Glenn Gould, and Herman Kahn.

I particularly admired Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952), not only for its rich style but for its intellectual complexity. In lush prose reminiscent of William Faulkner, whose influence Ellison acknowledged, the novel tells of a nameless narrator’s life. Its events range from an unfortunate experience at a black college in the American South to the protagonist’s disappointments in New York City, where he suffers a terrifying experience in a paint factory and then meets semblances of Communists and black nationalists, all vividly portrayed, before retreating into the artificially illuminated underground cave from which he’s remembering his life. Some early readers thought the book autobiographical, which it wasn’t. Nor was it meant to “protest” maltreatment of African Americans—one theme in Ellison’s own commentary on the book is that the narrator, who doesn’t even know his own name, is responsible for his own invisibility. That Invisible Man can be persuasively read in such different ways is a measure of its richness.

Continue reading your story on the app

Continue reading your story in the magazine

MORE STORIES FROM REASON MAGAZINEView All

The New Campaign for a Sex-Free Internet

Sex, money, and the future of online free speech

10+ mins read
Reason magazine
May 2022

Are News-letters the Future of Free Speech?

Substack’s Hamish McKenzie on censorship, discourse, and Joe Rogan

10+ mins read
Reason magazine
May 2022

'They Just Took Me Away'

Adults declared “incapacitated” by the courts can lose everything— their homes, their savings, their freedom—to Florida’s sprawling guardianship system.

10+ mins read
Reason magazine
May 2022

Welcome to the Nicotine Prohibition Era

Regulators have long targeted tobacco products, but there’s new energy behind outright bans on vapes and cigarettes.

10+ mins read
Reason magazine
May 2022

Why Do Legalizers Keep Blocking Pot Banking?

Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer claims to favor repealing the federal ban on marijuana. The New York Democrat nevertheless helped sink legislation that would have removed federal obstacles to banking services for state-licensed marijuana businesses.

2 mins read
Reason magazine
May 2022

Zora Neale Hurston's Inconvenient Individualism

THE AUTHOR OF THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD DEFIES EASY POLITICAL CATEGORIZATION.

8 mins read
Reason magazine
June 2022

William Ruger on Russia's Invasion of Ukraine

WILLIAM RUGER, WHO holds a Ph.D. in politics specializing in foreign policy, is the newly appointed president of the American Institute for Economic Research. A veteran of the war in Afghanistan, he was a prominent voice in calling for U.S. withdrawal from that country. He was picked by former President Donald Trump to be ambassador to Afghanistan, but his nomination was never voted on.

2 mins read
Reason magazine
June 2022

Was Censorship the Greatest COVID Threat to Freedom?

WE’RE NOT JUST fighting an epidemic,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization, declared at the Munich Security Conference on February 15, 2020. “We’re fighting an infodemic. Fake news spreads faster and more easily than this virus and is just as dangerous.”

6 mins read
Reason magazine
June 2022

WHY A WEALTH TAX IS A BAD IDEA

Billionaires are better at figuring out what to do with their money than the government will ever be.

5 mins read
Reason magazine
June 2022

This Is the School Choice Moment. Will the GOP Screw It Up?

REPUBLICANS ARE IN DANGER OF SQUANDERING A PROMISING OPPORTUNITY FOR EDUCATION REFORM ON CULTURE WAR SQUABBLES.

10+ mins read
Reason magazine
June 2022