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JRS Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man in Context

ENGL 200.304
MW 2-3:30
fulfills requirements:
Sector 2: Difference and Diaspora of the Standard Major
Sector 6: 20th Century Literature of the Standard Major
Junior Research Seminar Requirement of the Standard Major

Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man took the literary world by storm upon its publication in 1951, changing the landscape of African-American fiction forever. Since then, scholars and artists have called upon the book to speak to every new moment in American history. Even today, the novel’s tale of an unnamed black protagonist’s journey from a Southern town to New York City resonates with our most salient political problems: police violence, cross-racial activism, urban rebellion, liberal racism, labor organizing and so on. Yet, from its thinly veiled portrait of the Communist Party to its depiction of the 1943 Harlem Riot, Ellison’s novel told an incredibly historically specific tale. How and why has this novel transcended time and space when it is so much of its moment? And what did this book mean at the time of its publication? To answer these two questions, this Junior Research Seminar will first read Ellison’s sources: Fyodor Dostoevsky, T.S. Eliot, W. E. B. Du Bois, Richard Wright, and others. Then we will study Ellison’s early work and that of his contemporaries, such as novelist Ann Petry, Jazz Musician Louis Armstrong, and the painter Romare Bearden as well as historical sources such as anti-police violence pamphlets. In the process, we will aim to comprehend the moment in history to which Invisible Man first spoke. Then we will read Invisible Man slowly, carefully, and closely. From there, we will read academic works and artistic responses by scholars such as Henry Louis Gates and Anne Cheng and poets such as Terrance Hayes. In so doing, we aim to better understand the changing meanings of Ellison’s novel, its importance to American history, and the evolution of African American Studies as a discipline. Along the way, our creative and critical assignments will better acquaint us with the various research methods and writing styles of literary criticism. Major requirements: Fulfills Sector 2, Sector 6, and JRS; Gen Ed: fulfills Cultural Diversity in the U.S.