Ralph Ellison is one of the greatest modern African American (or, as he would probably have preferred, American Negro) novelists. In 1952 he published his first novel, Invisible Man, a book startling for its vision, rhetorical verve, and cunningly devised irony. It strangely mixed naturalism, expressionism and surrealism; its mood was apocalyptic. ‘I am an invisible man,’ the narration begins. Invisible Man is a figure for the times – an existential hero, a version of Dostoevsky’s underground man, a confidence trickster. He is also black and a stereotype, invisible by definition. His struggles, with social and political pressures, personal humiliations, his state of non-being or ‘hibernation’, form an anxious black comedy. But the triumph of the book is the formation of a voice, of invisibility and ‘buggy jiving’, which ultimately becomes authoritative. The novel ends by sharing invisibility: ‘Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?’
Invisible Man was an immediate prize-winning success. Ever since, it has been a high-school classic and a key African-American book. Around the time it was published, in addition to writing essays and short stories, Ellison began another novel, which he worked on for most of the Fifties and Sixties. Part of it appeared in 1959, in the literary magazine Big Table, edited by Saul Bellow (with whom Ellison, as a fellow teacher at Bard College, was sharing a house), and further tantalising excerpts appeared in other magazines. Then in 1967, with the book still in the writing, misfortune struck. The Ellisons’ summer cottage in the Berkshire Hills of Massachusetts caught fire; the manuscript burned.
This event was famous as the explanation of why, as years went by, Ellison failed to publish a second novel. But something else was happening to the story he had planned. The idea – to which he soon returned, attempting to put his book back together and develop it further – was growing larger and larger, expanding to the status of a myth. Key scenes went through multiple revisions. Material of various different kinds became associated. It became ‘the novel-in-progress (very long in progress)’ and the great missing American novel. When Ellison died, aged eighty, in 1994, the project was still unfinished and ran to 2,000 pages.
Now a selection has appeared as Juneteenth. Rather like Time At First Light, the recent posthumous ‘novel’ by Ernest Hemingway, the book is a selection or an edit by another hand. The editor, Professor John F Callahan, has apparently separated what can be thought the central narrative from the stack of materials left by Ellison. The book he calls Juneteenth is grand, strange, imperfect. It is a vast tale of race and identity in the context of the great American experience, centred upon a black Baptist preacher, the Reverend Alonzo Hickman, formerly an itinerant musician, and the strange figure of ‘Bliss’ – a boy of ‘indefinite race’ and mysterious background, who has grown up with the blacks of the church, but who eventually flees to become the racist senator, Adam Sunraider.
When Sunraider is the victim of an assassination attempt and lies in hospital, the two men, surrogate father and fleeing son, enter a complex dialogue. Part of it is memories, the unfolding story behind the situation. But the story is a fantastic myth or a kind of folk-tale, set in the American South from early in the century to the 1950s. At issue are race and racelessness. ‘Juneteenth’ itself is a key anniversary, of 19 June 1865, when, as the American Civil War was ending, slaves in the South were told they were free. But division has never ceased, and the history has been one of blood and disaster, lynching and miscegenation. The problem still remains of finding a speech, forging a plural or multiracial narrative to go with it.
Invisible Man raised a similar problem, and is a linguistic tour de force, employing many types of rhetoric from speeches, prayers, songs and jazz riffs to create the flow of voices. It also drew on the classic tradition of American writing: Twain, Melville, James – above all, the key Southern writer William Faulkner, who once explained his experimental high- flying rhetoric as born ‘by Oratory out of Solitude’. That can be said of Ellison, except his oratory is also born of the folklore of black culture and its splendid improvised language.
In a sense, this book is founded on two great speech traditions of America. One is the tradition of political oratory, celebrating the nation, the other the tradition of the Baptist pulpit, the spirit of black preaching. Both provide the rhetorical flights of the men as they encounter each other when the senator and former lost child lies dying. ‘The thing to remember about the antiphony between Daddy Hickman and little Bliss is that the two are building a scene within a scene and it must be on a borderline between the folk poetry and religious rhetoric,’ Ellison had noted to himself.
As much as anything, Juneteenth is about American languages, the rhetorical signals sent out by the Bible and the American constitution, which take us into the mysteries of dream, hope, universality. It is here that black and white are united and can find an interwoven poetry. Like many works of American fiction, Juneteenth is less a story than a display of its own rhetoric. It owes much to Faulkner in its sense of the spirituality and grandeur that go with American place and American history; and quite as much to jazz, the spiritual, and the fiery pulpit.
The story of Juneteenth does not form completely, and the materials are plainly unfinished. This is not simply because the book was never pulled into shape, but because Ellison was writing less a novel than the ultimate book of his endeavours, over the forty years from Invisible Man to his death. We will read it for a glimpse of strange events and strong literary powers, a hopeful lesson in pluralism and possibility, a classically American search for unity from diversity. These are splendid riffs from a virtuoso performance, filled with strange scenes, much humour and surreal fantasy, and a radical version of the new American dream.