Banned Book Club: Invisible Man

Title: Invisible Man

Published: 1952

Author: Ralph Ellison

Challenge status: Ellison’s U.S. National Book Award winning novel, was named #19 on MLA’s list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century, is #24 on Radcliffe Publishing Course Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century, and frequent target of banning attempts (frequently challenged classics) according to the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. Book #31 on Summer of Banned Books ’13.

Why: Generally for explicit accounts of profanity, sexuality, violence, and racism. Challenges on record in Pennsylvania (1975), Wisconsin (1975), and Washington (1994).

First line: “I am an invisible man.”


Invisible Man is Ellison’s brilliant, tragic, sharp, cynical, satiric, furious send-up of a young African-American man’s search for self in a jazz-fugue-like journey from the South to New York City. The protagonist, the self-proclaimed invisible man, is nameless and acts as a chameleon as he changes (not quite evolves) from a deferential college student into a worker in the military-industrial complex into a leader and spokesperson  for the inspirational socio-political movement engineered by “The Brotherhood”.

The choppy escalation and satire was, for me, had a lot of similarities with Catch-22. The reader is jammed into an extended period of cognitive dissonance, both inwardly groaning for the obvious mistakes being made by the protagonist, and similarly recognizing — in a similar situation, would we fare so much better? The politics of a situation always show themselves a beat too late, the syncopation providing an appropriate narrative rhythm from a jazz musician (Ellison studied at Tuskegee Institute). Having read several books by African-American authors covering a similar time period, I loved the modernist influences/approach in the book – his appreciation of T.S. Eliot and similar authors is very clear.

The hibernation is over. I must shake off the old skin and come up for breath. – Ralph Ellison, “Invisible Man”

In a hero’s journey we generally hope the hero suffers trials that culminate in achieving a life-defining goal, surmounting challenges over nature or natural circumstance, or mining some vein of internal strength and character that only reveals itself from sustained conflict. Ellison finely dices the hope of a hero’s journey and serves it as reality, raw: ambition, even ambition tethered by “doing the right thing” predictably delivers a would-be hero into the sewer. Ellison seems to be saying: There is no victory only survival. People who stick to the straight-and-narrow simply make better targets.

Before these last few books (Native Son, and The Jungle, in particular) I didn’t realize the intersection of race with socialist/collectivist movements in the U.S., specifically the Socialist party, communism, and unionization. These factor into the major message Ellison seemed to be passing on to the reader – which is, those institutions that offer a step-up to those of us straining to advance – whether they are schools, unions, or political movements – they are generally self-perpetuating and self-protective in and of themselves. While it is in the institution’s interest that members/followers will sacrifice time (and self) in service of a higher purpose, it is rare indeed that the institution itself (or those working in the top tiers) will sacrifice a single advantage for the collective benefit.

Beware “the greater good” as explained by the privileged few.

What do you think?

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.