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.
Nevertheless, there’s still a lot of wow.
Once there was a series consisting of a man and a boy and a boar hog, a cat and a great hairy spider–all shot in flight as they sought to escape, to run away from some unseen pursuer. And as I sat in the darkened hotel room watching the rushes, the day’s takes, on a portable screen, the man seemed to change into the boy and the boy, changing his form as he ran, becoming swiftly boar and cat and tarantula, moving ever desperately away, until at the end he seemed, this boar-boy-spider-cat, to change into an old man riding serenely on a white mule as he puffed a corncob pipe. I watched it several times and each time I broke into a sweat, shaking as with a fever. Why these images and what was their power?
Imagine Bliss–a little white boy under a circus tent in a pine grove at a revival meeting of black Baptists, “a miniature man of God” inside a narrow box breathing through a tube. He’s called Bliss “because they say that’s what ignorance is.” He’s dressed to kill because he’s presumed dead. The box he’s in, with angels blowing long-belled trumpets and carved clouds floating in an egg-shaped space, is a coffin. When the singing stops, Bliss, his Bible and his teddy bear will pop out “like God’s own toast, to ask the Lord how come He has forsaken him”:
Hurry! They’re moving slow, like an old boat drifting down the big river in the night and me inside looking up into the black sky, no moon nor stars and all the folks gone far beyond the levees. And I could feel the shivering creep up my legs now and squeezed Teddy’s paw to force it down. Then the rising rhythm of the clapping hands was coming to me like storming waves heard from a distance; like waves that struck the boat and flew off into the black sky like silver sparks from the shaking of the shimmering tambourines, showering at the zenith like the tails of skyrockets. If I could only open my eyes. It hangs heavy-heavy over my lids. Please hurry! Restore my sight. The night is black and I am far…far…I thought of Easter Bunny, he came from the dark inside of a red-and-white striped egg.
Like rabbits popping out of magic top hats, Bliss come back from the dead is a regularly scheduled trick in Daddy Hickman’s circuit show. Never mind how this little white boy ended up with the black evangelicals on the nomadic road during the Great Depression from Oklahoma to Alabama to Georgia, among so many surrogate parents who raised him to talk and to walk as if he were Yoruban. (A captivity narrative!) Never mind how Hickman got himself transformed from a juke-joint jazz man into Bliss’s designated father and “God’s own trombone,” blowing his horn in the devil’s outback. (“No mercy in my heart…. Only the choking strangulation of some cord of kinship stronger and deeper than blood, hate or heartbreak.”) Never mind even the mock Resurrection. Christ already rose for these Baptists. What they really seek is a Second Coming of Father Abraham–the emancipating Lincoln who, in freeing the slaves, freed himself and so truly became “one of us.” According to Hickman, “We just couldn’t get around the hard fact that for a hope or an idea to become real it has to be embodied in a man, and men change and have wills and wear masks.” And so: “We made a plan, or at least we dreamed a dream and worked for it but the world was simply too big for us and the dream got out of hand.”
But look at it from Bliss’s point of view, a “chicken in a casket.” Being dead is hard work for which he wants to be paid, if not in sex, about which he’s begun to wonder, then at least some ice cream. And what does he get instead? On Juneteenth–the anniversary of the summer’s day in 1865 when Union troops landed in Galveston, Texas, and their commanding officer told the slaves only two and a half years late that they were free, for which 5,000 colored folks have gathered in an Alabama swamp to eat 500 pounds of catfish and snapper, 900 pounds of ribs, eighty-five hams, a cabbage patch of coleslaw and who knows how many frying chickens and butter beans, while listening as seven different preachers “shift to a higher gear,” beyond the singing and shouting into a territory of “pure unblemished Word,” the “Word that was both song and scream and whisper,” beyond sense “but leaping like a tree of flittering birds with its own dictionary of light and meaning”–Bliss gets a white woman, a complete stranger, who says that she’s his mother, who claims: “He’s mine, mine!… You gypsy niggers stole him, my baby.”
So she isn’t his mother. White people lie a lot. His real mother, as a matter of fact, caused the death and mutilation of Hickman’s brother, after which baby Bliss was handed over as a sort of hostage to the jazz man, who accepted him “as I’d already accepted the blues, the clap, the loss of love, the fate of man.” Why not? “Here was a chance to prove that there was something in this world stronger than all their ignorant superstition about blood and ghosts.” Still, even to imagine such a mother, to conceive of an ice-creamy white birthright, will lead Bliss to run away from Daddy Hickman; to deny and rage; to hide in “surprise, speed and camouflage”; to cut the string, scud high places, bruise himself and snag at times on treetops but keep on sailing into shadows–first to make movies and illusions, then to make a vengeful son and finally, as Sunraider, to make a hateful politics. Ellison asks us to remember Greek legend, folk literature and the entire Amerindian structuralist mythology of the stolen child.
But the swamp scene alone is enough to remind us of his remarkable powers of sorcery. Though never a stranger to interior monologue, lyrical afflatus or angry agitprop, Ellison may be the greatest of jazz sermonizers and homiletic blues guitarists ever to write fiction. He probably picked up tips on how to do it from Melville in Moby Dick and Joyce in Portrait of the Artist, and passed them on for Toni Morrison to improve on when Beloved‘s Baby Suggs took to her sacred grove. As in the swamp, where on “this day of deliverance” they look at “the figures writ on our bodies and on the living tablet of our heart,” so, too, at the Lincoln Memorial, with “the great image slumped in the huge stone chair” and then again on the floor of Congress when Sunraider in mid-demagoggleis attacked by the Great Seal of the United States–by e pluribus unum itself, with the olive branch, the sheaf of arrows, the sphinxlike eyes, a taloned clutch and a curved beak like a scimitar–he dazzles us into a surreal sentience.
For Ellison, that Great Seal is a hybrid, a mongrel, an alloy, a scramble of stew meats and a weave of sinews, cultures, language, genius and love. This is his bass line. Admixed America is a Tintoretto:
you can cut that cord and zoom off like a balloon and rise high–I mean that cord woven of love, of touching, ministering love, that’s tied to a baby with its first swaddling clothes–but the cord don’t shrivel and die like a navel cord beneath the first party dress or the first long suit of clothes. Oh no, it parts with a cry like a rabbit torn by a hawk in the winter snows and it numbs quick and glazes like the eyes of a sledge-hammered ox and the blood don’t show, it’s like a wound that’s cauterized. It snaps with the heart’s denial back into the skull like a worm chased by a razor-beaked bird, and once inside it snarls, Bliss; it snarls up the mind. It won’t die and there’s no sun inside to set so it can stop its snakish wiggling. It bores reckless excursions between the brain and the heart and kills and kills again unkillable continuity. Bliss, when Eve deviled and Adam spawned we were all in the dark, and that’s a fact.
The trouble with Juneteenth is that it’s almost all sermons and jazzy dreaming. How did Bliss ever get into politics–in New England!–and become Sunraider? Surely there are pages, chapters, a whole other novel to explain his assassin, missing like the mothers. From Invisible Man, we knew what Tuskegee was like, and Harlem, the paint factory, the cell meetings and the sidewalk where Tod Clifton bled to death. Juneteenth asks us to intuit, from two men talking to each other and to ghosts, from nightmare passages and beseeching light, 400 years of complicitous history that keeps Daddy Hickman from getting to the nation’s capital in time to stop a fatal bullet. Charged by language alone to imagine the holy dove and the winged bull, the Lion, the Lamb and the Rock, what we see instead is “the devastation of the green wood! Ha! And in the blackened streets the entrails of men, women and baby grand pianos, their songs sunk to an empty twang struck by the aimless whirling of violent winds. Behold! Behold the charred foundations of the House of God.”
Maybe he couldn’t finish because America, lacking in comfort and radiance, fresh out of Lincolns, wouldn’t let him. We amounted to less than he needed and believed. Or maybe, more dreadfully, baby Bliss is Jesus after all. And Sunraider is the Christianity he grew up to be.
Nothing ever stops; it divides and multiplies, and I guess sometimes it gets ground down to superfine, but it doesn’t just blow away.
It used to bother me that Ellison, in Shadow and Act and Going to the Territory, so seldom reviewed and never encouraged any of the other black American writers of his time, which was a long one. Ambivalence about Wright, who gave him his start, was one thing. Silence on the rest, so many of whom grew up nourished by his breakthrough novel, seemed downright hostile. And this is not to get into what isn’t any of my business–the continuing argument about the responsibility of black artists to themselves versus their obligation to an aggrieved community; about primitivism, stereotypes, street cred, protest novels, the black aesthetic and art for art’s sake. I see no reason why Zora Neale Hurston, W.E.B. Du Bois, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry, August Wilson, George C. Wolfe, Alvin Ailey, Bill T. Jones, Gwendolyn Brooks, Amiri Baraka, Alice Walker, Spike Lee and Julie Dash shouldn’t disagree as much about fundamentals as any other miscellaneous bunch of extravagant talents, any other pantheon. Baldwin, speaking to white America, was certainly right when he said, “If I am not who you say I am, then you are not who you think you are.” And so was Toni Morrison, speaking to everybody: “The best art is unquestionably political and irrevocably beautiful at the same time.” And maybe, anyway, the best model for any modern literature is the letter of transit, the message in a bottle from exile, displacement and dispossession. Aren’t all of us, even Ellison, homesick? I’m talking less cosmically, about teachers, mentors and friends. He seems almost to have felt that encouraging the children who cherished his example and struggled with his shadow would cost him some body heat. So he hibernated for the long winter and sucked like Ahab on the paws of his gloom.
But Juneteenth, so unlike and yet in surreal keeping with so much that’s happened in the last half-century of African-American writing, suggests that those children got what they needed anyway. That Toni Morrison got sermons, jazz, the Civil War, Reconstruction, magnanimity and diaspora. That John Edgar Wideman got kinship, ancestry, basketball, deracination, Homewood, epiphany, Africa and Caliban. That if Ellison neglected Martin Luther King Jr., Charles Johnson would have to dream about him. And that a phantasmal version of Ellison himself shows up on the last page of Wesley Brown’s wonderful Darktown Strutters, in the person of the nineteenth-century minstrel Jim Crow, slyly ruining a photograph they’re trying to take at P.T. Barnum’s Southland theme park–a museum of the American distemper that includes a nigra wench, a heathen chinee, a dumb swede, a drunken mick, a shylocking jew, a murderous paisan and a dead indian. Jim Crow’s supposed to be the conniving uncle tom. But just as the powder goes flash-poof, Jim executes a brand-new fancy step: not there; long gone; you might even say invisible, but dancing somewhere on a coffin.