Ellison's Influences and Inspirations for Invisible Man
All authors draw upon past experiences, people they have known, places they have been, as well as their own philosophy of life to write. Ralph Ellison, in his book Shadow and Act refers to this process when he writes, "The act of writing requires a constant plunging back into the shadow of the past where time hovers ghostlike" (xix). In preparing to write his novel he notes that, "[d]etails of old photographs and rhymes and riddles and children's games, church services and college ceremonies, practical jokes and political activities observed during my prewar days in Harlem-all fell into place" (xxvii). While the novel Invisible Man is not autobiographical, the plot, settings, characters, themes, and point of view show the influence of people, places, and stories from his childhood.
A case in point is the plot of Invisible Man. The plot is divided into three main divisions: Invisible Man's school days, his involvement with the Brotherhood, and what happens to him during the Harlem race riot. Ellison draws heavily on his years spent at the Tuskeegee Institute for the first part of the novel. Jack Bishop, in his book Ralph Ellison maintains that all of Invisible Man's college days are based on Ellison's own days at Tuskeegee (45).
Most critics agree that the Brotherhood is a euphemism for the Communist Party which was active in the US from the beginning of the 1920s. In an article entitled "Communist Party of the United States" in the Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History, Robin D. G. Kelly reports that the popularity of the party among Blacks was due to its work to end racism and its support of Blacks in the courts (626). Ellison was not immune to this; he writes in the introduction to his novel that his brief involvement with the Communist Party was in reaction to white society's classification of him and all Negroes as inferior (xxi). He no doubt used his own reaction to the party as a basis for the Invisible Man's attraction to the Brotherhood. Robert G. O'Meally in an article for the Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History entitled "Ellison, Ralph" notes that his introduction to the party was by way of the writer Richard Wright who was editing New Challenge, a leftist magazine, and who asked Ellison to write for the magazine (885). Ellison's eventual disillusionment with the party is reflected in the Invisible Man's rejection of the Brotherhood as self-serving and not actually interested in the rights of Black Americans.
The last section of the novel concerns the race riot that ends with the Invisible Man escaping into his hole in the ground to think about what has happened to him and what he is going to do about it. This episode was based on the Harlem race riots of 1943. In an article entitled "Harlem Riots of 1935 and 1943" in the Encyclopedia of African- American Culture and...