Why Did Ralph Ellison Never Publish His Second Novel? A New Theory.

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June 19 2013 11:41 AM

Why Did Ralph Ellison Never Publish His Second Novel?

A new theory.

Ralph Waldo Ellison.
Ralph Waldo Ellison

Photo courtesy of Library of Congress

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.    

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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.

Slim not only replicates Ellison’s theme, but signals in his subtitle that he is replying to Mailer—something that Ellison had clearly been itching to do. And while Trick Baby and its 1977 sequel, Long White Con are genre novels, they are tightly plotted and laced with perceptive social commentary. Slim’s crisp and energetic writing is better than his reputation as a pulp novelist suggests. Today he is often mentioned in association with the rappers he has influenced, from Ice-T to Jay-Z, who recognized worlds similar to their own in his depictions of street life. (Trick Baby and Long White Con were republished in 2011 by Cash Money Content, a partnership between the rap label Cash Money Records and Simon and Schuster.)

Would a writer of Ellison’s stature have even been aware of Slim’s work? It’s not entirely unlikely. Slim, whose real name was Robert Lee Maupin (later Robert Maupin Beck), had been Ellison’s classmate at Tuskegee Institute in the early 1930s. Ellison was five years older than Slim, but Ellison started college late and Slim started early. At that time, Tuskegee had about 3,000 undergraduates. The historical record does not establish whether they knew one another, but it seems likely that in subsequent decades Slim kept up with his world-famous classmate, and perhaps through Tuskegee connections Ellison may have heard of Slim’s writing endeavors. (Slim was expelled from Tuskegee—an incident that might well have been the subject of some discussion on a small campus.) Ellison was also a close observer of culture, and would have had many chances to learn of Slim’s work. In a 1968 essay in the New York Times that asks “what books are being read in New York City’s black ghettos?,” Mel Watkins mentions Trick Baby as being “among the bestselling paperbacks in these areas.” As a resident of Harlem, it is far from impossible that Ellison could have encountered a neighbor, a barber, a shopkeeper, or a person on the street that had read Trick Baby. And if Ellison did not know of the novel, it is possible that he knew of the feature film, which received a favorable review in the New York Times in 1973.

Of course, even if Ellison were aware of Slim’s work, would a pulp novel really have prevented him from publishing his work? Invisible Man owes thematic debts to Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground and Richard Wright’s The Man Who Lived Underground, not to mention a debt to H.G. Wells for the title. But by 1967 Ellison was a figure of grander stature than he was in 1952—and Iceberg Slim, for all his talents, is no Fyodor Dostoevsky. Invisible Man had catapulted Ellison from up-and-coming writer to a figure of national importance. In 1965 Lyndon Johnson, appointed Ellison as a charter member of the National Council for the Arts. He was also involved with creation of the Kennedy Center and PBS. He had held prestigious fellowships and teaching appointments and judged major book awards.

At the same time that he was being embraced in the halls of power, Ellison was being criticized by various figures associated with Black Power and the Black Arts Movement, including Amiri Baraka and Ishmael Reed. Ellison was thought to be disdainful of younger black writers; unhelpful at best, hostile at worst.  Ellison was fixated on the word craft, which he associated with literary modernism, and he frequently dismissed works by younger black writers in other genres as lacking craft. (To be fair, he could be dismissive of younger white writers as well, even Thomas Pynchon.) It seems plausible that Ellison, had he known of Slim’s book, would have been dismayed to see such a pair of characters so similar to his own at its heart. Exalted by the white establishment and under attack by the black underground, by 1967, Ellison might have been highly sensitive to a comparison with Slim, a writer considered by many to be an authentic voice of the black streets. 

In all likelihood, there is not one clear-cut reason why one of the most anticipated novels in American history was not published during Ellison’s lifetime, but rather several reasons. Over the years many theories have circulated. At the outset of the novel, Reverend Hickman and his congregation, the only people in America who are aware of Sunraider’s true identity, travel to Washington, D.C., to confront him about his boisterous race-baiting. Shortly thereafter, Sunraider is shot on the floor of the Senate. He barely survives, and to the surprise of many, summons Hickman to his hospital room, where they discuss old times and what went wrong in their relationship. One old theory, often repeated, suggests that a novel begun in the 1950s and hinging on an assassination attempt would have seemed to be in poor taste after the assassinations of the 1960s. Ellison told novelist John Hersey in 1974 that the assassinations of the 1960s “really chilled me.” The poet Richard Wilbur, according to Rampersad, has claimed that Ellison had to make new changes after each assassination.

In a new study, Hip Figures: A Literary History of the Democratic Party, University of California at Irvine professor Michael Szalay makes a detailed and compelling case that Ellison’s Sunraider is at least partially based on Sen. John F. Kennedy, whose Senate record on Civil Rights was somewhat shabby (and in whose style Mailer saw something of the white Negro). If Szalay is right, and Sunraider was based on Kennedy, the president’s assassination may have created a dilemma for Ellison. It would have been one thing to parody Sen. Kennedy in 1958, but to do so in 1968 might have been perceived as in poor taste, and perhaps have been too much of a risk for an already cautious writer of whom so much was expected.

In another new book, Ralph Ellison and the Genius of America Timothy Parrish of Florida State University advances an argument that as Ellison had to spend more time publicly defending Invisible Man, his unpublished manuscript became a private solace. This makes a certain amount of sense, but does not fully reflect the public anxiety Ellison expressed about the unpublished book in interviews. Toward the end of this 1966 documentary, he says that he expects the novel to be published “in the coming year” and adds, with dramatic intonation, “the pressure’s on.” The coming year was 1967, the year Iceberg Slim published Trick Baby.

Paul Devlin is a regular contributer to The Root and the editor of Rifftide: The Life and Opinions of Papa Jo Jones.