North Carolina County Celebrates Banned Book Week By Banning Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man … Then Reversing It


We’re smack in the mid­dle of Banned Books Week, and one par­tic­u­lar case of book-ban­ning has received a lot of atten­tion late­ly, that of Ralph Ellison’s clas­sic 1952 nov­el Invis­i­ble Man, which was cen­sored by the Ran­dolph Coun­ty, NC school board last week. In response to one parent’s com­plaint, the board assessed the book, found it a “hard read,” and vot­ed 5–2 to remove it from the high school libraries (prompt­ing the novel’s pub­lish­er to give copies away for free to stu­dents). One board mem­ber stat­ed that he “didn’t find any lit­er­ary val­ue” in Ellison’s nov­el, a judg­ment that may have raised the eye­brows of the Nation­al Book Award judges who award­ed Elli­son the hon­or in 1953, not to men­tion the 200 authors and crit­ics who in 1965 vot­ed the nov­el “the most dis­tin­guished sin­gle work pub­lished in the last twen­ty years.”

After wide­spread pub­lic out­cry, the Ran­dolph Coun­ty reversed the deci­sion in a spe­cial ses­sion yes­ter­day. In light of the book’s new­found noto­ri­ety after this sto­ry, we thought we’d revis­it a Paris Review inter­view Elli­son gave in 1954. The inter­view­ers press Elli­son on what they see as some of the novel’s weak­ness­es, but describe Ellison’s mas­ter­work as “crack­ling, bril­liant, some­times wild, but always con­trolled.” Below are some high­lights from this rich con­ver­sa­tion. This inter­view would not like­ly sway those shame­ful­ly unlet­tered school board mem­bers, but fans of Elli­son and those just dis­cov­er­ing his work will find much here of mer­it. Elli­son, also an insight­ful lit­er­ary crit­ic and essay­ist, dis­cuss­es at length his inten­tions, influ­ences, and the­o­ries of lit­er­a­ture.

  • On his lit­er­ary influ­ences:

Elli­son, who says he “became inter­est­ed in writ­ing through inces­sant read­ing,” cites a num­ber of high mod­ernist writ­ers as direct influ­ences on his work. T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land piqued his inter­est in 1935, and in the midst of the Depres­sion, while he and his broth­er “hunt­ed and sold game for a liv­ing” in Day­ton OH, Elli­son “prac­ticed writ­ing and stud­ied Joyce, Dos­toyevsky, Stein, and Hem­ing­way.” He espe­cial­ly liked Hem­ing­way for the latter’s authen­tic­i­ty.

I read him to learn his sen­tence struc­ture and how to orga­nize a sto­ry. I guess many young writ­ers were doing this, but I also used his descrip­tion of hunt­ing when I went into the fields the next day. I had been hunt­ing since I was eleven, but no one had bro­ken down the process of wing-shoot­ing for me, and it was from read­ing Hem­ing­way that I learned to lead a bird. When he describes some­thing in print, believe him; believe him even when he describes the process of art in terms of base­ball or box­ing; he’s been there.

  • On lit­er­a­ture as protest

Elli­son began Invis­i­ble Man in 1945, before the Civ­il Rights move­ment got going. He drew much of his sense of the nov­el as a form of social protest from lit­er­ary sources, claim­ing that he rec­og­nized “no dichoto­my between art and protest.”

 Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Under­ground is, among oth­er things, a protest against the lim­i­ta­tions of nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry ratio­nal­ism; Don Quixote, Man’s Fate, Oedi­pus Rex, The Tri­al—all these embody protest, even against the lim­i­ta­tion of human life itself. If social protest is anti­thet­i­cal to art, what then shall we make of Goya, Dick­ens, and Twain?

All nov­els are about cer­tain minori­ties: the indi­vid­ual is a minor­i­ty. The uni­ver­sal in the novel—and isn’t that what we’re all clam­or­ing for these days?—is reached only through the depic­tion of the spe­cif­ic man in a spe­cif­ic cir­cum­stance.

  • On the role of myth and folk­lore in lit­er­a­ture:

Elli­son adapts a tremen­dous amount of black Amer­i­can folk­lore in Invis­i­ble Man, from folk tales to the blues, to give the nov­el much of its voice and struc­ture. His use of folk forms springs from his sense that “Negro folk­lore, evolv­ing with­in a larg­er cul­ture which regard­ed it as infe­ri­or, was an espe­cial­ly coura­geous expres­sion” as well as his read­ing of rit­u­al in the mod­ernist mas­ters he admired. Of the use of folk­lore and myth, Elli­son says,

The use of rit­u­al is equal­ly a vital part of the cre­ative process. I learned a few things from Eliot, Joyce and Hem­ing­way, but not how to adapt them. When I start­ed writ­ing, I knew that in both “The Waste Land” and Ulysses, ancient myth and rit­u­al were used to give form and sig­nif­i­cance to the mate­r­i­al; but it took me a few years to real­ize that the myths and rites which we find func­tion­ing in our every­day lives could be used in the same way. … Peo­ple ratio­nal­ize what they shun or are inca­pable of deal­ing with; these super­sti­tions and their ratio­nal­iza­tions become rit­u­al as they gov­ern behav­ior. The rit­u­als become social forms, and it is one of the func­tions of the artist to rec­og­nize them and raise them to the lev­el of art.

  • On the moral and social func­tion of lit­er­a­ture:

Elli­son has quite a lot to say in the inter­view about what he sees as the moral duty of the nov­el­ist to address social prob­lems, which he relates to a nine­teenth cen­tu­ry tra­di­tion (ref­er­enc­ing anoth­er famous­ly banned book, Huck­le­ber­ry Finn). Elli­son faults the con­tem­po­rary lit­er­a­ture of his day for aban­don­ing this moral dimen­sion, and he makes it clear that his inten­tion is to see the social prob­lems he depicts as great moral ques­tions that Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture should address.

One func­tion of seri­ous lit­er­a­ture is to deal with the moral core of a giv­en soci­ety. Well, in the Unit­ed States the Negro and his sta­tus have always stood for that moral con­cern. He sym­bol­izes among oth­er things the human and social pos­si­bil­i­ty of equal­i­ty. This is the moral ques­tion raised in our two great nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry nov­els, Moby-Dick and Huck­le­ber­ry Finn. The very cen­ter of Twain’s book revolves final­ly around the boy’s rela­tions with Nig­ger Jim and the ques­tion of what Huck should do about get­ting Jim free after the two scoundrels had sold him. There is a mag­ic here worth con­jur­ing, and that reach­es to the very nerve of the Amer­i­can consciousness—so why should I aban­don it? …Per­haps the dis­com­fort about protest in books by Negro authors comes because since the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture has avoid­ed pro­found moral search­ing. It was too painful and besides there were spe­cif­ic prob­lems of lan­guage and form to which the writ­ers could address them­selves. They did won­der­ful things, but per­haps they left the real prob­lems untouched. 

The full Paris Review inter­view is well worth read­ing.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Ralph Elli­son Reads from His Nov­el-in-Progress, June­teenth, in Rare Video Footage (1966)

74 Free Banned Books (for Banned Books Week)

The Paris Review Inter­views Now Online

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Don Kenner says:

    Notice that it only took one par­ent com­plaint to have the book removed. This is very typ­i­cal. When I was a school librar­i­an I had occa­sion to ask a par­ent who want­ed a book removed, “If 200 par­ents think a book deserves to be in the library and one par­ent thinks it should go, which is the bet­ter solu­tion: have that one par­en­t’s child read some­thing else, or deny the 200 par­ents’ chil­dren access to the book?“nnnShe did­n’t hes­i­tate: “Have the book removed.“nnnAs to the board mem­ber who found “no lit­er­ary val­ue” in the book, gov­ern­ment insti­tu­tions are filled with such peo­ple, from philistines to bul­lies to atten­tion whores. It’s the nature of gov­ern­ment.

  • Eric says:

    Does the library have a copy of the Bible? My old pub­lic school library did. If so, one non-Chris­t­ian par­ent ought to peti­tion to have it removed. See how the holi­er-than-thou book burn­ers react then. FWIW, the Bible has far more “objec­tion­able” con­tent than most books that end up get­ting banned (graph­ic vio­lence, slav­ery, rape, polygamy, etc)

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