The master's last word

"Juneteenth" offers a tantalizing new slice of Ralph Ellison's genius for capturing America's racial conundrums.

Topics: Race, Books,

When I was younger and starting to write, I had a little grudge against Ralph Ellison. The beef in question was about the long-awaited follow-up to his classic 1952 novel, “Invisible Man.” I was looking around for a role model, the kind of writer who could rearrange my brain as Ellison had done back when I first read him. I soon learned that this was an impossible task: No one before or since has described so eloquently and cogently the inextricability of blackness and American-ness, the snake-charming spectacle of identity that dances inevitably before us. When I realized that no one else was going to step up to the plate, I fell into slay-the-father mode and made the odd crack about the man’s productivity: “Hey, Ralphy, get the lead out! What are they, payin’ you by the hour? I didn’t know that Great American Novelist was a union job.”

Interviews and articles furnished hints about the novel’s progress. Ellison started it in 1954, lost a hefty chunk of it in a fire in 1967, published tantalizing chapters here and there over the years and read parts of it in public until his death in 1994, whereupon any hopes for the second novel seemed to die out. But then the executor of his literary estate discovered 2,000-something pages of the manuscript in the man’s office, and you can just picture the disarray, the tottering piles and the daunting task of sorting through it all. What’s in there? Any chance he finished it? Then the usual pageant of pundits strolled out for the standard debates, touching all the bases, asking all the legitimate questions about authorial intent, the ethics of posthumous publication, the role of the literary executor. Now “Juneteenth,” a 350-page section of the manuscript, is hitting the stores.

John F. Callahan, professor at Lewis and Clark College and Ellison’s literary executor, picked out what he thought had the best chance of working as a stand-alone novel: the middle section, “Book II” of a projected three books. He did some jiggling and he did some finagling; he urged a section here and kicked a paragraph there to order scattered sections to stand at attention. And he gave it a title, “Juneteenth,” after June 19, 1865, the day Texan slaves were finally brought word of the Emancipation Proclamation.



Callahan’s construction opens up in the mid-1950s, on the day that Adam Sunraider, a race-baiting senator from New England, is shot multiple times as he delivers a speech before a packed Senate. An enigmatic black preacher by the name of Alonzo Hickman (aka “God’s Golden-voiced Hickman, Better known as GOD’S TROMBONE”) observes the shooting from the upstairs visitors’ gallery with 43 members of his congregation; they have traveled a long distance, unsuccessfully, to warn the senator of his peril. Sunraider wakes up at the hospital and in a dying delirium summons the preacher to his bedside. There we learn that despite F. Scott Fitzgerald’s hoary epigram, some American lives do have second acts: Once upon a time Sen. Sunraider was the Rev. Bliss, a child born under mysterious circumstances and raised by Hickman as a light-skinned black until he abandoned his faith and family.

In ensuing chapters, Bliss and Hickman trade stories. They break out the flashlights and go poking around their mental attics to see what forgotten memories they will discover; some they share with each other, some they keep to themselves as they try to worry the events into coherence, into something utterable. As the senator drifts in and out of consciousness and Hickman tries to keep him awake and alive with all those once-submerged truths, the narrative alternates between Bliss’ reminiscences about his upbringing and Hickman’s evasions about how he came to find the boy and his motivations for raising him as he did. Their secret history unravels in elegant set pieces and small moments of revelation: in the Lazarus act Bliss and Hickman would stage for their congregations, in which Bliss waited in a tiny, silk-lined coffin until Hickman “resurrected” him with the phrase, “suffer the little children”; in Bliss’ discovery of the flickering black-and-white lies of the movies and the invidious magic they worked on him; and in the time their Juneteenth sermon was interrupted by a mad, red-haired white woman who claimed Bliss as her son.

In parallel movement, from chapter to chapter, the reader is reacquainted with Ellison’s formidable and singular ability, as if being reminded of a half-forgotten but immutable truth: The man’s prose is bedrock. In sermons, speeches and stream-of-consciousness soliloquies, Ellison beguiles the reader with his concoction of the absurd and the real, tilting the world so that we might see it correctly for once, however briefly. Just check out this section from the senator’s opening speech. A Sunraider Special, it decries the popularity among black folks of that triumph of American engineering, the Cadillac:

Indeed, I am led to suggest, and quite seriously, that legislation be drawn up to rename it the “Coon Cage Eight.” And not at all because of its eight superefficient cylinders, nor because of the lean, springing strength and beauty of its general outlines. Not at all, but because it has now become such a common sight to see eight or more of our darker brethren crowded together enjoying its power, its beauty, its neo-pagan comfort, while weaving recklessly through the streets of our great cities and along our superhighways. In fact, gentlemen, I was run off the road, forced into a ditch by such a power-drunk group just the other day.

Chuckles all around the gallery, except from Hickman and his flock. The rhetorical training Bliss got from Hickman has paid off, with sinister results. In the American tradition he has pulled himself up by his bootstraps — right out of his own race. Ellison may not have been publishing, but he sure was working. He wrote his ass off.

And he took his time. Blame it on the fire. Or on Ellison’s unselfish generosity to his creativity. Blame it on procrastination, that insidious force whose pervasive influence on human affairs remains sadly undocumented. Or blame it on America’s penchant for convulsive change. If Ellison did indeed start the book in 1954, all manner of things — from the civil rights movement to black power to the unforeseeable prominence of the assassination attempt in our national life — could and probably did play havoc with his original conception.

At any rate he didn’t finish the thing; “Juneteenth” may give his fans a fix, but they’ll finish the volume with their craving intact. Could this extract from an unfinished novel read like anything else but exactly that? You don’t have to squint to find what’s great in “Juneteenth,” but the book is only a corner of the canvas. There are too many rooms — whole wings — left without illumination. That would be fine if it were the intent — one man’s strategic opaqueness is another man’s bad plotting — but we know that it was not. As with Bliss’ patrimony, there’s a lot we’re left in the dark about.

A recent New York Times article by Gregory Feeley allowed us a peek at the unpublished sections: The principal in “Book I” is a white reporter named McIntyre whose investigation into the senator’s shooting would have shed light on Bliss’ years of transformation and explained the how he converted the rhetoric of community and spirituality into politically expedient demagoguery. Without that context, what we can extract of Bliss’ motivations from “Juneteenth” amounts to little more than shorthand psychoanalysis. The apparently sprawling “Book III” deals with “The Territory” — Oklahoma in its wild years — and presumably would have given us a little more of Hickman; in “Juneteenth” we get a teasing glimpse of his rambunctious life before he found his pulpit, and it’s fascinating but ultimately frustrating.

Needless to say, if the two main characters are ill-served by this truncated version, smaller characters with key roles fare even worse, such as the mysterious Janey, a member of Hickman’s flock who warns him about the upcoming attempt on the senator’s life. The shooter himself, who reportedly plays a large role in the unpublished bits, in “Juneteenth” appears merely as the walk-on who inscrutably instigates the hospital-room reunion of Bliss and Hickman. It’s as if “Ulysses” had been published with only Stephen Dedalus’ chapters, so that Leopold just becomes that guy Stephen shares a cab with, and Molly … well, Molly doesn’t appear at all, and her bedtime reverie is erased as if by Valium (which would of course eventually erase many a bored housewife’s reveries). Callahan really picked a thankless job for himself. If the extract had worked on its own, he’d be seen as a mere facilitator of Ellison’s genius, as if the pages had walked out of the man’s house and published themselves. And since “Juneteenth” in its present version only reminds us of Ellison’s dynamic, nonpareil talent, making us yearn for what could have been, Callahan will be perceived as a meddler.

Personally, I think he’s a fan with an impossible job, and I’m pretty grateful for anything new from Ellison, despite the puzzles. It’s been 10 years since I read “Invisible Man” and immediately knew I needed another novel from the man; there are some folks out there who have been waiting since 1952. I’m a small fry. Callahan writes in his afterword that a forthcoming “scholar’s edition will document my corrections and include sufficient manuscripts and drafts of the second novel to enable scholars and readers alike to follow Ellison’s some 40 years [of] work on his novel-in-progress.” It still won’t be finished, but it will be Ellison, so I guess I’ll be waiting, thumbs twiddling, for its publication — not as a scholar, but as what Ralph Ellison helped me to become: a reader.

Colson Whitehead is a writer who lives in New York. His most recent novel is "The Intuitionist."

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 7
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    AP/Jae C. Hong

    Your summer in extreme weather

    California drought

    Since May, California has faced a historic drought, resulting in the loss of 63 trillion gallons of water. 95.4 percent of the state is now experiencing "severe" drought conditions, which is only a marginal improvement from 97.5 percent last week.

    A recent study published in the journal Science found that the Earth has actually risen about 0.16 inches in the past 18 months because of the extreme loss of groundwater. The drought is particularly devastating for California's enormous agriculture industry and will cost the state $2.2 billion this year, cutting over 17,000 jobs in the process.

       

    Meteorologists blame the drought on a large zone (almost 4 miles high and 2,000 miles long) of high pressure in the atmosphere off the West Coast which blocks Pacific winter storms from reaching land. High pressure zones come and go, but this one has been stationary since December 2012.

    Darin Epperly

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Great Plains tornadoes

    From June 16-18 this year, the Midwest was slammed by a series of four tornadoes, all ranking as category EF4--meaning the winds reached up to 200 miles per hour. An unlucky town called Pilger in Nebraska was hit especially hard, suffering through twin tornadoes, an extreme event that may only occur every few decades. The two that swept through the town killed two people, injured 16 and demolished as many as 50 homes.   

    "It was terribly wide," local resident Marianne Pesotta said to CNN affiliate KETV-TV. "I drove east [to escape]. I could see how bad it was. I had to get out of there."   

    But atmospheric scientist Jeff Weber cautions against connecting these events with climate change. "This is not a climate signal," he said in an interview with NBC News. "This is a meteorological signal."

    AP/Detroit News, David Coates

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Michigan flooding

    On Aug. 11, Detroit's wettest day in 89 years -- with rainfall at 4.57 inches -- resulted in the flooding of at least five major freeways, leading to three deaths, more than 1,000 cars being abandoned on the road and thousands of ruined basements. Gov. Rick Snyder declared it a disaster. It took officials two full days to clear the roads. Weeks later, FEMA is finally set to begin assessing damage.   

    Heavy rainfall events are becoming more and more common, and some scientists have attributed the trend to climate change, since the atmosphere can hold more moisture at higher temperatures. Mashable's Andrew Freedman wrote on the increasing incidence of this type of weather: "This means that storms, from localized thunderstorms to massive hurricanes, have more energy to work with, and are able to wring out greater amounts of rain or snow in heavy bursts. In general, more precipitation is now coming in shorter, heavier bursts compared to a few decades ago, and this is putting strain on urban infrastructure such as sewer systems that are unable to handle such sudden influxes of water."

    AP/The Fresno Bee, Eric Paul Zamora

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Yosemite wildfires

    An extreme wildfire burning near Yosemite National Park forced authorities to evacuate 13,000 nearby residents, while the Madera County sheriff declared a local emergency. The summer has been marked by several wildfires due to California's extreme drought, which causes vegetation to become perfect kindling.   

    Surprisingly, however, firefighters have done an admirable job containing the blazes. According to the L.A. Times, firefighters with the state's Department of Forestry and Fire Protection have fought over 4,000 fires so far in 2014 -- an increase of over 500 fires from the same time in 2013.

    Reuters/Eugene Tanner

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Hawaii hurricanes

    Hurricane Iselle was set to be the first hurricane to make landfall in Hawaii in 22 years. It was downgraded to a tropical storm and didn't end up being nearly as disastrous as it could have been, but it still managed to essentially shut down the entire state for a day, as businesses and residents hunkered down in preparation, with many boarding up their windows to guard against strong gusts. The storm resulted in downed trees, 21,000 people out of power and a number of damaged homes.

    Debbie Arita, a local from the Big Island described her experience: "We could hear the wind howling through the doors. The light poles in the parking lot were bobbing up and down with all the wind and rain."

    Reuters/NASA

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Florida red tide

    A major red tide bloom can reach more than 100 miles along the coast and around 30 miles offshore. Although you can't really see it in the above photo, the effects are devastating for wildlife. This summer, Florida was hit by an enormous, lingering red tide, also known as a harmful algae bloom (HAB), which occurs when algae grow out of control. HABs are toxic to fish, crabs, octopuses and other sea creatures, and this one resulted in the death of thousands of fish. When the HAB gets close enough to shore, it can also have an effect on air quality, making it harder for people to breathe.   

    The HAB is currently closest to land near Pinellas County in the Gulf of Mexico, where it is 5-10 miles offshore.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>