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."

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