As a writer and a reader, I’m obsessed with the Great American Novel. Is it Gatsby? Maybe. But then, it depends on what one means by Great.
Gatsby is, unquestionably in my mind, one of the most gorgeous playings of the English instrument in American literary history. But is it the Great – as in definitive – novel?
I wonder, and have for some time, if another choice for the prize might be Ralph Ellison’s exquisite Invisible Man.
Invisible Man is a masterclass. Others have, could still, and should, write about it in so many other ways. But the reason I’ve been thinking about it this month is its symbolism.
Symbols are everywhere in Ellison’s classic, but it’s a scene towards the end that will be my focus for today.
As Harlem goes alight, and chaos ensues, Ellison’s Narrator observes a woman on a milk wagon. She yells, “If it hadn’t been for the referee, Joe Louis woulda killed Jim Jefferie.”
The quote refers loosely to the defeat of Jim Jeffries in 1910. The fascinating part is that Jeffries never fought Joe Louis. His defeat was to Jack Johnson; the first African-American heavyweight champion. White America loathed Johnson for the way he carried himself; for what he represented. His defeat of a man called “the Great White Hope” was so violently received that the showing of fight films was banned after this contest.
Still, Ellison chooses to fit Joe Louis into this rhyme and therein lays the symbolism.
Louis was Mr. America. He was loved by white and black fan alike (he defeated a Nazi for God’s sake!). Ellison clearly would have known this fact. Therefore, the passage can now be read as this: If it hadn’t been for the referee, [the man all America could love] woulda killed [racism].
If one substitutes the police/injustice for the referee, and understands the Narrator’s perception that the police/injustice had sparked the riots which so fittingly lead Ellison’s story to its close, we now see the following, haunting possibility:
Equality may have been possible – a black hero America could rally behind might have defeated racism – if only injustice hadn’t stopped this hero from doing so.
So much of what I’m learning this Black History Month is shown in this scene. The role of racism, the role of s0-called justice. The stories of heroes, and the mountains even they could not climb. Finally, I’m reminded of one of the chief motivators for a writer to turn to symbolism.
We use symbols to tell two kinds of stories: those we cannot tell, and those which others wish not yet to hear.
Was Ellison being clever? Was he simply trying to say as much as he could?
I’m grateful either way.