“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 Universe Within is new from Pantheon early next year. Their blurb:
From one of our finest and most popular science writers, and the best-selling author of Your Inner Fish, comes the answer to a scientific mystery as big as the world itself: How are the events that formed our solar system billions of years ago embedded inside each of us?
In Your Inner Fish, Neil Shubin delved into the amazing connections between human bodies—our hands, heads, and jaws—and the structures in fish and worms that lived hundreds of millions of years ago. In The Universe Within, with his trademark clarity and exuberance, Shubin takes an even more expansive approach to the question of why we look the way we do. Starting once again with fossils, he turns his gaze skyward, showing us how the entirety of the universe’s fourteen-billion-year history can be seen in our bodies. As he moves from our very molecular composition (a result of stellar events at the origin of our solar system) through the workings of our eyes, Shubin makes clear how the evolution of the cosmos has profoundly marked our own bodies.
University of Chicago paleontologist Shubin wrote about the fishy origins of humanity in 2009’s Your Inner Fish. In his new book, he goes farther back and further out, explaining how humans bear the markings of cosmic phenomena; as he puts it, “Written inside us is the birth of the stars.” Here, the author surveys everything from glints in “Greenlandic rocks” to the spreading signs of supernovae to reveal “deep ties to the forces that shaped our bodies.” He demonstrates how mammals owe their “high-energy lifestyle[s]” to oxygen released hundreds of millions of years ago as continents spread apart, and how color vision arose after continental drift cooled the planet, diversified flora, and resulted in biological competition that favored those organisms who could identify nutritious plants according to hue (“Every time you admire a richly colorful view, you can thank India for slamming into Asia”). Shubin is a leading proponent of the fusion of paleontology, developmental genetics, and genomics, and the result of his efforts is a volume of truly inspired science writing. Appropriately vast in scope, Shubin deftly balances breadth and depth in his search for a “sublimely beautiful truth.”