Monday, May 16, 2011


  Let me talk a little bit about Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man.
Sometimes I feel I know this book as well as I do my own work. I've been reading and teaching and writing about it since the late 1960s. Last year Intiman theater in Seattle was planning on having me adapt it for the stage. So I spent all of May, 2010 and part of June once again taking that novel apart page by page (I also did that in 1978 when WGBH in Boston hoped to adapt it as a series for PBS), image by image (Ellison, I realized for the first time, had a great affection for doll imagery: automatons that represented life lived inauthentically or artificially), scene by scene (it is a very violent story, with seven fight scenes plus a Harlem riot at the end), speech by speech, then putting it back together as a play (3 acts, 19 scenes). In addition to doing a 20-page, single-spaced Scene Outline and Synopsis, I also wrote with the help of dramaturge Marvin McAlister a 10-page, single-spaced outline for just the director, focusing on physical and psychological actions for all the characters in each scene. Unfortunately, Intiman theater lost the rights to do this novel as a stage adaptation, and because of financial problems recently canceled the rest of its season for 2011. A stage adaptation for the novel---or at least a workshop for a production that must be approved by trustees of the Ellison estate---will apparently be done now by Classic Theater of Harlem.

Clearly, Invisible Man is a segregation-era novel, but one that is distinguished from other fiction by black authors in the first half of the 20th century by its muscular exploration of ideas. Ellison himself in an interview some years after its publication expressed the feeling that it became socially and politically "dated" after the Civil Rights Movement swept away the experiential world of Jim Crow in which it is set. I can only agree with the author's assessment of his own work. But I don't think the adventurous engagement with perennially important questions in the novel has been tarnished by time. For more than 50 years Invisible Man has had a powerful influence on three generations of American writers and readers. Its place and importance in the canon of American literature is, like that of equally classic novels by Mark Twain and William Faulkner, secure.

But should it be the standard by which we measure black American writing in 2011?  My answer is, no. And, yes. (Pardon me for being dialectical, and giving an answer that "boomerangs," as Ellison would say.) I would not tell writers today that they should embrace Ellison's Invisible Man as the only standard for literary excellence in black letters. But they would do well to embrace the underlying vision that inspirits his reflections on the demanding enterprise we call serious literature, especially when he says, "The thing that Americans have to learn over and over again is that they are individuals and have the responsibility of individual vision."

1 comment:

  1. Good points about the relevance of the Invisible Man…Jim Crow and Segregation are statutorily extinct, but now the ideology that invented them has itself become “invisible” and therefore deceptively deniable. And so we shadow box…