Hi, my name’s Heidi and I like to read. What do I like to read? Predominantly science fiction, fantasy, historical fiction and self-help titles.
That being said, I have aspirations of being a “classically” well-read person.
What do I mean by classics? The most-tagged classics on Goodreads.com (one of the largest websites for readers in the world) include such notable books as “1984” by George Orwell, “The Catcher in the Rye” by J.D. Salinger, and “Of Mice and Men” by John Steinbeck.
Of those three, dear readers, I’ve only read one.
So, the next problem with this aspiration of mine is — Where do I start? Who is the definitive voice when it comes to choosing classics?
Who better than a library, I thought, literally.
I had the privilege of working at O’Fallon Public Library during the Great Renovation of 2015 to 2016. One of my favorite pieces of improved library space (other than the bubble wall!) are the book spines that were painted on our stairs.
I’d like to invite everyone to read along with me as I “climb the stairs” by reading the classics listed there. The goal is to share the books our community deemed important enough to preserve in our library space for all time.
We begin with “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison.
Let me share my ignorance right off the bat — I mixed up this classic with “The Invisible Man” by H.G. Wells. (Which I haven’t read either.)
“Invisible Man” won the National Book Award for Fiction in 1953. Ralph Ellison only published one book during his lifetime though he left behind paperwork for another novel that was published posthumously.
With that sorted, let’s explore a book summary (I’ve left out many details for brevity’s sake):
Our story begins with an unnamed narrator in an underground space filled with lightbulbs powered by electricity which he’s stealing from the power station as a protest. He says because others do not see him as he truly is, he is the invisible man.
Then we go back in time to the South when he was young, and the narrator remembers a night when he thought he was issued an invitation to speak to a group of town leaders. Instead, he and a number of other young adult African-Americans were forced to view a naked white woman dancing then participate in a blindfolded, boxing match. After that, they were made to pick up fake coins from an electrified piece of floor.
We skip forward in time to our narrator in college, driving a wealthy supporter of the school around town. He takes the benefactor, Mr. Norton, to the Golden Day, an establishment that caters to black men. The narrator’s guest has a fainting spell and is aided by one of the men at the bar who happens to be a veteran.
Back at the college, the president of the school, Dr. Bledsoe, discovers what happened to the wealthy benefactor on the narrator’s tour. He tells the narrator that he should have taken the benefactor somewhere else — not the Golden Day. The narrator is kicked out of school for this perceived transgression.
However, the narrator is given letters by the college president to aid him on his job search while making a new life for himself in New York City. Unbeknownst to the narrator, the letters cast him in a negative light instead of a positive one. As soon as he discovers this, he stops trying to find a mentor and instead begins a job at a paint factory where their most popular paints are all shades of white. There, he experiences some health troubles which culminate in a workplace accident, and winds up in the hospital, where doctors run experiments on him.
After he is released from the hospital, the narrator is taken in by a woman named Mary in Harlem who allows him to live with her. Through his observations of the people who live there, the narrator begins giving speeches, utilizing his natural talent. He’s recognized for his speaking talent and invited to join a group that claims to help the poor and downtrodden of Harlem. The narrator becomes a spokesperson for the group, called the Brotherhood, which invites him to change his name, in order to break free from his past and begin again.
The group turns out to be full of divisions and one of the factions turns against the narrator. One of the most charismatic members of the group, Tod Clifton, tries to leave the Brotherhood and sell racially-stereotypical dolls on the street to make ends meet.
The authorities say Clifton doesn’t have the proper paperwork to sell the dolls, and he ends up being shot and killed by a policeman. The narrator holds a funeral for his friend, but the rest of the group resents the attention this brings him. He tries to seduce a woman who is involved with the group in order to move up higher in the ranks of the Brotherhood. Unfortunately, his plan doesn’t work because she doesn’t know anything and she was using the narrator for her own disturbing fantasies.
The narrator returns to Harlem to discover a riot taking place which was incited by a high-ranking member of the Brotherhood named Ras. Ras points the finger of blame at the narrator for the riot, and the narrator is forced to run away. Instead of escaping, he falls down a manhole and explains that he has remained there since that day.
In order to live a full life, the narrator knows he’ll have to leave the underground. That day, he says, has arrived.
Now we know what the book is about — what does it mean?
Here was a description of what the book means from The New York Times obituary for Ralph Ellison dated April 17, 1994:
“Mr. Ellison’s seminal novel, Invisible Man, which was written over a seven-year period and
published by Random House in 1952, is a chronicle of a young black man’s awakening to
racial discrimination and his battle against the refusal of Americans to see him apart from his
ethnic background, which in turn leads to humiliation and disillusionment.
Invisible Man has been viewed as one of the most important works of fiction in the 20th century, has been read by millions, influenced dozens of younger writers, and established Mr. Ellison as one of the major American writers of the 20th century.”
Here’s what publisher Penguin-Randomhouse has to say about the classic:
“From the moment of its publication in 1952, Invisible Man generated the impact of a cultural tidal wave. Here was a pioneering work of African-American fiction that addressed not only the social but the psychic and metaphysical, components of racism: the invisibility of a large portion of this country’s populace and the origins of that invisibility in one people’s willed blindness and another’s habit of self-concealment.
But Ellison had created far more than a commentary on race. He had attempted to decipher the cruel and beautiful paradox that is America, a country founded on high ideals and cold-blooded betrayals. And he sent his naive hero plunging through almost every stratum of this divided society, from an ivy-covered college in the deep South to the streets of Harlem, from a sharecropper’s shack to the floor of a hellish paint factory, from a millionaire’s cocktail party to a communist rally, from church jubilees to street riots. Along the way, Ellison’s narrator encounters the full range of strategies that African-Americans have used in their struggle for survival and dignity–as well as all the scams, alibis, and naked brutalities that whites have used to keep them in their place.
In his prose, Ellison managed to encompass the entirety of the American language–black and white, high-brow and low-down, musical, religious, and jivey–and reshape it to his own ends. In “Invisible Man,” he created one of those rare works that are a world unto itself, a book that illuminates our own in ways that are at once hilarious and devastating.”
What do I think?
I think society sometimes uses aspects of our lives (like gender, race, social status, level of education, sexual orientation) to place people into tidy boxes or make them invisible like the narrator in Ellison’s novel.
One way to combat this evil is to know that we’re not alone as we travel through life. We’re all in this together. We see each other and acknowledge each other’s strengths and weaknesses.
We are seen and appreciated for our uniqueness by the communities we create. It’s a big responsibility.
And that was a big first step. Now, on to the next!