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Ralph Ellison's 'Juneteenth' is too incomplete for publication

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor

ARE AMERICAN publishers gradually running out of material from living authors? You'd think so, wouldn't you, from the industry's willingness seek out projects from the archives of writers who are now deceased. Off the top of my head I can think of several in the past couple of years: Louise May Alcott's A Long Fatal Love Chase, Jeff Shaara's Gods and Generals and The Last Full Measure, and Ernest Hemingway's True at First Light.

Each project had its own particular problem. Love Chase was a woeful early effort that was rejected in the author's lifetime--and should have been. Shaara's weak Gods and Measure were written as, respectively, a prequel and a sequel to his late father Michael's marvelous The Killer Angels, which, frankly, needed neither. Hemingway's son, Patrick, decided to rewrite and publish, under his father's name, a First Light manuscript that Papa himself had originally deemed unfit for public consumption.

Pat Hemingway's altering of his father's work is certainly the most abominable of these dead-author books, since he deliberately altered the text. But this year's posthumous publication of African American writer Ralph Ellison's long-worked-on second novel qualifies as a close second. This is a book that should not have been released.

Ellison's first novel was one for the ages. Invisible Man, published in 1952, is an American classic, the story of the black man's image in America on the cusp between Jim Crow segregation and the civil rights movement. It won the 1953 National Book Award.

The author began work on Juneteenth even before finishing Invisible Man. It was intended to be a larger work on the nature of the relations between blacks and whites in America. Ellison worked on it off and on for the rest of his life, through a 1967 fire that destroyed much of the original manuscript. But at the time of his death in 1994, he did not feel he had a novel suitable for publication.

In comes Lewis & Clark College professor John F. Callahan, Ellison's literary executor. Callahan makes sure you understand that it was only with the consent of Ellison's widow that he pieced together a condensation of the reportedly enormous work, made up of those passages that he felt Ellison had finished. Conspicuously missing from any of Callahan's published explanations, however, is any hint that Ellison himself gave consent before he died to publishing this book in any form.

Juneteenth's action stretches between the 1920s and the early 1950s, a time when relations between the races in America were fiercely raw. The novel's plot involves a young boy, Bliss, probably racially mixed between black and white, who is found and adopted by a traveling African American preacher, Rev. Hickman.

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The minister raises the boy to be a minister himself, working out an eerie vaudeville magic-show act in which the young Bliss rises out of a coffin to preach his sermon. But when Bliss comes of age, he runs away, passes for white, and eventually becomes a racist, race-baiting U.S. senator. Hickman and Bliss are reunited after many years, only after the senator is fearfully wounded in an assassination attempt.

Many of Juneteenth's monologues are as insightful and gorgeously melodic in their descriptions of black life as any fan of Invisible Man would expect:

We were under the trees, away from the town.  . . . High up the trees flurried with birdsong, and one clear note sang above the rest, a lucid, soaring strand of sound; while in the grass the cicadas dreamed. For a moment we stood there looking down the gentle rising-falling of the land, while far away a cowbell tinkled, small across some hidden field beyond the woods. Milkweed ran across the ground. Imagine to remember--was it ever? Still. Thistle purple-blue, flowers blue, wisteria loud against an old rock wall--was this the season or another time? Certainly there were the early violets among the fallen pine needles--ago too, but that was Alabama and lonesome. Here she was close beside me and as we moved down the grassy slope the touch of her cool sweat-dampened arm came soft against me and went and came coolly again and then again as we went down the hill into the sun.  . . . Yes, I said, swinging the basket in my hand. Yes, I want to go anywhere you say, Miss Teasing Brown, yes I do.

READING SUCH PRICELESS passages, you can sympathize with Callahan and understand why he did not want this work hidden from the world. But other passages drag, some transitions are jerky and at times there seems to be no plot or purpose to it all. And judging such problems is ultimately unfair to Ellison, since it is impossible to tell what he considered completed and what he was still working on, and how he wanted the whole structure to hang.

Callahan promises to release soon a scholarly volume of Juneteenth that will include all of Ellison's written work on the project, including notes. That certainly would have been more fair to both author and reader than releasing an unfinished novel that purports to be a completed work, no matter how many forewords the editor writes or interviews he gives to the contrary. But scholarly works rarely outsell novels by popular dead authors, so, well, there it is.

Ultimately, a novel is very much like a symphony. Neither is merely a collection of passages. They are works-in-whole, with each word or note or phrase working in conjunction with all the rest, a complete journey from opening line to closing stanza. Despite an effort that took the majority of his life, Ralph Ellison was not able to complete that task for Juneteenth. Therefore, despite all temptation, it should have been let be.


Juneteenth by Ralph Ellison; Random House; 348 pages; $25 cloth.

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From the September 8-15, 1999 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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