Ellison says in his introduction to the 30th Anniversary Edition that he started to write what would eventually become Invisible Man in a barn in Waitsfield, Vermont in the summer of 1945 while on sick leave from the Merchant Marine. The letters he wrote to fellow novelist Richard Wright as he started working on the novel provide evidence for its political context: the disillusion with the Communist Party that he and Wright shared. In a letter to Wright August 18, 1945, Ellison poured out his anger toward party leaders for betraying Black and Marxist class politics during the war years. "If they want to play ball with the bourgeoisie they needn't think they can get away with it.... Maybe we can't smash the atom, but we can, with a few well chosen, well written words, smash all that crummy filth to hell." In the wake of this disillusion, Ellison began writing Invisible Man, a novel that was, in part, his response to the party's betrayal.
The book took five years to complete with one year off for what Ellison termed an "ill-conceived short novel." Invisible Man was published as a whole in 1952. Ellison had published a section of the book in 1947, the famous "Battle Royal" scene, which had been shown to Cyril Connolly, the editor of Horizon magazine by Frank Taylor, one of Ellison's early supporters.
In his speech accepting the 1953 National Book Award, Ellison said that he considered the novel's chief significance to be its experimental attitude. Rejecting the idea of social protest—as Ellison would later put it—he did not want to write another protest novel, and also seeing the highly regarded styles of Naturalism and Realism too limiting to speak to the broader issues of race and America, Ellison created an open style, one that did not restrict his ideas to a movement but was more free-flowing in its delivery. What Ellison finally settled on was a style based heavily upon modern symbolism. It was the kind of symbolism that Ellison first encountered in the poem, The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot. Ellison had read this poem as a freshman at the Tuskegee Institute and was immediately impressed by The Waste Land's ability to merge his two greatest passions, that of music and literature, for it was in The Waste Land that he first saw jazz set to words. When asked later what he had learned from the poem, Ellison responded: imagery, and also improvisation—techniques he had only before seen in jazz.
Ellison always believed that he would be a musician first and a writer second, and yet even so he had acknowledged that writing provided him a "growing satisfaction." It was a "covert process," according to Ellison: "a refusal of his right hand to let his left hand know what it was doing."
Invisible Man is narrated in the first person by the protagonist, an unnamed Black man who considers himself socially invisible. Ellison conceived his narrator as a spokesman for Black Americans of the time:
- So my task was one of revealing the human universals hidden within the plight of one who was both black and American...:xviii
Ellison struggled to find a style appropriate to his vision. Wanting to avoid writing "nothing more than another novel of racial protest," he settled on a narrator "who had been forged in the underground of American experience and yet managed to emerge less angry than ironic." To this end, he modeled his narrator after the nameless narrator of Dostoevsky's Notes From Underground, which similarly applies irony and paradox toward far-reaching social criticism.:xv
The story is told from the narrator's present, looking back into his past. Thus, the narrator has hindsight in how his story is told, as he is already aware of the outcome.
In the Prologue, Ellison's narrator tells readers, "I live rent-free in a building rented strictly to whites, in a section of the basement that was shut off and forgotten during the nineteenth century." In this secret place, the narrator creates surroundings that are symbolically illuminated with 1,369 lights from the electric company Monopolated Light & Power. He says, "My hole is warm and full of light. Yes, full of light. I doubt if there is a brighter spot in all New York than this hole of mine, and I do not exclude Broadway." The protagonist explains that light is an intellectual necessity for him since "the truth is the light and light is the truth." From this underground perspective the narrator attempts to make sense out of his life and experiences and his status in American society.