As the nation reckons with racial injustice, people are turning to books that deal with race and anti-racism. And on some of the recommended reading lists circulating online — and in this opinion piece by NPR’s Scott Simon — is Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, a novel that began in a barn here in Vermont 75 years ago.
When he came to Vermont in the summer of 1945, Ralph Waldo Ellison was 31 years old and not yet a novelist. World War II was coming to an end, and Ellison was serving as a cook in the Merchant Marine. He fell ill and was placed on medical leave. And he decided to come to Vermont.
Arnold Rampersad, a professor emeritus in the department of English at Stanford, wrote Ralph Ellison: A Biography. He told VPR that Ellison was planning to use the time to start writing a book.
“[Ellison] was excited to be in Vermont, thrilled to be in that particular state, especially in the summertime. [He was] thrilled to have free time, but also laboring all the time to find his voice as a novelist,” Rampersad said. “He was not sure that he was a novelist... but he was determined to become a novelist.”
Ellison was born in Oklahoma. He briefly studied music at Tuskegee Institute and moved to New York City in 1936. That’s where he met John and Amelie Bates. They lived in Harlem and went to their house in Fayston, Vt. in the summertime. Ellison had joined them once before, in 1943. There were kids in the house at the time, too; three girls: Joan, Diana, and Grace.
Today, Grace Bates lives in Boston. She still visits family in Vermont, where she spoke with VPR.
Back in 1945, Bates was just 5 years old. She remembers that at her family’s house in Fayston, there was no running water or electricity, the road was dirt, and just about the only car that drove by belonged to the mailman.
“As a child it was just heaven,” she said. “It was nothing but playing in the mud, playing in the brook, picking berries.”
But for Ellison, who was trying to write, it wasn’t so peaceful. Bates says her older sister recalls throwing stuff at the barn while Ellison was working inside. She said, “Diana sort of remembered throwing oranges at the barn, but there were no oranges in this part of the countryside that time of year, and it was probably rocks.”
Despite those interruptions, something happened. Ellison saidin a TV interview in 1966 that “certain things that I’d been doing — reading, thinking about — came into focus, a sort of unconscious focus, as often happens when you’re writing something.”
Ellison said in that interview he had been thinking about mythological heroes and historical figures, and what it meant to be an African American leader at the time — this was before the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
He has also said he was thinking about classic literature and African American folklore. He said that one morning, sitting in that Fayston barn, “I wrote the first sentence of what later became Invisible Man: ‘I am an invisible man.’ And I played with that, started to reject it, but it intrigued me and I began to put other things with it. Pretty soon I had a novel going.”
Ellison later wrote that the book’s opening line was delivered to him by “a taunting, disembodied voice.” He tried to ignore it, but couldn’t.
Something that had happened in Vermont had been on Ellison's mind, too. He wrote in the 1981 introduction to the novel that not long before that voice spoke to him, he’d seen a poster in a nearby town for a “Tom Show,” a blackface minstrel version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. He was surprised; he wrote that he had “thought such entertainment a thing of the past, but there in a quiet northern village, it was alive and kicking.”
Jennifer DeVere Brody directs the Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity at Stanford University, where she’s also a professor of theater and performance studies. She’s written about Ellison and that poster, and she said it made an impact on him.
“I think that what was surprising for him was to see the ways in which race continues as a trope and slavery as a kind of formative understanding of American race relations,” she told VPR. “It absolutely speaks to the ways in which these minstrel shows and other aspects of racism were popular throughout the entire country, and that the North also had major issues around segregation and racism and was not at all, you know, sort of immune somehow as a liberal space that’s sometimes imagined.”
The narrator of Ellison’s novel is an unnamed Black man, invisible due to others’ refusal to see him for who he is because of the color of his skin. The story takes place in the South and in New York, and contains no mention of Vermont.
But biographer Arnold Rampersad says it’s not surprising Ellison’s moment of inspiration happened where it did. “Ellison saw all around him examples of people who did now know history, did not know their own history, did not know their own sacrifice, but [who] were good people, trying to do good things, having lost connection to an earlier time when they were in some respects the center of the American moral world,” he said, “and that was what he was trying to investigate in Invisible Man.”
Ellison left Vermont with the beginnings of his novel, which he published in 1952. It spent 16 weeks on the bestseller list and went on to win the National Book Award for fiction. It was the first book by an African American writer to do so.
Before his death in 1994, Ellison returned to Vermont several times, though not to that farm in Fayston.
Today, Gamal Buhaina lives there. He’s the grandson of Amelie and John Bates, the couple Ellison stayed with in 1945. He grew up playing in the barn and still lives in the house across the road. It's on “the only flat section and straight section of [German Flats Road], nestled beneath Mount Ellen,” he said.
Buhaina's cousin, Yawu Miller, grew up playing in the barn, too. Like his mother, Grace Bates, Miller came to the Fayston property in the summertime. “It wasn’t until my mid-twenties that I understood the connection between this place and Invisible Man," he said. Miller said he read Invisible Man in college, but skipped the introduction. He made the connection later, and when he did, “it just made the world feel a little bit smaller.”
Unlike in 1945, when Ellison visited, the road is no longer dirt. Cars whip by on the pavement. And something else is different, too: the barn where Ellison started writing Invisible Man is gone. According to Buhaina, the the road was raised about six feet and paved in the 1960s, which had a negative effect on the barn. He said it fell into a state of disrepair, and was torn down after his family sold the land it was on to Sugarbush resort in the 1980s.
Now there are just the remnants of the foundation, and a tree the barn leaned against when it began to sag. It doesn’t look like much. “It looks like, uh, overgrown weeds,” said Buhaina, “It looks like nature coming back, which nature will do every time.”
All that remains is a pile of stones, barely visible in a tangle of undergrowth. And Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, which began there 75 years ago.
Audio of Ellison's 1966 interview used courtesy of the Oklahoma Historical Society.
This article was first published on VPR.org.