Invisible Man & Lolita Changed the ’50s

Lyon and Mason in Kubrick's "Lolita"

Lyon and Mason in Kubrick’s “Lolita”


In my Theories of the Reader senior seminar this past semester, I received two interesting essays about novels that shook up 1950s readers. Alex Bussman reported on how Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952) changed what people thought it meant to be black, and Frank DeRose showed how Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (1955, published in the U.S. in 1959) violated a tacit agreement not to go digging under neatly manicured lawns bordered by white picket fences.

Both students drew on the theories of German reception theorist Hans Robert Jauss, and the class as a whole identified him as their favorite theorist of the course. This did my heart good as Jauss was central to my own evolution as a literary scholar. You’ll see why after I explain his ideas.

Jauss talks of a work of literature interacting with a society’s “horizon of expectations.” Readers open a book expecting certain things, and the work may meet, disappoint, or challenge those expectations. The text does its important work in that interchange. Jauss believes that, while lesser works simply meet and confirm existing expectations, great works change them. After reading a literary masterpiece, we no longer see the world in the same way.

While I entered graduate school believing that literature had the power to influence history, I didn’t know how to prove it. For all I knew, I believed it because I wanted to believe it. Jauss gave me a way to chart literature’s impact.

Having one’s expectations challenged isn’t always a pleasant experience, which is why great new works are often controversial. People aren’t sure what to make of them and may respond with confusion or even anger. Such was the case with Invisible Man and Lolita.

Invisible Man confused because Ellison wrote with a cutting edge modernist style. Reviewers assumed that African Americans only wrote realistic social protest novels and didn’t know what to make of the departure. On the one hand, Irving Howe was “astonished.” My student writes,

Ellison has broken almost too far away from the traditional black literature of the 30s and 40s, as epitomized by Richard Wright. Howe writes,“what astonishes one most about Invisible Man is the apparent freedom it displays from the ideological and emotional penalties suffered by Negroes in this country.” From this quote it is clear that Howe has a certain set of expectations for black literature and feels “astonished” or shocked at the fact that Ellison has moved beyond the traditional depiction of black identity revolving around violence and Uncle Tom characterization.

Alex also analyzed the interview with Ellison where the author was asked, “But isn’t it going to be difficult for the Negro writer to escape provincialism when his literature is concerned with a minority?” The assumption here is that you have to write about whites to be universal—which means that those who write about African Americans are by definition provincial.

There were critics who praised Invisible Man for being more than just a Negro novel, but they were operating out of the same horizon of expectations. Orville Prescott of The New York Times, for instance, praised Ellison for breaking free of the Negro novel but found it flawed when it touched upon race issues. Alex writes,

[Prescott’s] first sentence is that the book “is the most impressive work of fiction by an American Negro which I have ever read.” At first glance this seems like quite a compliment from a top reviewer of the New York Times, and the reviewer even goes on to say that Ellison has “great skill, who writes with poetic intensity and immense narrative drive” (Prescott). However, in the following sentence he says the novel has “many flaws” because it is a “sensational and feverishly emotional book.”

That an African writer could write a modernist (and therefore universal) work—and for this universal work, furthermore, to be about the African American experience—well, one had to expand one’s horizon to allow for such an apparently impossible contradiction. A comparable thing happened in 1850 when people discovered that Wuthering Heights was written by a woman.

My student Frank described a similar drama with Lolita. The only category that 1950s America had for a protagonist who is a self-confessed pedophile was pornography, and initially the only publisher Nabokov could find was one noted for such content. People may have condemned dirty books (while reading them secretly), but at least they thought they knew what they were.

But just as Invisible Man didn’t fit neatly into Negro protest literature, so Lolita didn’t fit neatly into pornography. A number of reviewers remarked that those who purchased Lolita to tickle their pleasure centers would be disappointed.

The way to praise Lolita, then, was to pretend that what preoccupied everybody about the book was irrelevant. If you just focused on style, you didn’t have to talk about pedophilia. Maybe you liked the style (Charles Rolo of The Atlantic) or maybe you didn’t (Kingsley Amis, Prescott), but in either case you could review Lolita without discussing the elephant in the room.

Formalism was the reigning way to look at literature at the time, and by focusing only on form, you didn’t have to acknowledge what appeared to be a contradiction: Lolita is a dazzling work of art and it is written from the point of view of a child molester. Humbert Humbert is a cosmopolitan sophisticate and he is a monster.

Just as American readers couldn’t look at African Americans the same way after they encountered Invisible Man, so they couldn’t look at civilized exteriors the same way after they encountered Lolita. Frank talks about how the 1950s, with its focus on clean family living and social conformity, couldn’t face up to its darker side. Lolita was a scandal because it didn’t allow people to ignore twisted interiors. It challenged their horizon of what could be admitted and, in so doing, prepared the way for baby boomers in the next decade to storm realms their parents tried to keep secret.

Most Americans, to be sure, read neither Invisible Man nor Lolita. These remarkable novels, however, signaled to cultural leaders that the times they were a-changin’, and the news got out to the general public. The response was sometimes acute distress, sometimes open-mouthed astonishment, but the result was the same: people no longer saw the world as they had before.

Further thoughts

It’s interesting that the reviewers who understood how Ellison and Nabokov were challenging expectations were themselves members of disenfranchised groups. Alex pointed out how Saul Bellow, who was working to move beyond “the Jewish novel,” saw Invisible Man consciously breaking with the protest style (or “minority tone”):

I was keenly aware…of a very significant kind of independence in the writing. For there is a way for Negro novelists to go at their problems…Mr. Ellison has not adopted a minority tone. If he had done so, he would have failed to establish a true middle-of-consciousness for everyone.

Frank, meanwhile, noted that it was a woman reviewer, Elizabeth Janeway, who appeared to best grasp Nabokov’s project. Humbert Humbert’s crime is not that he desecrates innocence. Janeway cound understand, as a 1950s man could not, that women are not the nymphettes, not the mantelpiece china objects, that patriarchal society sees them as. If we are horrified mainly because HH violates Dolores Haze’s virginal innocence, we have made HH’s mistake of turning her into a one-dimensional object. Dolores is not a virginally pure Lolita, and by insisting that girls and women be so, we are guilty of sacrificing them to our own desires. Janeway wrote that Lolita exposes

the essential, inefficient, painstaking and pain-giving selfishness of all passion, all greed—of all urges, whatever they may be, that insist on being satisfied without regard to the effect their satisfaction has upon the outside world. Humbert is all of us.

HH’s powerful realization at the end of the book is that Dolores Haze is a far more interesting person than Lolita. He gets his own humanity back with that realization.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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