Ralph Ellison’s book The Invisible Man won the 1953 National Book Award for Fiction because it expertly dealt with issues of black nationalism, Marxism and identity in the twentieth century. Considered to be too expert in its ruminations for some high schools, the book was banned from high school reading lists and schools in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Washington state.
It addresses many of the social and intellectual issues facing African-Americans early in the twentieth century, including the reformist racial policies of Booker T. Washington, as well as issues of individuality and personal identity.
In his introduction to the 30th Anniversary Edition, Ellison states that he started writing what would eventually become Invisible Man in a barn in Waitsfield, Vermont in the summer of 1945 while on sick leave from the Merchant Marine. The letters he wrote to fellow novelist Richard Wright as he started working on the novel provide evidence for its political context: the disillusion with the Communist Party that he and Wright shared. In a letter to Wright August 18, 1945, Ellison poured out his anger toward party leaders for betraying African Americans and Marxist class politics during the war years.
“If they want to play ball with the bourgeoisie they needn’t think they can get away with it…. Maybe we can’t smash the atom, but we can, with a few well chosen, well written words, smash all that crummy filth to hell.” In the wake of this disillusion, Ellison began writing Invisible Man, a novel that was, in part, his response to the party’s betrayal.
The book took five years to complete with one year off for what Ellison termed an “ill-conceived short novel.” Invisible Man was published as a whole in 1952.
In his speech accepting the 1953 National Book Award, Ellison said that he considered the novel’s chief significance to be its experimental attitude. Rejecting the idea of social protest, he did not want to write another protest novel, and also seeing the highly regarded styles of Naturalism and Realism too limiting to speak to the broader issues of race and America, Ellison created an open style, one that did not restrict his ideas to a movement but was more free-flowing in its delivery. What Ellison finally settled on was a style based heavily upon modern symbolism..
Ellison always believed that he would be a musician first and a writer second, and yet even so he had acknowledged that writing provided him a “growing satisfaction.” It was a “covert process,” according to Ellison: “a refusal of his right hand to let his left hand know what it was doing.”
The narrator in the book begins telling his story with the claim that he is an “invisible man.” His invisibility, he says, is not a physical condition—he is not literally invisible—but is rather the result of the refusal of others to see him. He says that because of his invisibility, he has been hiding from the world, living underground and stealing electricity from the Monopolated Light & Power Company. He burns 1,369 light bulbs simultaneously and listens to Louis Armstrong’s “(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue” on a phonograph. He says that he has gone underground in order to write the story of his life and invisibility.
The story is told from the narrator’s present, looking back into his past. Thus, the narrator has hindsight in how his story is told, as he is already aware of the outcome.