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.