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I know why I read fiction, but the words of Ralph Ellison in his introduction to Invisible Man were so utterly perfect that I want to share them.
Here it would seem that the interests of art and democracy converge, the development of conscious, articulate citizens being indispensable…
By way of imposing meaning upon our disparate American experience the novelist seeks to create forms in which acts, scenes and characters speak for more than their immediate selves, and in this enterprise the very nature of language is on his side. For by a trick of fate (and our racial problems notwithstanding) the human imagination is integrative-and the same is true of the centrifugal force than inspires the democratic process.
And while fiction is but a form of symbolic action, a mere game of “as if,” therein lies its true function and its potential for effecting change.
So if the ideal of achieving a true political equality eludes us in reality-as it continues to do-there is still available that fictional vision of an ideal democracy in which the actual combines with the ideal and gives us representations of a state of things in which the highly placed and the lowly, the black and the white, the northerner and the southerner, the native-born and the immigrant are combined to tell us of transcendent truths and possibilities such as those discovered when Mark Twain set Huck and Jim afloat on the raft.
Which suggested to me that a novel could be fashioned as a raft of hope, perception and entertainment that might help keep us afloat as we tried to negotiate the snags and whirlpools that mark our nation’s vacillating course toward and away from the democratic ideal.
November 10, 1981
For years I have been meaning to re-read Invisible Man and I have mentioned that more than once here at Bookflurries. I could not find the book on my many shelves so I decided to buy another copy. With the new copy came a wonderful twenty-three page introduction by Ellison written in 1981. It was worth the price of the book alone.
Fiction stories can help us examine our own lives. They can make us stretch our minds. They can help us explore the world. They give us a “what if?” view of life.
Fiction stories can get “in our face” and challenge us. They can lift our spirits even when the story is tragic and inspire us to action. Fiction can have great depth. It is not all fluff. It is not lies as someone said to me once.
Authentic characters, careful settings, and vivid descriptions can teach us more than some non-fiction works. I have said before that a few paragraphs in a history book can leave us shrugging and sorry, but a fiction story that explores the same affair and shows us what happens as characters struggle to live through it can make us understand it better and go searching for answers to all kinds of important questions.
Anguish and beauty:
Invisible Man pgs. 109, 110
…and we moving not in the mood of worship but of judgment; as though even here in the filtering dusk, here beneath the deep indigo sky, here, alive with looping swifts and darting moths, here in the hereness of the night not yet lighted by the moon that looms blood-red behind the chapel like a fallen sun, its radiance shedding not upon the here-dusk of twittering bats, nor on the there-night of cricket and whippoorwill, but focused short-rayed upon our place of convergence; and we drifting forward with rigid motions, limbs stiff and voices now silent, as though on exhibit even in the dark, and the moon a white man’s bloodshot eye.
And I move more rigid than all the others with a sense of judgment; the vibrations of the chapel bells stirring the depths of my turmoil, moving toward its nexus with a sense of doom.
The vet from the Golden Door is also on the bus:
…They wouldn’t see you because they don’t expect you to know anything, since they believe they’ve taken care of that…
“Man, who’s this they you talking so much about?” said Cranshaw.
The vet looked annoyed. “They?” he said. “They? Why, the same they we always mean, the white folks, authority, the gods, fate circumstances-the force that pulls your strings until you refuse to be pulled any more. The big man who’s never there, where you think he is.”
What and how much had I lost by trying to do only what was expected of me instead of what I myself had wished to do? What a waste, what a senseless waste!
I have finished the book and it is as vital as the first time I read it. It is alive. It is a panther crouching and springing into the heart. I was a young woman in the 60’s. When I told my father that I would like to study biology and be a researcher he told me they would only let a woman wash the bottles. He meant it kindly.
I loved words and books and people so I became a teacher instead. After three years of teaching and gaining tenure, I moved with hubby to a new place and I was given an interview at a local school. The assistant principal showed me around the school and then he looked at me and said, “I would just get you trained and then you would get pregnant.” I didn’t get the job.
The first sentence of the book:
I am an invisible man.
The last sentences:
Being invisible and without substance, a disembodied voice, as it were, what else could I do? What else but try to tell you what was really happening when your eyes were looking through? And it is this which frightens me:
Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?
Yes, you do speak for me…thank you.
During World War II, Ellison joined the Merchant Marine, and in 1946 he married his second wife, Fanny McConnell. She worked as a photographer to help sustain Ellison. From 1947 to 1951 he earned some money writing book reviews, but spent most of his time working on Invisible Man. Fanny also helped type Ellison's longhand text and assisted her husband in editing the typescript as it progressed.
Published in 1952, Invisible Man explores the theme of man’s search for his identity and place in society, as seen from the perspective of an unnamed black man in the New York City of the 1930s. In contrast to his contemporaries such as Richard Wright and James Baldwin, Ellison created characters that are dispassionate, educated, articulate and self-aware. Through the protagonist, Ellison explores the contrasts between the Northern and Southern varieties of racism and their alienating effect. The narrator is "invisible" in a figurative sense, in that "people refuse to see" him, and also experiences a kind of dissociation. The novel, with its treatment of taboo issues such as incest, won the National Book Award in 1953.
...During the 1950s he corresponded with his lifelong friend, the writer Albert Murray. In their letters they commented on the development of their careers, the civil rights movement and other common interests including jazz. Much of this material was published in the collection Trading Twelves (2000).
(In 1965) ...a survey of 200 prominent literary figures was released that proclaimed Invisible Man the most important novel since World War II...
Writing essays about both the black experience and his love for jazz music, Ellison continued to receive major awards for his work. In 1969 he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom; the following year, he was made a Chevalier of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by France and became a permanent member of the faculty at New York University as the Albert Schweitzer Professor of Humanities, serving from 1970 to 1980.
In 1975, Ellison was elected to The American Academy of Arts and Letters and his hometown of Oklahoma City honored him with the dedication of the Ralph Waldo Ellison Library. Continuing to teach, Ellison published mostly essays, and in 1984, he received the New York City College's Langston Hughes Medal. In 1985, he was awarded the National Medal of Arts. In 1986, his Going to the Territory was published. This is a collection of seventeen essays that included insight into southern novelist William Faulkner and Ellison's friend Richard Wright, as well as the music of Duke Ellington and the contributions of African Americans to America’s national identity.
In 1992, Ellison was awarded a special achievement award from the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards. Ellison was also an accomplished sculptor, musician, photographer and college professor. He taught at Bard College, Rutgers University, the University of Chicago, and New York University. Ellison was also a charter member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers.
Others who have spoken to me or for me through fiction:
Sylvia Plath The Bell Jar
Joseph Heller Catch 22
Harper Lee To Kill a Mockingbird
John Steinbeck The Grapes of Wrath
Carson McCullers The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter
Betty Smith A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
John Irving A Prayer for Owen Meany
David Guterson Snow Falling on Cedars
Leo Tolstoy War and Peace
Marion Zimmer Bradley Mists of Avalon
George Eliot Middlemarch
Margaret Walker Jubilee
Tennessee Williams The Glass Menagerie
Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol
edit and add
Alan Paton Cry, the Beloved Country
Dylan Thomas “Fern Hill”
Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,
The night above the dingle starry,
Time let me hail and climb
Golden in the heydays of his eyes,
And honoured among wagons I was prince of the apple towns
And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves
Trail with daisies and barley
Down the rivers of the windfall light.
And as I was green and carefree, famous among the barns
About the happy yard and singing as the farm was home,
In the sun that is young once only,
Time let me play and be
Golden in the mercy of his means,
And green and golden I was huntsman and herdsman, the calves
Sang to my horn, the foxes on the hills barked clear and
And the sabbath rang slowly
In the pebbles of the holy streams.
All the sun long it was running, it was lovely, the hay
Fields high as the house, the tunes from the chimneys, it was
And playing, lovely and watery
And fire green as grass.
And nightly under the simple stars
As I rode to sleep the owls were bearing the farm away,
All the moon long I heard, blessed among stables, the
Flying with the ricks, and the horses
Flashing into the dark.
And then to awake, and the farm, like a wanderer white
With the dew, come back, the cock on his shoulder: it was all
Shining, it was Adam and maiden,
The sky gathered again
And the sun grew round that very day.
So it must have been after the birth of the simple light
In the first, spinning place, the spellbound horses walking
Out of the whinnying green stable
On to the fields of praise.
And honoured among foxes and pheasants by the gay house
Under the new made clouds and happy as the heart was long,
In the sun born over and over,
I ran my heedless ways,
My wishes raced through the house high hay
And nothing I cared, at my sky blue trades, that time allows
In all his tuneful turning so few and such morning songs
Before the children green and golden
Follow him out of grace.
Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would
Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand,
In the moon that is always rising,
Nor that riding to sleep
I should hear him fly with the high fields
And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.
Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea.
Who has spoken for you?
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