Ralph Ellison

Bryan and I have often thought how nice it would be if Writing New York were a full-year course rather than a semester-long course. One book that we would add to the syllabus is Ralph Ellison’s marvelous novel Invisible Man, which I think is one of the great literary achievement s of the twentieth-century. At 581 pages, however, it seems like too much to ask our students to read in a week — although I seem to recall that we did precisely that at the school where I was a graduate student. And given the chronology of our course it would have to be mid-April, already a rough time of year. Still, it’s tempting …

When the novel opens, our narrator – the “invisible man” of the title – is speaking to us from a basement in Harlem, or rather, a “border area”  somewhere near Harlem: “My hole is a warm and full of light. Yes, full of light. I doubt if there is a brighter spot in all New York than this hole of mine, and I do not exclude Broadway. Or the Empire State Building on a photographer’s dream night.”

The narrator arrives in New York at about p. 157. “How do you get to Harlem,” he asks a Red Cap at the train station. “That’s easy … You just keep heading north.” A few page earlier a black veteran warns the narrator about the dangers of the city:

“New York!” he said “That’s not a place, it’s a dream. When  I was your age it was Chicago. Now all the little black boys run away to New York. Out of the fire into the melting pot. I can see you after you’ve lived in Harlem for three months. Your speech will change, you’ll talk a lot about ‘college,’ you’ll attend lectures at the Men’s House … you might even meet a few white folks. And listen,” he said, leaning close to whisper, “you might even dance with a white girl!”

Invisible Man is the first novel that we’re reading in my summer graduate course on U.S. Fiction after 1940, which began this evening. One of the questions I asked, in order to set up our discussion of the novel for the next class, is what difference the New York setting makes to the novel. What do you think?

The New York setting certainly made a difference to Ellison. In a 1981 introduction to a reprinted edition of the novel, Ellison wrote: “In retrospect it was as though writing about invisibility had rendered me either transparent or opaque and set me bouncing back and forth between the benighted provincialism of a small village an the benign disinterestedness of a great metropolis. Which given the difficulty of gaining authorial knowledge of this diverse society was not a bad discipline for an American writer.”

How would the addition of Invisible Man affect the stories we tell in  Writing New York, particularly the one about the city’s cosmopolitan traditions? I’ll have more to say on that score on later in the week.