2011: Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

Invisible Man“Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man is a monumental novel, one that can well be called an epic of modern American Negro life. It is a strange story, in which many extraordinary things happen, some of them shocking and brutal, some of them pitiful and touching — yet always with elements of comedy and irony and burlesque that appear in unexpected places. It is a book that has a great deal to say and which is destined to have a great deal said about it.”
— book jacket of 1952 edition



Ralph EllisonAbout the Book and the Author

(Unless otherwise indicated, articles link to the full text in Williams College Libraries electronic subscriptions. You must be on campus or using the Williams proxy server off-campus.)

National Book Award Classics: Ralph Ellison (from National Book Foundation web site)

National Book Award Acceptance Speeches: Ralph Ellison
(from National Book Foundation website)

Ralph Ellison: American Journey (PBS website; see also the full documentary in the Williams College Libraries collection.)

Ralph Ellison” in Concise Dictionary of Literary Biography

Ralph Ellison” in Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History

For additional biographies, search the library’s Biography in Context database.


Ralph Ellison, The Art of Fiction No. 8.” By Alfred Chester and Vilma Howard. Paris Review (Spring 1955): 53-55.  (from Paris Review website)

I’ll Be My Kind of Militant.” By Hollie I. West. Washington Post, August 19, 1973, G1.

Travels With Ralph Ellison Through Time and Thought.” By Hollie I. West. Washington Post, August 20, 1973, B1.

Growing Up Black In Frontier Oklahoma … From an Ellison Perspective.” By Hollie I. West. Washington Post, August 20, 1973, B1.

For additional interviews and profiles, see Conversations with Ralph Ellison edited by Maryemma Graham and Amritjit Singh in the Williams College Libraries collection.


Morris, Wright. “The World Below.” New York Times, April 13, 1952, BR5.

Black & Blue.” Time, April 14, 1952, 112. (from Time website)

Curtis, Constance. “A Strange Invisibility.” New York Amsterdam News, April 19, 1952, 9.

Martin, Gertrude. Review of Invisible Man. Chicago Defender, April 19, 1952, 11.

Mayberry, George. “Underground Notes.” New Republic, April 21, 1952, 19.

Howe, Irving. “A Negro in America.” Nation, May 10, 1952, 454.

Ottley, Roi. “Blazing Novel Relates A Negro’s Frustrations.” Chicago Tribune, May 11, 1952, I4.

West, Anthony. “Black Man’s Burden.” New Yorker, May 31, 1952, 93-96.

For additional book reviews, search the library’s Book Review Digest Retrospective database.

Schedule of Events

Wednesday, January 5, 12:00-1:15 p.m., Baxter Hall-Paresky
Kickoff event
Bring your lunch, participate in the community read, and get a free copy of the book.

Wednesday, January 12, 7:00 p.m., Brooks Rogers CANCELLED DUE TO WEATHER
(What Did I Do To Be So) Black and Blue: Jazz and Invisible Man
Jazz concert featuring Williams artists Freddie Bryant and Andy Jaffe

Tuesday, January 18, 7:00-9:00 p.m., Griffin 3 CANCELLED DUE TO WEATHER
Discussion of Invisible Man with President Adam Falk. The discussion will also be broadcast on WCFM.

Wednesday, January 19, 12:00-1:30 p.m., Schapiro Hall 129
Gaudino Lunch: Invisible Man in the Age of Obama with D. L. Smith

Wednesday, January 26, 12:00 noon
Faculty Luncheon for Staff
Discussion of the Williams Reads 2011 selection with Leslie Brown, Associate Professor of History, and Karen Swann, Professor of English.
RSVP to Noelle Lemoine (597-4277)

Thursday, January 27, 11:00-2:00, Rose Gallery, WCMA
Invisible Man at the Williams College Museum of Art
An exhibit of art and photographs that relate to the themes of the book Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. At noon, Dalila Scruggs and Leslie Brown with give a gallery talk, “Artists Read Invisible Man.” The gallery can accommodate only 20 persons at a time, so please come to see the exhibit throughout the 11-2 time period.

Library Exhibit Bibliographies

Historical, Social, and Cultural Contexts

Below is an annotated bibliography of selected library resources related to the historical, social, and cultural contexts for Invisible Man. Sources are arranged by broad topics.

Two sources were used extensively for the selection of materials and the annotations:

Rampersad, Arnold. Ralph Ellison: A Biography. 1st ed. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007.

Sundquist, Eric J., ed. Cultural Contexts for Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1995.

Folklore and Folk Music

Allen, William Francis, Charles Pickard Ware, and Lucy McKim Garrison. Slave Songs of the United States. Edited by Schlein, Irving. New York: Oak Publications, 1965.
Call #: M1671 .A5 1965

The Slave Songs were first collected in book form by Allen, Ware, and Garrison in 1867; piano accompaniments and guitar chords were added in this publication by Irving Schlein. The song “Many Thousands Go” in this collection is sung in Invisible Man by the crowd gathered for Tod Clifton’s funeral.

Hughes, Langston, and Arna Wendell Bontemps, eds. The Book of Negro Folklore. New York: Dodd Mead, 1958.
Call #: GR103 .H77

“Although animal folktales are common throughout the world, African American tales often contained negotiations of authority comparable to that between master and slave and rather explicit dimensions of political resistance…[A]ny number of animal tales might be relevant to Invisible Man, whose protagonist must find his way through a world of tricks, traps, exploitation, illusion, and outright antagonism” (Sundquist, Cultural Contexts for Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, 127).

The Great Migration

Adero, Malaika. Up South: Stories, Studies, and Letters of This Century’s Black Migrations. 1st ed. New York: New Press, 1993.
Call #: E185.6 .U8 1993

Dodson, Howard, and Sylviane A. Diouf, eds. In Motion: The African-American Migration Experience. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 2004.
Call #: E185 .D625 2004

Rutkoff, Peter M., and William B. Scott. Fly Away: The Great African American Cultural Migrations. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010.
Call #: E185.6 .R87 2010

Turner, Elizabeth Hutton, ed. Jacob Lawrence: The Migration Series. Washington, D.C.: Rappahannock Press in association with The Phillips Collection, 1993.
Call #: ND237.L29 J23 1993

Wright, Richard. 12 Million Black Voices. New York: Arno Press, 1969. Call #: E185.6.W7 1969

A work of non-fiction, 12 Million Black Voices (originally published in 1941) consists of text written by Richard Wright and over 100 photographs selected from the files of the Farm Security Administration. It depicts the changes in the lives of black people as they moved from the rural, agrarian South to the urbanized, industrial North in search of jobs and a better life.


Banks, Ann, ed. First-Person America. 1st ed. New York: Knopf, 1980.
Call #: E169 .F458

This book contains eighty narratives originally recorded by members of the Federal Writers’ Project, including several by Ralph Ellison. From Lloyd Green’s narrative, Ellison borrowed his repeated phrasing “I’m in New York, but New York ain’t in me” in dialog between Mary Rambo and the invisible man.

Capeci, Dominic J. The Harlem Riot of 1943. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1977.
Call #: F128.68.H3 C36

Ellison reported on the August 1943 riot in Harlem for the New York Post. The riot scene at the end of Invisible Man is likely based on his experiences in this riot.

Federal Writers Project. New York Panorama. New York: Random House, 1938. Call #: F128.5 .W7

A chapter on Harlem appears in this 1938 guidebook for New York City created by the Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration in New York City. Ellison joined the Federal Writers’ Project in 1938.

Ottley, Roi. New World a-Coming. New York: Arno Press, 1968.
Call #: F128.9.N4 O74 1968

This book about Harlem is based on material gathered by the Federal Writers’ Project, of which Ralph Ellison was a member. Ellison wrote a review of the book in the September 1943 issue of Tomorrow: The Magazine of the Future.

Jazz and Blues

Armstrong, Louis. Giants of Jazz: Louis Armstrong. Time-Life Records STL J01, 1978, 33⅓ rpm.
Call #: Phonorecord A G355 1 v.1

Louis Armstrong, both as a trumpeter and as a vocalist, exercised a profound influence on the development of jazz from the 1920s through the 1960s. At both the beginning and end of the novel, Ellison’s protagonist meditates on the way in which Armstrong’s music represents the deep social message of the blues as well as the centrality of improvisation in African American art and life” (Sundquist, Cultural Contexts for Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, 112). This recording includes “(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue.”

Christian, Charlie. The Genius of the Electric Guitar. Columbia CK 40846, 1987, compact disc.
Call #: CD C485 1

Ellison’s brother, Herbert, was in the same first grade class as jazz guitarist Charlie Christian. In Ellison’s jazz essay “The Charlie Christian Story” he wrote “With Christian the guitar found its jazz voice” (Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison, 272).

Ellington, Duke. Early Ellington: The Complete Brunswick and Vocalion Recordings of Duke Ellington, 1926-1931. Decca Jazz GRD-3-640, 1994, compact disc.
Call #: CD E55 15

Ellison first met Duke Ellington when he was a student at the Tuskegee Institute and later met him again in Harlem through his friend Langston Hughes. Ellison also wrote an essay for the Sunday Star (Washington) “Homage to Duke Ellington on His Birthday” on the occasion of Ellington’s 70th birthday, which was celebrated with a state dinner at the White House.

Murray, Albert. Stomping the Blues. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1976.
Call #: ML3561.B63 M9

Albert Murray was a friend of Ralph Ellison’s. They had met at the Tuskegee Institute when they were students and shared a love of jazz and blues music.
Social Conditions

Johnson, Charles Spurgeon. Shadow of the Plantation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979.
Call #: E185.93.A3 J6 1979

Originally published in 1934, this sociological study investigates rural black life in Macon County, Alabama, the area surrounding Tuskegee Institute. The living conditions would be similar to those Ellison portrays in the episode where the narrator takes Mr. Norton, the white college trustee, on a ride in the rural area near the fictional southern black college and meets sharecropper Jim Trueblood.

Myrdal, Gunnar. An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1944.
Call #: E185.6 .M8

In 1938 the Carnegie Corporation selected Swedish social economist Gunnar Myrdal to direct “a comprehensive study of the Negro in the United States, to be undertaken in a wholly objective and dispassionate way as a social phenomenon.” (letter quoted in author’s preface, ix) Part VII of the study, Social Inequality, provides background on the prevailing views on the topic during the time Ellison was writing Invisible Man.

It should be noted, however, that Ellison himself was highly critical of this study, writing to the editor of the Antioch Review that it was “a mess of loose ends and shallow thinking” (letter quoted in Arnold Rampersad, Ralph Ellison: A Biography, 181). While his review was not published at the time, it later appeared in Ellison’s collection of essays Shadow and Act (1964).

What to Read Next

What to Read Next was a course assignment for Vince Schleitwiler’s Fall 2010 English 220: Introduction to African American Writing. After reading Invisible Man, students identified another title they would like to read next and provided a justification for their selection. Below is the list of their choices and rationales and a selected bibliography of additional materials by and about Ellison in the library exhibit.

Student Recommendations

Chesnutt, Charles Waddell. The Quarry. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999.
Call #: PS1292.C6 Q37 1999

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison weaves a complex tale of racial uplift. In his quest to uplift the black race, the invisible man unknowingly passes from black to white, rendering him invisible. Ralph Ellison ultimately demonstrates that the modes in place for racial uplift, such as education and the “Brotherhood,” are constructed for the uplift of the whites, not blacks. The Quarry, by Charles Waddell Johnson, on the other hand, is a story where black uplift is possible. The protagonist, Donald Glover, is a light-skinned man raised by adoptive white parents who is abandoned once his black heritage is revealed. When presented with the opportunity to “pass” for white he, instead, embraces his heritage and commits himself to the uplift of his black race.

— Aubree Stephens ’12

Gaines, Ernest J. A Lesson before Dying. New York: Knopf, 1993.
Call #: PS3557.A355 L47 1993

A black man, Jeffries, is sentenced to death for a crime he didn’t commit in mid-twentieth century Louisiana.  His defense lawyer claimed he was innocent because he was no smarter than a stupid animal.  To ensure her grandson realize his worth as a man before he dies, Jeffries’ grandmother begs the only educated black man in town, Grant Wiggins, to teach the convict of his human value; the plot unfolds as the two characters search for their identities together.  If you enjoyed Invisible Man‘s theme of searching for identity and human worth in an institutionally racist society, then you should consider reading A Lesson Before Dying next.

— Jordan Mickens ’12

Hansberry, Lorraine. The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, a Drama in Three Acts. New York: Random House, 1965.
Call #: PS3515 .A515s

Lorraine Hansberry was a dramatist working in the 1960s in Harlem. In The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, she depicts a Village Jewish intellectual confronting his inability to engage in his politically charged atmosphere. She consciously avoids addressing “black issues” through the “emotional protest against black social conditions.” Ellison addresses a similar hypocrisy in Invisible Man in his narrator’s involvement with the Brotherhood. Like Ellison, Hansberry develops black and white characters without pitting them directly against each other; both are simultaneously victims and oppressors. She addresses themes in opposition, many of which the Invisible Man struggles with: cynicism, idealism, ambition and humility. Where Ellison is free to embroil his narrator and reader in moral ambiguity, uncertainty, and frustration, Hansberry is constricted to the stage, working within the audience’s limited ability to “read between the lines.” The reader can return to the themes of Invisible Man with the insight and clarity conveyed onstage.

— Kendall Follert ’13

Himes, Chester B. Cotton Comes to Harlem. Chatham, NJ: Chatham Bookseller, 1975.
Call #: PS3515 .I73co

Cotton Comes to Harlem seems to grab the reader from the very get-go. The suspenseful shootouts, the run-ins with various different women, and the flavorful dialogue are enough to keep any reader thoroughly entertained. If you’re a fan of Shaft, or any other ‘bad mama-jammas,’ this book comes highly recommended.

— Isaac Nicholson ’11

Jones, Gayl. Corregidora. 1st ed. New York: Random House, 1975.
Call #: PS3519 .O365c

The Invisible Man is a novel about identity and self-discovery from the point of view of a young Black man in the 1920s. Though a great novel documenting one man’s journey navigating race, its ambiguity, however, disconnects the reader from his personal journey. Corregidora, a novel by Gayl Jones, is a painful and intense dramatization of young Black girl’s passage into womanhood and the obstacles that stood in her way. The main character, Ursa Corregidora, is a direct descendent of slave women who were used by their master, Corregidora, as prostitutes. Her life has been shaped by their pain and she struggles to find her own path in spite of this dreadful past. Corregidora is a difficult read but, you will not want to put it down. Jones takes the reader out of their comfort zone and places them in the midst of real life agony. I strongly recommend you step outside of the norm and experience a novel like none other.

— Quaneece Calhoun ’11

Kingston, Maxine Hong. The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood among Ghosts. New York: Knopf, 1976.
Call #: CT275.K5764 A33 1976

After my experience reading Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, I am anticipating reading The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston.  The most intriguing facets of Invisible Man were, to me, the effects of the characters heritage on his circumstances and the struggle to discover an individual identity in an oppressive culture or, at the very least, in a society in which the protagonist is unwelcome.  The Woman Warrior extrapolates these themes of Invisible Man and applies them to an Asian American female.  Kingston’s tales, which she initially intended as fiction but were marketed as nonfiction, are the stories of a young Asian American girl and her relationship with her Asian heritage and her American present.  Kingston’s short pieces relate familial lore as well as tales of Americanization.  These themes mirror Ellison’s focus on inheritance and self-identity in a foreign environment, and, because Kingston also tackles these issues from an entirely different perspective, The Woman Warrior would be an ideal accompaniment to Invisible Man.

— Thomas Nelson ’11

Morrison, Toni. The Bluest Eye. New York: Penguin Books, 1970.
Call #: PS3563.O8749 B58 2000

Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man is a book that portrays a nameless black man’s search for identity within a racist white world. While I loved this book for its message of individuality and transcending social norms in order to gain a sense of self, I am curious to know the black woman’s sense of self in a racist world. Toni Morrison, an African American woman born in 1931 and the first black woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature, writes eloquently on the African American woman’s experience in America. Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye tells the story of a young black girl, Pecola Breedlove, who experiences the most tragic aspects of black life with regards to poverty, incest, and discrimination from both black and white characters. As a black girl raped and impregnated by her father and systematically ridiculed for her black skin and ugly black features, she becomes a symbol of fear from her community on the black person’s status in America. Morrison’s protagonist highlights her experience as a dehumanized black girl in a culture where blond hair and blue eyes become the only symbol for beauty. The protagonist is forced to reject her own black culture and strives to be as white as possible, for white beauty was a symbol of virtue. This novel speaks to the internalized racism a young black female experiences in Jim Crow America and how that comes to shape her sense of self.

— Ashley Parsons ’11

Petry, Ann. The Street. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1946.
Call #: PS3531 .E93s

Unhappy with Invisible Man‘s lack of any significant female characters?  In The Street, Ann Petry offers up a powerful story detailing the life and struggles of an African American woman in an urban setting.  Lutie Johnson enters Harlem filled with American ideals, believing in an individual’s ability to rise up and achieve a better life.  She leaves the city a broken woman. In this visionary book, Petry reveals that, for women, oppression in the city is a combined result of racism, sexism and economic hardship.  Prepare for a story that will make brutally aware the extra challenges facing African American women in Harlem, challenges that the Invisible Man fails to address at all.

— Elizabeth Cornett ’14

The Street was Petry’s first novel written in 1946. Set in the 1940s, it relates the story of a single mother, Lutie Johnson, who left her husband after an affair. She is then left to raise her son alone in Harlem facing violence, poverty, and questions about race. The Street deals with sexuality, how sexuality affects a woman and how she forms her own identity. Petry deals with the life of an African American, but goes beyond the issue of race and connects multiple races by addressing the issue of the single parent households and how this can affect a woman and child. The Street is a beautifully written, 400 paged story that is definitely worth the time to read.

— Michelle Wise ’13

Toomer, Jean. Cane. New York: University Place Press, 1967.
Call #: PS3539 .O44c

Throughout my reading of Invisible Man I was intrigued by the somewhat surreal nature of events that occur around the nameless narrator: figures of speech often became literal, and situations escalated to violence within absurdly short amounts of time.  I later learned of Ellison’s reputation as an experimental author with this novel. Similarly, Jean Toomer’s classic Cane is recognized for its offsetting experimental content, comprising of a collection of poetry, prose, and drama that focuses on the heritage and life of African Americans in the United States.  If you enjoyed the experimental and modernist narration of Invisible Man and want to read another, similar migration narrative, take a look at Cane by Jean Toomer, and brace your artistic self.

— Keelia Willison ’14

Whitehead, Colson. The Intuitionist. New York: Doubleday, 1999.
Call #: PS3573.H4768 I58 1999

I chose this book because from what I have read about it so far, it contains elements similar to those I enjoyed most in Invisible Man. Just like Liberty Optic White paint in Invisible Man is a metaphor about racism in America, elevators serve as a metaphor for racial uplift in The Intuitionist. I liked that Ellison was able to turn something as mundane as paint color into a commentary on racial struggle, and am looking forward to find out how Whitehead manipulates elevator inspection to accomplish the same thing. This book also falls within the category of “speculative fiction”; I really enjoyed the surreal aspects of Invisible Man and am glad that this book will probably be just as crazy. Ellison was able to mold his book into such a multilayered perspective on race because he did not confine his characters to realistic situations. I want to see how Whitehead takes advantage of this genre and presents a mere disagreement over elevators as something deeper.

— Paisley Kang ’12

Materials by and about Ellison

Ellison, Ralph. The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison. Edited by John F. Callahan. New York: Modern Library, 1995.
Call #: PS3555.L625 A6 1995

Ellison, Ralph. Juneteenth: A Novel. Edited by John F. Callahan. 1st ed. New York: Random House, 1999.
Call #: PS3555.L625 J86 1999

Ellison, Ralph. Living with Music: Ralph Ellison’s Jazz Writings. Edited by Robert G. O’Meally. New York: Modern Library, 2001. Call #: ML3507 .E45 2001

Ellison, Ralph. Shadow and Act. New York: Random House, 1964.
Call #: PS153.N4 E5

Ellison, Ralph. Three Days before the Shooting. Edited by John F. Callahan and Adam Bradley. 1st. ed. New York: Modern Library, 2010.
Call #: PS3555.L625 T57 2010

Graham, Maryemma, and Amritjit Singh, eds. Conversations with Ralph Ellison. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1995.
Call #: PS3555.L625 Z464 1995

Jackson, Lawrence Patrick. Ralph Ellison: Emergence of Genius. New York: Wiley, 2002.
Call #: PS3555.L625 Z74 2002

Ralph Ellison: An American Journey. Directed by Avon Kirkland. San Francisco, CA: California Newsreel, 2004.
Call #: DVD PS3555.L625 Z87235 2004

Rampersad, Arnold. Ralph Ellison: A Biography. 1st ed. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007.
Call #: PS3555.L625 Z8725 2007

Note: for literary criticism, search FRANCIS for subject Ellison, Ralph — Criticism and Interpretation.