Ralph Waldo Ellison

April 19, 1994

"I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids -- and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me."

Those words, which open Ralph Ellison's great novel, "Invisible Man," were a revelation to most Americans when the book first appeared in 1952. Here was a black writer whose vision of America's painful racial dilemma encompassed both the deeply tragic and the absurdly comic, searing reality and a magical, anarchic whimsy that imitated life in its integration of improbable opposites -- street patter and Faulknerian soliloquies, grim white Communists and grimmer black nationalists, light and darkness, black and white. All were ores in the grand melting pot of his imagination.

Mr. Ellison, who died Saturday at 80, was fully conscious that he had created a masterpiece, yet it is likely that not even he suspected that during his lifetime "Invisible Man" would come to be regarded as one of the great works of American fiction of the second half of the 20th century.

Mr. Ellison wrote of the peculiar psychic dislocations and self-deceptions that afflict both black and white Americans as a result of this country's tortured racial history. For Mr. Ellison, "invisibility" was as American as apple pie, and American democracy was at best a tenuous ideal rather than a fait accompli. "Invisible Man" has about it a prophetic quality that ultimately transcends race. Its theme ultimately concerns the universal quest for identity, and the answers it poses to the eternal questions -- Who am I? Why am I here? -- are at once beautiful and terrifying, sage and funny.

Mr. Ellison insisted a writer must write from his imagination, not the color of his skin. During the 1960s he was criticized as being too concerned with craft and not enough with politics. Yet the themes he explored have been taken up by women, Hispanics, Asian-Americans, gays, Native Americans -- all of whom found in his metaphor of "invisibility" a road map to empowerment in a society accustomed to ignoring both their contributions and their claim on America's democratic promise.

In later years, Mr. Ellison wrote many essays on American literature. He especially loved Hemingway, Faulkner and Mark Twain -- the ones he considered America's greatest novelists. Future historians undoubtedly will add the name Ralph Waldo Ellison to the pantheon of distinguished men of American letters.

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