Wrestling with Ralph Ellison

— Nathaniel Mills

Wrestling with the Left:
The Making of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man
By Barbara Foley
Duke University Press, 2011, 464 pages, $29.95 paper.

HERE’S WHAT’S AT stake in any examination of Ralph Ellison: he published only one novel in his lifetime, yet no other African-American writer — indeed, no other writer — has played as large a role in shaping mainstream convictions about the role of the African-American artist, American society and culture, and the relation of both to politics.

Invisible Man, published at the height of the Cold War in 1952, established Ellison as a post-radical voice in African-American letters. Ellison’s novel came as a welcome relief to the literary and cultural establishment. Richard Wright, the only Black writer to achieve comparable celebrity status prior to Ellison, had worked in what was seen as a naturalistic and social-protest mode.

Ellison’s story of an unnamed African-American protagonist who is “#8220;invisible” to and thus exploited by the various social and political institutions of American life (especially the “#8220;Brotherhood,” a group which resembles the U.S. Communist Party), emphasizes individual autonomy and moral and social ambivalence while rejecting the protest model of fiction for a densely-symbolic surrealist style that synthesizes Black folk forms with Western cultural references.

The novel was thus read as embodying tendencies that were coming to define U.S. Cold War discourse: anticommunism, individual freedom, a suspicion of radical political movements as inherently authoritarian, and a celebration of the pluralism of American democracy. Aesthetically, it satisfied the requirements of a new academic consensus about the defining values of American literary achievement: modernist anti-realism, symbolic complexity, and ambiguity. And since Ellison and his narrator-protagonist were Black, the novel seemed to say that America — despite histories of slavery and Jim Crow and continuing segregation — was still fundamentally sound.

The protagonist (who is anonymous, and whom I’ll refer to as invisible man) even suggests that African Americans must “#8220;affirm the principle” of American democracy and freedom as they struggle against its betrayal — and that moreover, African Americans have a special responsibility to do this because since 1865 they have had a privileged awareness of the potentials and necessity of freedom.

Later comments of Ellison’s — denying that Jim Crow hindered his chances to become a writer; dismissing 1930s Communism and 1960s Black nationalism as simplistic worldviews; and insisting on the fluid circulation of ideas, culture and opportunity in America — reinforced this reputation.

Even today one encounters, everywhere from political forums to academic classrooms, the proposition that class and race-based radicalisms are bad for the American citizen, the African-American people, and the artist. The idea that radical political engagement was inimical to thought and art wasn’t always so widespread: interpretations of Invisible Man and of Ellison’s claims about the American scene have gone a long way to both create that proposition and to cement it as common sense.

A New Reading

In Wrestling with the Left: The Making of Invisible Man, Barbara Foley aims not so much to challenge these standard interpretations as to show how Ellison, one of the most talented and engaged writers on the Communist left in the 1930s and 1940s, produced the most iconic anticommunist novel in U.S. literature.

Introducing extensive new material from Ellison’s archive of unpublished writings (collected at the Library of Congress), Foley treats Ellison’s early commitment to the Communist left and to proletarian literature with unprecedented seriousness and analytical sophistication. Secondly, she offers a thorough reading of the drafts of Invisible Man, which have not previously received sustained attention.

For readers accustomed to seeing Invisible Man as a novel offering the truth about radicalism, Black experience, and individual life in the United States; as well as for readers used to thinking of Ellison as a straightforward anticommunist or politically disengaged writer, Foley’s book offers a new historical perspective on the political and artistic choices that went into the making of Invisible Man.

The novel, she finds, was conceived in 1945 as a radical, proletarian work. Over the next seven years, as Ellison gradually came to adopt a conservative political outlook in relation with the increasingly repressive climate of Cold War America, he revised the representational and political choices of his novel accordingly. This “#8220;process of anticommunist-ization” involved removing from his drafts “#8220;multiple characters and incidents conveying a radical, even in places pro-Communist politics,” and excising concrete historical references to the sociopolitical climate of the Depression and World War II in order to “#8220;depoliticize the novel’s historical context and facilitate its critique of the left.” (8)

Foley’s study is politically committed and seeks to convey “#8220;the cost of anticommunism, that is, what is sacrificed when a leftist vision is expunged. For just as the ultimate targets of the McCarthy-era witchhunts were, arguably, not so much Communists themselves as the millions who might hear their message, what is lost from Invisible Man through Ellison’s revisions is a full and rich sense of the potential for consciousness and radical historical engagement on the part of Harlem’s working class.”

Noting that Ellison had once bemoaned the lack of “#8220;images of Black and white fraternity” in American literature, and that invisible man in the published version wonders if politics could be an “#8220;expression of love,” Foley continues: “#8220;But the published text conveys precious little of either fraternity or love. In the drafts, by contrast, where Ellison was motivated by residual influences of the revolutionary movement, he portrayed a range of characters, central and marginal, Black and white, who embody the possibility for multiracial proletarian solidarity and interpersonal love in the struggle to bring a ‘better world’ into being.”

In removing these elements, Ellison “#8220;withheld from the novel’s readers — past, present and future — those images of fraternity and activism so badly needed to help them confront the crying issues of their times.” As a result, the novel is “#8220;a far less humane and antiracist novel than it might otherwise have been.” (22-3)

Retrieving Ellison’s Journey

Ellison moved to New York City in 1936, quickly became close friends with Richard Wright (then the Communist Party’s up-and-coming Black celebrity writer), and published stories, book reviews, and essays in Communist-backed journals like New Masses. Ellison later insisted that his interest in the left was a youthful flirtation. He would dismiss the Communist Party’s actions in the 1930s and 1940s as having “#8220;little do to with their ultimate goals or with American reality,” and claim that while he wrote “#8220;propaganda having to do with the Negro struggle” for Communist journals, he “#8220;never wrote the official type of fiction.”

Ellison would also at times refer to Marxism as an obstacle to literary achievement, once lamenting that Richard Wright “#8220;found the facile answers of Marxism before he learned to use literature as a means for discovering the forms of American Negro humanity.”(1) Critics have accordingly downplayed or devalued the sophistication and sincerity of Ellison’s early radicalism.

Foley, in the first part of Wrestling with the Left, demolishes this perspective and provides the first in-depth, positive analysis of Ellison’s radical literary and political priorities in the Depression and World War II eras.

As a researcher for the Federal Writers Project in Harlem in the late 1930s, he interviewed recent African-American migrants from the South and recorded their class-conscious vernacular critiques of racism and economic injustice. As a journalist for Communist periodicals, he adhered to the policies of the Party’s Popular-Front period, including its emphasis on the right to Black self-determination in the Southern “#8220;Black Belt,” the need to form liberal-left alliances against fascism, and its shifting positions on World War II.

Here and elsewhere, Foley shrewdly observes that Ellison’s later characteristic emphasis on the virtues of democracy originated in Popular Front rhetoric, where it signified not merely “#8220;formulistic principles encoded in documents of state” but a “#8220;present aspiration and a future reality.” In borrowing the language of Americanism, the Popular Front-era Party articulated historical materialism in democratic terms in order to organize coalitions against fascism. (34) Foley claims throughout that the very terms and assumptions on which the later Ellison’s sociopolitical conservatism is based were first discovered and formulated by him in radical contexts.

Foley then moves to the young Ellison’s developing aesthetic interests. In enumerating the influences on Invisible Man, critics have often ignored the left in favor of Freudian psychology, the myth and ritual studies undertaken by the Cambridge School of Classical Anthropology, and American rhetorician Kenneth Burke’s theories of literary form. Foley demonstrates, however, that these influences were not strict alternatives to leftism — finding historical materialist tendencies in the Cambridge School’s studies of the myths and rites of antiquity; demonstrating that Ellison’s approach to Freud was anchored by a desire to grasp the impact of social and material conditions upon the psyche; and recovering Kenneth Burke’s own close involvement with the left and the indebtedness of his formal and rhetorical theories to Marxism.

Foley thus deconstructs the assertion that formal, psychological, and cultural anthropological sources provided Ellison with a more sophisticated worldview than the left. In the 1930s and early 1940s, Ellison linked the aesthetic value of literature to its ability to represent social totality. “#8220;Rhetoric,” for the left-wing Ellison, “#8220;is intertwined with reference,” Foley argues.

In a startling unpublished 1930s review, the writer who would become associated with high modernist experimentation bemoaned the tendency of left-wing writers to value experimentation over sociohistorical referentiality: “#8220;the tape worm of literary experimentation,” writes Ellison, “#8220;seems to deprive the creative body of its nourishment.” (72, 71) By Ellison’s own earlier standards, Foley suggests, Invisible Man would have been an aesthetic and political failure.

Foley concludes her account of the early Ellison with a chapter discussing his fiction of the period. Foley argues that Ellison’s work was anchored by a “#8220;fascination with the figure of the African American leftist as Promethean rebel,” referencing the titan of Greek myth and popular hero figure of the Communist left who stole fire from the gods in the name of human betterment. (110)

In various short stories — many of which are unpublished or uncollected — and in drafts and outlines for multiple aborted novels, Ellison explored the literary possibilities of Prometheus. Lynching stories like “#8220;The Birthmark” and “#8220;A Party Down at the Square” employ mythical structures of sacrifice and rebirth to critique the political economy of lynching, and in several works Ellison crafted sympathetic portraits of Black Communist activists — portraits nowhere to be found in Invisible Man’s depiction of the Party as an all-white manipulative force.

Using the drafts of well-known mid-1940s World War II stories like “#8220;Flying Home” and “#8220;In a Strange Country,” Foley demonstrates how Ellison had begun to excise explicit revolutionary content from his work. These stories originally offered more strident critiques of domestic fascism and intimated the need for militant resistance against Jim Crow capitalism — a position to the left of the Communist Party’s uncritical pro-war stance.(2)

Much of the material discussed in this section receives serious analysis for the first time, and demonstrates how Ellison’s Promethean literary practice — writing in the name of revolution — made him one of the left’s more sophisticated writers.

Reading Forward

The second half of the book is dedicated to close readings of the manuscript drafts of Invisible Man. Here, Foley seeks to reverse the critical method normally applied to the novel. Too often, she argues, critics have been content to take Ellison’s later claims about the novel, and the patriotic, pluralist cultural and social ideas expressed in his Cold War essays, and retroactively read them into Invisible Man.

Instead, Foley proposes to “#8220;read forward” to Invisible Man — to illuminate the novel not from the perspective of Ellison’s postwar deradicalization, but from the political and literary ideas he developed in the 1930s and 1940s.

Foley agrees with most critics that a change did occur in Ellison’s politics between the Depression era and the Cold War. By 1952, she argues, the novel that began life as an anti-racist and anti-capitalist examination of the impacts of urbanization and proletarianization had become a universal, high modernist celebration of American democracy. But in order to produce the 1952 text, Ellison had to wrestle down a left-wing consciousness that wouldn’t be beaten easily.

Even as late as 1954, Foley discovers, Ellison published a letter in the Communist People’s Daily World warning class-conscious workers about FBI infiltration of unions. (67) By reading Foley’s account of the novel’s drafts as a supplement to the 1952 text, one can re-live the process by which Ellison expunged explicit references to the left from his novel, a microcosmic instance of the way the legacies and potentials of the left were carefully erased by Cold War discourse.

The reader familiar with Invisible Man will find many surprising differences in the drafts. For example, the early sections set in and around a Black college modeled on the Tuskegee Institute originally contained explicit critiques of Jim Crow, lynching, and the determination of both by economic structures of capital.

Originally, after invisible man arrives in New York he enters the urban proletariat in multiple scenes, excised from the 1952 novel, that enact a critique of the exploitation of labor. Invisibility, in Ellison’s drafts, was not a universal condition of the individual at the hands of totalitarian-tending institutions, but referenced “#8220;the more general fetishization of the products of all labor in a capitalist society.” (202)

A major character in the drafts is LeRoy, an organic intellectual and member of a maritime union who originally expressed the novel’s radical political perspective and initiated the protagonist’s coming to class consciousness. In perhaps the most politically significant revision, Ellison cut him out entirely.

Some of Foley’s claims about the significance of the variation between the drafts and the published text aren’t fully convincing. For example, Foley finds that the original versions of the famous “#8220;battle royal” opening scene are a symbolic rendering of Jim Crow’s “#8220;whole history of racial and sexual humiliation” that in the 1952 version “#8220;is left to the reader to infer.” Whereas the scene began life as a deployment of tropes of ritual and sacrifice designed to condemn structures of white racism, Foley argues that in the 1952 text it is readable as a universal experience of social initiation. (159-60) While that reading has certainly been voiced, it’s hard to imagine a reader of the published novel who wouldn’t see the multilayered critiques of Jim Crow — however subtle — embedded in this scene.

Foley identifies many moments in which the drafts’ realist, historically-referential renderings of socioeconomic oppression were removed in favor of abstract representational decisions. While Foley sometimes overstates the extent to which these changes obscure political critique, she demonstrates the care with which Ellison consciously distanced his text from sociohistorical reality in order to produce a fable-like, surrealist novel. In Foley’s formulation, rhetoric overtakes reference in the 1952 text.

Because she reads this overtaking as politically reactionary, it matters most for Foley in the novel’s account of the “#8220;Brotherhood,” a seemingly Marxist political body resembling the Communist Party. Invisible man joins the Brotherhood and becomes one of its leading orators and activists before recognizing that underneath its revolutionary rhetoric, the Brotherhood exploits African Americans for its own ends, silencing their sociopolitical concerns, degrading their cultural roots, and suppressing their self-assertion.

This portrait of the Brotherhood has enabled Invisible Man to assume the mantle of exemplary anticommunist novel, but it is also the aspect of the novel that underwent the most dramatic revision from the earlier drafts. In the drafts, the Brotherhood was not infallible or entirely honorable, but its politics were securely rooted in the needs of the Harlem masses, its African-American members were not mere pawns but important in determining policy and orientation, and its theorists were not authoritarian imposers of scientific orthodoxy but open-minded thinkers of praxis.

The Cold War claim that Communists used white women to tempt Black men into their ranks — replacing the “#8220;class struggle” with the “#8220;ass struggle” — is echoed in the 1952 novel, but in the drafts a white Communist woman, Louise, is romantically linked to invisible man and embodies the authentic, utopian promise of interracial love and political solidarity. Foley argues that in cutting this significant character (and in cutting or reducing the roles of nearly all of the drafts’ female characters), Ellison reinforced both the chauvinism and conservatism of the 1952 text.

Ellison and Communism

Ellison had known first-hand the Communist Party’s commitment to anti-racist and anti-capitalist politics, yet in drafting Invisible Man he distorted that commitment. To cite an example of Foley’s: In the 1952 novel the Brotherhood leaders rebuke invisible man after he organizes, for the purpose of galvanizing mass consciousness in Harlem, a public funeral for a deviant Brotherhood member killed by a racist policeman. The funeral and the Brotherhood’s censorious response to it become crucial moments in invisible man’s rejection of the Brotherhood in favor of an apolitical, transcendent humanism that radicalism allegedly cannot encompass.

Yet in reality, Foley shows, the Communist Party frequently organized public funerals similar to this one in Harlem. And in the original drafts, the Brotherhood does organize a funeral for a victim of racist police brutality. “#8220;Ellison knew better,” she concludes of this politically-slanted misrepresentation. (308-10)

Foley is more critical of the novel’s closing episode, a nightmarish riot based in part on the 1943 Harlem riot (which Ellison witnessed). The novel charges the Brotherhood with cynically orchestrating the riot to serve its own political needs. Yet Foley points out that the historical record shows that the Party certainly had nothing to do with instigating the riot, whose immediate cause was a rumor that a white cop had shot a Black enlisted man, and whose underlying causes were the economic inequities of wartime and the segregation of the military. Far from instigating the riot, the Party endeavored to halt the violence.

By abstracting all reference to these causes and to the historical contexts of Jim Crow, World War II, and the reality of Communist activity, the novel’s riot scene depicts the left as cynical, manipulative, and inhumane. “#8220;History becomes mirage, while anticommunist fantasy becomes reality,” Foley writes. She argues that most of Ellison’s revisions of the Brotherhood in the drafting process utilize “#8220;distortion and caricature” in order “#8220;to invoke and to reinforce negative generalizations about how leftists characteristically act and think.” The riot scene, however, is at such variance with the facts of the 1943 Harlem riot as to be “#8220;plain old falsehood.” (316-22)

The final outcome of Ellison’s revisions, then, is a misrepresentation of the Communist left on multiple fronts, one that has reinforced the Cold War picture of Communism as sinister and exploitative.

Toward An Alternative Reading

For anyone seeking to understand the cultural and discursive operations by which the left has been marginalized in America — why it’s nearly impossible to talk about Marxism as a viable alternative in most public arenas — Foley’s book is required reading. It is a careful reconstruction of how one writer crafted an excision of Communist political options, and demonstrates how literature plays an important role in shaping conventional political wisdom.

Yet in acceding to the critical consensus that Ellison and Invisible Man’s politics are liberal-pluralist, Foley risks denying the left some useful theorems and strategies that can be found in the 1952 text and in Ellison’s characteristic ways of understanding American society. I’m somewhat reluctant to equate literary non-referentiality, and the typical Ellisonian thematic emphasis on the social fluidity and chaos of American life, with political reaction. I describe that reluctance here to indicate another potential way of reading Ellison from and for the left.

After considering the novel Ellison could have written, the next step is to consider the text he actually did produce. In the 1952 novel, I propose that Ellison doesn’t document a certain historical period, certain historical events, or certain historical institutions like the Communist Party. That he never actually refers to the Communist Party or to the specifics of its policies, and that he departs from the facts of the 1943 riot, are potentially evidence of this. Ellison always insisted the Brotherhood wasn’t supposed to be the Party — it’s true, as Foley alleges, that most critics discount that claim, but others have illuminated reasons why Ellison might have wanted to write about a fictitious “#8220;Brotherhood” instead of the Party. (238)

John Callahan has argued that by avoiding historical reference points, Ellison refuses to let readers historically compartmentalize the novel’s claims. For instance, in a scene in which the protagonist halts the eviction and dispossession of the Provos, an elderly Black couple in Harlem, the novel makes no reference to the Great Depression as the socioeconomic cause of the eviction because, Callahan suggests, Ellison was “#8220;unwilling to restrict the Provos’ dispossessed condition to one point in time, perhaps because of the danger that, if he did so, what has been archetypal in Black experience might be laid simply at the door of hard times.”

Also, like many other scenes in the novel, the eviction scene can be interpreted in radical ways: the evicted couple’s belongings, from voided life insurance policies to clippings of Marcus Garvey’s deportation to the husband’s freedom papers, all testify to the American state’s betrayal of African Americans. Similarly, in opting for an abstract “#8220;Brotherhood,” Ellison moves away from historical documentation in order to think the more general problem of political institutional leadership in American society, to question why political movements fail or succeed, and how African Americans should seek political representation.

To return to Callahan: “#8220;the Brotherhood derives a measure of significance from its similarity in some respects to the relation between American Blacks and the Democratic and Republican parties” too.3 We might then read Ellison’s Brotherhood not so much as a distortion of the historical Communist Party as a warning against potential tendencies (toward political dogmatism and vanguard elitism, institutional self-preservation at the cost of revolutionary creativity, etc.) that any leftist organization should avoid. And as a political body representing Blacks in non-racial terms alongside non-Blacks, the Brotherhood allows Ellison to examine the relative strengths and limitations of interracial organizing in the United States and the place of racial difference in radical politics.

The riot scene contains similar theoretical investigations of the potentials and pitfalls of spontaneous mass political practice, an investigation enabled by representational freedom from the facts of the 1943 riot.

It’s possible that if Ellison had written the novel Foley wishes he had, we’d have a monument of Black Communist literature. But it’s also possible that the political appeal of such a novel would be muted by readers and critics who’d treat it as a historical document of a bygone era. Ernst Bloch once noted the dangers of “#8220;antiquarian Marx-killing,” or silencing Marx by inserting him within the boundaries of a past time and place.(4) In the 1952 text, we have general lines of inquiry on Ellison’s part that can certainly inform a leftist political vision today.

Secondly, while Ellison’s famous insistences on the indeterminate “#8220;chaos” of American life certainly harmonized with Cold War liberal discourse in the 1950s, they also more than resemble theories of social form and process articulated by European Marxists like Louis Althusser and Antonio Gramsci. Both Althusser and Gramsci revised classical notions of economic determinism in order to identify the complexly overdetermined realms of the social and cultural as potential sites for revolutionary politics.

Ellison didn’t deny that racial and economic hierarchies existed — but he did deny that they completely determined American and African-American life to the extent that such life consisted only of material and racial domination. Ellison preferred to identify the unpredictable opportunities and encounters that could emerge in spite of, or outside the bounds, of power relations. His essays argue that the social and cultural ebb and flow of American life frequently complicates — but does not cancel — structural oppression.(5)

Invisible Man’s overriding theoretical project is to insist that American society is more complicated and unpredictable than most established epistemological and political paradigms allow, but the novel does not reject as hopeless the task of organizing new paradigms. As the narrator says at the end, “#8220;the mind that has conceived a plan of living must never lose sight of the chaos against which that pattern was conceived. That goes for societies as well as for individuals.”(6)

The same can also go for leftist political programs. Anyone who’s read Invisible Man knows that it is relentlessly theoretical: unlike most modernist novels, it experiments with form and language not to create aestheticist pleasures, but to analyze, probe, and schematize the ontology of the American scene. As such, its insights make it a potentially valuable resource for contemporary leftist strategy.

The Ellisonian vision of culture and politics is arguably more present in American discourse now than ever before, and I think it would be a mistake to tie the persuasiveness of that vision solely to anticommunism. In his recent book Decoded (a work thoroughly informed by an Ellisonian sensibility), Jay-Z describes housing projects as a contested site of repression and resistance:

“#8220;Housing projects are a great metaphor for the government’s relationship to poor folks: these huge islands built mostly in the middle of the nowhere, designed to warehouse lives. People are still people, though, so we turned the projects into real communities, poor or not. We played in fire hydrants and had cookouts and partied, music bouncing off concrete walls. But even when we could shake off the full weight of those imposing buildings and try just to live, the truth of our lives and struggle was still invisible to the larger country. The rest of the country was freed of any obligation to claim us. Which was fine, because we weren’t really claiming them, either”.(7)

The “#8220;concrete” hierarchical structure of power is in tension with the fluid, creative efforts of those oppressed by that structure. One must recognize the struggles of these oppressed as both literally contained by power and exceeding the grasp of power. Invisibility is both delimiting and freeing, just as oppression also contains within it (dialectically, or what Ellison might call “#8220;chaotically”) the potential for freedom. Effective revolutionary politics in a globalized, post-Fordist era should be able to grasp and manipulate these social complexities of power and resistance.

Wrestling with the Left upends critical conversations about Ellison, Invisible Man, and the Communist legacy. By showing canonical interpretations of Invisible Man to be the politically-motivated discourses they are, Barbara Foley reopens rather than colonizes the question of Ralph Ellison’s politics. Any future attempts to wrestle with Ralph Ellison and his visions of Black identity, culture, art, history, and American society would do well to emulate the unapologetic political commitment and clarity of purpose of Foley’s work. §


  1. Ellison, The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison (New York: Modern Library, 2003), 748, 746, 167.
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  2. The best discussion of the various political responses among American radicals and liberals to World War II is Frank Warren’s Noble Abstractions: American Liberal Intellectuals and World War II (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1999). The Communist Party’s total support for the Roosevelt administration in the war placed it to the right of more critical liberals and socialists.
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  3. Callahan, “#8220;Chaos, Complexity, and Possibility: The Historical Frequencies of Ralph Waldo Ellison” in Speaking For You: The Vision of Ralph Ellison, ed. Kimberly W. Benston (Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1987), 134.
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  4. Bloch, The Principle of Hope (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986), 1361.
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  5. See for example “#8220;The World and the Jug,” “#8220;Hidden Name and Complex Fate,” and “#8220;The Little Man at Chehaw Station” in The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison.
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  6. Ellison, Invisible Man (New York: Vintage, 1995), 580.
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  7. Jay-Z, Decoded (New York: Spiegel and Grau, 2010), 155.
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ATC 152, May-June 2011