Ellison's Wonderland

Culture and technology.
June 5 1999 3:30 AM

Ellison's Wonderland

A curious masterpiece finally arrives.

Juneteenth
By Ralph Ellison
Edited by John F. Callahan
Random House, 368 pages, $25

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When Ralph Ellison died in 1994, he left behind thousands of pages of drafts and notes for the book he had been working on for 40 years--and a terrible dilemma. Ellison's readers (and Ellison's publisher) wanted the legendary second novel they were sure had to be buried in the papers somewhere. But literary scholars (and Ellison's friends) would surely denounce the publication of anything that went beyond the author's known intentions. Because the manuscript was nowhere near to being a coherent, finished work and because Ellison left no instructions, his literary executor John F. Callahan had to choose between disappointing the amateurs and infuriating the professionals.

Jacob  Weisberg Jacob Weisberg

Jacob Weisberg is chairman and editor-in-chief of The Slate Group and author of The Bush Tragedy. Follow him on Twitter.

The griping about Juneteenth even before publication makes it clear that Callahan has taken the side of readers. "Ellison did not leave behind the shapely building that Callahan has given us," Gregory Feeley wrote last month in the New York Times Magazine. Critics quoted in the article complain that sections of the novel published as excerpts during Ellison's lifetime are missing, that important characters have withered or vanished, and that 1,500 or more pages have been whittled down to 350.

A scholarly edition, promised for the future, will enable better-informed opinions by placing this extract in the context of Ellison's longer manuscript. But on the basis of what we know, I'd say that Professor Callahan, who teaches at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Ore., deserves to be commended, not condemned. Without adding a word (other than the title Juneteenth), he has culled a nugget that gives a sense of what Ellison was up to all those years without harming any of the alternative conceptions of the work that are bound to emerge. Juneteenth doesn't pretend to be a definitive framework or even a framework at all. It's merely a necessary starting point for an inquiry into what might have been.

In an afterword, Callahan says that he took most of Juneteenth from Book II, the strongest and most heavily plotted part of what were apparently intended to be three parts. The story begins in Washington, D.C., circa 1955, when a black church delegation arrives at the office of the Sen. Adam Sunraider on urgent, unstated business. Before the group succeeds in reaching him, an assassin shoots the racist Sunraider from the Senate gallery. Critically wounded, Sunraider summons the leader of the congregation, the Rev. Alonzo Hickman, to his bedside. We learn that Hickman, a Baptist preacher known as "God's Trombone," was the only father Sunraider ever had. Though either white or a fair-skinned mulatto, "Bliss," as the senator was known as a boy, was raised by Hickman to be a black minister.

From here, the story unfolds outward in many directions at once, jumping from the hospital bed to various points in Hickman's and Sunraider's lives. The turning point for their relationship was a celebration of Juneteenth Day, a holiday commemorating the day in 1865 when slaves in Texas first learned that the Civil War was over and, two and a half years after the fact, that President Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Amid the festivities, a crazed white woman appeared claiming to be Bliss' mother. After this incident, Bliss became obsessed with his lost mother and eventually ran away from home. We get woozy glimpses of Bliss Sunraider's later life as a con artist, moviemaker, and chauffeur before he became a senator and a bigot.

L ittle of this information comes in the form of straightforward narrative but instead accumulates through murky fragments. The language is far more complex and difficult than that of Invisible Man. In place of a single narrator, there are at least three: The authorial voice; Hickman; and Sunraider, who speaks in a number of distinct tongues--as the child Bliss, in dreams, in remembered conversations, and in convoluted memories poured into a death-reverie stream of consciousness. (Click to read a brief excerpt describing Sunraider waking in the hospital with Hickman at his bedside.)

The passage is characteristic of the book in both its lyricism and its opacity. We only find out subsequently that Sunraider is Bliss and that "Why hast Thou forsaken me" was his opening line at Hickman's revival service, when he would rise, Christ-like, from a coffin.

Only in a few places does Juneteenth attain the narrative velocity of Invisible Man. In a thrilling climax we finally hear the story of how Bliss came to be adopted by Hickman, and how Hickman was transformed from an Oklahoma City ne'er-do-well into a man of God (it hinges on a false accusation of rape, a lynching, and some amateur obstetrics). This section indicates that Ellison could still write in the lucid, explicit vein of his first novel but chose to do something more difficult and complex, both thematically and stylistically, in his second. Ellison's first love was jazz--he played the trumpet--and many of the passages in Juneteenth are extended riffs in a kind of free-form verbal polyphony. If Invisible Man was Louis Armstrong, Juneteenth is Charlie Parker.

At the level of plot, many things are never explained, among them how "Bliss," got to be Sunraider, the story of Sunraider's own illegitimate mixed-race son (who seems also to be his assassin), and the meaning of the message that prompts Hickman to Washington. Future fragments may illuminate these issues. But these confusions seem largely purposeful, not accidents of omission by author or editor. If Ellison had finished and published his novel, the story still wouldn't be whole. It's meant to be up to the reader to assemble the shards into a vase. For this reason, one doesn't feel cheated by not having all the pieces. In a curious way, the unfinished state of the novel complements the inherent and intentional incompleteness of the underlying story.

Think of William Faulkner, whose characters often appear and reappear in his various novels and stories. It's as if Hickman and Sunraider have an independent existence of which Ellison offers glimpses and glances in the various pieces he never assembled into a single structure. For me Juneteenth recalled especially Absalom, Absalom! in which Quentin Compson puts together a story that rattles family skeletons and points up the reality that white Southern culture is blacker than meets the eye. Sunraider yearns to know who his mother is, and Hickman wants to know how Bliss became Sunraider. The reader approaches these mysteries through the incomplete knowledge of the characters. Crucial information is delayed and denied, which brings us back to the motif of "Juneteenth," the day when slaves found out they'd been free for two and a half years.

Why didn't Ellison finish--or publish--the book? The oft-repeated official version involves a fire that destroyed an important manuscript in 1966. But as disastrous an event as that must have been, I find it unconvincing as an explanation. Ellison described losing a summer's worth of work. He had a decade of writing his novel behind him and almost three more ahead of him. A more compelling explanation is that Ellison wanted to write a second novel that would meet the standard of Invisible Man while being an entirely different kind of book. This strenuous ambition was confounded by a perfectionism that, as Ellison wrote in the introduction to his volume of essays Shadow and Act, made it somewhat "unreal" to even think of himself as a writer. As he puts it, "my standards were impossibly high."

Those standards didn't keep Ellison from writing, merely from calling it quits. Failing to finish doesn't mean he failed. Indeed, a great, unfinished work can be more fascinating than a finished one because of the way the reader is drawn into the artistic process. Juneteenth is a truly interactive novel, in which readers are not an audience but collaborators, trying to pull together strands and elements of a story that has no final resolution. Other fragments and versions will add to what Callahan has assembled, not overwrite it. As with Faulkner, the boundaries of Ellison's separate texts may blur, but the mythic force of the buried story and the stylistic virtuosity of its telling will remain.

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