Ralph Ellison (1914-1994), born in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, published only one novel during his lifetime. But what a novel it was: the densely symbolic, historically sweeping, and boldly surrealistic Invisible Man (1952) altered the course of African American writing in every genre and has been ranked by the Modern Library as one of the top twenty English-language novels of the twentieth century. “I am an invisible man,” declares Ellison’s self-conscious, hyper-articulate narrator in the novel’s memorable opening line, “not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allen 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.” While he never completed Invisible Man’s intended follow-up, the novel posthumously published as Juneteenth (1999), Ellison also never stopped writing, publishing short fiction and brilliant essays on jazz music, nineteenth-century American literature, the interracial porousness of officially segregated U.S. culture, and Invisible Man itself, which he interpreted and defended, again and again, in the lectures and articles collected in Shadow and Act (1964) and Going to the Territory (1986). Unlike that of most of his audience, the FBI’s interest in Ellison was not fixated on Invisible Man. His Bureau file was opened before this novel was published, and it busied itself with the security challenges of his White House visits and American Academy in Rome fellowships. Had Ellison publicized the initial drafts of Invisible Man, however, the FBI’s stance might have been different. In one version of this Great African American Novel, the transparent narrator dreams of faithful service under “a master FBI man,” an unconscious confession of blindness that also divulges repressed ties between the mask of black servility and the loyal-American disguise of the G-Man.
FBI documents studying Ralph Ellison.
Material is in the public domain.
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