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Juneteenth by Ralph Ellison


by Ralph Ellison

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Sometimes the story about the story is much more interesting than the tale itself. Take for example the story of Ralph Ellison's second novel. Following his award-winning debut, Invisible Man, there was undoubtedly intense pressure on Ellison to triumph. Before he'd even finished Invisible Man in 1952, Ellison was working on his second novel. He hoped to create an intense and epic story, one he imagined would be a thousand pages, possibly split into three volumes. He worked on this second novel throughout much of the next decade. The contract with his publisher stipulated a completion date in 1967. Though he was behind, Ellison had much of the novel completed, but his manuscript was the victim of a house fire that same year. Some of the manuscript survived (perhaps Ellison had a copy or it was at a different location), but nearly four hundred pages had been destroyed. Immediately, Ellison set to work, trying to put the broken pieces back together. Decade after decade, he worked on his second novel, but he never finished the task. For whatever reason, Ellison was unable to recreate the work he'd once nearly finished.

By the time of his death in 1994, Ellison had amassed thousands of pages of the manuscript, notes, and various scraps of paper. Though a heavily daunting task, it was only a matter of time before someone tried to put these pieces together and posthumously publish Ellison's much anticipated second novel. The first attempt came in 1999, just five years after Ellison's death, with Juneteenth. Juneteenth encompasses the few hundred pages of Ellison's novel that were most intact. The second attempt, published in 2010, entitled Three Days Before the Shooting..., was intended to be a more complete work, borrowing from Ellison's notes, trying to build the novel that he'd intended to create.

As with any posthumous work, it's difficult to have an opinion about Juneteenth. In part, I did not want to read it as I hated to tarnish my strong feelings for Ellison's literary reputation. Yet, I was curious. Curious enough that I promised myself I would read both adaptations before the year's end.

Juneteenth is a meandering mess of stream of conciousness. While Ellison certainly dabbled with the form in Invisible Man, the influence of Faulkner and company saturate the pages of Juneteenth. It's difficult to follow. And yet, there's the possibility of so much brilliance beneath the confusing string of words. With a complete novel as Ellison intended, or tougher editing, perhaps the poetry and inventiveness of thought would've been abundantly clear. Unfortunately, as presented here, it's not. There are so many layers in this selection, and without the full picture, these layers add to the mess. It's never quite clear where Ellison intended to go with his creature and how it might have been orchestrated.

It's unfortunate that fire destroyed Ellison's novel, yet one has to wonder if Ellison wasn't privately struggling before the disastrous event. Surely, one can imagine a world where fire did not destroy the original manuscript, but the author still combated with self in his attempt to create perfection. Invisible Man may have been impossible to follow. Though I offer no rating for this posthumous work by an author I greatly admire, let it be known that I struggled greatly with this novel. It is not a pleasant or memorable read. Even so, I still intend to follow through with my promise to read Three Days Before the Shooting.... Given the extra time and resources, it's possible a hint of Ellison's intentions will be evident.
  chrisblocker | Apr 25, 2017 |
Juneteenth is Ralph Ellison's posthumous follow-up to Invisible Man. It's about a senator, Bliss, who is shot on the senate floor, and the African-American man, Hickman, who raised him. It's also about identity and how the way we identify ourselves affects our actions and how we treat others. Despite having been raised by African-Americans, Bliss grows up to become a racist, white senator. Once he decides to be white, this influences the future actions of his life, which leads to the assassination attempt.

The book alternates between first person from Bliss's point of view, to first person from Hickman's point of view, to third person. It also alternates from detailing the present relationship between Bliss and Hickman by his hospital bed to the past as told by Hickman and remembered by Bliss. This enables Ellison to tell the story from all sides and give the reader greater insight as to how the characters developed to become who they were. This aspect of the novel potentially could have made for a frustrating and incomprehensible read, but Ellison does a wonderful job of sequencing and pacing the story so that it is easy for the reader to understand the story as Ellison intended it.

The book also has resonance in the twenty-first century despite the fact that Ellison began writing it in the late 1950s. We can all relate to how our sense of identity and our circumstance can influence who we are and who we could become. Sure, the twenty-first century American reader may take civil rights for granted nearly fifty years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964; however, this doesn't make the overarching themes of identity and circumstance any less relevant. This is still and enjoyable and enlightening read regardless of the many changes since it was written. ( )
5 vote fuzzy_patters | Mar 12, 2013 |
See What I Have Been Reading, July 2010 at From Word to Word
  jeremylukehill | Aug 3, 2010 |
Still a book that hasn't found me, nor have I found it. It's not that I don't enjoy and respect RE's writing or legacy, I just can't connect YET with this book. It's time will come and I will devour it...to be sure.
  jamclash | Jun 12, 2010 |
In his groundbreaking novel Invisible Man, [the author] gave voice to black Americans. [This book], published posthumously, is his eagerly awaited second novel, a mythic and astonishingly lyrical saga of race, religion and identity in modern America.

Sunday Times – ‘Blazes with emotional intensity and moral power.’
  yoursources | Mar 31, 2009 |
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Ralph Ellisonprimary authorall editionscalculated
Callahan, John F.Editorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0375707549, Paperback)

Invisible Man, which Ralph Ellison published in 1952, was one of the great debuts in contemporary literature. Alternating phantasmagoria with rock-ribbed realism, it delved into the blackest (and whitest!) corners of the American psyche, and quickly attained the status of legend. Ellison's follow-up, however, seemed truly bedeviled--not only by its monumental predecessor, but by fate itself. First, a large section of the novel went up in flames when the author's house burned in 1967. Then he spent decades reconstructing, revising, and expanding his initial vision. When Ellison died in 1994, he left behind some 2,000 pages of manuscript. Yet this mythical mountain of prose was clearly unfinished, far too sketchy and disjointed to publish. Apparently Ellison's second novel would never appear.

Or would it? Ellison's literary executor, John Callahan, has now quarried a smaller, more coherent work from all that raw material. Gone are the epic proportions that Ellison so clearly envisioned. Instead, Juneteenth revolves around just two characters: Adam Sunraider, a white, race-baiting New England senator, and Alonzo "Daddy" Hickman, a black Baptist minister who turns out to have a paradoxical (and paternal) relationship to his opposite number. As the book opens, Sunraider is delivering a typically bigoted peroration on the Senate floor when he's peppered by an assassin's bullets. Mortally wounded, he summons the elderly Hickman to his bedside. There the two commence a journey into their shared past, which (unlike the rest of 1950s America) represents a true model of racial integration.

Adam, we discover, was born Bliss, and raised by Hickman in the bosom of the black community. What's more, this rabble-rouser was being groomed as a boy minister. ("I tell you, Bliss," says Hickman, "you're going to make a fine preacher and you're starting at just the right age. You're just a little over six and Jesus Christ himself didn't start until he was twelve.") The portion of Juneteenth that covers Bliss's ecclesiastical education--perhaps a third of the entire book--is as electrifying as anything in Invisible Man. Ellison juggles the multiple ironies of race and religion with effortless brilliance, and his delight in Hickman's house-wrecking rhetoric is contagious:

Bliss, I've heard you cutting some fancy didoes on the radio, but son, Eatmore was romping and rampaging and walking through Jerusalem just like John! Oh, but wasn't he romping! Maybe you were too young to get it all, but that night that mister was ten thousand misters and his voice was pure gold.
In comparison, though, the rest of the novel seems like pretty slim pickings. For one thing, much of the plot--including Bliss's transformation from pint-sized preacher to United States senator--is absent. For another, Ellison's confinement of the two top-billed players to a hospital room makes for an awfully static narrative. Granted, he intended their dialogue to exist "on a borderline between the folk poetry and religious rhetoric" (or so he wrote in his notes). But this is a dicey recipe for a novel, and Juneteenth veers between naturalism and hallucination much less effectively than its predecessor did.

None of this is to assail Ellison's artistry, which remains on ample display. The problem is that Callahan's splice job--which well may be the best one possible--remains weak at the seams. So should readers give Juneteenth a miss? The answer would still have to be no. The best parts are as powerful and necessary as anything in our literature, evoking Daddy Hickman's own brand of verbal enchantment. "I was talking like I always talk," he recalls at one point, "in the same old down-home voice, that is, in the beloved idiom... [and] I preached those five thousand folks into silence." Ellison, too, is capable of preaching the reader into silence--and that's not something we can afford to overlook. --James Marcus

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:22:59 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

NATIONAL BESTSELLER "[A]n extraordinary book, a work of staggering virtuosity. With its publication, a giant world of literature has just grown twice as tall."--Newsday From Ralph Ellison--author of the classic novel of African-American experience, Invisible Man--the long-awaited second novel. Here is the master of American vernacular--the rhythms of jazz and gospel and ordinary speech--at the height of his powers, telling a powerful, evocative tale of a prodigal of the twentieth century. "Tell me what happened while there's still time," demands the dying Senator Adam Sunraider to the itinerate Negro preacher whom he calls Daddy Hickman. As a young man, Sunraider was Bliss, an orphan taken in by Hickman and raised to be a preacher like himself. Bliss's history encompasses the joys of young southern boyhood; bucolic days as a filmmaker, lovemaking in a field in the Oklahoma sun. And behind it all lies a mystery: how did this chosen child become the man who would deny everything to achieve his goals? Brilliantly crafted, moving, wise, Juneteenth is the work of an American master.… (more)

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