Ralph Ellison: Invisible Man
96 Berry Street
Brooklyn, NY 11249
Resting on the fault line between art and politics, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man makes the powerful claim that black modernism and the African-American experience are central to the American narrative. For Ellison, the plight of his narrator, “both black and American,” was emblematic of major and persisting paradoxes in American society. Yet the questions it raises about race and the constraints it places on American class politics and culture remain unresolved today. How did Ellison conceive of the cosmopolitan aspirations of modernism, with its promise of liberation, for black artists bedeviled by race? What were the cultural paradoxes he identified, and how do they still ring out in contemporary struggles—from the debates over symbolic protest in sports and entertainment to problems of literary representation and cultural practices of institutionalized racism?
In this course, we’ll grapple with the questions as we read Invisible Man in its entirety. As we read, we’ll consider key contexts, including Ellison’s intellectual and aesthetic development and the political climate of 1930s Harlem, against which the novel is set. What was Ellison’s experience with the Communist Party and how might that experience have influenced his depiction of conflicts over race in American labor politics? How does the novel situate Harlem, then regarded as the capital of Black America, within the larger history of the Jim Crow South and the Great Migration? How should we understand Ellison’s self-conscious placement of his novel in the emerging canon of American literature that included Moby-Dick and Huckleberry Finn? And what is its relationship to the formal experiments of high modernism and jazz? In answering these questions, the course will draw on Ellison’s dialogues with leading modernist figures such as T.S. Eliot and Kenneth Burke, as well as political and cultural contemporaries in Harlem, including Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston, and Thelonious Monk. We’ll also consider the question of a black modernist subject through the prism of bebop—of which Ellison was an early, avid proponent—and critical writing on jazz
Course ScheduleMonday, 6:30-9:30PM
March 02 — March 23, 2020