Upon his death in 1994, Ralph Ellison left behind some 2,000 pages of a never-finished second novel–more than forty years of fine-tuning what his literary executor, John F. Callahan, calls a “mythic saga of race and identity, language and kinship in the American experience” and what the despairing rest of us, waiting for Ralph like Lefty or Godot, came to think of as The Invisible Book. Two decades of stingy excerpts, from 1959 through 1977, were followed by two more of enigmatic silence. Of course, in 1967, between teases, a book-length manuscript of “revisions” perished famously in the flames that consumed his Berkshires summer house. In the history of our literature, this misfortune has assumed the symbolic heft of a Reichstag fire and maybe even the burning of the Library at Alexandria. Was it also Ellison’s alibi for failing to follow up on himself? Only Albert Murray knows for sure.
While sitting on this second novel, Ellison was otherwise not too arduously engaged in writing about Duke Ellington, Mahalia Jackson, Jimmy Rushing, Charlie Parker and the blues; lecturing on democracy, morality and the novel; reviewing Mark Twain, Stephen Crane, Erskine Caldwell and Gunnar Myrdal; rethinking the psychic kinks in his relationship with William Faulkner and Richard Wright; insisting, over and over again, that T.S. Eliot and André Malraux had influenced his sense of vocation more decisively; showing up at LBJ’s White House during the Vietnam War, speaking at a West Point commencement, getting himself interviewed. Almost everyone wanted, if not more Invisibility, then some other piece of him, some pound of black spokesperson. In the early sixties, there’d been an exchange of vituperations with Irving Howe, who thought Ellison ought to be angrier. From the late sixties, Willie Morris remembers, in New York Days, Ellison’s being called an Uncle Tom at Grinnell College in bloodthirsty Iowa! In the early seventies, I was an appalled witness at a literary cocktail party when Alfred Kazin told him he should spend less time at the Century Club and more at the typewriter, followed by a scuffle on the wet street, from which an equally appalled cabbie roared away without a fare, like the locomotive of history. And just last month, at a City University conference, a Rutgers professor who may have seen too many episodes of The X-Files actually suggested that Ellison, in his only novel, had said such terrible things about the “Brotherhood” of the Communist Party just to curry favor with a freaked public during the McCarthy shamefulness.
On the other hand, I also recall teaching The Invisible Man in paperback in the midsixties to a roomful of teenage girls in the belfry of an Episcopal church in Roxbury, Massachusetts. These quick-witted, slow-burning, high-flying, Afro-Caribbean birds of paradise had been discarded by the racist Boston School Committee: bagged, tagged and trashed. Yet they showed up two nights a week, a chapter at a time, to engage the selves they discovered in his pages, read aloud from their journals, write their own stories and fall headlong into passionate disputation about metaphor and identity, politics and work, even incest–and tell me things I didn’t want to know about their streets. Much later I’d receive invitations to several graduations from colleges like Spelman and Shaw. But this was long after yogurt-faced liberals like me had been told to get out of Roxbury–in the spring of 1967, pursuant to the secret resolutions of the Newark Black Power Conference, which resolutions had been written by precisely those militants who would call Ralph Ellison an Uncle Tom even as he was saving the lives of their sisters.
“Writers don’t give prescriptions,” said the poet Ikem in Chinua Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah; “They give headaches.” Anyway, here at last is a respectable chunk of what he withheld to the grave. Personally, I wish Random House had published all 2,000 pages, if not on a CD-ROM, then loose in a box for readers to assemble on our own, according to our solitary need, like a Matteo Ricci Memory Palace. Structure, about which he was so finicky, be damned. Yes, from Ellison’s notes and drafts Callahan has fashioned a shapely synecdoche that coheres–a duet between “Daddy” Hickman, the black Southern preacher who’s come to Washington in 1955 to warn a man he raised as a boy of impending violence, and Sunraider, the white New England senator who was brought up black but turned savagely on the color of this kindness; a Lincoln-haunted and Oedipus-inflected dialogue of down-home homilies, grandiose dreams and primal crime; a dialectic of masked pasts and screened memories; a call-and-response antiphony of flimflam riffs; a matched fall of twinned tricksters into shared mystery, lost history and filmed illusions. As in Faulkner, the past keeps happening. But gripped at the throat, Juneteenth also seems to long for choral movement and symphonic orchestration; breathing space and digressive license; clarification, specificity, amplitude.