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Oct 10, 2011

The Invisible Man: Ralph Ellison

There are many great writers whose reputations rest on one superlative masterpiece, whether they’ve written several works or whether they’ve produced just one unforgettable and unavoidable magnum opus. Because it’s the only book that he was able to spend any serious time on, The Great Gatsby puts F. Scott Fitzgerald in the former category, which makes readers and critics wonder what else he’d have been capable of had he not led such a chaotic life. 
But then there are the writers who pour everything they have into one perfect life-work and then for some reason never publish another word of fiction. A prime example of this second category of writers is Harper Lee, whose To Kill a Mockingbird is certainly a novel whose tremendous worth at once begs for further literary contributions and merits the author a well-deserved (if not particularly satisfying) retirement after changing the lives of so many readers. 

Perhaps more fascinating, however, is the example of Ralph Ellison and his only completed novel, Invisible Man, because unlike Lee, Ellison was a vital and vocal member of the world literary scene both before and after his one great book changed the literary landscape in 1952. Ellison published two other books in his lifetime—Shadow and Act and Going to the Territory—but they were collections of essays. Even though he was a major critical voice, readers were still eagerly awaitinga second novel when Ellison died in 1994. 

The main reason for Ellison’s inability to finish another novel was probably his own self-proclaimed dissatisfaction with the imperfection of his writing—even with the National Book Award-winning Invisible Man. Soon after his death, Ellison’s literary executor, John F. Callahan, collected and published Flying Home and Other Stories, and then in 1999, manuscripts found in Ellison’s home provided the material for Juneteenth, an unfinished novel that the same literary executor edited down from more than 2,000 pages (written over a period of forty years) to fewer than 400 pages.

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