One of the great mysteries of 20th-century literary history is why Ralph Ellison never completed the highly anticipated second novel that he worked on for four decades after Invisible Man was published to wide acclaim in 1952. A portion of this unfinished work was published posthumously, in 1999, as Juneteenth, and in 2010, a much larger collection of drafts was published as Three Days Before the Shooting …, a thousand large pages of small type that contain some of Ellison’s best writing, occasionally rivaling Invisible Man in terms of dramatic tension, emotional intensity, and surrealist comedy. The core of this captivating, if wildly uneven behemoth is the story of an African-American minister, Alonzo Hickman, who adopts a white child named Bliss. Under Hickman’s tutelage, Bliss becomes a child preacher in a black church. He eventually abandons the church, holds a series of jobs, fathers a child with a black woman, and finally emerges by the 1950s as Adam Sunraider, an eloquent, charismatic, race-baiting senator from New England, who employs rhetorical techniques learned in the southern black church.
In effect, Bliss is a “white Negro,” though he has little in common with the type described in Norman Mailer’s famous 1957 essay “The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster.” Mailer’s white hipster adopts the “Negro” vernacular, a street-wise outlook, and above all, an alleged obsession with sex as a method for dealing with the horrors of the 20th century. He is on the hunt for the “apocalyptic orgasm” in order to forget about the potential for nuclear apocalypse.
Ellison was highly annoyed by Mailer’s cartoonish representation of African-American life, history, and culture, and criticized him both in private and in public comments. In a 1958 letter to his friend Albert Murray, he wrote that Mailer “thinks all hipsters are cocksmen possessed of great euphoric orgasms and are out to fuck the world into peace, prosperity, and creativity. The same old primitivism crap in a new package.” Ellison’s distaste for Mailer seeped into his fiction as well and, in a roundabout way, Mailer might hold a key to why Ellison never finished his second novel.
In 1977, Ellison published an excerpt from the novel titled “Backwacking: A Plea to the Senator,” an aesthetically unfortunate section comprised by a letter from a ranting racist named “Norm A. Mauler.” (It was the last piece of fiction Ellison would ever publish.) Ellison’s more artful, more nuanced, more satisfying response to Mailer came in the unpublished story of Bliss. Ellison’s own white Negro offered a powerful rebuttal to Mailer’s. But Bliss’ controversial arc might also have contributed to the author’s anxiety about bringing his novel out into the world.
Ellison had a variety of excuses for why he never finished his sophomore effort. One of the most-cited ones was the November 1967 fire that destroyed his Plainfield, Mass. vacation home, incinerating a draft of the novel. Yet Ellison’s second biographer, Arnold Rampersad, has argued that the catastrophic effect of the fire on the book was exaggerated by Ellison over time. Rampersad demonstrates convincingly that Ellison initially reported the fire to friends as a “modest setback” (Rampersad’s phrase), consisting of a loss of that summer’s revisions, which weren’t substantial. By October 1968 the number of lost pages had swelled to a “neatly symbolic” 365 pages of material, gone. According to Rampersad, during the fire, Ellison managed to save his dog (fair enough), then drive a half mile to a nearby house (nobody was home), and then two miles into town looking for help before returning home and attempting to save his manuscript.
What if Ellison’s novel didn’t end in fire, but in ice? In 1967, the crime novelist Iceberg Slim, a reformed pimp, published Trick Baby: The Story of a White Negro, which features an African-American con man, Blue Leon Howard and his protégé, Johnny O’Brien, better known on the south side of Chicago as “White Folks,” an African-American but “a dead ringer for Errol Flynn.”
Slim, like Ellison, was clearly intrigued by the possibilities that a “white Negro” suggested for fiction, and the two stories have several notable parallels. Slim situates the smooth operator O’Brien, much like Ellison’s cunning Bliss, as the adopted son of a tough, wise, soulful African-American man. The age difference between Slim’s Howard-and-O’Brien team is approximately the same as that between Ellison’s Hickman-and-Bliss team, about 25 years. And just like Bliss, O’Brien eventually leaves the African-American community that raised him behind and blends in with white circles in America.
In contrast to Mailer’s white hipster, who seeks a sort of anesthetic sexual liberation through what Mailer sees as the wild, psycho-sexual world of blackness, Ellison and Slim’s characters appear unambiguously white yet are raised within highly-structured institutions of the African-American community: the church and the con game. Christianity, and even the big con, reflect a formality that Mailer failed to see in African-American culture. To Mailer, African-Americans are “cultureless” and “illiterate,” comprising a community that “relinquished the pleasures of the mind for the more obligatory pleasures of the body.” A far cry from Mailer’s white Negro, Ellison and Slim’s white Negroes, though raised on opposite sides of the black community, both learn rhetorical techniques from their adoptive black fathers that they then employ for personal gain on the other side of the color line. These “white Negroes” are wily operators, shrewd manipulators of psyches and institutions, and ice-cold customers on a relentless quest for money and power—hardly primitives chasing orgasms.
Slim and Ellison seem to have been fascinated by the same premise: a highly intelligent man with an extraordinary gift of gab, appearing to be white, operating as black, mentored by an older black father figure, but able to easily glide into the upper echelons of white society. Ellison’s novel, steeped in history and myth, and informed by high modernist aesthetics, is far richer (and funnier) than Slim’s pop potboiler, but the underlying theme is so similar that Ellison, had he known of Trick Baby, might well have been discouraged.
Then again, if anyone should have been worried about charges of copying, it was Slim. Excerpts of Ellison’s novel published between 1960 and 1965 (in venues such as the Quarterly Review of Literature and Saul Bellow’s journal, Noble Savage) establish the Hickman/Bliss relationship. Nevertheless, Trick Baby may have created a dilemma for Ellison.