Wrestling with the Left

The Making of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man

Wrestling with the Left

Book Pages: 464 Illustrations: Published: December 2010

Author: Barbara Foley

African American Studies and Black Diaspora, American Studies, Literature and Literary Studies > Literary Criticism

In Wrestling with the Left, Barbara Foley presents a penetrating analysis of the creation of Invisible Man. In the process she sheds new light not only on Ralph Ellison’s celebrated novel but also on his early radicalism and the relationship between African American writers and the left during the early years of the cold war. Foley scrutinized thousands of pages of drafts and notes for the novel, as well as the author’s early journalism and fiction, published and unpublished. While Ellison had cut his ties with the Communist left by the time he began Invisible Man in 1945, Foley argues that it took him nearly seven years to wrestle down his leftist consciousness (and conscience) and produce the carefully patterned cold war text that won the National Book Award in 1953 and has since become a widely taught American classic. She interweaves her account of the novel’s composition with the history of American Communism, linking Ellison’s political and artistic transformations to his distress at the Communists’ wartime policies, his growing embrace of American nationalism, his isolation from radical friends, and his recognition, as the cold war heated up, that an explicitly leftist writer could not expect to have a viable literary career. Foley suggests that by expunging a leftist vision from Invisible Man, Ellison rendered his novel not only less radical but also less humane than it might otherwise have been.


Wrestling with the Left upends critical conversations about Ellison, Invisible Man, and the Communist legacy. By showing canonical interpretations of Invisible Man to be the politically-motivated discourses they are, Barbara Foley reopens rather than colonizes the question of Ralph Ellison’s politics. Any future attempts to wrestle with Ralph Ellison and his visions of Black identity, culture, art, history, and American society would do well to emulate the unapologetic political commitment and clarity of purpose of Foley’s work. ” — Nathaniel Mills, Against the Current

“[A] compelling, detailed work. . . . Recommended.” — A. Hirsh, Choice

“Fans of Ralph Ellison must put Barbara Foley’s Wrestling with the Left on their reading list. This substantial critical study, some fifteen years in the making, returns to early drafts of Invisible Man to offer a bold new reading of one of the most acclaimed American novels of the twentieth century.... After Foley’s analysis of the material in Ellison’s drafts, one in fact gains an even greater appreciation for the richness and complexity of what remains one of the great works of American literature.” — Brian Dolinar, African American Review

"We are not likely to get a more capacious and visionary political re-reading—or re-writing—of Invisible Man."  — Bill Mullen, Science & Society

Wrestling with the Left is profoundly significant. It is a monumental, scrupulously researched, solidly argued reading of Invisible Man, a novel central to the history and teaching of African American literature and American modernism.” — Dan Colson, Modern Fiction Studies

“Foley is careful, lucid, thorough, and fair, and her book stands as a strong corrective to more reductive readings of Ellison’s novel and of his life.” — Alan Nadel, American Literature

“Impeccably scholarly and full of imaginative surprises, Wrestling with the Left ranks with the most revealing criticism ever produced on Ralph Ellison. Nowhere else is the gestation of Invisible Man and the youngish intellectual who conceived it discussed so fully and incisively.”— — William J. Maxwell, author of New Negro, Old Left: African-American Writing and Communism Between the Wars

“Seeking the truth (pro and con) about Ellison’s complex engagement with Communism, Barbara Foley has written a book indispensable to Ellison studies. She is a tireless scholar who has mastered, like no one before her, the daunting jungle of manuscripts that amply documents Ellison’s indebtedness to, and also his calculated later airbrushing of, the vitality and generosity of the radicals who nourished him on the long road to Invisible Man. Stern but fair, Barbara Foley is a shrewd, lively, lucid writer with a fascinating if controversial tale to tell. This book ably fills perhaps the biggest gap in our critical and biographical understanding of Ralph Ellison.” — Arnold Rampersad, author of Ralph Ellison: A Biography


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Price: $31.95

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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments ix

Note on the Text xi

Introduction: Reading Forward to Invisible Man 1

Part I.

1. Forming a Politics 27

2. Developing an Aesthetic 69

3. Writing from the Left 109

Part II.

4. Living Jim Crow 153

5. Becoming Proletarian 187

6. Finding Brotherhood 237

7. Recognizing Necessity 281

8. Beginning and Ending 325

Notes 351

Selected Bibliography 429

Index 433
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-4829-0 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-4817-7
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