One of the reasons my blogging has been light of late is I’ve been trying to catch up with Ralph Ellison. Here at Washington and Lee University, where I currently teach, professors Marc Conner and Lucas Morel put on a fabulous conference this weekend, commemorating the 60th anniversary of Ellison’s breathtaking novel Invisible Man, often regarded as in the top contenders for the greatest American novel ever, and usually regarded as the best by an African-American(Ellison, however, was among those who preferred the label Negro).
Ellison passed away in 1994, but had been working on a second novel for forty years, a portion of which was released by his literary executor John Callahan as Juneteenth in 1999. Last year, Callahan made the main manuscript, with all the necessary scholarly apparatus, available as Three Days before the Shooting, resulting in a 1,100-page novel. Obviously, the editorial decisions behind these books were complicated, see the amazon links for the basic story behind the books.
I had read Invisible Man before, but of course in re-reading it recently saw a great deal more—particularly interesting was how many Whitmanian and Croly-esque notes of “democratic faith” were sounded by Ellison in it, but always with a more tragedy-attuned, and more down-to-earth, sensibility.
I had not, however, read Juneteenth, and about that (ongoing) experience I can only say: I’m stunned, delighted, amazed. The first thing pomocon readers should know is that this one of the artworks that best captures or plays upon the idea, sometimes floated by Jim Ceaser hereabouts, that America has an “unwritten Constitution” that can only be described as Christian. And while Jim never said this, the “committee on style”(which everyone knows deals with much more than style) for such a “Constitution” would logically consist of black preachers most of all.
Whereas the musical feel of Invisible Man was blues, Basie, and Armstrong, and seemed to acquire an accelerating be-bop drive and craziness once its plot brought it to NYC, the feel in Juneteenth is gospel and black-church revival down to the core. Perhaps in another post I’ll go into a set of three incredible sermons presented at the heart of it, one of which is nothing less than Ellison’s mytho-poetic history of the American Negro, with Ezekiel’s “valley of the dry bones” passage playing a central role. It’s not that everything in the novel happening concerns church people—although much of it does—it’s just that the black church’s activity in the South and Oklahoma is the musical underpinning of the novel. NYC’s dynamic of sucking all into its vortex is absent this time—it is rather Washington and Hollywood that are the cities that beckon, but even so, the recollections which form the bulk of the novel put us out there in the American South and the westward “Territory” with black revival preachers or small-time con-artists.
And while recognizably Ellisonian, everything feels different from 1952’s Invisible Man– the writing had become wilder, more ambitious, more prone to allusive riffing/improvisations. I’d say the writing is overall stronger, tapped into deeper reservoirs of American language and self-consciousness, although there are admittedly less of the plot-dynamics that drove Invisible Man forward.
And Juneteenth is simply the tip of the iceberg, apparently, of the fuller world available in Three Days before the Shooting. Indeed, while our conference this weekend featured great talks by Ashland’s Peter Schramm, Kenyon’s Pamela Jensen, a particularly fine one by WLU’s own Lucas Morel, as well as an excellent closing address from the guest of honor himself, John Callahan, the most interesting and exciting talks, in my opinion, were all efforts to tackle Three Days. There does seem reason to fear that part of why Ellison didn’t finish it is that his writing had became too richly allusive and riff-happy, but without question there are real riches therein, and ones that speak to the deepest issues that face modern democratic man, in America particularly.
When more information about the book that may emerge from the conference becomes available, I’ll say more, and I’ll perhaps have some more on Juneteenth or the Ellison-Whitman connection soon. For now, suffice it to say that Juneteenth deserves a look—have you any taste for Ellison and/or black preaching, you won’t be sorry.