Monday, May 10, 2010

Ralph Ellison--Invisble Man (1952)

In my posting of July 24, 2009, I put forth the suggestion that this book, which I read for the first time when I was 38, might be overrated. My basis for this seemingly ignorant judgement was the expectation of surpassing greatness that had been aroused in me by the decades of reverent hype regarding it that I had been exposed to, such that it was a turning point in American literary history, a candidate for the greatest post 1945 American novel, was to the 20th century what Moby-Dick had been to the 19th and so on. I was anticipating something, if not at, then very near the Tolstoy-Dostoevsky-Proust level, which category I do think Melville is in as well. While I won't dispute that I likely don't grasp more than 2% of what is going on in such books, I have read enough of them to recognize the kind of scope, vividness and freshness and liveliness and uniqueness of thought and vision and language and purposefulness and interestingness of action that sets this class of book apart from merely excellent and distinguished novels. Invisible Man did not strike me as being of the same quality as these superior types of books in any way. To quote myself, "I found it to be slow-moving, with long episodice stretches that never seem to pay off with value equal to the investment of writing that went into it. 300 pages, 400 pages in, I'm thinking, this just isn't taking off, something is going to happen, something is going to happen, and then at the end (which I guess the real end is actually at the beginning) the whole thing just kind of peters out. Either there was something really big and monumental that I somehow missed totally, or the book was (is) overrated."

I wonder if this book has not reached the stage in its career that has come to many classics two or three generations after their first appearances and been widespread acclaim, that being that the innovations and ideas which caused the original excitement of audiences have either become so internalized by them after a certain passage of time that their power becomes dulled, or else they have come to be seen as contributing to an attitude that now stifles where once it liberated, such that the book passes through a period where it does not speak to people as intensely as it did on its first appearance. Hemingway and Eugene O'Neill and Steinbeck and a number of other 30s writers have seemed to me to be in this position for much of the last 20 years, there was a backlash against Dickens and Tennyson and other Victorian writers in the 1910s and 20s, and even Shakespeare fell somewhat into oblivion 50-60 years after his prime, certainly during the period when the Puritan revolution took over England and closed down the theaters for 12-18 years, and even in the Restoration period there was a sizable school of critics who thought his writing barbaric and immoral. What is working against Ellison I think at this particular time for the purely literary point of view is that his book is most celebrated for its merciless depiction of a thoroughly racist society, presented in a way which was evidently a revelation to most of the intelligentsia in the 1950s; for someone my age however this particular point of view is one that we have been fairly well immersed in all our lives. A lot of the most famous incidents such as the 'battle royal' where the top students from the black high school are forced to fight with each other for the entertainment of the local white civic leaders, which I presume were based on real events, don't have the shock value they are promoted as having because so many similar stories have now been told during the interevening sixty that, while one is not dulled to it, you know pretty quickly when certain situations in the book are being set up what is going to happen, and this, combined with the very slow pace at which events unfold, means that very little happens in the course of the story which will seem new in 2010 to anybody who has been living in America for the last 40 years. However, as time goes on and the Jim Crow period passes out of living memory, and a greater and greater portion of the American population consists of people whose ancestors were not even in this country in the 1940s and 50s, the ubiquitousness and immediacy of this history in everyday experience will fade, and the power of the truths contained in the book will be revealed in a greater vividness at that further remove of time when the greater part of the specificities of circumstance and direct general influence will have largely ceased to be important. Ellison is a famously conflicted writer, who had trouble finishing anything, and he very often gives the impression of wanting to say one thing while actually saying, or at least believing, something else. In the introduction at one point he explained his intention in his writing of choosing the affirmation of humanity as opposed to despair or nihilism, citing Hemingway, of all people, though I thing the comparison was from his vantage point a good one, as an example of someone whose work was a struggle, only sometimes successful, to achieve this. I don't know know that Ellison succeeds as much. The inclination of his spirit was really at odds with that of his mind, and while he is smart, that is not the same as being equal to the myriad situations that arise in the course of life, and I am not talking about institutionalized racism and that sort of thing, I mean things like connecting with people. Ellison writes like a man who has no friends, no intimate or serious contact with interesting people. It is not surprising to me that he was only able to finish one book in his lifetime.

Ellison lived on a Vermont farm for a while during the 40s while he was working on his writing--the level of financial support and encouragement he received from well-placed persons as a black man and relative unknown during seven years of writing seems impressive to me--and one of the nearby villages put on a blackface performance of Uncle Tom's Cabin. They don't have this sort of thing there anymore of course but I asked around a little and apparently these kinds of shows were quite popular in this area at that time, before television. People affect to have been largely unconscious of the full racist implications of the performances and regarded them as innocent entertainments, actual black people being almost as completely unknown in rural Vermont in the 1940s as Hindoos or Polynesians would have been, as indeed they still were in these northern states even in the 80s when I first lived up here, though that is finally changing a little bit now.

"Yet I recalled that during the early, more optimistic days of this republic it was assumed that each individual citizen could become (and should prepare to become) President." Say what? Well, maybe they did--certainly as a child I had something like that impression but I got taken in by everything as a child--and I'm sure the country could not help but be improved if this kind of attitude was promoted, in the serious hypothetical way it is intended here at least, in the upbringing of young people.

The book starts. Prologue: "Those two spots (Broadway and the Empire State Building) are among the darkest of our whole civilization--pardon me, our whole culture (am important distinction, I've heard)..." It is hard to tell whether the prologue was written first or last. This edgy, defiant tone was not kept up through most of the rest of the work, though I suppose it is meant to be inferred that the narrator only adopted it after the action of the book

The narrator has an image of white people--a certain class of them anyway--at the beginning as "striking, elegant and confident". It struck as an unsual sentiment that you would be unlikely to hear couched in such terms nowadays.

Plantation imagery, or even the suggestion of it translated to more modern circumstances, is oddly evocative and powerful, almost as if there is something primal in it. The plantationesque scene in this was reminiscent of an incident in another book (Dorian Gray?) where a blind black boy climbed through the window of the manse to play the piano.

It appears that I did think in the beginning--at least up to page 118--that this book had the kind of natural, organic flow of production and form that I admire and strive to achieve. I'm sure I had the sense that it was building up to something spectacular which was never arrived at, or really felt like it ever came near being arrived at.

I'm not going to go through these books and do the quotes and all anymore. It takes too much time and the pieces don't really work. I'm not sure why it took me three years to figure that out.

Unless it's funny. Chapter 7, an acquaintance on hearing the narrator is going to New York: "And listen,' he said, leaning close to whisper, 'you might even dance with a white girl!'" I laugh and I cry at the same time, because I don't think I've ever actually gotten to do that in New York myself.

The terror of touching a white person is an oft-repeated theme.

In New York: "...I had the shock of seeing a black policeman directing traffic--and there were white drivers in the traffic who obeyed his signals as though it was the most natural thing in the world."

"White folks were funny; Mr Bates might not wish to see a Negro the first thing in the morning."

The part where he works in the paint factory awakened some unpleasant memories for me of my days at the J.J. Nissen industrial bakery in Portland, Maine. Cubicle life may be monotonous, deadening and garishly unsexy, but factories are these things in addition to being physically painful, hot, pressured, demeaning. There is nothing appealing about doing that eight hours a day for thirty years.

Symbolism. Whiteness ubiquitous. The factory's specialty pain ("we make the best damn white pain in the world") the glare of light bulbs, the hospital, of course white people and the massive world of objects and buildings and institutions and roads and so on that they had made (in the narrator's eyes) and owned utterly.

I guess I will still have to do a second post on this. Why shouldn't I, it's a major book?

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