If you only published one novel in your lifetime you'd want it to count. Ralph Ellison did, creating through Invisible Man a deeply moving work of art and a profound social statement. The story follows an unnamed narrator moving from the deep South and its blatant racism, to Harlem and its urban prejudice. The narrator explains that he is physically visible; his invisibility stems from a general disregard, an inability to accept his humanity. Because he goes unnamed, he represents all his people and the oppression and ignorance they've endured at the hands of whites in America.
Ellison's style is unique without being pretentious or showy. This is a flesh-and-blood story about a search for identity and, more fundamentally, a sense of humanity. The initial scene, of young black men pitted against each other in hand-to-hand combat for the entertainment of rich white men, is shocking in a way few scenes are, though the later pseudo-celebration of African-Americans by the Communists in Harlem is no less unsettling. What makes these scenes so compelling are Ellison's careful descriptions that are both visceral and suggestive. The prose is like New Orleans jazz—equally staid and rhythmic.
Race relations have greatly improved in the U. S., but an understanding of our nation requires knowledge of the time before the Civil Rights Movement, when African-Americans were treated as subhuman by white bigots. Invisible Man is a better depiction of the racial climate than most history books provide. It's real and semi-autobiographical, adding an element of immediacy. And though a simple list of grievances might be more direct, Ellison's sharp and elegant prose offers an aesthetic experience rare even among the best literature of this nation or any other.