First Appearance of Invisible Man


This is a copy of the 1952 first edition, first printing of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Despite being a first novel by a then unknown writer, it remained on the bestseller list for sixteen weeks and won the National Book Award for fiction in 1953, making Ellison the first African American writer to receive the award and helping establish him as a key literary figure of the twentieth century. A milestone of American literature, this book has continued to engage readers since this first appearance in 1952 and has been reprinted, translated, reformatted, and repackaged countless times.

With that history in mind, it’s interesting to take a closer look at the original way this text was packaged and presented to the public. The iconic dust jacket artwork seen here attracted fiction buyers in the 1950s and still has a charismatic mystique for book collectors today who are keenly interested in first editions of important works. And a first printing of a first edition is highly sought after as it represents the historical moment a seminal literary work was born and a close connection with the author and his original intentions.

Or does it? In this case, with a mid-twentieth-century Black author publishing a novel with a mainstream American publishing house, we see a text that was packaged and framed by white people who brought their own sensibilities and interpretations to the production and marketing of this book. The creator of the dust jacket artwork was E. McKnight Kauffer, a well-known and influential graphic artist. And like the overwhelming majority of book artists and illustrators in mainstream American publishing at the time, he was white. From our perspective today, it’s important to consider other aspects of this cover art, such as: Is the image intended to depict an idea of what Black is? How did the author feel about this cover art appearing on his first book (and therefore being connected with it for all time)? Is this really an “ideal” copy, one that represents the full flowering of the author’s original and authentic literary/artistic intentions?

Dust jackets like this one, along with the many other ways that texts are packaged and marketed, provide rich material for investigation. 

Author/Photographer Ellison, Ralph, author
Illustrator Kauffer, E. McKnight (Edward McKnight), 1890-1954, bookjacket designer
Publisher New York: Random House
Date 1952
Extent 429 pages ; 22 cm
Institution Kent State University
Repository Special Collections and Archives
LC Classification Number PS3555.L625 I5 1952
Portion Digitized Front of dust jacket
Access Rights This digital object is owned by Kent State University and may be protected by U.S. Copyright law (Title 17, USC). Please include proper citation and credit for use of this item. Use in publications or productions is prohibited without written permission from Kent State University. Please contact the Department of Special Collections and Archives for more information.
Duplication Policy
Date Copyrighted 1952
DPLA Rights Statement
Format of Original book


Curated by Kathleen Siebert Medicus with guest contributors