A Portrait of the Artist as an Invisible Man
Ralph Ellison and the Authentication of Fiction Through Autobiography
Rob van der Mei (3143724)
BA Thesis, English Language and Culture
April 15, 2010
Dr. Derek Rubin (supervisor)
Table of Contents
1. Genuine Forgeries: Fictional Autobiographies and Autobiographical Fictions
2. Dominating Reality: Invisible Man and the Rise of the Nonfiction Novel
3. American Realism, Modernism and the Literary Ancestors of Ralph Ellison
Ralph Ellison and the “Autobiographication” of Fiction
In the summer of 1954, two years after the publication of Invisible Man, Ralph Waldo Ellison joined American writers Alfred Chester and Vilma Howard in a Parisian café to be interviewed about art and his novel. The eighth in a series of conversations with authors for The Paris Review, befittingly titled “The Art of Fiction,”1 the interview would be published in the spring of the following year, touching upon topics like “Negro folklore” and the writing process. In a short written introduction to the interview, Chester and Howard admit that talking to Ellison was “like sitting in the back of a huge hall and feeling the lecturer’s faraway eyes staring directly into your own.” Reinforcing this professorial approach, it was Ellison, the interviewee, who began the interview as follows: “Let me say right now that my book [Invisible Man] is not an autobiographical work.” Ellison is, of course, correct in saying that his novel is not autobiographical in the sense that Richard Wright’s Black Boy or Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery are. At most, Invisible Man is semi-autobiographical, belonging to that category of narratives that blur the borderlines between fiction and autobiography, a classification it shares with, among others, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce.2 Conveniently for Ellison, the interviewers proceeded by asking him whether or not he was “thrown out of school like the boy in [his] novel,” to which he could respond in the negative, although he admitted that “like him, [he] went from one job to another” (2). He could not have denied, however, that he, too, as a young man, failed to earn his graduate degree, moved from the Deep South to Harlem, and had, at some point, worked in a paint factory.
Contrary to what some critics, for example Lyne 321, have idly assumed, it was therefore not Ellison but The Paris Review who titled the interview “The Art of Fiction,” as it appears in Shadow and Act. 2
For a brief, introductory discussion of the autobiographical nature of Portrait, see Johnson xii-xv.
If we are to posit that a rather significant portion of Invisible Man is, indeed, autobiographical, we may also infer that, for Ellison, this was a conscious choice. This, in turn, raises the question as to why he decided to ground the narrative of the invisible man, as well as much of his earlier fiction, like the short stories “Boy on a Train” and “Hymie’s Bull,” in the experiences of his own life. The reasoning behind the “autobiographication” of the novel is the main focus of this paper, in which I will argue that Ellison made use of his own experience – particularly as an adolescent growing up in the South and a young adult in New York City – to authenticate his fiction. In doing so, he was not only being loyal to the centuries-old African-American autobiographical tradition, but also adhering to a theory that writers such as Ernest Hemingway had, that, to make literature, “[p]eople in a novel, not skillfully constructed characters, must be projected from the writer’s … knowledge, from his head, from his heart and from all there is of him” (Death in the Afternoon 164). Additionally, Ellison’s semi-autobiographical novel can be seen as a precursor to the literary tendency toward narrative reportage, or “the literature of fact,”...
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