English 290b Modern American Literature
28 April 1999

Introduction: Constructing and Communicating Meaning
The Authorís Account of Self-Creation in Ralph Ellisonís Invisible Man

At the beginning of his 1981 introduction to his novel Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison asks, "What, if anything, is there that a novelist can say about his work that wouldnít be better left to the critics?" (vii). In raising such a question, he not only draws attention to the common belief in a fundamental difference between critical and creative writing, but he also calls into question the purpose and worth of his own introduction. Implicit in the question is an apology for writing an introduction; it is the anxiety that the additional words point to a failure of the novel to communicate adequately its own story. In fact, Ellison brings to the forefront the major concerns and anxieties of an authorís introduction to his own work. He continues, "They [the critics] at least have the advantage of dealing with the words on the page, while for him the task of accounting for the process involved in putting them there is similar to that of commanding a smoky genie to make an orderly retreatónot simply back into the traditional bottle, but into the ribbon and keys of a by now defunct typewriter" (vii). The authorís purpose in an introduction is to reveal how he came to write his novelóboth physically (what was happening around him while he wrote) and mentally (how the idea for the novel came to be). Yet, Ellison not only satisfies the readersí need to know how his novel came to be written, but also addresses that very need to know the origins of a novel and its ideas. He begins to define critical writing and creative writing in such a way that both become linked inextricably with the concept of creating an identity. Furthermore, within the text of Invisible Man, the question of the relationship of the authorís introduction to his novel becomes the question of the invisible manís purpose in tellingóand more importantly, in writingóhis story. The protagonist of Ellisonís novel, by introducing and reflecting on the totality of his experiences in the prologue and epilogue, thus frames his story as an answer to the fascinating question of why an author writes.
Reading Ellisonís introduction against other authorsí introductions will serve as the basis of my analysis of the constitutive elements of prefatory material. For the most part, I have chosen other African American writersí introductions to their own works in order to explore how Ellisonís writing stems and differs from other examples of African American writing. This analysis in turn will lead to the authorís and narratorís central concern of communicating meaning through telling a story. Ultimately, I will show how Ellison and his protagonist believe that constructing and relating meaning successfully to others is the only means of creating oneís own identity. In essence, a person must write himself into existence.
The first element of an authorís introduction is the obligatory apology. Although Ellisonís apology is understated, it arises from a long history of introductions that enable authors to account for the publication of their writings. The example of slave narrative prefaces shows how these introductions remove the responsibility of publication and even authorship from the author. Harriet Jacobs (under the pseudonym Linda Brent), in a preface to her slave narrative Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, writes, "When I first arrived in Philadelphia, Bishop Paine advised me to publish a sketch of my life, but I told him I was altogether incompetent to such an undertaking. Though I have improved my mind somewhat since that time, I still remain of the same opinion; but I trust my motives will excuse what might otherwise seem presumptuous" (1). Accompanying Jacobsís preface is an introduction by her editor L. Maria Child that vouches for Jacobs as a competent writer, even though she grew up as a slave girl in the nineteenth century. More than that, the abolitionist and feminist Child asserts, "I believe those who know her [Jacobs] will not be disposed to doubt her veracity" (3). These words were necessary to assuage the reading publicís conception of legitimate writers as exclusive of African Americans and made the texts palatable to close-minded readers.
In her 1831 introduction to her novel Frankenstein, Mary Shelley begins by placing the origin of her introduction in a request by her publishers and continues with an apology for occupying additional space in the readersí consciousness:
The publishers of the standard novels, in selecting Frankenstein for one of their series, expressed a wish that I should furnish them with some account of the origin of the story. I am the more willing to comply because I shall thus give a general answer to the question so very frequently asked meóhow I, then a young girl, came to think of and to dilate upon so very hideous an idea. It is true that I am very averse to bringing myself forward in print, but as my account will only appear as an appendage to a former production, and as it will be confined to such topics as have connection with my authorship alone, I can scarcely accuse myself of a personal intrusion. (xxi)
Shelleyís example is especially rich because it also recognizes the need to justify her right to write as a woman. But more than that, the trope of Frankenstein and his creation, the monster, can stand for the uneasy dynamic between the author and his novel. Shelleyís "so very hideous" idea of an unnatural reproduction expresses the anxiety of writing and creating meaning without understanding what that meaning is or can do to the readerís understanding of life and identity. Likewise, Ellison writes in his introduction that from the beginning, Invisible Man was "a most willful, most self-generating novel," (xxiii) propelled by "nothing more substantial than a taunting, disembodied voice" (xiv). In giving his novel a creative, reproductive force of its own, he attempts to disavow responsibility for readersí misinterpretations and misunderstandings of it. This description places Ellison in the position of a Victor Frankenstein who tries to ignore the tragic deeds of his monster and is completely unaware of the existential sufferings of that monster.
If writing and communicating a particular message is such an overwhelming anxiety for authors, it is understandable that the next major element of introductions is a blunt (re-)statement of the novelís message. After all, only the author himself can explain his intentótruthfully or notóin creating a piece of literature. For example, Jacobs begins her preface with the words, "READER, be assured this narrative is no fiction," (1) and concludes her thoughts by stating, "I want to add my testimony to that of abler pens to convince the people of the Free United States what Slavery really is" (1-2). Claude Brown, in a short preface to his autobiographical work, Manchild in the Promised Land, explains:
I want to talk about the first Northern urban generation of Negroes. I want to talk about the experiences of a misplaced generation, of a misplaced people in an extremely complex, confused society. This is a story of their searching, their dreams, their sorrows, their small and futile rebellions, and their endless battle to establish their own place in Americaís greatest metropolisóand in America itself. (vii)
Similarly, the publishers and editors of certain novels take it upon themselves to write prefaces explaining the purposes of the novels. The original 1912 publisherís preface to James Weldon Johnsonís The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man contains a condensed summary of the novel: "In this book the reader is given a glimpse behind the scenes of this race-drama which is being here enacted,óhe is taken upon an elevation where he can catch a birdís Ėeye view of the conflict which is being waged" (xxxiv).
Ellison seems to be aware of these limiting interpretations of African American novels as simple chronicles of the black American experience. Of his specific message in Invisible Man, Ellison writes:
So my task was one of revealing the human universals hidden within the plight of one who was both black and American, and not only as a means of conveying my personal vision of possibility, but as a way of dealing with the sheer rhetorical challenge involved in communicating across our barriers of race and religion, class, color and regionóbarriers which consist of the many strategies of division that were designed, and still function, to prevent what would otherwise have been a more or less natural recognition of the reality of black and white fraternity. (xxii)
This message points to another level of interpretation in breaking down the barriers of racial experience so that the reader should not just sympathize with the protagonistís experiences, but should in fact personally experience them. Ellison explains, "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" (xx). While Ellison is confident in the "integrative" (xx) nature of the human imagination in helping readers to this experience, there is a tension between this understanding and one that places human emotions on such a personal level as to be directly incommunicable to others. For example, Richard Wright, a well-known author and mentor of Ellison, writes in his introduction to his Native Son, "In a fundamental sense, an imaginative novel represents the merging of two extremes; it is an intensely intimate expression on the part of a consciousness couched in terms of the most objective and commonly known events" (vii).
Finally, in looking at an authorís self-conscious explanation of the construction of a novel, we can begin to examine the invisible manís role as a writer in the creation of his self-identity. Wright writes, "I shall sketch the outline of how I consciously came into possession of the materials that went into Native Son, but there will be many things that I shall omit, not because I want to, but simply because I donít know them" (viii). He acknowledges the subconscious and unconscious forces that are important to the inscription of meaning in texts. Yet, he realizes that the conscious decisions in ascribing meaning and communicating it through more universal signifiers are the factors that determine the authorial identity. The protagonist of Ellisonís novel begins his epilogue by stating, "So there you have all of it thatís important. Or at least you almost have it" (572). What is important are the experiences that should lead the reader to understand why the invisible man has written his story. They are the experiences that constitute his identity. More importantly, they are what he wants us, the readers, to understand are self-determined elements in the creation of his self-identity. In this way, the protagonist has become, through the writing of his story, the author of his own life.
If creating oneís own identity is as simple as writing the story of oneís own life, then why does the process of writing remain such an anxiety-inducing exercise for both Ellison and his protagonist? Why is the purpose of writing still somewhat ambiguous? What the invisible man discovers is that this process of self-creation has as much to do with destroying identities as it does with writing them. As critic Eric Sundquist explains, the protagonistís "coming of age [is] realized through relentless disillusionment with the various goals denied him in a world of racial prejudice" (2). Early in the novel proper, the protagonist relates, "On my graduation day I delivered an oration in which I showed that humility was the secret, indeed, the very essence of progress. (Not that I believed thisóhow could I, remembering my grandfather?óI only believed that it worked.) It was a great success" (17). The parenthetical commentary seems out of place because it is in fact a hindsight judgmentóas a high school graduate, the protagonist was still under the illusions of black humility to believe that his speech was success. Eventually, the invisible man learns to see that the identities he is given as a black college student, as a black worker, as a black speaker, and as a black anything is given with an ulterior motiveóone that benefits the giver through a blinding of the invisible manís own self-interest. For this reason, Ellison explains, "Therefore I would have to create a narrator who could think as well as act, and I saw a capacity for conscious self-assertion as basic to his blundering quest for freedom" (xxi-xxii). The protagonistís opening declaration, "I am an invisible man," (3) is therefore a particularly potent invocation of identity for the invisible man. He steps out of the reach of an otherís attempt to define him by claiming invisibility to the other.
With disillusionment of the various identities he has been given, however, the protagonist faces a new dilemma. He must confront a world that refuses to acknowledge his existence on his own terms. He writes, "You ache with the need to convince yourself that you do exist in the real world, that youíre a part of all the sound and anguish, and you strike out with your fists, you curse and you swear to make them recognize you. And, alas, itís seldom successful" (4). The new problem of creating identity becomes one of communication. As Mr. Emersonís son asks of the protagonist in a scene of revelatory disillusionment, " ĎWhat I mean is, do you believe it possible for us, the two of us, to throw off the mask of customs and manners that insulate man from man, and converse in naked honesty and frankness?í" (186). Indeed, is it possible for any two people to communicate openly without subterfuge? Ellisonís answer seems to be a hesitant "no." There are no examples of successful communication within the invisible manís storyóthat is why he has become an invisible man, out of reach of the "real," illusory world. Yet, there is a hope that such communication is possible. At least the desire to achieve such communication is important to the creation of self-identity. That is why there is such remorse in the protagonistís comment, "Here was the first warm attempt to communicate with me and I was failing," (239) when he lies trapped in the glass-cage operating table. There is in fact a liberating feeling to relating a story, even if it fails to establish unadulterated communication between persons. As Brother Tarp says of his escape story, " ĎIím telliní it betterín I ever thought I could,í he said" (388).
The invisible man himself, as a speaker throughout the novel from the first chapterís graduation speech to the Brotherhood job as a speaker, attempts to claim an identity through speaking. These attempts fail to claim a true identity, however, because of the dependence of speech on the presence of the listener. The audience is an insidious influence on the invisible man because the listeners see him in their own way, and their reactions bring out this other self. Of his first speech for the Brotherhood, the protagonist comments, "What had come out was completely uncalculated, as though another self within me had taken over and held forth. And lucky that it had, or I might have been fired" (353). He acknowledges the strange possession by another identity yet hasnít become completely disillusioned to the prospects of speaking. In his prologue, he writes, "But I am an orator, a rabble rouseróAm? I was, and perhaps shall be again. Who knows?" (14). Along with his hints of coming out of his hibernation of invisibility, this question of becoming a speaker once again is hopeful for the recovery of speech as an identity-forming medium like writing (13, 580).
Ellisonís linking of identity and freedom is crucial to his protagonistís understanding of writing as a special creative force. While trapped in the glass case of the factory hospital, the invisible man realizes, "There was no getting around it. I could no more escape than I could think of my identity. Perhaps, I thought, the two things are involved with each other. When I discover who I am, Iíll be free" (243). The invisible man endows physical entrapment and physical location with the meanings of stifled self-expression and self-identity. As such, being free means being able to communicate oneís identity to others which is only possible at this point in the protagonistís life through the process of writing. His life as the invisible man also gives him comfort in existing outside of the definitions of others. In the prologue to his story, he writes, "The point now is that I found a homeóor a hole in the ground, as you will" (6). This home, a sense of belonging as well as a physical location, gives the protagonist a base from which he can construct his self. In a scene of ironic fate in the epilogue, he encounters Mr. Norton in the subway and comments, "Perhaps to lose a sense of where you are implies the danger of losing a sense of who you are. That must be it, I thoughtóto lose your direction is to lose your face. So here he [Mr. Norton] comes to ask his direction from the lost, the invisible. Very well, Iíve learned to live without direction. Let him ask"(577). In his disillusionment, the invisible man has learned to create a place of his own outside of the "real" worldís illusory definitions.
As Ellisonís introduction to Invisible Man explicitly asks a question, so does the protagonistís epilogue: "So why do I write, torturing myself to put it down?" (579). In a sense, they both ask the same thing: Why do I write? The simple answer is that writing allows both Ellison and his protagonist to define themselves. But there is a larger significance to writing than the reclaiming of identity. Ellison explains in his introduction, "I was already having enough difficulty trying to avoid writing what might turn out to be nothing more than another novel of racial protest instead of the dramatic study in comparative humanity which I felt any worthwhile novel should be . . ." (xviii). This sort of "dramatic study" is the only means of relating personal experience successfully to others. It is the power of such comparisons to create meaning across experiences that gives Ellison and his protagonist hope for determining their identities in a social context. Stated in another way, "And while fiction is but a form of symbolic action, a mere game of Ďas if,í therein lies its true function and its potential for effecting change" (Ellison xx). And yet, to be understanding of the effects of self-determination on others, the protagonist is able to realize, "I carried my sickness and though for a long time I tried to place it in the outside world, the attempt to write it down shows me that at least half of it lay within me" (575). He knows that there will always be a struggle between one manís attempts at self-definition and such a definitionís effect on another person. It is through the attempts at writing that he and Ellison see the greatest possibility for reconciliation of such differences and conflicts.


Works Cited

Brown, Claude. Foreword. Manchild in the Promised Land. By Brown. New York: Signet Book, 1965. vii-viii.

Child, L. Maria. Introduction. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. By Harriet Jacobs. Ed. by Jean Fagan Yellin. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1994. 3-4.

Ellison, Ralph. Introduction. Invisible Man. By Ellison. New York: Vintage Books, 1995. vii-xxiii.

-----. Invisible Man. New York: Vintage Books, 1995.

Jacobs, Harriet A. Preface. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. By Jacobs. Ed. by Jean Fagan Yellin. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1994. 1-2.

Johnson, James Weldon. The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. New York: Penguin Books, 1990.

Shelley, Mary. Authorís Introduction. Frankenstein. By Shelley. New York: Bantam Books, 1991. xxi-xxvi.

Sundquist, Eric J. Introduction. Cultural Contexts for Ralph Ellisonís Invisible Man. Ed. Sundquist. Boston: Bedford Books, 1995. 1-28.

Wright, Richard. "How ĎBiggerí Was Born." Native Son. By Wright. New York: Harper & Row, 1989. vii-xxxiv.