Saul Bellow’s Review of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man

“Man Underground,” a Review of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, by Saul Bellow

A few years ago, in an otherwise dreary and better forgotten number of Horizon devoted to a louse-up of life in the United States, I read with great excitement an episode from Invisible Man. It described a free-for-all of blindfolded Negro boys at a stag party of the leading citizens of a small Southern town. Before being blindfolded the boys are made to stare at a naked white woman; then they are herded into the ring, and, after the battle royal, one of the fighters, his mouth full of blood, is called upon to give his high school valedictorian’s address. As he stands under the lights of the noisy room, the citizens rib him and make him repeat himself; an accidental reference to equality nearly ruins him, but everything ends well and he receives a handsome briefcase containing a scholarship to a Negro college.

This episode, I thought, might well be the high point of an excellent novel. It has turned out to be not the high point but rather one of the many peaks of a book of the very first order, a superb book. The valedictorian is himself Invisible Man. He adores the college but is thrown out before long by its president, Dr. Bledsoe, a great educator and leader of his race, for permitting a white visitor to visit the wrong places in the vicinity. Bearing what he believes to be a letter of recommendation from Dr. Bledsoe he comes to New York. The letter actually warns prospective employers against him. He is recruited by white radicals and becomes a Negro leader, and in the radical movement he learns eventually that throughout his entire life his relations with other men have been schematic; neither with Negroes nor with whites has he ever been visible, real. I think that in reading the Horizon excerpt I may have underestimated Mr. Ellison’s ambition and power for the following very good reason, that one is accustomed to expect excellent novels about boys, but a modern novel about men is exceedingly rare. For this enormously complex and difficult American experience of ours very few people are willing to make themselves morally and intellectually responsible. Consequently, maturity is hard to find. Continue reading “Saul Bellow’s Review of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man”

The Anxiety of Influence

In her essay “The Naked and the Conflicted,” published in today’s New York Times, Katie Roiphe suggests that “we are awfully cavalier about the Great Male Novelists of the last century. It has become popular to denounce those authors, and more particularly to deride the sex scenes in their novels.” By the Great Male Novelists she is, of course, referring to Norman Mailer, John Updike, Philip Roth, and Saul Bellow. She continues: “Even the young male writers who, in the scope of their ambition, would appear to be the heirs apparent have repudiated the aggressive virility of their predecessors.” Roiphe picks a relatively slim sample of “young male writers” to prove her thesis, including David Foster Wallace, Michael Chabon, Dave Eggers, and Jonathan Franzen. Slim sample, but still, quite representative. Her big claim: “The younger writers are so self-­conscious, so steeped in a certain kind of liberal education, that their characters can’t condone even their own sexual impulses; they are, in short, too cool for sex.” Hmmm . . . Perhaps. Makes us think about how writers like Dennis Cooper, Wells Tower, Junot Díaz, or Stephen Elliott might fit into this scheme . . .