Malcolm Bradbury

True Voice of the Great Missing American Novel

Juneteenth

By

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Ralph Ellison is one of the greatest modern African American (or, as he would probably have preferred, American Negro) novelists. In 1952 he published his first novel, Invisible Man, a book startling for its vision, rhetorical verve, and cunningly devised irony. It strangely mixed naturalism, expressionism and surrealism; its mood was apocalyptic. ‘I am an invisible man,’ the narration begins. Invisible Man is a figure for the times – an existential hero, a version of Dostoevsky’s underground man, a confidence trickster. He is also black and a stereotype, invisible by definition. His struggles, with social and political pressures, personal humiliations, his state of non-being or ‘hibernation’, form an anxious black comedy. But the triumph of the book is the formation of a voice, of invisibility and ‘buggy jiving’, which ultimately becomes authoritative. The novel ends by sharing invisibility: ‘Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?’

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