Tracking the Invisible Man

A Walk Through Ralph Ellison's New York

Ellison himself later hinted at the impact of all those interviews when he wrote that Invisible Man's narrator edged out another attempt at a novel, about a Tuskegee flyer. That got sidetracked by a voice that entered his head uninvited, "a blues-toned laugher-at-wounds." Ellison's musicality, having listened to all those Harlem voices, internalized them.

I turn left on 150th. On the front steps of an apartment building there one summer afternoon in 1939, Ellison spoke with a young drummer disgusted with the hypocrisy of whites who asked him to escort them around hip Harlem but who would never think of inviting him to their neighborhoods in the Bronx. ("Jack, I'm just sitting back waiting," the man said. "Hitler's gonna reach in a few months and grab and then things'll start. All the white folks'll be killing off one another. And I hope they do a good job!") In that same building Ellison lived with his first wife Rose and made a stab at a novel he called Slick. I pause before the building's glass doors, recalling his daily work on the manuscript despite loud conversations outside his first-floor window, the soprano practicing upstairs, the uncertainty of publishers. Ellison wrote slowly, revised, probably overanalyzed. Langston Hughes joked about his mounting gravity and his eternal novel. And in the seven years of composing Invisible Man, Ellison saw the world change. He already felt a new generation of black writers, including James Baldwin and Chester Himes, breathing down his neck. He revised again, paring out the most overt radicalism from his earlier days.

Reading Invisible Man now, it's hard to appreciate the leap the novel represented for an American fiction, like going from acoustic folk to B.B. King's Lucille. (Electric guitar sounds nearly concluded the book: Some drafts end with the narrator opening a storefront church filled with electric guitars, records and a p.a. system.) Ellison was old enough to have known former slaves, but young enough to consider himself an avatar of a new age. He was at home with technology and Einsteinian physics; his models were Malraux, Hemingway, and Kafka; he designed stereo equipment and built amplifiers for extra cash. He felt the Kafkaesque surrealism of racism intensely. (One of the most bizarre episodes occurred among friends. Jackson recounts that the Ellisons' group on Long Island referred to Ralph and Fanny as "Spaniards" for a week in order to shield the sensibilities of a young white girl visiting from the South.) With Wright, Ellison shaped a radical rage in response, but unlike him, and more like Zora Neale Hurston, he recognized the redemptive power of folklore and art.

I cross upper Broadway at 155th Street, where cobblestones sweep downhill to Riverside Drive. The late sunlight slants over the Hudson's night blue and Trinity Cemetery, where Ellison is buried. A sign at the gate urges me to check in at the office, but as I reach the entrance a maintenance pickup emerges. The driver is gracious but firm. Yes, he said, Ellison is in the stone mausoleum beyond. But my visit will have to wait for another day.

"We'll show you when you come back," he says. "We're closing up."

What is the Invisible Man's journey but a series of thwarted destinations? The evening sunlight strikes the top of the building across the street, and highlights an epigraph carved into the capitals: ALL ARTS ARE ONE ALL BRANCHES ON ONE TREE.

It turns out that the building houses the American Academy of Arts and Letters, which inducted Ellison in 1964. ALL PASSES, the inscription continues on the other side. ART ALONE UNTIRING STAYS TO US.

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