- Uncategorized

Ralph Ellison’s (not so) new novel

On February 17, The Modern Library will publish Three Days Before the Shooting…: The Unfinished Second Novel (1136 pages) by Ralph Ellison, edited by Adam Bradley, coeditor of the text with John F. Callahan, who in 1999 published a much shorter version as Juneteenth (400 pages or so).

And so I took a look back at an unpublished review/essay I wrote on the subject 11 years ago (I was 24, shit!), and decided to post it here.

I was a hungry grad student (lots o’ Ramen noodle), and prone to almost absurd verbosity in my criticism (I’ve stripped the worst out—but don’t worry, lots to cringe at here).

My thoughts on authority/authors and editors (now that I am one) have also changed dramatically since, but the seeds of some of my later work on Burroughs, Federman, and others in the postmodern tradition are lightly germinating in this mucilaginous topsoil.

Enjoy. And be gentle.

On the publication of Juneteenth

“Although Ellison has hoped to write one big book, his saga, like William Faulkner’s, could not be contained within the pages of a single novel.”

Least surprising amid the cornucopia of reviews taking shots at this “new” Ralph Ellison single-volume novel, assembled from forty years of ragged and robust manuscript pages by Ellison’s literary executor extraordinaire John F. Callahan, is the near universal panning of both the editorial ethic driving publication as well as this strange narrative by-product of the postmodern cyclotron  — a jellied melange of author and editor, blurred together like flickers of jump-cut movie film.

Of course, there is always a controlling pattern, a celluloid recipe garnishing the instant reviews of the book bearing the moniker Juneteenth — some modicum of praise for Ellison’s fractious, sampled words, a fair amount of hesitancy to judge the fiction spun in Callahan’s mold, and the dull thud of critique for precisely this brand of posthumous plunder.  For Juneteenth is as much Ralph Waldo Ellison’s second novel (after 1952’s Invisible Man) as the Mona Lisa is Marcel Duchamp’s painting (after a wryly applied Dada mustache).

For Ellison the writer and his 1500+ page manuscript, authorial agency finds its autonomy diluted to the margins of Callahan’s project as an ancillary obfuscation, a peripheral smudge, loitering before the reviewer’s notoriously narrow vision.

And why not?  If Juneteenth simply announced itself as a whet-your-appetite sample chapter from some as yet unprepared Ralph Ellison “Reader,” would the results be any different? Yet as the dangling participle on a career waiting for the second shoe to drop, Juneteenth blurs the boundary between creative control and controlled creativity like the worst kind of mixed metaphor.

“Here and there limbs of the manuscript needed to be stretched, and elsewhere a protruding foot might be lopped off, if all the episodes were to be edited into a single, coherent, continuous work.”

What’s remains of Ellison’s original three book conception, a polyphonic, contrapuntal space-filling exercise on the history of America told through its hidden frequencies, is the prologue of Book I, the mass of Book II (what Callahan dutifully calls “the most ambitious and latest, freestanding, compelling extended fiction in the saga” [366]), the 38 page section detailing protagonist’s “Bliss’s Birth,” and an unspecified smattering of extant “words and brief passages” to ostensibly pepper Callahan’s goals of editorial design.  Callahan claims that his dosing of the manuscript serves only “to clarify and intensify the action” (366), but given the manuscript’s unkempt state of affairs at Ellison’s death, it is difficult to catch the spirit of synthesis in these pages.

Chalk it up to strange chance that the fabled author of Invisible Man, whose “novel-in-progress” kept its own counsel from the early 1950s until his death in 1994, would find his work posthumously harnessed through a project of clinical atrophy, a truncation of his vision towards the “beginning, middle, and end” (xiv) his widow supposedly desired from Callahan.  Juneteenth is a bouquet of not-so-neat loose ends playing at stasis in superficial bows, a somewhat fitting and ironic capper to a century whose literary cords were laced with regressive ironies.  After the postmodern pantheon of Pynchon, Acker, Abish, Burroughs, Delaney, Reed, Russ, Morrison, et al cut their teeth on outlines of Invisible Man and its generation of postwar Americana, the fact that Ellison left no specific instructions about his novel-in-progress could have signaled the triumphal start of a cohesion-be-damned, full-disclosure parade.

Yet Callahan identifies the “heart” of the manuscript as the antiphonal counterplay between race-baiting Northern Senator Adam Sunraider and southern jazzman-cum-revivalist Alonzo Hickman that fills Book II.  Juneteenth then (named for the day word of the Emancipation Proclamation belatedly reached Texas), starts with Hickman and members of his congregation penetrating the beltway sometime in the 1950s to warn the polemical Senator Sunraider of impending violence.  The contingent watches a speech on the Senate floor in which the ministerial cadences of the Senator’s oratory are interrupted by a would-be-assassin’s bullet.

Before losing consciousness, the Senator learns of Hickman’s presence, and later summons him (and only him) to his hospital bed.  And from the interior of this aseptic room in the nation’s political center, Sunraider and Hickman remember the distant squalls of their shared past.  Equal parts Jazz, Faulkner, and Proust, Ellison’s prose forces the myth of Sunraider’s self-made man to fold back on his pre-political career as a movie-producer, collapsing then again to his youth as the boy-preacher Reverend Bliss — the white child clutching a white Bible and teddy bear, resurrecting himself from the revival tent coffin once “Daddy” Hickman, his spiritual shepherd and guardian, gives the coded, Biblical command “Suffer the little children” (45).

Bliss is a precocious lad of uncertain origin, charged in Hickman’s care through a tangled web of interdependency involving his white mother and her apparent responsibility for the death of Hickman’s brother and mother.  Both Hickman and Bliss, to capitalize on Callahan’s interpretation of Ellison’s Christ and Lincoln-figure metaphors, lack specified fathers.  For all their faults, they belong to god and the nation.

Commingling both entities results is the virtuoso blend of political preaching and evangelized civics, where the political as a plot device scripts itself into the rhythmic equation of race and language that Ellison’s characters manipulate through language.  Bliss’s betrayal of Hickman stems from his desire for payment, and after the reader learns that he was even denied ice-cream for his boyish ministering, Ellison’s key obsession — the interweave of race and culture that feeds the power currencies in a capitalist society — emerges as the central focus of Juneteeth (and perhaps the entire unpublished manuscript).  Bliss connects the power of the word to the manipulation of cultural value:  “Meaning grows with the mind, but the shape and form of the act remains.  Yes, in those days it was ice cream, but there was something else,” adding that “maybe it was the weight of the darkness, the tomb in such close juxtaposition with the womb.  I was so small that after preaching the sermons you taught me and feeling the yawning of that internal and mysterious power which I could release with my treble pantomime . . .”  (111)

“Now, the editor of a posthumously published novel should not use his own words to finish what the author left unfinished or unsaid.”

Callahan, burdened with the reported chaos of Ellison’s lengthy work (eight previously-published excerpts — four not included in Juneteenth) had over 1500 pages of material so to choose from.  How many words lay scattered over forty years?  Whose words are whose?

While Ellison had not published an excerpt since 1977, such typifying decisions by Callahan as the removal of one single paragraph from the previously-published segment “Cadillac Flambé”  (American Review, February 1973), and its insertion into Sunraider’s speech demonstrate the editorial mechanism at work:

We have reached a sad state of affairs, gentlemen, wherein this fine product of American skill and initiative has become so common in Harlem that much of its initial value has been sorely compromised.  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….but because it has now become such a common sight to see eight or more or our darker brethren crowded together enjoying its power, its neo-pagan comfort….I was forced into a ditch by such a power-drunk group just the other day.  (Juneteenth 23)

Excusing the atypical juxtaposition of the paragraph in the folds of Sunraider’s diatribe, this brand of editorial collage (even when executed in microcosm), does much more than discover the “continuity” Ellison may have conceptualized, but like an ancient cartographer mapping the world on a 2 X 4, imposes the limits of a comparatively-flat imagination.  So maybe this is not Nietzsche’s Nazi-era enthusiasts spiking Thus Spake Zarathustra with Social-Darwinism, or even Ronald Reagan quoting Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA,” but latitude lines are clearly etched.

The original publication of “Cadillac Flambé’,” wryly narrated by the investigative reporter McIntyre (almost a persona non grata in Juneteenth), details a black jazz musician burning his Cadillac on Sunraider’s lawn in protest of one of the Senator’s radio speeches (which Callahan excerpts).  Callahan’s insertion not only destroys the original context, but also ruptures any alternating current Ellison hoped to charge into the Sunraider/Bliss continuum.  The Senator’s speech on the House floor in Juneteenth seems to draw a pre-meditated assassin’s bullet, and there are oratorical intimations that his politics, while far from abandoning a rhetorical dependence on the narrative of race, were repositioning somewhat in the cultural jet stream.  Remove the “borrowed” excerpt from Juneteenth, and the paragraph immediately following the inserted sample assumes significantly-altered dimensions:  “Perhaps the essence of their untamed and assertive willfulness, their crass and jazzy defiance of good taste and the harsh, immutable laws of economics, lies in their faith in the flexible soundness of the nation” (23).

Sure, it’s far from egalitarian, but even farther from the connotations of the Cadillac-as-“Coon Cage Eight” that Callahan transposes onto the text.

“…in addition, keeping the reader in mind, I have divided Juneteenth into chapters at appropriate points in the manuscript and the action.”

If part of Ellison’s power (evident in Invisible Man and to a certain extent visible in the manuscript entitled Juneteenth) rests in his ability to blend the dreamy multi-perspective narrative of Faulkner with the surreal, hallucinogenic “riffing” of jazz cadences in service of his political thesis — that black and white cultures are inextricably blended, and that “American” is somehow greater than the sum and legacy of the two — then his apparent weakness is a tendency to get lost amid the nuances of his metaphorical keywords.  Like the ubiquitous “whiteness” of the paint factory in Invisible Man, where the paint is “as white as George Washington’s Sunday-go-to-meetin’ wig and as sound as the all-mighty dollar!” (197), the darkness that surrounds Bliss’s moving pictures acts as the void of projected memory.  Film becomes the vortex sucking Bliss’s quest for identity onto the white actress/mother-figure emerging from the film canister, urging his break with Hickman — as the narrative possibility of Ellison’s emphasized “LOVE INTO POLITICS OR COMPASSION INTO HISTORY” (264) increasingly crumbles under Sunraider’s juxtaposed memories.

Callahan’s narrative cuts, despite their supposed dependency of the guideposts of Ellison’s manuscript, are disconcerting as a concertina of carefully crafted sound-bytes.  Yet for the reader, slices and samples assume independent rhythm.  And in his enthusiasm for distribution of Ellison’s words, Callahan fails to hear the contradiction put forth by this manipulation of material riffing on that very manipulative power.

After leaving Daddy Hickman, Bliss travels the country making movies, fascinated by the “darkness” between the frames.  He often protracts this space, gets inside it, extends it longer than the images on either side.  This is where Ellison’s America hides.  Watching the day’s take of a “man and a boy and a boar hog, a cat and a great hairy spider” Bliss cuts the images to form a “boar-boy-spider-cat” (86).  A scene noting the seduction of a small town woman with empty promises of stardom adopts a cinematic glow when recalled from the present-time hospital room:  “Her black hair waved out upon the grass with leaves in it….I can tell you of passion so fierce it danced with gentleness, and how the whole hill throbbed with silence…how I became she and she me…” (93).   The cinematic muddle of Bliss’ memories approximate what Scott McQuire calls a continuity of filmic frames “dependent on the recombination of fragments to construct wholes exceeding the sum of their individual parts” (79).

“At times, divergence between manuscript pagination and certain of Ellison’s rather definitive notes indicates that he had not reached a state of certainty about the sequence of the action.”

Thus, what Callahan claims are necessary or innocuous alterations to the manuscript operate as decisions of authorial intent based solely upon his singular perception of Ellison’s work.  The “Cadillac Flambé” paragraph registers in the final dreamy episode where Sunraider in confronted by the power of a Frankenstein-like automobile: “An improvisation, a bastard creation of black bastards” (347).  Once Callahan admits that this was not Ellison’s definite ending, but only the most “logical and emotional place” (368) to finish, whole conceits, bounded by “Coon Cage Eight” and this assembled “machine,” seem subtly over-arranged.

Bliss’s key realization in Juneteenth is that the logic of the director can so easily supercede the logic of the cameraman:  “And later whenever instead of taking in a scene the camera seemed to focus forth my own point of view I felt murderous, felt that unjustifiable murder was being committed and my images a blasting of the world” (266).

“The state of the manuscript (or manuscripts) should determine editorial decisions…”

Callahan mentions in his somewhat over-extended introduction that Ellison considered himself hailing from what Huck Finn calls “the territory” — Oklahoma — and that the novel-in-progress was to be an Oklahoma novel.  After all, Bliss’s most important revival tent resurrection takes place there, and in the space emerging from the failed promises of Reconstruction, the “territory” fuses into a state.  Gregory Feeley’s article “Invisible Hand” in The New York Times Magazine (May 23, 1999) provides his own reading of the mass of Ellison’s unpublished Oklahoma material as spiraling “outward, with one narrative voice succeeding another in endless profusion….It was difficult to imagine how the two dozen chapters would have fit into (Juneteenth’s) overall structure.”

The fact that the famous 1967 fire in his Berkshire home couldn’t destroy Ellison’s novel and that forty years of work couldn’t complete it, presents a convincing claim for complete publication of the entire manuscript.  There is always the “case” of Franz Kafka to go on.

The first of Kafka’s unfinished novels, published under the name “Amerika,” ends in the hopefully surreal “Nature Theatre of Oklahoma” chapter, a “territory” where every person in gainfully employed according to the histrionics of their past experiences.  Despite Kafka’s demons (bound to his position in the dying Austro-Hungarian monarchy), and his deathbed request to friend Max Brod for complete destruction of his unfinished manuscripts, the Amerika, The Trial and The Castle were eventually published in their extant forms, unfinished, and thus, never-ending.

In fact, the “definitive edition” of The Castle from 1954 (based on the 1930 Willa and Edwin Muir translation) balances its karma by also publishing Kafka’s deletions at the end of the book, marked by asterisks in the text.  And Mark Harman’s recent Kafka translations (questioning the earlier conflation of voice between the Muirs, Brod, and Kafka) testify to the continual discussion and “complete” publication.  Both scholars and lay readers get their fill (though Kafka might make little distinction between the groups), and while the author’s wishes were certainly ignored by publication, the further indignity of deliberate atrophy was spared by the impassioned openness of those involved in his posthumous publications.

Conversely, Callahan’s “Afterword: A Note to Scholars” (from where I have deliberately drawn, juxtaposed, manipulated, and concertinaed the uncited extracts in this piece) promises only that a future edition will “document (Callahan’s) corrections and include sufficient manuscripts and drafts of the second novel to enable scholars and readers a like to follow Ellison’s some forty years of work on his novel-in-progress” (368).

Proportional satisfaction? Sufficient words?

Words there are aplenty in the current edition.  Lacing the twin bootstraps of politics and religion through not only the fictional sinews of Juneteenth’s leaves, Callahan, channeling some frustrated approximation of Ellison, slings a didactic cat’s cradle between the feet of twentieth-century literature.  It’s only a matter of time before this type of Madison Avenue image-sandwich trips itself up.

Critical outcry towards his carefully rationalized truncation has appended itself to the project quicker than the flicker of flashback characterizing Bliss’s and Hickman’s sundry dialectic.  In a world where the post-Invisible Man generation of black art produced such postmodern, not-so-neat-and-tidy artists as Sonia Sanchez, Amiri Baraka, Ishmael Reed, William Melvin Kelley, and jazz mythmaker Sun Ra, Juneteenth’s awkward drive towards forced cohesion may do more to define Ellison’s hidden “territory,” unfortunately, than the rest of his unpublished words (if they remain absent from the public sphere), ever possibly can.

But maybe Callahan, reading the tea leaves of somebody else’s America, can cut a new print in the editing bay.

Works Cited

Ellison, Ralph.  Juneteeth. Ed. John F. Callahan. New York: Random House,  1999.

———.  Invisible Man.  New York: Vintage Books, 1972.

Feeley, Gregory.  “Invisible Hand.” The New York Times Magazine. 23 May 1999:

McQuire, Scott.  Visions of Modernity: Representation, Memory, Time and Space in the

Age of Cinema.  Sage Publications, London: 1998.

5 thoughts on “Ralph Ellison’s (not so) new novel

  1. Thanks for posting this. And hooray for “absurd verbosity”! With all the anorectic and flaccid prose out there it’s a kind of respite seeing someone go for it, even if they’re missing the mark sometimes.

    I wonder if you would still find direct stylistic echoes of Proust in some of Ellison’s prose. I’d certainly like to see that demonstrated with direct examples from the text.

    I’d also like to hear how your thoughts have “changed dramatically” about “authority/authors and editors” since you’ve become one.

  2. An interesting read…

    I like the way your description of Bliss’s “key realization” in the plot – “that the logic of the director can so easily supercede the logic of the cameraman” – speaks to the relationship between editor and writer in general, and specifically to Callahan’s editing of Ellison’s manuscript.

    My impression is that such superseding is more likely to occur in manuscripts that are long, unfinished and unwieldy – as it sounds like Ellison’s was – than in manuscripts that are short, finished and cohesive.

    It makes me wonder how inevitable it is that an attempt at editing such a work will result in a sort of imposed meaning that is at odds with the writer’s intention. Do you think the manuscript should have been published in an unedited form (or a less edited form)?

  3. Thanks for posting this, Davis.

    Any thoughts on THE ORIGINAL OF LAURA? Or the new Kafka translations? I haven’t gotten around to either as of yet.

    I’ve always rather liked the unfinished nature of Kafka’s novels, AMERIKA’s peculiar incompleteness in particular.

    As well as its rather imaginative sense of geography.

  4. Edward, and all;

    I believe that the new Ellison edition noted at the top of the post is closer to a less-edited form, but I have not yet seen it. and really, at that length, I wonder how many will…?

    I suppose I’ve become more aware in the intervening years of the editorial apparatus, and now, find myself making decisions in a similar vein as I edit Raymond Federman’s posthumous novel, SHHH: The story of a childhood_ for Starcherone (may 2010).

    Still, the authorial cult around Ellison’s lost work is not my bag, and I will be interested to see the new text, primarily to ascertain the editorial involvement–and more important–the way that is presented.


  5. Adam;

    Amerika is the most unfinished, I think, only in that is picaresque quality moves through large geographic swaths, and thus does not have the claustrophobic _feeling_ of the castle and the trial.

    It’s incompleteness is thus somehow more open…

Leave a Reply