Konstantina M. Karageorgos. "Deep Marxism: Richard Wright’s The Outsider
and the Making of a Postwar Aesthetic." Mediations Volume 28, No. 2 http://www.mediationsjournal.org/articles/deep-marxism
Deep Marxism: Richard Wright’s The Outsider
and the Making of a Postwar Aesthetic
Konstantina M. Karageorgos
The text contains its own gloss.1
Return of the Native Son?
In January 1955, less than two years after its American debut, the French translation of The Outsider was published. Translated as Le Transfuge (literally, The Defector) by the French Cubist painter Guy de Montlaur, the edition was prefaced by a new introduction written by Wright. Unexpected by a readership inured to the third-person foreword, the introduction’s opening, which forewent clarity for strangely calibrated sentences, did little to mediate its unconventional presence. Rather than offer readers pragmatic guidance on how to approach his long-anticipated second novel, Wright wrote at odd angles about its production.2 Clear that The Outsider was “the first” of his “literary efforts projected out of a heart with no ideological burdens,” Wright offered no positive terms to indicate what that freedom signified. In sentences where proper nouns are offered — such as the one in which Wright affirmed the novel as evidence of his “search for a new attitude to replace Marxism” — the rhematic emphasis on “search” nullified thematic expectations associated with the many faces of “Marxism” in circulation during the Cold War. By Wright’s rhetorical calculation, Marxism was no longer the proper name for an ideology, theory of political economy, or philosophy of dialectical and/or historical materialism, but a degenerated affective state that resulted, one was left to presume, from the vagaries of contemporary political appropriations. Leaving the reader at the threshold of interpretation, Wright exits the subject of Marxism and ideology to conclude with a perfunctory acknowledgment of his “much improved” writing conditions in Paris. Though it is not without illocutionary force, Wright’s introduction was compromised by a lopsided semantics of contradiction in which meaning never ran downstream.
No stranger to “the Henry James style−Preface,” Wright’s introduction to The Outsider signaled a radical departure from his previous explanatory style.3 Whereas his prior efforts, which included the famous corrective “How Bigger Was Born” (1940) and the photo text 12 Million Black Voices (1941), published a year later as an additional though lesser-known supplement to Native Son, were designed to eliminate confusion about the social and political value of his work, his most recent iteration seemed to court the inverse reaction. What could such a strategy mean for an author once so desperate to lift the “sociological fog”that obscured his critical message?4
While such indeterminacy has the potential to confirm the most troubling aspects of Wright’s postwar reputation — as an author suspended between cultures, political platforms, and philosophic schools — his elusive rhetoric was both strategic and instructive. Far from wishing to alienate the reader, Wright’s introduction functions as a primer to the critical form of The Outsider, which dialectically examines the limits of orthodox Marxism (or, Marx without Hegel) and Idealist ontology (or, Hegel without Marx) in the context of the twentieth century’s most pernicious ideological advent, that of totalitarianism.
As a political concept, totalitarianism evolved from a particular name for Mussolini’s doctrine of Italian fascism as “a new political style — everything within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state”to an appellation associated with nationalist socialism throughout Europe to, finally, the Cold War formulation that expanded the term to include Communist regimes.5 While Wright was working on The Outsider, the term was repurposed by major political theorists on the peripheries of the Left, including Hannah Arendt and J.L. Talmon in The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) and The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy (1952) respectively. Wright was in possession of both books, and although it is impossible to say with real precision the extent to which he engaged with either, his novel offers a critique of the theoretical foundations of both. Whereas Arendt’s staggering work of political philosophy insisted on the specific character of modern despotism in the twinned forms of Nazism and Stalinism, on “totalitarianism, not merely dictatorship,” Talmon’s Origins of Totalitarian Democracy saw the possibility for totalitarian practices to flourish in ostensibly free democracies, where nominally free citizens are stripped of any real power despite possessing highly coveted civil rights. If this form of governance, which Talmon identified as “totalitarian democracy,” appears to resonate with the Marxian indictment of liberalism, Talmon’s dread and invalidation of revolution disabuses us of the connection. Wright’s theorization of totalitarianism in The Outsider encompasses the flawed polarized logic in both. For Wright, totalitarianism was not a degeneration of Western democracy, but a symptom of it.
In order to show how, why, and to what end Wright examined (and exposed) the inner link between the ideological positions of demotic Marxism and Idealist ontology in the context of Cold War totalitarianism, the critique offered in The Outsider must be situated in the context of his evolving political and theoretical relationship to Marxism. Although The Outsider constitutes a radical shift in form, Wright’s impulse to thwart appropriative logic in the context of his personal relationship to Marxist thought is prefigured by and is an extension of an earlier rupture: his break, in both style and method, from the principles of proletarian literature in his formal and conceptual overhaul of Native Son’s final scene.6 Anxious that his ending, which had “Bigger going smack to the electric chair,”too closely resembled the narrative logic of Uncle Tom’s Children (1938), Wright turned to heterodox Marxist rhetorician Kenneth Burke, from whom he appropriated the idea of a poetic Marx.7 Wright took seriously Burke’s recommendation that committed writers discard propagandistic mandates for a more gestural ethic, and implemented Burke’s proposal in his ambitious but ultimately unsuccessful “poetic revision” of the novel’s final scene. While Wright’s revised conclusion had helped him to actualize his pledge to produce a story that left readers “without the consolation of tears,”his attempt to forge a dramatic method informed by Marx, but external to Party-sanctioned forms of schematization, fell short.8 The totalizing effect of Wright’s final scene was not enough to undo the narrative’s causal logic, which advanced a base-superstructure model of social understanding. Communism, rather than Marxism, emerged as the novel’s watchword.
Although Wright had intended for his appropriation of Burke’s Marxian “poetics of action” to reflect the structural nuance of his own position between Marxisms, this critical distinction was lost on his readers. Wright’s response to widespread critical misprision was twofold. Publicly, he directed his anger toward the liberal press. Exercising little self-control, Wright blasted liberal journalists, focusing the majority of his vitriol on David L. Cohn, whose negative review of Native Son, “The Negro Novel: Richard Wright,” confused the novel’s representation of violence with advocacy. Privately, Wright blamed himself. His segmented approach to Marxism, evidenced by his attempt to “weave”Marxism into his novel via seven “poetic motifs,” had done little to distinguish it from other forms of social protest.9 Wright’s characteristic sensitivity to reviews was thus compounded by the emergence of an inconvenient truth: his attempt to approximate Marxist critique in narrative form was weakened not only by the interpretive constraints of his readership, but by serious restrictions in his own understanding of Marx’s thought. Wright’s experience with Burke, whom he had trusted for his apparent sensitivity to race, and ultimately turned to for his heterodox interpretation of Marx, had clearly led him astray. At odds with both the Party and America’s first Marxist, Wright began to shift his focus away from Marxist appropriations in both literature and politics to the principal texts of Marx’s thought.10
An Outsider Emerges
To claim that Richard Wright became a Marxist in the midst of his fallout with the Communist Party is paradoxical, but for the self-styled artist and intellectual the paradox stands. In 1940, Wright began to assemble a Marxist library that exceeded his prior, Party-based focus on revolutionary strategy (Lenin) and the role of minorities in the revolution (Stalin).11 Aware that the truth in Marx’s thought lay in its method, Wright embarked on a six-year study of dialectics, in which he swapped Marxism’s “mass leaders” — William Z. Foster’s joint appellation for Lenin and Stalin — for Marx and Hegel. Wright’s first acquisition was Capital, Volume I (1867), which he purchased in New York just before he left for Cuernavaca, Mexico that April. In the subsequent months and years before his move to France, Wright acquired volumes II and III of Capital (posthumously published in 1885 and 1894, respectively), Marx’s and Engels’ The Civil War in the United States (1861), and Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848), and Hegel’s The Phenomenology of Mind (1910) and Science of Logic (1929). In addition to these primary texts, Wright obtained two supplementary aids for his reading of Hegel, William Wallace’s Prolegomena to the Study of Hegel’s Philosophy and Especially of His Logic (1894) and The Logic of Hegel (1892). Significantly, Wright did not trade the Scottish philosopher’s explanations of Hegel for Alexandre Kojève’s. Though the latter was the unqualified spearhead of the postwar Hegel revival on the Continent, leaving an indelible imprint on French intellectual culture in which Wright was soon to be immersed, his admiration for Stalin who had, according to Kojève, replaced Napoleon as the “culmination of the end of history” had, for Wright, trumped his philosophical dexterity.12
As was the case for his reading of Permanence and Change, non-fictional documentation of Wright’s impressions of the above texts is limited. Outside of a humorous story recorded in his 1946 essay “How Jim Crow Feels,” in which Wright is stopped by a Mexican guard who finds a copy of Capital in his luggage and assumes he is a Communist, specific details on this period (1940-46) in Wright’s Marxist evolution are sparse, obscured by more dramatic biographical aspects and events including his separation from the Party in 1942, official break in 1944, and move to France in 1946. Although these events affirmed nothing more than Wright’s autonomy from oppressive ideological institutions (i.e., the State and the Party), the combination of his political remove and distance from existing communities of dissident Marxists subjected Wright to a new and higher degree of cultural and political suspicion. It did not matter that Wright’s isolation was self-selected, nor that his decision to maintain independence from groups mired in a similar theoretical quandary, including two famous (and separate) clusters that included his friends Ralph Ellison and the West Indian Trotskyist C.L.R. James, was one of self-preservation and intellectual integrity. What did matter was that Wright’s independence seemed to take him further from those forms of oppression (i.e., the “Negro-hating South,” American bourgeois society, and the CPUSA) that had not only marked his work but “steeled his talent.”13 Phrased as an expression of concern, Constance Webb, more than likely speaking on behalf of her husband at the time, C.L.R. James, perhaps said it best when she expressed concern that Wright would “lose himself” in France among the existentialists, who “blamed the individual for the problems of society.”
Preliminary unease with Wright’s move(s) proved prophetic when The Outsider was finally published in the United States on March 16, 1953. White ex-Communists praised the novel for its political remove and considered it Wright’s perfectly timed exit from the race-based sociological novel and entry into the cosmopolitan novel of ideas, going so far as to cast it as a melodramatic cognate to Whittaker Chambers’s book Witness (1952).14 Those closer to Wright’s actual politics, including Communist playwright Lorraine Hansberry, the militant novelist and critic Lloyd Brown, and Left critic J. Saunders Redding eviscerated Wright for his generic and political departure.15 For Margaret Walker, Wright’s movement through Jung, Husserl, and Heidegger impedes his search to go beyond the “simple and immediate” to the “universal and profound.”16 Yet the cruelest, and consequently the most culturally deft review came not from an expected antagonist, but from longtime friend to Wright, distinguished writer and critic Arna Bontemps. Cutting to the quick, Bontemps leveled the novel’s political, formal, and philosophical tensions to pronounce the book as the prurient product of Wright’s “roll in the hay with the existentialism of Sartre.”17
Though few critics before and after were as pointedly crass in their characterization of the novel’s relationship to French thought, Bontemps’ trumped-up critique of Wright’s philosophical foray was prolonged by decades of critical confusion on the precise relationship of The Outsider to Continental philosophy. While critics no longer reduce the novel’s philosophical topoi to a simple (and sycophantic) relation between Wright and the postwar French intellectuals with whom he was associated, the process of identifying in order to assess Wright’s philosophical (and consequently, political) investments via The Outsider’s philosophical references remains compulsory, as if the novel’s intrinsic meaning and value as an historical artifact of the Cold War hinges on a lost allusion to one, or several, Continental philosophers referenced in the novel among Cross Damon’s reading. While this process has produced several brilliant essays that successfully disprove Wright’s intellectual acquiescence to Sartre, the critical disruption is only temporary — Sartre is deposed only to be replaced by another, this time German figure linked to both Wright’s postwar intellectual interests and Damon’s philosophical library.18 No longer Sartrean, Wright is assigned Damon’s philosophical stance and becomes Nietzschean (Thompson), Husserlian (Gilroy), and Heideggerian (Atteberry and JanMohamed). Marx, who is not listed in the novel among Damon’s reading and is, on all but one occasion,only mentioned in the context of Communist appropriations, is accordingly eliminated from critical consideration — emerging only to confirm that the novel’s residual representations of Marx serve as evidence of the “scar left by Wright’s years as a communist.”19
Without contesting the relevance of philosophical themes to The Outsider, I insist that the novel’s relationship to philosophy, and specifically the form of its representation, cannot be understood outside the impress of Wright’s Marxist education. Though frequently overshadowed by The Outsider’s twinned critique of Stalinism and Fascism — two evils symbolically killed off in the novel’s representation of the “double totalitarian murder”of Communist Gil Blount and Fascist Langley Herndon—Wright’s narrative offers a full-scale critique of totalitarian thought anticipating Slavoj Žižek rather than Hannah Arendt.20 For Wright, as for Žižek, totalitarianism was not the name of a diabolical political entity or coupling of diabolical political entities, but a metonym for unnameable, shape-shifting networks of power in which we are unendingly bound.21 Philosophy, frequently viewed from within its ranks as a discourse external to State-sponsored regimes of power, was for Wright (as for Marx) a part of this network.22 Social critique was necessarily immanent — that is, issued from within the contradictions of existing social relations; the notion of issuing a critique from outside the system was the realm of ideology. Though he does not, in The Outsider, go so far as to equate philosophy with oppressive political regimes, he does demonstrate — through his dramatization of Damon’s uncritical embrace of reified philosophical concepts, including Husserl’s phenomenological reduction, Nietzsche’s nihilism, and Kierkegaard’s critique of atheism or faithlessness — the extent to which philosophers act, mostly unconsciously, as functionaries of the State.
Early Days in France: Negotiating Hegel and Marx
When Wright began work on The Outsider in 1946, he was not yet versed in phenomenology, nor was he especially well read in French existentialism. He had, however, expressed interest in writing a novel that pursued a philosophical problem, that of consciousness, and was eager to advance his project on modern alienation in an intellectual culture that neither shrank from nor sentimentalized his independence from extant political or social groups.23 Wright describes this independence in his essay “I Choose Exile” (1950):
France is, above all, a land of refuge. Even when there is a shortage of food, Frenchmen will share their crusts of bread with strangers. Yet, nowhere do you see so much gaiety as in Paris, nowhere can you hear so much spirited talk. Each contemporary event is tasted, chewed, digested. There is no first-rate French novelist specializing in creating unreal, romantic historical novels! The present is to be understood and they find it exciting enough. “The problems of philosophy,” says Jean-Paul Sartre, “are to be found in the streets.” I have encountered among the French no social snobbery. The more individualistic a man is, the more acceptable he is. The spirit of the mob, whether intellectual, racial, or moral, is the very opposite of the spirit of French life. SOIT RAISONNABLE (be reasonable) is their motto.24
Although Wright had not yet secured the novel’s narrative structure, his newfound freedom from knee-jerk ideological judgment provided him with the necessary space to move between opposed philosophic modes, idealism and materialism, in search of a critical (rather than strictly political) position that embraced the individual even in its recognition of the individual as a socially constituted subject.
While the French intellectual embrace of Wright functioned as a key form of intellectual support and confidence to an embattled intellectual, his concept for the novel came not from French philosophy, but from by an unresolved tension in his reading of Marx and Hegel. A committed materialist who rejected as illusory the idealist notion of “pure thought,” and the understanding of consciousness as “an entity in possession of its own truth,”Wright remained critical of Marxism’s categorical rejection of consciousness as immaterial.25 For Wright, inquiry into the sundered consciousness was not a decadent, epiphenomenal concern fated to intensify social atomization, but a procedure necessary to any radical disruption of the existing social order. The elaboration of a revolutionary alternative to advanced capitalism required a revaluation of the individual outside the determinist concept of “human potential,” which maintained an interest in the capacities of man only insofar as those capacities were among those that benefited the collective.
Without challenging Marx’s definition of consciousness as a material concept that described an individual’s relation to his environment, Wright wished to expand the conceptual terrain of environmental degradation beyond its naturalist trappings. According to Wright, human wretchedness was insufficiently represented by rote descriptions of class warfare, which tended to overemphasize the visible conditions of catastrophic social phenomena (including poverty and racism) at the cost of the particular conditions of forms of ideological servitude. A 1948 letter to Dorothy Norman provides a record of Wright’s frustration with such positivist currents in Marxist thought:
The Right and Left, in different ways, have decided that man is a kind of animal whose needs can be met by making more and more articles for him to consume. If man is to be contained in that definition and if it is not to be challenged, then that is what will prevail; and a world will be built in which everybody will get enough to eat and full stomachs will be equated with contentment and freedom, and those who will say that they are not happy under such a regime will be guilty of treason. How sad that is. We are all accomplices in this crime.… Is it too late to say something to halt it, modify it?26
Wright found an answer, albeit a provisional and ultimately disappointing one, later that year in the Rassemblement Démocratique Révolutionnaire (henceforth, RDR), an anti-Stalinist organization led by former French Trotskyist David Rousset that pledged to “give new life to the principles of liberty and human dignity by linking them to the struggle for social revolution.”27 Though Wright was long disenchanted with what he referred to as “politics proper,”the 1948 Soviet blockade of Berlin, which carried the threat of a Third World War, softened his position.28 As additional encouragement, nearly everyone in Wright’s immediate social circle backed the organization.29
Wright’s public support of the RDR lasted approximately eleven months. Though he did not have an official position, his role in the organization approximated that of a cultural attaché. Wright educated the philosophical Left on the particular difficulties that African American dissidents experienced at home and abroad on at least three occasions, the first delivered at the RDR’s inaugural conference, “The Internationalism of the Mind,” held at the Sorbonne. Though there was much buzz around Wright’s involvement, his tenure as the organization’s African American ambassador was brief, ending when Rousset compromised the RDR’s position of non-alignment, of “neither Washington nor Moscow,” by lessening his previously unqualified condemnation of Western capitalism. Though Rousset never established clear ties to the U.S., his political stock dipped, and the organization disbanded within the year.
The dissolution of the RDR had unexpected consequences for Wright. Though habituated to political disappointment, Wright was unprepared for the sudden upsurge of political militancy among friends previously committed to positions of Left non-alignment. Albert Camus, whom Wright had admired for his strident independence in political and artistic pursuits, aligned himself more closely with staunch anti-Communists including Arthur Koestler, who by then had financial and ideological ties to the CIA. Sartre was even more disappointing. Unlike Camus, Sartre saw the RDR’s political openness as its chief weakness. Voluntarism would not, according to Sartre, foster a revolutionary movement but would, as evidenced by the RDR’s political precariousness, promote instability. Calling instead for definitive action supported by a stable political structure, Sartre began to voice support for the organizational principles of bolshevism. Though he remained ambivalent about the role of Stalin in the revolution — he opposed forced labor camps but unequivocally supported the Soviet invasion of Hungary — Sartre moved closer to Parti communiste franÇais (henceforth PCF), an organization with notoriously “backward prejudices” on race that had personally attacked Wright two years prior.30
Despite clear points of animus, there was never an official break between the two. Save for one occasion in 1953 when Wright characterized as “stupid” Sartre’s claim that “one could work with the Party while still criticizing it” in a New York Times article Wright remained mostly loyal to Sartre well after the latter’s full-blown Communist conversion.31 Wright publicly sided with Sartre over French intellectuals with whom he had much more in common, such as Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who had entered into full, public battle with Sartre over his uncritical “ultrabolshevism.”32 Continued sympathy for his friend notwithstanding, Wright emerged from the ordeal newly hardened against the French philosophical Left, and began to critically reexamine his place within it. Wright noted that although he thrived socially and intellectually in France, his critical capacities had languished under what he described as the “curated freedom” of the French.33 On one hand, he had witnessed an unparalleled and almost “mythical sense of intellectual freedom”among the French, who were not only undeterred by the persistent antagonism between the mind and materialism, but made the contradiction of consciousness and environment central to existentialist humanism.34 On the other, Wright remained suspicious of the ease with which French intellectuals transformed social struggles into episodic causes célèbres. Aspects of Sartre that Wright had initially found appealing, such as his “voluntary identification of the French experience” under occupation with the colonized people of the Africa, were now cast in a different light. Though he never went so far as to characterize Sartre’s position as co-optive, as he had with the Party, he increasingly came to see Sartre’s position as both privileged and illusory. In place of open enmity grew the seeds of critique.
Philosophy as a Discourse of Domination
Despite his increasing disillusionment with the micropolitics of postwar French intellectual culture, Wright was not yet prepared to reject in toto the transformative potential of ontological inquiry. Though he had moved beyond the existential humanism of Sartre, the allure of the phenomenological approach to modern philosophical questions, especially the problem of individual freedom in an imposed reality, persisted. Reminded, once again, that cultural proficiency did not constitute metacritical understanding, Wright redoubled his efforts and turned to the father of twentieth-century phenomenology, Edmund Husserl, for guidance.
Wright located his investigation of Husserlian phenomenology in Husserl’s Ideas towards a Pure Phenomenology and Phenomenological Philosophy (1913), the third installment in Husserl’s lifelong project to redeem philosophy as a science through the development of an unprejudiced description of the essential structures of subjective experience. Though Husserl’s philosophy was then considered the intellectual terrain of professional philosophers in whom Wright had little faith (including the French philosophical Left and Husserl’s most famous pupil, Martin Heidegger, who by 1949 was publicly judged a Mitläufer), Ideas was an expansive text at the cusp of process philosophy and social psychology, two areas of inquiry in which Wright had an abiding interest. Beyond Husserl’s potential contribution to already-existing intellectual interests, Wright considered the philosopher’s emphasis on the possibility for subjective experience, unfettered by the necessity of a collective synthesis, a welcome reprieve from the humanist worldview of the French Left which seemed to tolerate difference, including racial difference, as a provisional stage in the process of universalization.
Wright’s immersion in Husserl was intense but short lived. If Wright thought that he was, in Husserl’s Ideas, undertaking a more focused version of Henri Bergson’s Creative Evolution (1911), which he had read with great interest the year before, what he found was a long and frustrating exercise in speculative futility. Objectives and concepts that initially captivated Wright, including Husserl’s representation of the transcendental ego as an experiential domain, his promise to deliver a full, scientific account of consciousness on all of its “cognitive, volitional, affective levels,”and the possibility for the “mediating philosopher” to temporarily bracket imposed reality to experience weightlessness and astonishment (phenomenological reduction), were undone by Husserl’s historical relativism and utter lack of concern for the materiality of the body.35 Husserl’s claim that the “mediating philosopher” could stand apart from existing social and historical conditions was the epitome of ideology. Only ideologists, to paraphrase Marx from The German Ideology, could claim to stand beside their own class, and to produce ideas that existed beyond social practices. While other dissident Marxists also interested in the possibility for Husserl’s method to elaborate on the under-theorized notion of the utopic in Marx remained comfortable linking the phenomenological reduction or epoche to utopia in the context of a “purely mental experiment,”such as Paul Ricoeur, Wright could not abide a theory of perception that refused to take into consideration the concrete dynamics and logics of actually existing conditions of oppression, including the monumental and structural problem of racism, to experience the world anew.36 No thing-in-itself, the body under racism did not translate into a “bodymind” that could be returned to its “primordial giveness.”37 No matter how disciplined in his study of Husserl’s theories of the phenomenological and eidetic reductions, Wright’s body was not something he could theorize away.
Disappointed as he must have been, Wright’s renewed sense of alienation had a silver lining — it was the final push he needed to secure the narrative structure of The Outsider. Though the title was still in flux, Wright determined that the novel would be a “darkly drawn character study,” that used philosophy to track the lived experience of a black man struggling with modern forms of alienation. Husserl would figure largely in this dramatization, underpinning the novel’s major acts of “creative destruction” including Damon’s death hoax and selective amnesia, in Wright’s very thinly veiled assault on reduction proper. Finalizing the particulars of his novel with renewed exigency, Wright harnessed the pain, anger, and frustration from his philosophical isolation, combined it with existing political frustration with polarized Cold War politics, and channeled it into a nearly eight-hundred-page treatise against totalitarian thought.
Divided into five alliteratively titled books drawn from Kierkegaardian categories, “Dread,” “Dream,” “Descent,” “Despair,” and “Decision,” The Outsider tells the story of Cross Damon, an erstwhile philosophy student at the University of Chicago, now employed as a postal worker on Chicago’s South Side. The novel opens with Damon entering his local bar, The Salty Dog, where he drinks, excessively enough to be reprimanded by his friends, to forget his life. Damon is married with children, but has an underage mistress who claims that she is pregnant. Saddled with debt, two young boys, a critical wife, and a drinking problem, Damon faces the possibility of having his affair double his troubles. Despairing, Damon takes to the streets, where fate intervenes in the form of a fatal ‘L’ train accident. After crushing the skull of the accident’s only other survivor (on whom Damon plants his identification), Damon flees to New York and assumes a new identity. Damon’s social death — an undeclared reference to, and critique of, Husserl’s call for the temporary destruction of given reality in order to reemerge in the world unencumbered — and rebirth as Lionel Lane sets the stage for the remaining three books of the novel, in which Wright dramatizes the tragic consequences of Damon’s flight from reality.
Before the novel is given over to the more fantastic aspects of Wright’s eccentric premise, it introduces the reader to its interpretive coordinates — Marxism, Idealist ontology, and the misreading of both — and its dialectical structure through a protracted opening scene designed to frame Damon’s eventual flight from reality as the final stage of a Hegelian odyssey long in the making. Although Wright was warned against opening with a scene that his editor, John Fischer, insisted was “superfluous” to the novel’s dramatic action, Wright fought for its inclusion.38 Wright knew — both from his experience with misreadings of Native Son and his awareness of U.S. intellectual culture — that if he did not foreground the novel’s critical underpinnings they would be lost in the novel’s steady stream of melodrama. Crucial to apprehending the novel’s negative form, Wright uses this frame to dramatize the “cataclysmic danger and criminal ruthlessness” as Marx writes,that results from the adoption of transhistorical consciousness.39
Following several paragraphs in which Wright locates the reader in the novel’s alternative temporality — he describes a group of huddled black men “sloshing” down the dark streets of Chicago on a particularly frigid February toward their local bar before dawn — Wright immediately shifts the narrative focus from the collective suffering of men working the midnight shift to Damon’s particularized reading habits and thought experiments. Wright’s move from environmental concerns — his naturalistic description of the elemental brutality of Chicago’s harsh winters, the misery of working life, and the annihilation of the body — to the vatic montage of remembered events from Damon’s learned past forecasts the storm that is to come: the constructed violence of the protagonist’s consciousness.
Although the present-tense experiment dramatized in the novel — the possibility for life after social death — is one ostensibly gifted to Damon by an ‘L’ train accident, it is prefigured in the novel by two elaborate thought-experiments that introduce the connection between Damon’s philosophical charlantry and his mercenary logic. In the first of these episodes, Damon’s friends recall a moment from several years back where their friend, who is standing on the eleventh floor of the Post Office, tosses coins out his window to unsuspecting passersby:
Early in the evening, when the rush hour was on, he used to — we were working on the 11th floor then — lift up the window, run his hand in his pocket and toss out every cent of silver he had. Just throw it all out of the window to the street. And then he’d lean out and watch the commotion of all them little antlike folks down there going wild, scrambling and scratching and clawing after them few pieces of money and then, when the money was all gone, they’d stand looking up to the window of the 11th floor with their mouths hanging open like fishes out of water. And Cross’d be laughing to beat all hell. And Cross’d say that them folks was praying when their faces were turned up like that, waiting for more money to fall. Haha.40
While the men recall this comical reprieve in an otherwise monotonous workday with fond nostalgia, their mirth is disrupted by Damon’s refusal to join in on the laughter. No longer “laughing to beat all hell,”Damon’s real-time expression is marked by “detachment.”41 Disappointed but unsurprised by Damon’s willful remove, the men, who had summoned up the scene in an attempt to remind their depressed friend of better times, re-signify the memory in accordance with Damon’s intellectual vanity. Aware on some level that Damon’s former immersion in “big deep books”had given rise to his “crazy stunts,” the ensuing conversation establishes the novel’s first formal connection between Damon’s cruel experiments and his reading practices.42
Although all are ignorant of Damon’s former life as a student — Wright does not provide readers with the specific titles in Damon’s library until Book Five (where readers learn, through the compulsive detective work of District Attorney Ely Houston, that Damon possessed texts by Jaspers, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Heidegger, and Hegel) — each contributes to a conversation that introduces the reader to Damon’s bibliomania. Beginning with pure physical description in which the men recall the ever-present “batch under his arm” and the mass of “big and little books” in the “clothes closet, bathroom, and under the bed”of his cramped apartment, the conversation moves on to the psychology behind Damon’s stockpile.43 Two men in the group, who go by the nicknames “Pink” and “Booker,” offer insight into their friend’s reading practices, which they describe as “frenetic”:
But what I couldn’t understand was why Cross wouldn’t believe anything in the books he read. One time he was all hepped-up over one writer and the next time he was through with ’im and onto another.44
Before Damon is given a chance to respond to the above observation, his antagonistic friend Joe (whom he kills a few scenes later) follows the observation with two questions. The first, in which he asks Damon “how come [he] don’t read no more,”is met with deflection.45 Damon, obviously dismayed by a question that so patently calls forth his present despondence, responds defensively that “books are a thing of the past” since given up along with so many other “childish things.”46 Approaching Damon with a similar question but from a different angle, Joe asks, “how come [he] was reading all them books?” Damon’s comparatively “quiet” response, that he “was looking for something” offers something much truer.47
Embedded in Damon’s answer that he “was looking for something” is the crux of Wright’s introductory provocation (in his Preface to the French edition of The Outsider) with which this essay opened. Like Damon, Wright studied Nietzsche, Hegel, and Heidegger, and published essays on Karl Jaspers’ philosophy, specifically his anti-totalitarian tract The Origin and Goal of History (1953).48 Yet despite the terminological and textual connections linking Wright’s “searching” (“for an attitude to replace Marxism”) with Damon’s “looking” (for a single failsafe solution to his web of problems), theirs remain discrete and conflicting intellectual journeys. Similarities in content are disrupted by an absolute severance in method. Damon’s scattered, non-systematic reading, evidenced by his wanton embrace and disposal of philosophers based on their superficial application in a given moment — an approach that Fredric Jameson characterizes in a different context as the endless, solipsistic “pursuit of the existential traveler”— exists as a deliberate point of contrast to Wright’s scrupulous study of an interpretive process designed to help the subject understand how things work.49 In contrast to Damon’s philosophical cherry picking, Wright neither “used” nor “applied” the fruits of his intellectual labor to any particular advantage, and censured those who did, including the much-beloved Black Marxist Kwame Nkrumah, at personal and political cost. Rather, his study of Marx provided him with the critical acumen and theoretical structure necessary to recast the specific conditions of his experience — including visible forms of oppression (racism, racialist capitalism) to the more abstract “blind zones” of alienation that he experienced among the French Left — in an historical dialectic that paired seemingly isolated parts in a single, tyrannical system.50
The methodological disconnect between Wright and Damon is further supported by Damon’s consistent misrepresentation of Karl Marx. In an otherwise vast Marxist repertoire, Damon doesn’t read Marx. For Damon, Marx is a figure of antiquity, one consigned to museums:
Imagine the British, past masters of exploitation and duplicity, allowing a Karl Marx into their British Museum to pore over and unravel the pretensions and self-deceptions of British banditry. Such records of blatant chicanery served thoughtful and astute men as guides in the building of new, scientific and more efficient methods of deception!51
Damon’s unimaginative, and worse, unhistorical, approach to Marx as a “monument of the past”underpins his failure to recognize the present-day import of Marx’s revolutionary theory beyond its Communist appropriations.52 This particular aspect of Damon’s misapprehension of Marx is supported on three other occasions in the novel in which he conflates Karl Marx with the major figures associated with Russian Bolshevism and the bureaucratic regime of the Cominform. It is “Karl Marx” who strips men of their humor,and transforms them into Bolshevik automatons.53
The Outsider’s distinction between Marx and Marxism — and between reading and (in)citing Marx — is conceptually supported by the paradoxical thesis proposed by Étienne Balibar in The Philosophy of Marx (1995). When Balibar declares: “there is no Marxist philosophy and never will be, and yet Marx [remains] more important for philosophy than ever before,”he troubles the “strict connection” between the philosophical and political system attributed to Marx and the form and content of Marx’s work, which gains its critical edge by its very externality to either genre or system of thought.54The Outsider advances a similar proposal. Without abjuring Marx, Wright offers a twinned critique of philosophy without Marx (Cross Damon), and of orthodox Marxism without philosophy (the Communist Party).
Wright reserves the novel’s only mention of a Marx unattached to Communist bureaucracy for Sarah Hunter, a non-aligned Black Marxist who urges her husband Bob, a Caribbean man who has been censured by the Party for organizing outside the specific directives of the Party, to leave the rank-and-file life and to “read Marx and organize” on his own.55 Sarah reminds Bob that she will continue to support their family even after the Party has cut off his stipend, but he refuses to break rank, reciting a gunfire of rehearsed logical fallacies, including Lenin’s loyalty to Party dogma — “A good Bolshevik obeys. Lenin obeyed, didn’t he? Molotov obeys” — in order to buoy up support for his continued subordination.56 Sarah, however, refuses to yield and expresses her unedited disgust with her husband’s position, characterizing his passive loyalty to the Party as the weak-willed race trading of an Uncle Tom. After she has issued a final insult against his masculinity, asking him if she has married a “Marxist or a mouse,” he finally accepts defeat and agrees to continue to organize beyond the scope of Party orders. Bob’s refusal earns him the support and admiration of his wife and Damon, but the consequences of standing his ground (and deliberately disobeying the Party’s demands that he stop organizing black workers) cost him his life. We learn secondhand that the Communist Party has double-dealt with the Office of Immigration and informed on Bob’s illegal residency. As a result, Bob is deported back to Trinidad, a nation also embroiled in Cold War geopolitics, where his death is imminent.
Through the comparatively minor story of Sarah and Bob Hunter, Wright offers a utopic point of contrast to the novel’s surfeit of well-worn ideological positions, including its representation of the Communist Party’s plethora of ethico-political sins, the Fascist racism of Langley Herndon, and the intellectual sophistry and socio-political vacuity of Damon and District Attorney Ely Houston. Although Sarah Hunter’s political integrity results in tragedy, her non-aligned Marxism is the novel’s closest approximation to Wright’s own political position. Sarah’s didactic speeches to her husband regarding the necessity of an unmediated approach to Marx’s thought and the devolution of the Communist Party’s commitment to racial equity carry the weight of Wright’s own voice.57 Significantly, what distinguishes Wright from Sarah Hunter is the extent to which the latter has thrown off the yoke of subjugation.
This final point brings us to our concluding question: if Wright’s position is clearly beyond Damon’s, if his understanding of the revolutionary import of Marx’s thought is more closely aligned with the Hunters (and particularly Sarah Hunter), why the overwhelming focus on a subject position he clearly finds reprehensible? The answer to this question is twofold. First, Wright used books to work through ideas, not only those that he found “life-furthering” but those “harmful to man,” those it was necessary to “fight” and “seek to destroy.”58 These ideas were never abstract in the sense that they were separate from lived experience. In both his literary and non-fictional work, Wright maintained a relentless focus on actually existing forms of political and psychological destruction. In Native Son, Wright worked through his tendentious relationship to Communism and a rudimentary form of cultural nationalism (Bigger’s final conversion) linked to Stalin’s Black Belt emendation through a pointed rejection of white paternalism via Bigger’s murder of Mary and his dismissal of his Communist attorney Boris Max. Although aspects of the novel were misread — particularly its critical objective — the subjects of Wright’s critique were relatively transparent. In The Outsider, the social allegory is less accessible, especially to a reader unattuned to Wright’s highly individuated Marxist program. Known adversaries including the Communist Party and proponents of Fascism are present in the novel, but they make up only part of Wright’s critique. Much more significant to Wright is Damon’s failure to understand the contemporaneity of Marx, and specifically the sustained revolutionary potential of Marx outside the appropriation of his thought as an organizational doctrine for the Communist movement.
Second, The Outsider is a novel intent on proving the necessity of its own destruction. Unlike Native Son, which left room for the production of a liberal counternarrative in which Bigger transcends his present conditions of poverty and ignorance through educational and economic reform, The Outsider eliminates such provisions from consideration. Having abandoned, after Native Son, the “conception of the black hero proper,”Wright created in Damon an allegorical figure representative of the self-destructive capacity of capitalist logic itself.59 Damon self-destructs not because he lacks intellectual, social, and economic support, but because he has transformed these material sources of comfort and security into abstract concepts in which he sees no real value. In contrast to Bigger Thomas, Cross Damon not only has had access to education, but has attended a prestigious, private university and has a personal library filled with heady philosophical tomes. Though he makes bad financial decisions that involve gambling and excessive drinking, he has a steady income, a family, a lover, and friends. While some readers of influence have come to identify Damon’s intellectual prowess and cunning with the so-called fascist legacy of Marcus Garvey (Thompson),a more apt association might be with the philosopher Louis Althusser, whose strict rebuke of humanism takes on a murderous cast in Damon.60
In Damon, Wright fulfills his promise to never again create a consummate figure for bourgeois mourning, yet he stops short of producing precisely the “preachment of hate”he so vigorously denied in his defense of the ethical import of Native Son.61 Damon’s actions reflect Marxism’s degeneration into a lethargic political philosophy animated by ideologists so cut off from grassroots activism that it ceased to be humanist in any meaningful sense of the term, but the novel ends on a redemptive note. Damon’s final words are not those of a criminal giving confession, but of a broken man indicting the desiccated intellectual culture of which he is a part:
“The search can’t be done alone,” he let his voice issue from a dry throat in which he felt death lurking. “Never alone....Alone a man is nothing....Man is a promise that he must never break.”62
- Tzvetan Todorov, The Poetics of Prose (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977).
- All quotes attributed to Wright’s introduction are from his original untranslated draft in the Richard Wright Papers, Beinecke Library, Yale University.
- See Hazel Rowley, Richard Wright: The Life and Times (Chicago: U Chicago P, 2001) 198.
- This language comes from a letter that Wright’s friend, the African-American attorney Ulysses Keys, wrote to him regarding the public response in Chicago to Native Son. The letter is quoted in Rowley, Richard Wright 198.
- See Benito Mussolini, “The Doctrine of Fascism” in Fascism: Doctrine and Institutions (Rome: Ardita, 1935).
- For specifics on Wright’s Marxist revision of Native Son, see Konstantina Karageorgos, “Richard Wright’s Poetic Marxism,” Lineages of the Literary Left (Ann Arbor: U Michigan P, forthcoming).
- Richard Wright, “How Bigger Was Born,” Native Son (New York: Harper & Row, 1993) 435.
- Wright, “How Bigger Was Born” 433.
- Quotation marks are used as shorthand to recall Wright’s language for revision. “Poetic Motifs to Be Woven into Final Scene,” Box 43, F. 606, Richard Wright Papers, Beinecke Library, Yale University.
- For a thorough account of the early days of Wright’s shift from Communism to Marxism, see Karageorgos, “Poetic Marxism.”
- Specific titles in his pre-1940 library included Andrei Zhdanov’s Problems of Soviet Literature: Reports and Speeches at the First Soviet Writer’s Congress by A. Zhdanov, Maxim Gorky (pseud), N. Bukharin, K. Radek, A. Stetsky (1934); Vladimir Lenin’s Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism: A Popular Outline (1917), State and Revolution: Marxist Teaching about the Theory of the State and Tasks of the Proletariat in the Revolution (1917), What Is to Be Done? Burning Questions of Our Movement (1903), and Women in Society (1913); Joseph Stalin’s Marxism and the National and Colonial Question: A Collection of Articles and Speeches (1934). Texts and dates in Wright’s library were scrupulously recorded by Michel Fabre in Richard Wright: Books and Writers (Oxford: U Mississippi P, 1990).
- Though it may seem a minor point, Wright’s selection of Wallace over Hegel runs counter to Paul Gilroy’s characterization of Wright’s postwar understanding of Hegel as “Kojèvian.” Paul Gilroy, “‘Without the Consolation of Tears’: Richard Wright, France, and the Ambivalence of Community,” The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1993) 184.
- Michel Fabre, The Unfinished Quest of Richard Wright, 2nd ed. (Urbana: U Illinois P, 1993) 163.
- Granville Hicks, “The Portrait of a Man Searching: Richard Wright’s New Novel of Violence Probes the Struggle to Understand Life,” New York Times Book Review (22 Mar. 1953): 1.
- Hansberry and Brown accused Wright of perpetuating the oppressive political and cultural policies maintained by Cold War regimes of power. See Lorraine Hansberry, “Untitled Review,” Freedom 14 (April 1953): 7, and Lloyd Brown’s “Outside and Low,” Masses and Mainstream 6 (May 1953): 62-64.
- Margaret Walker, Richard Wright: Daemonic Genius (New York: Harper, 2000) 319.
- Arna Bontemps, Review of The Outsider by Richard Wright Saturday Review (28 March 1953): 15-16.
- See Jeffrey Atteberry, “Entering the Politics of the Outside: Richard Wright’s Critique of Marxism and Existentialism,” Modern Fiction Studies 51:4 (2005): 873-95; Gilroy, “Ambivalence of Community”; Sarah Relyea, “The Vanguard of Modernity: Richard Wright’s The Outsider,” Outsider Citizens: The Remaking of Postwar Cultural Identity in Wright, Beauvoir, and Baldwin (London: Routledge, 2006) 59-90; Abdul R. JanMohamed “The Outsider: Patricidal Desires,” The Death-Bound Subject: Richard Wright’s Archeology of Death (Durham: Duke UP, 2005) 175-209.
- Sarah Hunter, a non-aligned black Marxist, issues the novel’s single reference to Marx outside the parameters of the Party. I discuss this in the essay’s final section. See also “Ambivalence of Community” 170.
- Richard Wright, The Outsider (New York: Harper Perennial, 2003 ) 436.
- Slavoj Žižek, Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism?: Five Interventions of the (Mis)Use of a Notion (London: Verso, 2001).
- Étienne Balibar discusses Marx’s critique of the “political sociology of modern intellectuals” in The Philosophy of Marx, trans. Chris Turner (London: Verso, 1995). In The German Ideology, Marx identified professional philosophers as an oppressive class of intellectuals, or “ideologists.”
- Wright knew from extensive conversations with Simone de Beauvoir, who had spent a significant amount of time at his Charles Street apartment and had been instrumental in securing his official invitation to travel to France, the extent to which his ideas, combined with his experience, would be accepted beyond their liberal curb appeal. The exception to the French intellectual embrace of Wright came, unsurprisingly, from the Parti communiste français (henceforth PCF) press, who introduced Wright to its readership as a “renegade” who had already “failed” as an “authentic” Marxist ideologue even before he “deserted” the Party (Kanapa 3). Still, this criticism did not disturb Wright, who was long accustomed to the Party’s rote defamations of his life and work. Jean Kanapa, “Il y a deux litteratures americanes,” Les Lettres Francaises (5 February 1948).
- Wright, Outsider 4. Wright wrote “I Choose Exile” for Ebony magazine in 1950, but the editors refused the piece on account of its “sharp criticism of American culture and its bleak portrayal of African-American life in Chicago’s South Side” (qtd. in The Richard Wright Encyclopedia, eds. Jerry W. Ward and Robert J. Butler [Westport: Greenwood, 2008] 192).
- Richard Wright, “The Outsider: First Draft, Typescript, Corrected,” Richard Wright Papers. Box 48 Folder 604.
- Michel Fabre, Richard Wright: Books and Writers (Jackson: UP Mississippi, 1990) 325.
- See Ian Birchall’s extensive obituary for Rousset in Revolutionary History in A Paradise for Capitalism? Class and Leadership in Twentieth-Century Belgium, ed. Al Richardson (London: Socialist Platform, 1998).
- Wright’s rebuke of “politics proper” is one repeated throughout the forties and fifties. See Black Power: Three Books from Exile (New York: Harper Perennial, 2008) for his pointed critique of Kwame Nkrumah’s Marxist propaganda as both “politics proper” and “politics plus” and a 1955 interview in which he describes his sustained “passion for politics” as “illogical.”
- High-profile members included Simone de Beauvoir, André Breton, Albert Camus, Michel Leiris, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Jean-Paul Sartre.
- Quoted in Ian Birchall’s Sartre Against Stalinism (Oxford: Berghahn, 2004) 80. Similar to the CPUSA of the 1920s, the French Communist Party did little to mask its lack of concern for individuals in the African diaspora, and obviously reduced all questions of oppression to a mechanical model of class.
- Fabre, Richard Wright 375.
- For more, see Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s Adventures of the Dialectic (Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1974).
- Wright, “The Outsider: First Draft.”
- See Sebastian Luft,
- See Paul Ricoeur’s Husserl: An Analysis of His Phenomenology (Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1967).
- This sentence is activated by a deliberate, unmarked shift from the Kantian concept of the “thing-in-itself” to the phenomenological (originally Heideggerian) concept of “mindbody.” Both posit the return to one’s “primordial giveness” or “true subjectivity” as a kind of freedom.
- Although his new set of narrative concerns would be both unpopular and misunderstood by his American readership, Wright refused to open the novel according to generic and political expectations.
- Karl Marx, The German Ideology, trans. S. Ryazanskaya (Moscow: Foreign Language Publishing House, 1964) 37.
- Outsider 6.
- Outsider 7.
- Outsider 6, 7.
- Outsider 8.
- Outsider 9.
- Outsider 8.
- Fabre, Richard Wright 81-82.
- Ian Buchanan, Jameson on Jameson: Conversations on Cultural Marxism, ed. Ian Buchanan (Durham: Duke UP, 2007) xvi.
- See Jameson’s The Political Unconscious: Narrative as Socially Symbolic Act (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1981).
- Outsider 484.
- Balibar, “Philosophy” 1.
- Outsider 242. When a joke that he has made to Communist Gil Blount has fallen flat, he blames Blount’s lackluster sense of humor on his excessive Marxism.
- “Philosophy” 1, italics original.
- Outsider 258.
- While didactic speeches are, at this point in his writing career, a trademark of Wright’s prose, Sarah Hunter is the first female character in Wright’s literary corpus given a speech with such political heft.
- Michel Fabre and Keneth Kinnamon, eds. Conversations with Richard Wright (Jackson: UP Mississippi, 1993) 164.
- Fabre and Kinnamon, Conversations 167.
- See Mark Christian Thompson’s “Richard Wright’s Jealous Rebels: Black Fascism and Philosophy” in Black Fascisms: African American Literature and Culture Between the Wars (U Virginia P, 2007) 143-70. In his essay, Thompson conflates Damon and Wright, and associates both with the fascism of Garvey. I completely disagree with Thompson’s method and interpretive conclusions.
- See Wright, “I Bite the Hand That Feeds Me,” Atlantic Monthly (June 1940): 826-28.
- Outsider 585.
Principal literary achievement
Ralph Ellison's single published novel, Invisible Man, is recognized as one of the finest achievements in modern American fiction as well as one of the most complete statements of the African-American experience.
Ralph Waldo Ellison was born in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma on March 1, 1914. His father, Lewis Ellison, was an adventurous and accomplished man who had served in the military overseas and had lived in Abbeville, South Carolina and Chattanooga, Tennessee before moving to Oklahoma a short time after the former Indian territory achieved statehood. In Oklahoma City Lewis Ellison worked in construction and started his own ice and coal business. Ellison's mother, Ida Millsap Ellison, who was known as "Brownie," was a political activist who campaigned for the Socialist Party and against the segregationist policies of Oklahoma's governor "Alfalfa Bill" Murray. After her husband's death, Ida Ellison supported Ralph and his younger brother Herbert by working at a variety of jobs. Although the family was sometimes short of money, Ellison and his younger brother did not have deprived childhoods.
Ellison benefited from the advantages of the Oklahoma public schools but took odd jobs to pay for supplemental education. His particular interest was music, and in return for yard work, Ellison received lessons from Ludwig Hebestreit, the conductor of the Oklahoma City Orchestra. At nineteen, with the dream of becoming a composer, he accepted a state scholarship and used it to attend Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.
Unlike the protagonist of Invisible Man, Ellison was not expelled from Tuskegee, but like the character he later created, Ellison did not graduate. Instead, he travelled to New York City in 1936 to find work during the summer between his junior and senior years, intending to return to Tuskegee in the fall. Soon after his arrival in New York, however, Ellison happened to meet Alain Locke and Langston Hughes, major literary figures of the Harlem Renaissance. Through his acquaintance with Hughes, Ellison was introduced to Richard Wright, who encouraged Ellison to write and published his first review in New Challenge, a journal that Wright edited.
Ellison supported himself with a variety of jobs during his first years in Harlem. In 1938, he joined the Federal Writer's Project where he and others employed by the Living Lore Unit gathered urban folklore materials. This experience introduced Ellison to the richness of black urban culture and provided him with a wealth of folklore materials that he used effectively in Invisible Man. In the early 1940's Ellison published several short stories.
During World War II, Ellison served as a cook on a merchant marine ship. At the war's end, he travelled to New Hampshire to rest, and there he began work on Invisible Man. With the financial assistance of a Rosenwald Foundation Grant, Ellison worked on the novel for several years, publishing it in 1952.
Invisible-Man was controversial, attacked by militants as reactionary and banned from schools because of its explicit descriptions of black life. Literary critics, however, generally agreed on the book's significance. In 1965, a poll of literary critics named it the outstanding book written by an American in the previous twenty years, placing it ahead of works by Faulkner, Hemingway, and Bellow. Ellison received many awards for his work, including the National Book Award (1953), the Russwurm Award (1953), the Academy of Arts and Letters Fellowship to Rome (1955-1957), the Medal of Freedom (1969), and the Chevalier de l'Ordre des Artes et Lettres (1970).
In 1958 Ellison accepted a teaching position at Bard College. In subsequent years he taught at Rutgers University, the University of Chicago, and New York
University from which he retired in 1979. He has accepted numerous honorary doctorates and published two collections of essays. The essays in Shadow and Act (1964) focus on three topics: African-American literature and folklore; African-American music; and the interrelation of African-American culture and the broader culture of the United States. Going to the Territory (1986) collected sixteen reviews, essays, and speeches that Ellison had published previously.
Since the 1960's Ellison has worked on a second novel that he reputedly plans to publish as a trilogy. His work on the novel was disrupted when about 350 pages of its 1,000 page manuscript were destroyed in a house fire in 1967. Several selections from the book have been published in journals.
The central theme of Ralph Ellison's writing is the search for identity, a search that he sees as central to American literature and the American experience. He has said that "the nature of our society is such that we are prevented from knowing who we are," and in Invisible Man this struggle toward self-definition is applied to individuals, groups, and the society as a whole. The particular genius of Invisible Man is Ellison's ability to interweave these individual, communal, and national quests into a single, complex vision.
On the level of the individual, Invisible Man is, in Ellison's words, a clash of "innocence and human error, a struggle through illusion to reality." In this sense, the book is part of the literary tradition of initiation tales, stories of young men or women who confront the larger world beyond the security of home and attempt to define themselves in these new terms. Through the misadventures of his naive protagonist, Ellison stresses the individual's need to free himself from the powerful influence of societal stereotypes and demonstrates the multiple levels of deception that must be overcome before an individual can achieve self-awareness. Ellison describes the major flaw of his protagonist as an unquestioning willingness to do what is required of him by others as a way to success." Although Ellison's hero is repeatedly manipulated, betrayed, and deceived, Ellison shows that an individual is not trapped by geography, time, or place. He optimistically asserts that human beings can overcome these obstacles to independence, if they are willing to accept the responsibility to judge existence independently.
Invisible Man is also concerned with the communal effort of African-Americans to define their cultural identity. The novel surveys the history of African-American experience and alludes directly or indirectly to historical figures who serve as contradictory models for Ellison's protagonist. Some of the novel's effect is surely lost for readers who do not recognize the parallels drawn between Booker T. Washington and the Founder, between Marcus Garvey and Ras the Destroyer, or between Frederick Douglass and the narrator's grandfather. W. E. B. DuBois' description of the doubleness of the African-American experience fits the Invisible Man's narrator, and DuBois' assertion that the central fact of an African-American's experience is the "longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self" stands as a summary of the novel's overriding action.
However, Ellison does not restrict himself to the concerns of African-Americans because he believes that African-American culture is an inextricable part of American culture. Thus, Invisible Man shows how the struggles of the narrator as an individual and as a representative of an ethnic minority are paralleled by the struggle of the nation to define and redefine itself. Ellison's frequently expressed opinion that African-American culture's assimilation by the dominant culture of the United States is inevitable and salutary has led some African-American critics to attack him as reactionary. The suspicion that he has "sold out" has also been fed by his broad popularity among white readers and his acceptance of teaching positions at predominantly white universities.
The breadth and diversity of Invisible Man make it possible to fit Ellison's novel into several American literary traditions. As part of the vernacular tradition, exemplified by Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway, Ellison skillfully reproduces the various speech patterns and rich folklore of rural and urban African-Americans. As part of the symbolist tradition, exemplified by Herman Melville and T. S. Eliot, Ellison builds his novel around a full set of provocative and multifaceted symbols. As part of the tradition of African-American literature, Ellison echoes the theme of DuBois' The Souls of Black Folk (1903), reproduces the northward flight to freedom in Frederick Douglass' Narrative (1845), explores the ambiguity of identity as James Weldon Johnson did in The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man (1912), and appropriates the striking underground metaphor of Richard Wright's "The Man Who Lived Underground" (1944) .
In Invisible Man, Ellison employs a "jazz" style in which an improvisation of rhetorical forms is played against his central theme. Letters, speeches, sermons, songs, nursery rhymes, and dreams are used throughout the novel, and the novel's style adjusts to match the changing consciousness and circumstances of the protagonist. In the early chapters Ellison employs a direct, didactic style similar to that of the social realist protest novels of the 1930's and 1940's. In the middle portions of the novel, after the narrator moves to New York City, Ellison's prose becomes more expressionistic, reflecting the narrator's introspection. In the last section of the novel, as the narrator moves toward the apocalyptic race riot in Harlem with which the novel concludes, the prose becomes surreal, emphasizing the darkly comic absurdities of American existence. In all sections the book in enriched by Ellison's versatile use of symbols that focus attention on his major themes while underscoring the ambiguous nature of experience.
Structurally, Invisible Man is episodic and cyclic, presenting the reader with versions of a basic pattern of disillusionment enacted in increasingly complex social environments. In each cycle the narrator eagerly accepts an identity provided by a deceitful mentor and eventually experiences a revelation that shatters the illusory identity he has adopted. This repeated narrative pattern demonstrates the pervasiveness of racism and self-interest and convinces the narrator that he must find his individual answers and stop looking to others.
Although Invisible Man addresses some of the most serious concerns of American society, it is also a comic novel in which Ellison relies on both the traditional picaresque humor of initiation and the rough-edged and often disguised humor of urban African-Americans. Its dark comedy, sophisticated play of rhetorical forms, complex use of symbolism, and original examination of difficult social issues distinguish the book as a masterpiece of modern fiction.
First Published: 1952
Type of Work: Novel
An ambitious but naive black youth journeys through American society in search of his identity.
Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man is framed by a Prologue and an Epilogue that are set at a time after the completion of the novel's central action. The novel's picaresque story of a young black man's misadventures is presented as a memoir written by an older, more experienced embodiment of the narrator. The narrator of the Prologue and Epilogue has withdrawn into a state he calls "hibernation" after surviving the multiple deceptions and betrayals that he recounts in his memoir. As the narrator says, "the end is the beginning and lies far ahead."
The Prologue foreshadows the novel's action, preparing the reader for the narrator's final condition; focusing the reader's attention on the major themes of truth, responsibility, and freedom; and introducing the reader to the double consciousness that operates in the book. Throughout the novel the naive assumptions of the youthful narrator are counterbalanced by the cynical judgments of his more mature self, creating an ironic double perspective.
The broken narrator to whom the reader is introduced in the Prologue is hiding in an underground room, stealing power from the Monopolated Power Company to light the thousands of bulbs he has strung up. An angry and damaged man, he explains his frustration at his "invisibility," a quality that prevents others from seeing anything but "surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination." The narrator experiences a desperate need to "convince [himself] that [he] exists in the real world." As he listens to Louis Armstrong's recording of "What Did I Do to Be so Black and Blue?", he dreams and then recounts his experiences.
The first episode of the narrator's memoir, which goes back to his graduation from a black high school in the South, is a representative anecdote, a story that sets the pattern and themes of the narrator's subsequent misadventures. Throughout Invisible Man, the narrator builds illusory expectations based on the deceitful promises of people who set themselves up as his mentors. In each cycle the narrator is eventually disillusioned by a dramatic revelation of deceit and sent spiralling toward his final confrontation with himself.
In the initial episode, the narrator is invited to repeat his valedictory speech before the white leaders of the town. These men, however, humiliate the protagonist and some other black youths by forcing them to engage in a "battle royal," a blindfolded fist fight in which the last standing participant is victorious; tempting the black youths to fight for counterfeit coins tossed on an electrified rug; and rudely disregarding the protagonist's remarks when he is finally allowed to speak. The episode demonstrates how racist leaders control African-Americans by encouraging them to direct their anger at one another and by rewarding acceptably submissive behavior such as the protagonist's speech about "social responsibility." Although the episode clearly reveals the corrupt and even bestial nature of these men, the protagonist is blinded by his eagerness to succeed and gratefully accepts the briefcase he is given after his speech.
The episode develops the ocular symbols of blindness/sight, darkness/light that are used in the novel to describe the protagonists invisibility and his stumbling
quest for truth. It also introduces the briefcase, a symbol of the narrator's naive effort to accept prescribed identities. The briefcase stays with the narrator until the end of the novel, accumulating objects and documents that represent the various false identities he assumes. These two symbols are united at the end of the novel when the narrator burns the contents of his briefcase in order to see in his underground hideout.
At the black college which the protagonist attends, he is introduced to the misuse of black power. The President of the school, Dr. Bledsoe, a ruthless man whose name implies his deracinated disregard for other
African-Americans, , is blindly idolized by the narrator for whom the college is a paradise of reason and culture. He says that "within the quiet greenness I possessed the only identity I had ever known." But when he mishandles a visiting white trustee named Norton by allowing him to hear Jim Trueblood's shocking tale of incest and taking him to a brothel where they are beset by a group of World War I veterans, Dr. Bledsoe banishes the protagonist from the collegiate Eden. It is only later, after fruitless efforts to find employment in New York City, that the narrator discovers that Bledsoe's letters of reference have betrayed him.
The revelation of Dr. Bledsoe's perfidy destroys the narrator's dream of returning to the college, so he accepts a job with Liberty Paints, determined to make his own way. The factory, which is a microcosm of capitalist America, produces Optic White, "the purest white that can be found," a paint that will "cover just about anything," for the government, but the secret ingredient is a small amount of black base that is produced in a boiler room by an aging African-American named Lucius Broakaway. The protagonist is assigned to Brockaway, but the veteran employee's paranoid suspicion that the protagonist is a spy sent to discover his secrets and the protagonist's resentment at being assigned to an African-American supervisor result in a fight. As the two fight, pressure builds until the boilers explode.
The protagonist awakes to find himself in the factory infirmary where various masked doctors are discussing ways in which to make him pliable. Half-conscious, the narrator is dimly aware of the doctors' efforts at scientific behavior modification, but their bizarre treatment only succeeds at stripping away layers of superficial personality and revealing a changed man who looks at the world with "wild infants' eyes."
In this reborn state the narrator is adopted by Mary Rambo, the maternal owner of a boarding house in Harlem. Mary's nurturing restores the protagonist and awakens a new sensitivity to injustice. When he comes across an elderly couple being evicted from their apartment, he speaks up in their behalf, stirring the crowd of neighbors to action and preventing the eviction. The protagonist's unpremeditated but effective oratory is noticed by Jack, an organizer for the Brotherhood, an organization that closely resembles the Communist Party. Jack recruits the protagonist and tells him that he will become the party's new spokesperson in Harlem.
The Brotherhood supplies the protagonist with a name and establishes him in their Harlem office. As director of the party's Harlem branch, the protagonist works with Todd Ciifton, an idealistic young party member, who is eventually killed for resisting arrest, and Tarp, a grizzled escapee from @ southern chain gang. He competes with Ras the Destroyer, a African-American nationalist who is reminiscent of Marcus Garvey.
Eventually the protagonist realizes that he is being used by Jack and that the Brotherhood is willing to sacrifice the progress made in Harlem for the larger ends of the party. In a climactic showdown, Jack shocks the protagonist by plucking out his glass eye, demonstrating the necessity for personal sacrifice and his own blindness.
Realizing that his dream of real progress through the Brotherhood is futile, the narrator moves toward chaos, suddenly finding that he is mistaken for the Protean character Rinehart, a mysterious con man who is at once a minister and a pimp, a man whose name suggests the ambiguous relation of inner and outer realities. The protagonist considers adopting the cynicism of Rinehart, a decision that would end the search for a true identity, but he soon realizes that he cannot abandon his conscience or his quest.
As the book nears its conclusion, the protagonist runs through a race riot that the Brotherhood has encouraged, seeing men burn their own homes. He finds sanctuary in an underground hole where he is forced to burn the symbolic contents of his briefcase in order to see. He thus destroys the various identities that have been handed to him by others, in order to prepare himself for the "hibernation" during which he hopes to discover himself.
Invisible Man's Epilogue completes the frame begun in the novel's Prologue, returning the reader to narrator who is hibernating underground. The narrator says that although the world outside his underground haven is as deceitful and dangerous as ever, the process of retelling his story has made him "better understand my relation to it and it to me." He has come to accept the responsibility of determining his own identity and rejects demagogic reactions to injustice. He advises his reader that "too much of your life will be lost, its meaning lost unless you approach it as much through love as through hate." He now sees his own life as "one of infinite possibilities." Thus, at the novel's conclusion the narrator is preparing to reenter the world, to make a fresh start. As Ellison has said, his narrator ficomes up from the underground because the act of writing and thinking necessitated it." The novels concluding question, "Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?", underscores applicability of the narrator's experience and revelation to individuals, African-Americans, and the nation as a whole.
Although Ellison has modestly claimed that Invisible Man is "not an important novel," the book has demonstrated its ability to speak to a variety of readers.
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