The Executor’s Song: Ralph Ellison’s ‘Juneteenth’

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.


If dead men tell no tales, they certainly don’t finish novels, particularly those 40-odd years in the making. Suffice to say, all claims that the version of Ralph Ellison’s Juneteenth cobbled together by literary executor John Callahan is Ellison’s last novel or even an Ellison novel at all, are monstrously fraudulent. More than a sham, the posthumous Juneteenth is a mockery of the sacred and once considered inviolable bond between the artist and his work. How it reads is as a shapeless compilation of tangents hashed together from one story line of a manuscript Ellison considered publishing in three volumes.

As artless and inexcusable as Callahan’s hatchet job is, this Juneteenth does render us privy to Ellison in an improvisational mode, riffing freely in passages that one suspects would never have made the cut of a final draft. The book also contains the most lush, lyrical, and romantic descriptions of sex and nature, the most Proustian prose in other words, to be found anywhere in the Ellison oeuvre:

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….Even after all these years I can tell you of passion so fierce that it danced with gentleness, and how the hill throbbed with silence, the day gathering down, ordered and radiant beneath the firm pumping of our enraptured thighs, I can tell you, tell you how I became she and she me with no questions asked and no battle fought. We grasped the secret of that moment and it was and it was enough.

Merely reading this Juneteenth, however, makes one feel complicit in a literary crime, each turn of the page an aiding and abetting of Callahan’s callow butchery. More honorable would have been to publish the scholars’ edition of the complete manuscript, which industrious lay readers surely would have found a way to obtain (in his introduction, Callahan claims he will do this eventually).

Since art, even of so suspect and inappropriate a kind as Callahan’s, is about making choices, what can rightly be critiqued of this Juneteenth is not Ellison but his literary executor’s decision to gut a reported 1000-plus–page manuscript and boil it down into this 368-page thing that is mostly about Senator Sunraider and Daddy Hickman. Sunraider is a white-supremacist politician who survives an assassination attempt and through Hickman’s interlocution reflects on his early childhood spent as a boy preacher named Bliss in a black traveling ministry. Ellison uses that reckoning to expound on one of his favorite themes—the Blackness of white American-ness—and the denial, rage, and blindness regarding this idea that has deposited itself in the national psyche. Some of the writing is crisp, other patches seem purple, pedantic, rushed, and preachy. What we’ll never know is Ellison’s final cut, and therein lies all the difference in the world between Callahan’s Juneteenth and the one Ellison took with him to the grave.

Of what is here, the most cogent sections are at the beginning, when Hickman’s entourage arrives at the senator’s office to warn him of a possible assassination attempt and is rebuffed by an incredulous secretary; the most transcendent involves Sunraider’s dream of making a movie in an all-black town. It is one of the finest pieces of writing about the rapacious nature of filmmakers. Ellison was said to have gotten stuck stitching seams for this garrulous work in progress; if he couldn’t give the thing a shape, the question remains as to why Callahan had balls enough to try.

From the scattered evidence published over the years of various segments from the work in progress, Juneteenth seems to have been intended as Ellison’s response to the civil rights movement as it was unfolding, and to what truths about the nation’s psyche integration would flush out. In this sense Juneteenth is very much a book of the ’60s, and like most fiction set in the era it seems trumped as an imaginative exercise by the era itself. The irony is that the preeminent African American figures of the time (King, X, Hendrix, Sly, Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver, Amiri Baraka) are all credible answers to the identity question Invisible Man trails off on—how will young, charismatic, and visionary African American men fluent in America’s black and white worlds of culture and discourse fare in a desegregated America?

Unlike Ellison’s protagonist in Invisible Man, the icons mentioned above came through in a time when, as Black film scholar Clyde Taylor likes to say, “brothers were freelancing their imaginations.” Reading Callahan’s Juneteenth makes you realize that just as Ellison was getting a handle on the march on Washington, Jimi was sacrificing his guitar at Monterey and the Panthers were engaging in cocked-and-loaded guerrilla theater. By this reckoning Juneteenth would have seemed dated had it been published in the late ’60s, because the Callahan version is so focused on Ellison’s obsession with white people being awakened to the blackness within them.

The remarkable thing about Invisible Man by comparison is that it has aged hardly at all. Exchange the Brotherhood for the Black Muslims or the Panthers or Suge Knight and the Bloods and you could easily base the protagonist on Malcolm X, Huey Newton, or Tupac Shakur. The story remains the same: that recurring mythic cycle of African American history in which edgy and streetwise but socially mobile young race-men become exploited, cannibalized, and silenced by the movements they create before they’ve even finished creating themselves.

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.

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.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on July 6, 1999