This evening the W train got us to Prince Street and to the great McNally Jackson boostore, where we got to hear the editors of the long-anticipated, never-completed fictional epic that is Ralph Ellison's Three Days Before the Shooting...: The Unfinished Second Novel.
Ellison's masterpiece, of course, is Invisible Man,
a book we re-read with great pleasure just a few months ago when we taught it in our Cold War Literature class at City College of New York.
Often considered the most important American novel of the last sixty years, Invisible Man seemed even more stunning in its brilliance last October than when the book took our breath away when we first read it, for Prof. Jack Kitch's Contemporary American Literature class at Brooklyn College in the fall of 1972. Thirty-seven years later, it was exciting to see the reactions of our students who were reading the book for the first time.
And it was kind of amazing to teach it in Harlem, where so much of the book's action is set, and near where Ellison lived and where he is buried. We made pilgrimages to the Ralph Ellison Memorial - a sculpture homage to his novel's protagonist - up around West 150th Street in Riverside Park,
close to the riverfront apartment where Ralph and Fanny Ellison made their home for many years
and to Ellison's final resting place at Trinity Church Cemetery a little further north in Washington Heights.
The year after we first read Invisible Man, the next Ellison work we read was in Ted Solotaroff's seminal paperback magazine American Review, issue 16: "Cadillac Flambé," an excerpt from the author's forthcoming second novel, whose publication we looked forward to.
Of course, Ellison died more than twenty years later without ever completing his second novel. The story of that unfinished book is famous and often inaccurately told. Most people know that in 1999, John Callahan, Ellison's friend and literary executor, brought out Juneteenth, a version of the novel many people (including the one student in our class who'd gotten through it) felt was unsatisfying.
The problem was, as explained by Callahan and his co-editor and former undergraduate student and reseach assistant Adam Bradley, Ellison had left behind "a series of related narrative fragments, several of which extend to over 300 manuscript pages in length, that appear to cohere without truly completing one another." The work comprised 27 boxes of archived material in the Library of Congress, thousands of manuscript pages and 469 computer files on 84 disks.
An article by Clint Talbott at the University of Colorado-Boulder e-Newsletter gives the basics:
Ellison’s second novel dwells on paternity, race and the democratic promise of America. The senator is assassinated by a black man who, it turns out, is the senator’s son. The senator’s surrogate father, who is black, tries in vain to save the senator...
A 2007 Washington Post story notes that Callahan was mystified by the fact that Ellison had written scenes to “near perfection” in the ‘50s and ‘60s but revised them extensively a quarter-century later on the computer.
Bradley, reared in the digital age, deduced that Ellison became transfixed by the computer’s power to move paragraphs, insert words, delete whole sections. Ellison was a technophile, and, "the shifting and shaping of his second novel became a new kind of mania," the Post observed.
There may have been a method in the maddening array of rewritten episodes, fragments, character and plot outlines made by hand, on typewriter and finally on computer. But the author’s ultimate aim was unknown. Ellison left no instructions on what should be done with his work.
This was a gargantuan literary jigsaw puzzle composed of sometimes-ill-fitting bits and bytes.
Ellison composed episodically—crafting scenes one after another and often rewriting entire episodes, sometimes with different endings or from different perspectives. Later, he would stitch episodes together. The novel includes sections not yet fused that approach a conclusion not yet settled.
The promotional material says Three Days Before the Shooting...
gathers together in one volume, for the first time, all the parts of that planned opus, including three major sequences never before published. Set in the frame of a deathbed vigil, the story is a gripping multigenerational saga centered on the assassination of the controversial, race-baiting U.S. senator Adam Sunraider, who’s being tended to by “Daddy” Hickman, the elderly black jazz musician turned preacher who raised the orphan Sunraider as a light-skinned black in rural Georgia. Presented in their unexpurgated, provisional state, the narrative sequences form a deeply poetic, moving, and profoundly entertaining book, brimming with humor and tension, composed in Ellison’s magical jazz-inspired prose style and marked by his incomparable ear for vernacular speech.
Beyond its richly compelling narratives, Three Days Before the Shooting . . . is perhaps most notable for its extraordinary insight into the creative process of one of this country’s greatest writers. In various stages of composition and revision, its typescripts and computer files testify to Ellison’s achievement and struggle with his material from the mid-1950s until his death forty years later. Three Days Before the Shooting . . . is an essential, fascinating piece of Ralph Ellison’s legacy, and its publication is to be welcomed as a major event for American arts and letters.
After doing some shopping and saying hi to Dustin Kurtz, McNally Jackson's events coordinator, who must have a really good memory because he remembered us from our reading in the store last August, we got a front-row seat in the audience. C-SPAN's BookTV cameras were there.
We knew the co-editors by sight. Adam Bradley we first saw last spring at the Hue-Man Bookstore in Harlem when his wonderful The Poetics of Hip-Hop came out (we've used it in creative writing classes). John Callahan we first heard of not as a literary scholar but from our political work back in the day: Callahan was a staffer for Gene McCarthy's antiwar campaign and McCarthy's running mate in the quixotic 1976 independent candidacy for President.
The host of the evening was Michael Mooney, former longtime president of Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon, where John Callahan is Morgan S. Odell Professor of Humanities, and where Adam Bradley, now a professor of English at the University of Colorado, was his student.
In his introduction, Dr. Mooney mentioned seeing a quotation from J.D. Salinger at the magnificent Gothic revival church on West 44th Street that's now how to New Dramatists.
He paraphrased it, but here it is in its entirety, from Seymour: An Introduction:
When was writing ever your profession? It's never been anything but your religion. Never. I'm a little over-excited now. Since it is your religion, do you know what you will be asked when you die? But let me tell you first what you won't be asked. You won't be asked if you were working on a wonderful. moving piece of writing when you died. You won't be asked if it was long or short, sad or funny, published or unpublished. You won't be asked if you were in good or bad form while you were working on it. You won't even be asked if it was the one piece of writing you would have been working on if you had known your time would be up when it was finished. I'm so sure you'll get asked only two questions. Were most of your stars out? Were you busy writing your heart out? If only you knew how easy it would be for you to say yes to both questions.
Mooney said that quotation could apply to Ralph Ellison as well, and spoke about Ellison's also to both co-editors and first introduced John Callahan, obviously an old friend, first quoting from his book In the African-American Grain, about how these writers
seize the opportunity to regard their reading audience as both characters and citizens... this repeat act of fictionalizing is a liberating patriotic act, for it allows...the reader to become simultaneously an individual and, indivisibly, a member of the potential national community... American identity becomes a fluid estate: not only are blacks true Americans but the true American, as Ralph Ellison notes, "is also somehow black."
John Callahan, in his fascinating talk at the podium, discussed the genesis of his friendship with Ralph Ellison, which he called "a very American story." Like Adam Bradley and me and many others, John first read Invisible Man in college and was transformed by the novel. In 1977 he published an essay, "Chaos, Complexity, and Possibility: The Historical Frequencies of Ralph Waldo Ellison," and sent a copy to the writer; surprisingly, Ellison wrote a long letter back and invited the young scholar to drop by if he was ever "in New York and had time."
In May 1978, bringing a bouquet of lilacs he saw as the cab made its way to the Ellisons' Riverside Drive apartment (a good choice: the couple loved lilacs, which they grew at their Berkshires house, and Fanny immediately referenced the opening of The Waste Land), Callahan and Ellison started off formally but bonded over, respectively, Jameson Irish whiskey and Jack Daniels.
Callahan had more anecdotes from their years of friendship and visits and discussed his work on Ellison's novel over the years since Ellison's passing. Unlike Juneteenth - which he has no apologies for - Three Days Before the Shooting... is presented simply as "The Unfinished Second Novel." He and Adam Bradley had to make myriad decisions with the material at every turn: did it have a beginning, middle, and end? does it cohere? how do the fragments tie together?
He then went into a discussion that probably was best appreciated by those with some familiarity with the work as it's been presented so far, talking about the boy Bliss, born racially ambiguous and raised by jazzman turned preacher Alonzo Hickman, who becomes the racist "white" U.S. Senator, Adam Sunraider, the target of an assassin. And there was a rather technical discussion on the parts of the book as the editors finally decided to present it.
John Callahan said a lot more, giving telling anecdotes about his and Adam Bradley's work on the project (they had a lot of trouble with a copy editor who kept trying to change Ellison's sentences to "improve" them: "We had to keep writing STET"), and hopefully you can find out more by reading the editors' notes or perhaps catching this particular talk on C-SPAN.
"John stole all my best line," Adam Bradley said when he took the microphone, but that was hardly true. Bradley gave an equally interesting talk about his own relationship with Ellison, whose novel touched him at the heart of his own experience growing up as a biracial kid in Salt Lake City somewhat removed the mainstream of African-American culture. He called it "an astounding thing" that John gave him, then a 19-year-old sophomore, the responsibility of being only the third or fourth person with access to the material in Ellison's work on his second novel and described how he felt upon first coming across a typo or a grammatical infelicity in an American literacy master's manuscript and then having to rush off to speech class. It was a strange feeling of intimacy, an amazing look into the craft of writing fiction.
Over all the years he and Callahan worked on the material in the unfinished novel, it became a process, a journey: "We lived with it." Bradly too discussed some of the technical narrative issues, the multiple narrators, the conflicting many drafts - Ellison was an early adopter of computers, getting an Osborne in 1981, and he (like a lot of us back then) kept saving alternative drafts in different files so that numerous versions of part of the book exist.
We can't hope to reproduce the gems in the discussion here, but in some ways the most moving part of the evening was when Callahan and Bradley each read a portion of the book with some introduction and explication, including a telling and beautifully wrought section where Rev. Hickman is stopped by a Washington policeman at the airport who wants to know what he's doing with what appears to be a toilet plunger.
To a trumpeter who's misplaced his mute, a toilet plunger, we learn, can be a miracle. To us, that narrative sequence is a great metaphor for the process of composing a novel. Ellison still takes our breath away. Anyway, after an enlightening Q&A session, the editors received a well-deserved round of applause.
If tonight's event and our own admiration of Ralph Ellison wasn't enough to make us want to read this book, the Publishers Weekly review certainly does:
The publication of this behemoth compilation of Ellison's efforts toward his never-finished second novel is assuredly an event — readers will find much of what the author of Invisible Man labored over for decades, and from which Juneteenth was extracted. With multiple versions of and fragments from the massive work (assembled by editors John F. Callahan and Adam Bradley), this edition will have the greatest appeal to Ellison enthusiasts and scholars, as well as to readers interested in the punishing process of novelistic composition. This volume contains countless passages of breathtaking prose, touching upon America and its mystic motto of national purpose violently aflutter. The story that weaves through these drafts centers on the relationship between Alonzo Hickman, a black preacher, and the race-baiting senator raised by Hickman — Adam Sunraider, of ambiguous race, living as a white man and the object of an assassination plot. The sense of struggle and chaos, in terms of the nation's impossible desires and Ellison's creative drive, is chillingly palpable throughout. The editors have performed a true feat of literary archeology in gathering an astounding bulk of prose that's highly attuned to the deeply divided American condition.