January 2010

Ralph Ellison

The second novel: Ellison returns 58 years after “Invisible Man”
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Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man was published in 1952 to great acclaim, and went on to win the National Book Award in 1953. The novel was taught in high schools and colleges across the country, but Ellison lived another 42 years without publishing another book.

Through the years, there were rumors of a second novel—in 1967, Ellison claimed he lost bits of the manuscript in a house fire. When he died, Ellison left behind boxes and boxes of chapters and notes that were handwritten, printed from a typewriter or saved on floppy discs. But there was no complete second novel.

In 1999, Ellison’s literary executor John F. Callahan, a professor at Lewis & Clark College, constructed Juneteenth from some of Ellison's notes—but this was a mere fragment of the author's plans for the second novel. The New York Times called Juneteenth “disappointingly provisional and incomplete,” although it was a bestseller.

On Jan. 26, 2010, after years of Callahan’s literary detective work along with student assistant-turned-collaborator Adam Bradley, the complete second novel was published. Callahan and Bradley share an editing credit on the 1,136-page text.

Titled Three Days Before the Shooting. . ., the novel tells the story of Alonzo Hickman and Adam Sunraider, a black jazzman-turned-preacher and a racist “white” New England Senator. Hickman raised Sunraider, a child of indeterminate race. The novel follows his quest to solve the mystery of Sunraider’s disappearance and reemergence as a race-baiter.

In an e-mail Q&A with BookPage, the editors discuss Ellison’s shift in writing style, the book’s main characters and what comes next after devoting so many years to a single project.

Why did you choose Three Days Before the Shooting for the book title?
“Three Days Before the Shooting” are the first words of Ellison’s prologue to Book I of the novel, and the opening words of “And Hickman Arrives,” the first excerpt he published from the second novel, back in 1960 in Saul Bellow’s [magazine] Noble Savage. It’s an arresting title that refers to the novel’s climactic event—the assassination of Senator Adam Sunraider, aka Bliss, the little boy of “indeterminate race” raised black by Reverend Hickman until he runs from this cherishing black world and uses racism to make his way as a white man in America.

Decades later as Ellison reworked and expanded the novel’s opening scene as the opening of the “Hickman in Washington, D.C.” narrative, he changed the phrase to “Two days before the shooting”: at that point the central action was going to happen over one fewer day. Ellison left no specific title for the second novel.

What is the central message in Three Days Before the Shooting?
The book is a novel—a story—I’m not sure there is a “central message.” That said, the thematic words that resonate most powerfully are those Ralph wrote to his old teacher at Tuskegee, Morteza Sprague ([the 1964 essay collection] “Shadow and Act” is dedicated to Sprague), in a letter written right after Ellison got word of the Brown v. Board decision in May 1954: “Now I’m writing about the evasion of identity which is another characteristically American problem which must be about to change.” From that national fulcrum Ellison imbues his second novel with the responsibilities of kinship, private (the offices of father and son, for example) and public (the offices of jazzman, preacher and senator). His book also explores what Ellison elsewhere called “our orphan’s loneliness”—another mark, for Ellison, his characters and story, of the human condition in America.

How would you characterize Alonzo Hickman and Adam Sunraider?
Alonzo Zuber Hickman is meant to be a vernacular encyclopedic figure. After he commits to raising the orphaned baby boy Bliss, he feels the Word surging within him and takes up preaching. Hickman is a man of many parts, a man of terrific vitality, at once forceful and contemplative, funny, stern and tender, a man for whom love is the test and the task.

Adam Sunraider typifies that “orphan’s loneliness” Ellison identified with American identity. Only on his dying bed does Bliss/Sunraider, hurt and vulnerable, articulate the wish that he could have “accepted you [Hickman] as the dark daddy of flesh and Word.” Together, Bliss/Sunraider and Hickman are Ellison’s 20th-century version of Twain’s Huck and Jim.

Do you believe that Ellison’s writing style was affected by his decision to compose on a computer?
The computer’s impact on Ellison’s composition of his second novel is at once palpable and elusive. It allowed him to revise incessantly, thus accentuating his lifelong urge toward perfection and fluidity. Ellison’s manuscripts, printouts and variants of the second novel reflect many styles, from stripped-down declarative American prose to stream of consciousness to the rollicking Southwestern tall tale and the African-American toasts, tales and dozens, and, finally, more and more prominent in his last years, an essayistic, expository bent.

To what extent the computer is an influence, to what extent the passage of four decades in Ellison’s life and mind, to what extent the changes in American life and the American scene and his changing conception of his story drive his style is an open question. Calculating the extent to which each of these factors influenced and altered his style is a finely calibrated process. For even as the narratives composed on the computer seem to become more and more expository in style, there’ll come an antiphonal burst from deep inside Hickman revealing his vocations as jazz trumpeter, preacher and storyteller extraordinaire.

If readers are discouraged by the text’s 1000+ page length, how would you encourage them to pick it up?
Maybe the book’s very length is a comfort, and eases the pressure for the reader. You can’t read or finish such an immense volume in a night or a few days. It’s a book one picks up and puts down sustained by knowing that Ellison worked on and with it for some 40 years. It’s meant to be savored, perhaps like intense conversations with close friends who live far away.

You have been working on this project for more than 10 years. What’s next?
Callahan: I am writing a novel called The Learning Room, whose protagonist (one of them) is Fergus, a five-year-old autistic boy who becomes witness to terrible things and somehow offers wordless comfort to someone dear. . . I’ll say no more until I finish the book except that the novel is set on Shelter Island and its narrator is Gabe Bontempo who performed the same office in my first novel, A Man You Could Love” (2007, 2008). As Ellison’s literary executor, I find there is always more to do. For now I’ll take a deep breath, finish my own novel then turn again to what remains to be done, perhaps an edition of his letters, and another of several extended fragments left in his papers.

Bradley: Later this spring, I’ll publish a book entitled Ralph Ellison in Progress (Yale University Press, May 2010), a critical study that looks at Three Days Before the Shooting. . . alongside Invisible Man, and both in the sweep of Ellison’s life and career. The work John and I have been doing with the second novel inspired me to write the book. I had so many things to say about Ellison and Three Days that it took another book for me to do it. Right now I’m working on the first anthology of rap lyrics, which sounds pretty far removed from Ellison until you consider how much he had to say about black music and folk culture. Editing the anthology, I find myself going back to Ellison’s essays and fiction time and again. I’m sure Ellison will never be far removed from the work I do in the years to come. I owe a great debt to his example.


Read a review of Juneteenth.


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