“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.”
Ralph Ellison, The Invisible Man
So begins Ralph Ellison’s major work of his lifetime. The Invisible Man shows the struggle of a young African-American in a prejudiced society, but more importantly it shows every person’s struggle for identity and self-worth.
The theme of identity occupied Ellison’s works from his birth on March 1st, 1914 in Oklahoma City to his death in New York City in 1994. Though he is most known for his epic novel The Invisible Man, he was also the author of two volumes of essays and a posthumously released manuscript entitled “Juneteenth.” To read Ellison is to step into a world where everything is vividly human: complex, distorted, estranged, but ultimately containing beautiful moments of transcendence and clarity.
Ralph Waldo Ellison (he was named after Ralph Waldo Emerson) grew up in Oklahoma and developed an appreciation for music, art, and literature given to him from his mother. His first love was music, and he devoured everything from Classical composers to the new sounds of Jazz and the Blues. This led him to go on to the Tuskegee Institute of Alabama to major in music.
In his Sophomore year at College, Ralph Ellison was seized by T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”, and connected it’s rhythm and style with the energy and sound of jazz and blues. In 1936 he was forced to leave college, so he traveled to New York. It was here he would meet Langston Hughes and Richard Wright, and would begin to write reviews, short stories and essays.
It was only after his time in the merchant marines that Ellison would begin to seriously write his most important work. What started as a novel about an African American war hero, ended up becoming a completely new and adventurous novel about a young man’s struggle to find himself. The main character, or “the invisible man” (who remains nameless throughout the entire novel) spends his life struggle in the shadows of people who want to use him as a symbol, as a tool for their own use, who want to mold him into their own version of a model African-American. It is only when he confronts himself deep down in his sould that he finally finds peace (or insanity).
The Invisible Man greatly affected me when i read it. It was during my last boring semester at High School when my concept of “myself” was finally starting to tear away from the views and expectations in others. I was realizing that i was alone and unique, and that the only way to be happy was to be myself. Though this is a simple and always recurring theme, sometimes we forget to actually live our own lives.