Ninety-Nine Novels: Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
In 1984, Anthony Burgess published Ninety-Nine Novels, a selection of his favourite novels in English since 1939. The list is typically idiosyncratic, and shows the breadth of Burgess’s interest in fiction. This podcast, by the International Anthony Burgess Foundation, explores the novels on Burgess’s list with the help of writers, critics and other special guests.
In this episode, Graham Foster explores pre-civil rights America in Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel Invisible Man, with writer and academic Sterling L. Bland Jr.
Invisible Man follows a nameless black narrator, from his early life as a student of an all-black college based on the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, through his expulsion and move to New York where he takes up a series of low status jobs before he falls in with a radical political group called The Brotherhood and takes part in a race riot in Harlem. The novel is part bildungsroman, part satire, and full of literary allusion, allegory and rich imagery. It’s also an impassioned commentary on the black experience in an America marked by segregation, inequality and racism.
Ralph Ellison was born in Oklahoma in 1914. He discovered the power of literature at the Tuskegee Institute, even though he left before graduating. In 1936, he moved to New York, meeting writers Langston Hughes and Richard Wright. Invisible Man was the only novel published in his lifetime, though he also published two volumes of essays. Since his death in 1994, his second, unfinished, novel was published in 1999 under the title Juneteenth. A longer version of this novel was published in 2010 under the title Three Days Before the Shooting… There have also been two further volumes of essays, a collection of short stories, and two selections of his letters.
Sterling Lecater Bland, Jr. is a professor in the departments of English, Africana Studies, and American Studies at Rutgers University-Newark. He is the author of Voices of the Fugitives: Runaway Slave Stories and Their Fictions of Self-Creation and Understanding Nineteenth Century Slave Narratives. He has written extensively about Ralph Ellison and contributed essays to books such as Approaches to Teaching the Works of Ralph Ellison, and Ralph Ellison in Context. His most recent book is In the Shadow of Invisibility: Ralph Ellison and the Promise of American Democracy.
Books mentioned in this episode
By Ralph Ellison:
- Shadow and Act: Essays (1964)
- Going to the Territory: Essays (1986)
- Juneteenth (1999), also published in a longer form as Three Days Before the Shooting… (2010)
- The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (1884)
- Light in August by William Faulkner (1932)
- Native Son by Richard Wright (1940)
- The Mansion by William Faulkner (1959)
- The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison (1970)
- Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison (1977)
- The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead (1999)
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In Series One and Two of Ninety-Nine Novels, we learnt about authors including James Joyce, Thomas Pynchon, Iris Murdoch, Ian Fleming and William Golding, among others. These episodes are available at your favourite place to get podcasts.
You can join the conversation and tell us which 100th book you would add to Burgess’s list by using the hashtag #99Novels on Twitter.
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The theme music for the Ninety-Nine Novels podcast is Anthony Burgess’s Concerto for Flute, Strings and Piano in D Minor, performed by No Dice Collective.