Limina: A Journal of Historical and Cultural Studies

Alienated, Anxious, American: The Crisis of Coming of Age in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and the Late Harlem Bildungsroman

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Tamlyn E. Avery

The University of New South Wales

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Alienated, Anxious, American: The Crisis of Coming of Age in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and the Late Harlem Bildungsroman

Themes of fear and loathing are often associated with the narrative trajectory of the twentieth century American Bildungsroman. In the traditional European prototype, coming-of-age is charted through the representation of ordeals and life lessons which the young protagonist or Bildungsheld must overcome in order to achieve their harmonious course of maturation. The American model forgoes this necessity of harmony. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952) is one such coming-of-age narrative, following the pedagogical and experiential education of an African American adolescent in the 1920s and 30s. By innovating upon several of the traditional Bildungsroman subgenres: the Künstlerroman (development of the artist novel), and Erziehungsroman (novel of pedagogical education), Ellison subverts the inefficiencies of representing race in American literature and culture that had come before him. At the same time, the author illuminates the hypocrisies of racial and ideological identity politics in a post- Abolition American society. Through close textual analysis, this paper will assess the extent to which the Bildungsroman genre facilitates Ellison’s didactic intention to represent an African American subject who is at once a complex individual, an allegorical universal figure, and most significantly to the text’s themes, an authentic representation of what it means to be an American.

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Limina: A Journal of Historical and Cultural Studies

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