Ralph Ellison: Invisible Man
2113 Amsterdam Avenue
(at the corner of 165th Street)
New York, NY 10032
In 1945, Ralph Ellison began work on his epically ironic novel Invisible Man, primarily to make sense of his involvement with radical politics in Harlem over the previous decade. On the fault line between art and politics, Ellison’s book makes a powerful claim for African-American experience and black modernism at the center of the American narrative. Yet the questions it raises about race and the constraints it places on American class politics and aesthetic ideals remain unresolved today. As the American literary canon took shape in the early Cold War, Ellison argued for the plight of his narrator, “both black and American,” as emblematic of major, persistent paradoxes in American society. Why did Ellison view the cosmopolitan aspirations of modernism as both liberatory and, for black artists, bedeviled by race? What were those paradoxes and how do they ring out in contemporary struggles, from the debates over Confederate monuments to problems of literary representation and cultural practices of institutionalized racism?
This course will grapple with these questions by reading Invisible Man in its key contexts: Ellison’s intellectual biography and aesthetic development as well as the political climate of 1930s Harlem, when the narrative largely takes place. 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 picture of the Jim Crow South and the Great Migration? How should we understand Ellison’s self-conscious placement of his novel in the tradition of American epic that includes Melville’s Moby-Dick? And what is its relationship to the inventive forms of high modernism and jazz? In service of these questions about aesthetic, historical, political, and intellectual contexts, the course will draw on a selection of bebop recordings, the work of Adorno, dialogues with Ellison’s modernist interlocutors, and interchanges with contemporary writers and musicians, including Richard Wright, Robert Penn Warren, Kenneth Burke, Charlie Parker, and Thelonious Monk.
Course ScheduleSaturday, 2:00 - 5:00 pm
October 21 — November 11, 2017