10 Facts About Ralph Ellison's 'Invisible Man'

Ralph Ellison, author of Invisible Man
Ralph Ellison, author of Invisible Man
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For a generation marked by civil rights battles, the arrival of Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man in 1952 signaled a new chapter in how people of color were depicted in literature. Ellison’s unnamed protagonist was a rejection of cultural stereotypes, grappling with his identity in a prejudiced world and attempting to make sense of the unease around him.

Since its publication, Invisible Man has been heralded as one of the most important novels of the 20th century. Ellison won a National Book Award for Fiction in 1953, and it’s been heavily circulated in classrooms ever since. Take a look at some things you might not know about Ellison and his landmark work.

1. ELLISON EXPECTED TO BECOME A MUSICIAN.

Picking up the cornet at the age of 8, Ralph Ellison (1914-1994) fell deeply in love with music while growing up in Oklahoma City. An appreciation for jazz and classical music led to his enrolling at the Tuskegee Institute as a music major at 19. When he visited New York City during his senior year, he was unable to return to finish school due to a lack of funds both on his end and Tuskegee’s—it had closed its music program. While in the city, he befriended author Richard Wright. Ellison’s passions turned to writing instead.

2. INVISIBLE MAN TOOK SEVEN YEARS TO WRITE.

Following the end of his service as a cook in the United States Merchant Marine during World War II, Ellison acted further on Wright’s encouragement and began to write what would become Invisible Man. The work took from 1945 to 1952, a seven-year stretch that would foreshadow Ellison’s difficulties in finishing future projects.

3. IT STARTED WITH JUST ONE LINE.

Although they shared similar experiences, Ellison has warned that the protagonist of Invisible Man is not a stand-in for the author. The novel began when Ellison was home from the war and visiting a friend in Vermont. Ellison recalled that he typed “I am an invisible man” almost spontaneously, without having any additional idea of where he was going or what the sentence meant.

4. THE FIRST CHAPTER WAS PUBLISHED YEARS EARLIER.

While still toiling on the complete novel, Ellison published the first chapter in Horizon magazine in 1947. The emotionally-charged nature of the scene—Ellison writes of black students forced to box blindfolded for the amusement of white spectators—led the literary community to brace for a potent novel by Ellison, even though he was first-time author.

5. HE WAS HIGHLY CRITICAL OF HIS ACCOMPLISHMENT.

Invisible Man was an instant success, spending 16 weeks on bestseller lists and hailed by critics as one of the most impressive novels of the century. But in accepting his National Book Award in 1953, Ellison referred to the book as an “attempt” at a great novel.

6. THE FBI KEPT A FILE ON HIM.

Ellison's considerable success in articulating the civil rights climate of the mid-20th century, and his tangential relationship to the Communist Party, prompted J. Edgar Hoover’s infamously paranoia-fueled FBI to keep a close watch on the author. The bureau amassed more than 1400 pages of information about his political and professional activities. Agents were even able to preview Invisible Man prior to publication thanks to informers in the publishing industry.

7. THE BOOK WASN’T INTENDED TO BE ONLY ABOUT DISCRIMINATION IN AMERICA.

Although Invisible Man has been heralded as a definitive exploration of how people of color are minimized in America, Ellison said that that is only one interpretation of the book—another is that it’s a parable about integration. “When I was a kid, I read the English novels. I read Russian translations and so on,” he said in 1983. “And always, I was the hero. I identified with the hero. Literature is integrated. And I'm not just talking about color, race. I'm talking about the power of literature to make us recognize again and again the wholeness of the human experience."

8. QUINCY JONES WANTED TO PRODUCE A FILM VERSION.

Like Catcher in the Rye, Invisible Man has never been translated into film or television. Music producer Quincy Jones once inquired about the rights, but nothing materialized: Ellison thought no film could capture what he had in the novel. It wasn’t until 2012 that Ellison’s estate allowed a stage production in Boston and Washington to be mounted, providing no new dialogue was added.

9. HE DEVELOPED SERIOUS WRITER’S BLOCK.

Invisible Man took years to finish, but it eventually saw the light of day. In the following four decades, Ellison would try and fail to complete a second, ambitious novel about a white child raised by a black minister. Theories abound as to why Ellison could never seem to complete the work, from a 1965 fire that destroyed a portion of the manuscript to his anxiety over how it would be received. After Ellison’s death in 1994, the novel appeared posthumously under the title Juneteenth.

10. IT WAS BANNED IN NORTH CAROLINA SCHOOLS IN 2013.

Following a complaint lodged by a parent that objected to the book’s language and content as being unsuitable for 11th graders, Invisible Man was pulled from the Randolph County school district libraries in North Carolina in 2013. The board that had voted in favor of the ban quickly reversed course after a local and national protest, with one bookstore handing out free copies to area students.

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7 Pieces of Reading Advice From History’s Greatest Minds

When it came to books, Albert Einstein subscribed to the "oldie but goodie" mentality. He wasn't the only one.
When it came to books, Albert Einstein subscribed to the "oldie but goodie" mentality. He wasn't the only one.
Lucien Aigner/Three Lions/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

If there’s one thing that unites philosophers, writers, politicians, and scientists across time and distance, it’s the belief that reading can broaden your worldview and strengthen your intellect better than just about any other activity. When it comes to choosing what to read and how to go about it, however, opinions start to diverge. From Virginia Woolf’s affinity for wandering secondhand bookstores to Theodore Roosevelt’s rejection of a definitive “best books” list, here are seven pieces of reading advice to help you build an impressive to-be-read (TBR) pile.

1. Read books from eras past // Albert Einstein

albert einstein at home circa 1925
Albert Einstein poses at home in 1925 with a mix of old and new books.
General Photographic Agency/Getty Images

Keeping up with current events and the latest buzz-worthy book from the bestseller list is no small feat, but Albert Einstein thought it was vital to leave some room for older works, too. Otherwise, you’d be “completely dependent on the prejudices and fashions of [your] times,” he wrote in a 1952 journal article [PDF].

“Somebody who reads only newspapers and at best books of contemporary authors looks to me like an extremely near-sighted person who scorns eyeglasses,” he wrote.

2. Don’t jump too quickly from book to book // Seneca

seneca the younger
Seneca the Younger, ready to turn that unwavering gaze on a new book.
The Print Collector via Getty Images

Seneca the Younger, a first-century Roman Stoic philosopher and trusted advisor of Emperor Nero, believed that reading too wide a variety in too short a time would keep the teachings from leaving a lasting impression on you. “You must linger among a limited number of master thinkers, and digest their works, if you would derive ideas which shall win firm hold in your mind,” he wrote in a letter to Roman writer Lucilius.

If you’re wishing there were a good metaphor to illustrate this concept, take your pick from these gems, courtesy of Seneca himself:

“Food does no good and is not assimilated into the body if it leaves the stomach as soon as it is eaten; nothing hinders a cure so much as frequent change of medicine; no wound will heal when one salve is tried after another; a plant which is often moved can never grow strong. There is nothing so efficacious that it can be helpful while it is being shifted about. And in reading of many books is distraction.”

3. Shop at secondhand bookstores // Virginia Woolf

virginia woolf
Virginia Woolf wishing she were in a bookstore.
Culture Club/Getty Images

In her essay “Street Haunting,” Virginia Woolf described the merits of shopping in secondhand bookstores, where the works “have come together in vast flocks of variegated feather, and have a charm which the domesticated volumes of the library lack.”

According to Woolf, browsing through used books gives you the chance to stumble upon something that wouldn’t have risen to the attention of librarians and booksellers, who are often much more selective in curating their collections than secondhand bookstore owners. To give us an example, she imagined coming across the shabby, self-published account of “a man who set out on horseback over a hundred years ago to explore the woollen market in the Midlands and Wales; an unknown traveller, who stayed at inns, drank his pint, noted pretty girls and serious customs, wrote it all down stiffly, laboriously for sheer love of it.”

“In this random miscellaneous company,” she wrote, “we may rub against some complete stranger who will, with luck, turn into the best friend we have in the world.”

4. You can skip outdated scientific works, but not old literature // Edward Bulwer-Lytton

edward bulwer-lytton
An 1831 portrait of Edward Bulwer-Lytton, smug at the thought of people reading his novels for centuries to come.
The Print Collector/Getty Images

Though his novels were immensely popular during his lifetime, 19th-century British novelist and Parliamentarian Edward Bulwer-Lytton is now mainly known for coining the phrase It was a dark and stormy night, the opening line of his 1830 novel Paul Clifford. It’s a little ironic that Bulwer-Lytton’s books aren’t very widely read today, because he himself was a firm believer in the value of reading old literature.

“In science, read, by preference, the newest works; in literature, the oldest,” he wrote in his 1863 essay collection, Caxtoniana. “The classic literature is always modern. New books revive and redecorate old ideas; old books suggest and invigorate new ideas.”

To Bulwer-Lytton, fiction couldn't ever be obsolete, because it contained timeless themes about human nature and society that came back around in contemporary works; in other words, you can’t disprove fiction. You can, however, disprove scientific theories, so Bulwer-Lytton thought it best to stick to the latest works in that field. (That said, since scientists use previous studies to inform their work, you can still learn a ton about certain schools of thought by delving into debunked ideas—plus, it’s often really entertaining to see what people used to believe.) 

5. Check out authors’ reading lists for book recommendations // Mortimer J. Adler

mortimer j. adler in 1983
Mortimer J. Adler in 1983, happy to read the favorite works of his favorite authors.
George Rose/Getty Images

In his 1940 guide How to Read a Book, American philosopher Mortimer J. Adler talked about the importance of choosing books that other authors consider worth reading. “The great authors were great readers,” he explained, “and one way to understand them is to read the books they read.”

Adler went on to clarify that this would probably matter most in the philosophy field, “because philosophers are great readers of each other,” and it’s easier to grasp a concept if you also know what inspired it. While you don’t necessarily have to read everything a novelist has read in order to fully understand their own work, it’s still a good way to get quality book recommendations from a trusted source. If your favorite author mentions a certain novel that really made an impression on them, there’s a pretty good chance you’d enjoy it, too.

6. Reading so-called guilty pleasures is better than reading nothing // Mary Wollstonecraft

mary wollstonecraft in 1797
Mary Wollstonecraft in 1797, apparently demonstrating that a book with blank pages is worth even less than a novel.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

To the 18th-century writer, philosopher, and early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, just about all novels fell into the category of “guilty pleasures” (though she didn’t call them that). In A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, she disparaged the “stupid novelists, who, knowing little of human nature, work up stale tales, and describe meretricious scenes, all retailed in a sentimental jargon, which equally tend to corrupt the taste and draw the heart aside from its daily duties.”

If her judgment seems unnecessarily harsh, it’s probably because it’s taken out of its historical context. Wollstonecraft definitely wasn’t the only one who considered novels to be low-quality reading material compared to works of history and philosophy, and she was also indirectly criticizing society for preventing women from seeking more intellectual pursuits. If 21st-century women were confined to watching unrealistic, highly edited dating shows and frowned upon for trying to see 2019’s Parasite or the latest Ken Burns documentary, we might sound a little bitter, too.

Regardless, Wollstonecraft still admitted that even guilty pleasures can help expand your worldview. “Any kind of reading I think better than leaving a blank still a blank, because the mind must receive a degree of enlargement, and obtain a little strength by a slight exertion of its thinking powers,” she wrote. In other words, go forth and enjoy your beach read.

7. You get to make the final decision on how, what, and when to read // Theodore Roosevelt

theodore roosevelt in office in 1905
Theodore Roosevelt pauses for a quick photo before getting back to his book in 1905.
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division // No Known Restrictions on Publication

Theodore Roosevelt might have lived his own life in an exceptionally regimented fashion, but his outlook on reading was surprisingly free-spirited. Apart from being a staunch proponent of finding at least a few minutes to read every single day—and starting young—he thought that most of the details should be left up to the individual.

“The reader, the booklover, must meet his own needs without paying too much attention to what his neighbors say those needs should be,” he wrote in his autobiography, and rejected the idea that there’s a definitive “best books” list that everyone should abide by. Instead, Roosevelt recommended choosing books on subjects that interest you and letting your mood guide you to your next great read. He also wasn’t one to roll his eyes at a happy ending, explaining that “there are enough horror and grimness and sordid squalor in real life with which an active man has to grapple.”

In short, Roosevelt would probably advise you to see what Seneca, Albert Einstein, Mary Wollstonecraft, and other great minds had to say about reading, and then make your own decisions in the end.