Friday, June 29, 2018

Invisible Man Discussions, round one

Thanks to the Friends of the U City Library for our books!
Wow!  What a great trio of discussions - over 80 participants and much to talk about.  Here are my notes:

What are the mysteries here?

Remember that this is a novel of the surreal

A novel of dreams

Battle Royal is a nightmare - but there's a foreshadowing of the idea that someone can beat an expert by using time (the yokel versus the skilled fighter) - syncopation - a big part of West African music

the position of the Battle royal in the beginning - leaves the reader thrown off balance -

blindfoldedness of the Battle Royal leads to the unblinding that occurs when he reads the Dr Bledsoe letter

reader is off balance in part because we keep moving to strange new environments - from one episode to another

prologue - invisible man beats up the white man who doesn't see him but he doesn't kill him, in contrast to Bigger Thomas in Native Son, (Richard Wright) - he's giving a warning that he's writing a different kind of book

Ellison is arguing against linear time - we don't make straightforward progress

At the slave quarters, IM comes under the power of a great author - Trueblood - he is an orator, who totally controls the scene - possibly deliberately giving Mr. Norton what he desires, something he (Norton) can never actually have

Trueblood's cabin represents the era of slavery

Golden Day - the vets are vets of WWI.  Lots of black troops in WWI.  NAACP had to fight to allow black soldiers to have combat roles - Harlem Hellfighters - they thought they could prove themselves, but when they returned, nothing had changed

Supercargo / superego - should control the id- he is the supervisor of the vets - he gets knocked out - what happens when desire and race collide and there's no more control -

everything in the book is working in several different tracks - IM wants to listen to Armstrong on five different phonographs - this is part of the modernist aesthetic

Shout-outs to TS Eliot - beginning of Chapter 2 description of Tuskegee - Ellison loved Eliot - he masters ragtime rhythms

vet / doctor - manic - very wise - our culture has decided that great intelligence in African Americans is seen as madness

What about Bledsoe?  he's not a blood anymore because of his behavior - a historical replacement for Booker T Washington

Bledsoe is a figure of the will to power - almost like a fascist - beyond good and evil - only the pursuit of personal power

NAACP was formed in part to knock Booker T Washington off his pedestal of power

WEB Dubois became a national figure in part because he challenged Booker T

In Doctorow's Ragtime Booker T is portrayed as an Uncle Tom

this is a novel about education - about the process - it can be a violent process - a bildungsroman - a de-idealization of a young person - learning about where power lies and how it works

IM doesn't have friends, doesn't make friends, doesn't really have real conversations -

Ellison is a self cultivated individualist - during the black power movement, Ellison was seen as a sort of loner

Homer A Barbee is blind - like the other Homer - IM is an African American epic - like Odyssey

Ellison is always braiding traditions together -

narrator is dangerous because Bledsoe can't read him

Bledsoe has decided what the message is supposed to be -

IM is a wild card

battle royal sets up the question about agency

Who was crueler - the white small-town power of the Battle Royal, or the black power of Bledsoe sending him to NY with no hope

Bledsoe's cruelty may have really set IM free

identity of the founder - not clear to some readers, but it's believed to be Booker T. Washington

Booker T Washington - getting ahead by going along - he tried to carve out something from what exists now

Book:  Doctrine of Self Help - biggest selling book in Victorian England - this encapsulates Booker T.

Bledsoe's letters were evil

Did Bledsoe trip Homer Barbee  - "he floundered on Dr. Bledsoe's legs"  - Ellison leaves us 'in the dark' on this issue

Perplexing character - the asylum doctor - what is the purpose of this character - are we supposed to believe that a highly intelligent African American would only be crazy -

Mr Norton is looking for his legacy - he meets the 'mad' doctor, who was once at the college

are the mad vets some hint of rumors, low-level awareness of Syphilis Experiments at Tuskegee

Giving his speech after the Battle Royal- was it strength or naivete

IM's speech is what legitimizes the Chamber of Commerce event for the white men

After the trauma of the Battle Royal, rather than throwing away the briefcase, he clutches it to himself - he wins

Briefcase is an important item - it's like a trophy - that's when he begins to become invisible

We wear the Mask - the receipt of the briefcase, passing the test, reminded a reader of this poem (by Paul Laurence Dunbar) - grandfather's advice is related to this poem

IM knew he was selling out when he substituted 'responsibility' for 'equality'

Invisibility is frequently a superpower

Invisibility is a very relatable concept for our times - elderly people, for example

the prologue vs the rest of the book - almost seems to be written by two different people

what are the motives of young Emerson - is he trying to help - is he a sadist trying to pluck the fly's wings?

Invisible Man is Everyman (and woman) - it crosses age, race, gender, status

Title (without 'the') reflects the consciousness that this is about everyone

a reader relates to One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest

a reader sees the positive side of invisibility - we should strive to 'not see' the differences




We Wear the Mask by Paul Lawrence Dunbar

One of the participants at Friday's session of our first round read us Paul Lawrence Dunbar's classic poem, "We Wear the Mask," which seemed to tie in well with the discussion of Invisible Man


We wear the mask that grins and lies, 
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,— 
This debt we pay to human guile; 
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile, 
And mouth with myriad subtleties. 
Why should the world be over–wise, 
In counting all our tears and sighs? 
Nay, let them only see us, while 

We wear the mask. 

We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries 
To thee from tortured souls arise. 
We sing, but oh the clay is vile 
Beneath our feet, and long the mile; 
But let the world dream otherwise, 

We wear the mask!

And here is the late, great Maya Angelou reading Dunbar's poem in combination with her own "For Old Black Men": 

Booker T Washington and Dr. Bledsoe


At our Wednesday night discussion, the similarities between Dr. Bledsoe (and the "Founder") and Booker T. Washington were brought up by several people and commented on by Dr. Maxwell. Here is a clip from the PBS Masters film, Ralph Ellison: An American Journey.  It features a section, "Dr. Bledsoe: A Fictional Booker T. Washington." Join us for a showing of the complete PBS documentary on August 23, at 7pm.




  •  Dr. Bledsoe: A Fictional Booker T. Washington downloaded from PBS LearningMedia, http://www.pbslearningmedia.org. Rights to use this asset expire on 05/15/2025 .
  • Asset Copyright ©2001 New Images Productions.
  • Credits A production of New Images Productions, Inc. in association with Thirteen/WNET New York.



  • Source: This media asset is from American Masters—Ralph Ellison, An American Journey
  • Invisibility in literature

    Lacking today's CGI, the 1933 movie adaptation of
    H.G. Wells' The Invisible Man relied on bandages to
    cover up his invisibility.
    From the first page of Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison uses the unnamed narrator's metaphorical invisibility to give him the ability to tell his story. But in a lot of literature — generally speaking, science fiction and fantasy literature — invisibility is literal.

    As this Smithsonian article from 2012 points out, invisibility as a plot point or literary characteristic stretches all the way back to Greek mythology (with Hades' cap of invisibility) and Plato, whose Republic features a character that finds a ring that renders him invisible, a device that was replicated in J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings books. Perhaps the best-known example of actual invisibility in literature (and the most likely cause for confusion in this summer's book selection) is H.G. Wells 1897 novella, The Invisible Man, in which a scientist creates a formula to make himself invisible.

    The Smithsonian Air & Space Museum
    displays Wonder Woman's invisible jet
    on April 1, 2015.
    The device continues to pop up throughout literature and movies, often (but not always) coinciding with the character's desire to be unnoticed (such as Harry Potter and his invisibility cloak or Violet's shyness in the Incredibles movies) or feeling of being ignored (such as in Andrew Kaufman's short novel All My Friends are Superheroes and in a flotilla of young adult fantasy novels). Several superhero comics series include characters with the powers of invisibility, most notably Fantastic Four's Invisible Woman, Martian Manhunter, and, of course, Wonder Woman's invisible jet.

    What are your favorite uses of invisibility in literature?

    Friday, June 22, 2018

    Listening to Second Nature Horns

    Charles Glenn, Vicky Smolik, Steve Radick, and Steve Hoover of Second Nature Horns

    Hear them play Ben Tucker's Comin' Home Baby and Basin Street Blues at the U City Library!

    Gerald Early lecture - some notes

    Dr. Early gave a terrific talk to a packed house last Wednesday night.  There was much for us to think about and to fuel our upcoming discussions.  My notes:


    Conflict for Ellison - loved and knew Negro folk music, jazz and spirituals but black schools and Tuskegee taught only classical - the 'canon' was important

    Idea of Invisible Man is all about figuring out what you think rather than what people think you should think

    Ellison struggled as a student at Tuskegee

    Studied music under William Dawson, who pushed very hard- not a good relationship

    Influenced by Morteza Sprague, chair of the English department- very canonical program - the classics

    2nd book Shadow and Act dedicated to Sprague

    Typical undergrad - got interested in sculpture, after studying music

    New York - hangs out with Richard Wright

    Hangs out in black and communist intellectual circles

    Wright was the dude- he was super disciplined- he didn't just want to be a writer, he wanted to be great

    Ellison was impressed by the amount of literature Wright had read

    When nothing else works in the arts there's always writing!

    Communists are giving black writers the chance to be published

    Ellison starts IM in 1945

    Portions published in 1947

    IM published on April 14, 1952

    National Book Award January 27,1953

    a person can be paralyzed by early success

    Ralph Ellisons creed:

    • To think that a writer must think about his negroness is to fall into a trap
    • Why can't writers be as concerned with quality as jazz musicians
    • I wasn't, and am not, concerned with injustice but with art


    Some people do NOT like him -his biographer Rampersad, for example

    What he did with Invisible Man is what he WOULD have done had he been a composer, that is, create something new, as African Americans created the new, highly technical and demanding art of jazz

    Ellison felt that his role was not to be a spokesperson for the black experience

    He felt that jazz musicians were the highest expression of black art

    America is red,white,blue, and black - referring to the 'sloe gin and ice cream' scene in the prologue, while listening to Louis Armstrong singing 'What Did I Do to Be So Black and Blue'

    Themes of the novel: African Americans and their sense of alienation

    Why alienation was an important theme in the 1950s

    How jazz and blues were art forms that expressed alienation while combating it -The importance of the INDIVIDUAL African American experience and the fight against sociological categories and definitions

    Sociology is "dogmatic and arrogant...Quick to flaunt its vaunted empiricism as Truth."

    Is Invisible Man a jazz novel?

    Ellison felt that black people were prisoners of sociology- Ellison hated the discipline

    Is it a jazz novel - in a way, yes- in the sense that he wants to go to art to explain black people- inspired by jazz music - if I could write something as good as count Basie, for example, then I will have achieved something

    No getting around that Ellison was an elitist


    Please comment below to amplify these notes - there was much I missed!















    Saturday, June 16, 2018

    Ellison, Jazz, and WashU's Gerald Early


    In the run-up to the acclaimed Gerald Early's lecture on Ellison and jazz on Wednesday, June 20 at 7pm, I highly recommend this New Yorker article.  Entitled "Why Did Ralph Ellison Despise Modern Jazz?" by Richard Brody, it's a nice brief entree into the topic. 

    And while you're at it, take a look at the page from the National Jazz Museum in Harlem's exhibit Ralph Ellison: a Man and His Records.  View the catalog of Ellison's record collection and more.

    Tuesday, June 5, 2018

    Black & Blue

    In the prologue, the narrator references Louis Armstrong's "Black and Blue." The melancholy song's lyrics offer a bit of a preview of what's coming in the following chapters. If you've never heard the song, or would just like to take another listen, here's a video of Armstrong and his band performing it live in Berlin in 1965.


    Friday, May 25, 2018

    Kicking off Invisible Man!


    Sloan and Reneise helping one of our awesome readers!
    We had a great crowd for our Big Book Challenge Kickoff event on Wednesday!  If you weren't able to make it, don't worry - all books that were on hold before the event are now on the hold shelf waiting for you.  And if you're still waiting for a copy, we've got more on order and they'll be in very soon.  Still interested in signing up?  Just fill out our RSVP survey.





    If you missed our kickoff lecture by WashU's Dr. William Maxwell, please take a look at it by clicking the links below.  It was an incredibly informative and motivating discussion, with lots of audience participation.

    Dr. William Maxwell Lecture, 1

    • The novel is full of dialogue, full of interruption, music interfering with high-falutin' conversation.
    • The novel deals with the very bottom of American racism, but it wants to envision a way out.
    • This is a book that wants its length, its density.  It's a book of the world.
    • It was a representative text of the black world (mid-century).
    • It has a habit of winning prizes...the National Book Award, 1953, the first African-American author to win the prize.
    • Ellison is one of the most willfully American authors.


     Dr. William Maxwell Lecture, 2

    • It is not only the representative African-American text of 20th century, it is perhaps the American novel of the long 20th century, at the period of America's greatest cultural, economic, and political influence.
    • For a long time, this was the earliest introduction to many Americans of the complexities of the African-American experience.
    • Ellison did not have a dramatic life, no paparazzi.
    • The Great Migration - a huge, voluntary movement - 7 million Americans, eventually
    • Ellison is from Oklahoma City, not part of the Great Migration - ironic, because Invisible Man is a great novel of the Migration
    • Oklahoma City has an important African-American community, but it's more southwestern, not part of the south-to-north story
    • Ellison almost sees himself as a cowboy
    • Attracted to ideas of individual character and strength
    • Ellison didn't believe he should talk about his own experience of suffering
    • He wanted to talk about racism with a sense of the highest artistic potential
    • Importance of Ellison's essay "The World and the Jug"
    • Proponent of the necessary mixing of groups
    • Ellison was looking for plurality


    Dr. William Maxwell Lecture, 3

    • Ellison grew up in difficult circumstances
    • His mother, widowed, was a Socialist
    • Wins a music scholarship to Tuskegee
    • Arrives at Tuskegee and is beaten at the rail station by two white policeman
    • Still, Ellison's work emphasizes transcendence, culturally you can build something better
    • Ellison's second novel, Juneteenth, was never finished - it haunted him
    • Ellison was very technologically adept - assembled his own stereo, an early adopter of word processing for his writing


    Dr. William Maxwell Lecture, 4

    • First paragraph of the prologue: what kind of person speaks this way?  he's educated (choice of vocabulary), he's a fan of American popular culture, elite reference to Edgar Allan Poe, someone who can move between levels of culture and discourse
    • Ellison desires to create a highly intellectualized hero, a thinker

    Apologies - the last part of the lecture didn't record properly...

    Dr. William Maxwell Lecture, 5

    • Importance of Louis Armstrong, reference to the song "What Did I Do to Be so Black and Blue?"
    • Why is Invisible Man's favorite dessert vanilla ice cream with sloe gin?



    Friday, May 11, 2018

    FAQs: Summer Reading and Invisible Man

    •  How soon may I pick up my book so I can get started?
    We are hard at work getting the books and supporting materials ready to go for you.  Everything will be available at the kickoff May 23; if you have signed up through our online survey and are unable to attend the kickoff, your materials will be waiting for you on the hold shelf Thursday, May 24.

    •   Do I need to have a University City card to participate?
    Absolutely not!  You can check out Invisible Man with a card from any of the libraries in the Municipal Library Consortium. If you don’t have one yet, or you’re not sure, we can sign you up for a UCPL card at the kickoff.
    •   Is there any cost to participate?
    Never!  All programs are free for everyone, and there is no charge to check out materials.
    •   Must I commit to a particular discussion meeting time?
    No, you may come to any discussions you wish, or even attend more than one per month if you are available.  If you can’t attend every month, that is perfectly fine.

    •  What do I win if I participate and finish the readings?
      Bragging rights: You’ll receive a specially designed Invisible Man button for your tote bag showing the number of pages completed, as well as a one-of-a-kind homemade bookmark.
      That all-important sense of accomplishment: We’re all working together to tackle a challenge and stretch our horizons!
      New friends: You’ll meet new people from your neighborhood and beyond.
      The best things in life aren’t things, right?

    Thursday, May 3, 2018

    Say YES to the Challenge!

    Are you ready to join the best readers in town for a new reading adventure?

    RSVP yes today!