(Cover collage by Joy Olivia Miller)

Questions of intent

A class on Invisible Man raises questions about rereading.

On the first day of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and the Problem with Democracy, professor Kenneth Warren asked my class what we wanted to gain from reading (or rereading) the novel. It was a simple question, but he had me stumped. Since I first read it in high-school English class, Invisible Man has been one of my favorite books. I didn’t know you needed a reason to reread your favorite books, but this was an academic setting, not my couch on a rainy day, so I kept this question in the back of my head all quarter.

One reason I wanted to reread it was that the class coincided with the world premiere of the staged version of Invisible Man. Because I had the opportunity to see a landmark production, I figured I had to do it right. I couldn’t just go see it with a friend and then go out for ice cream after. I needed to reread the novel, see the play a few times, and discuss the two with a group of like-minded students, not to mention Warren. He has dedicated part of his career to studying Ellison and Invisible Man, and he was consulted for the production.

Since the story is the same on stage and in the book, many of our conversations addressed the importance of the novel form to Invisible Man.

As our class made our way through the novel—all 600 pages—we also read Ellison’s collected essays, some about politics, some about music, some about literature, and many that give advice to his contemporary black authors. While they were interesting (at first) and gave historical and cultural context for the text, by the end many classmates and I agreed that the essays made us dislike Ellison a bit. He made judgments about black protest novelists—mainly Richard Wright—at once telling them to write about the black American experience and also to think of themselves as American writers instead of just black American writers. He also was rather misogynistic. Sometimes it’s hard to enjoy your favorite book if you know too much about its author.

The class deepened my understanding of the book’s social and political themes, but the entertainment level changed for me. Maybe it is harder to enjoy a text with such themes purely for entertainment, even if it is a novel. This will be the question I ask myself the next time I read it.