In 1966, American novelist Ralph Ellison granted a rare interview in which he covered a broad variety of topics, offering his opinions and insight on each. One of the key topics which he discusses are the influences for his most famous novel Invisible Man. Commonly referred to as “the greatest American novel,” this piece of work was actually a result of failure. In college Ellison was a music major and varsity athlete. I was previously unaware that he was a music major in college, but I found this fact interesting as it helped further my understanding of the novel. Throughout Invisible Man, Ellison uses music as a method of historical documentation of the times to reveal an understanding of African American lives in America. From the beginning of the novel, he presents music as a key component as the narrator escapes reality through Louis Armstrong’s song “What Did I Do To Be So Black And Blue”; this song shows African Americans’ struggle for identity and acceptance in a predominantly white society. Additionally, he did not discover his passion for writing until his mid-20’s, a fact that I found interesting as he is now considered one of the greatest novelist in American history. Before watching this interview, I did not realize the complexity of Ellison’s thoughts and writings.
When addressing influences on his novel Invisible Man, Ellison states that one of his key concerns was “Negro leaders at that time seldom really led Negroes but were usually dependent on the largesse of white supporters” (11:10-11:30). This aroused thoughts of the scene from the novel where Dr. Bledsoe kicks the narrator out of the college. In the novel, Dr. Bledsoe’s favorite spiritual is “Live-a-Humble” which is ironic since Bledsoe is only superficially humble around white people. Bledsoe appears to live his life by the mottos of hard work and humility; however, his actions all have underlying intentions-to please the powerful white men on which his power and authority depends on. He is deceitful to both the black and white race. This scene from the novel exemplifies Ellison’s key concern presented in his interview.
Towards the end of the interview, Ellison reveals another key influence on his writing. He states one of the greatest literary traditions, the tradition of eloquence, a tradition found in the Negro church is a key influence on not only his writing but also throughout American literature as a whole. Ellison states that he incorporates aspects of the eloquence from the Negro church in his writing “not only because it has possibilities of sharing something new and fresh for readers who are not Negro, but because it has its own rhetorical shade, it has its own stable, its own cluster of imagery-imagery that gets into folklore, the blues, popular songs written by Negroes” (25:55-26:36). He notes the difference that this topic is a key influence to the American writer, not just the African -American writer, because it is “a part of the general American literary heritage” (26:55-26:56). I thought this point was interesting since the African American race has such deep roots in the history of our country-roots that date all the way back to the times of slavery. After he points out this important topic, the influence of the Negro church is clearly seen in his writing. Reverend Homer A. Barbee’s sermon as well as the multiple speeches delivered by the narrator all have a certain rhythm and eloquence to them that reflect the influence of the Negro church. The impact of the church is seen in other pieces of Ellison’s work when he reads an excerpt about drums. The simplicity and rhythm, as well as the content-a passage revealing the importance of drums and the role they play in African American culture-further reveal the prominent influence of the church.
Here’s the link to the interview: