In the late 1940s, Ralph Ellison set out to write the Great American Novel about race. What he finally produced was more than that; it might just possibly be the Great American Novel, period. The appearance in 1952 of his first book, Invisible Man, struck the American literary scene like an earthquake. Its relatively unknown author was compared with Defoe, Céline, Dostoyevsky, Gogol, Melville, and Faulkner; even now, half-a-century later, the kudos do not seem extravagant. This one novel netted Ellison the National Book Award, two presidential medals of honor (from L.B.J. and Reagan), the Prix de Rome, the French rank of Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters, and an honorary degree from Harvard.

Still in his thirties and apparently with a great career ahead of him, Ellison applied himself to writing a second novel that would live up to his own high expectations and those of his public. For the next...


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