Dean’s Seminar Honors ‘Invisible Man’ on Ralph Ellison’s 100th Birthday

Professor James Miller guides students as they analyze classic novel’s themes of race and American culture.

March 4, 2014

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Professor James Miller is leading a class on literary hero Ralph Ellison.

By Julyssa Lopez

English Professor James Miller was an undergraduate at Brown University when Ralph Ellison visited one of his creative writing classes. Dr. Miller had read Mr. Ellison’s first novel, “Invisible Man,” and was thrilled at the chance to meet the author, whom he regards as one of the “most formidable and significant scholars” of his generation. 

“Ellison was an absolutely decisive figure in my intellectual career,” Dr. Miller said. “He always had something rich, powerful and insightful to say about American life, American culture and American character.”
Saturday marked the literary master’s 100th birthday, which the George Washington University is paying homage to through the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences’ dean’s seminar course “Reading Ralph Ellison’s ‘Invisible Man.’” 
“Because this year was the centennial, we wanted to make sure that we honored Mr. Ellison in our curriculum. He’s a very influential force—even when one is inclined to argue with him,” Dr. Miller said.
“Invisible Man” was an immediate critical success upon publication. It won the 1953 U.S. National Book Award and solidified Mr. Ellison’s place as an African American leader and voice on the literary scene. Dr. Miller said his goal is for students to gain a comprehensive understanding of both the novel and its historical context. He has paired the book with readings on African American figures, like Booker T. Washington and Marcus Garvey, and other topics that influenced Mr. Ellison’s literature. 
In the class, Dr. Miller is challenging students to examine what the novel’s theme of “invisibility” looks like in contemporary society. The question has emerged again and again among Ellison scholars: Dr. Miller remembered an interview that took place just after the civil rights movement, in which Mr. Ellison was asked if the social and political conditions had significantly changed compared with when he penned “Invisible Man.”
“He stood there thinking about this for a while, and finally, he said, ‘No,’ that he didn’t think he would change a word if he were to write the novel now,” Dr. Miller said.
Dr. Miller added that he hopes students will become more engaged readers and critical thinkers. Already, he is impressed with how students have embraced the coursework. Many students, he said, came into the class familiar with the novel from readings in high school.
“Students are more familiar now with ‘Invisible Man’ than they were 30 years ago, and I think that’s a very notable shift,” Dr. Miller said. “They’ve experienced the novel at least once—but there’s something about it that makes them want to come back again. The second time is always better.” 
Sophomore Jennifer Kaufman said Dr. Miller’s class is one of her favorites this semester, and that she is drawn to the complexities and in-depth character analysis in Mr. Ellison’s writing.
“What I find most interesting about this class is Ellison’s dynamic literary structure, which provides for an entertaining and engaging read,” Ms. Kaufman said. “With the guidance of Dr. Miller, I have become a better analyst that understands the intricacies of this writing.”