The Executor’s Song

Invisible Man endures for many reasons, but foremost because it brought structural complexity to the complex themes of racialized identity found in the works of earlier writers. Almost a mind-over-matter trick, Ellison lobbed the Black identity–Black rage question over the high castle walls of the Ivory Tower in a package too resolutely formalist to be ignored by people whose entire lives are bound up with knowing good formalism when they see it. Ellison was as obsessed with form as he was with race in America; this obsession is what distinguishes him from every major African American literary figure other than Samuel Delany.

Ellison's near fanatical commitment to sound novelistic form and structure has loads to do with why Juneteenth wasn't published while he was alive. The curse of success loomed over him, as Invisible Man wove complex themes into the narrative body of a driving existential thriller. Juneteenth, even in its abridged version, seems to be choking on its own shapelessness. It is surprising Callahan took the tack he did of trying to create a shape for his dead author's last work. In a world where Don DeLillo's Underworld and David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest can be bestsellers, I don't think any serious reader would have minded diving right into Ellison's unfinished morass.


By Ralph Ellison, edited by John F. Callahan
Random House, 368 pp., $25
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There is also the possibility that in losing his first-draft manuscript of Juneteenth in a fire back in 1967, Ellison lost the opportunity to exploit the drama of the moment (surely as much a part of the novelistic tradition as architectonic concerns) and to be defiantly contrary to Cultural Nationalists when that breed still had teeth and Molotov cocktails for your ass if you dared be more pro-formalism than pro-Black. What the absence of a second Ellison novel allows us to put in perspective is the recognition that there were at least two Ellisons with two separate career plans—the Ellison who wrote Invisible Man and the Ellison who spent the rest of his life trying to live up to his reputation. How unfortunate the overseer of his estate chose to so badly serve his dead master's memory.

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