In 1952, Ralph Ellison published Invisible Man to acclaim, though the novel’s subterranean ending has inspired critical debate. For over forty years afterward, he worked on his second novel, unfinished when he died in 1994. This article considers what was at stake for Ellison both in publishing as a novelist and in sustained composition. Through paying close attention to Ellison’s compositional style in Invisible Man, in addition to his work in the essay form, this account shows that despite Ellison’s desire to publish the novel, his approach to novel-writing indicates his investment in something more ongoing. Tying Invisible Man’s contentious ending to this conversation allows us to glimpse the shared, complex value of the anonymous narrator’s underground circumstances and Ellison’s creative process.
Writing Underground: Ralph Ellison and the Novel
Cheryl Alison received her doctorate from Tufts University in 2014 and teaches writing at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts. Her essay on the interpretive challenge of Ralph Ellison’s archives has appeared in European Journal of American Studies. Her current book project focuses on Ellison, Francis Bacon, Samuel Beckett, and Elizabeth Bishop, and explores forms of enclosure in transatlantic late modernism.