The Calculus of 'Juneteenth'

How Ellison's executor brought the novel together

Whatever else the true American is, he is also somehow black." John Callahan, the editor of Ralph Ellison's Juneteenth and the Morgan S. Odell Professor of Humanities at Portland's Lewis and Clark College, grins as he quotes a favorite Ellison remark. "This is what Juneteenth is all about. You can't turn a page without finding Hickman [who's black] and Bliss [who looks and may well be white] getting inside each other's moves and hearts and minds." A lanky, gracious raconteur, Callahan is talking at East Coast speeds tinged with faint accents of New York. We're sitting in his book-lined, otherwise austere campus office. He tilts his chair back and rests his shoe—it needs resoling—against the table edge. "I was raised Irish Catholic in New Haven," he says, "and went to my father's college, Holy Cross. I was supposed to feel at home, but always felt like an outsider." When Callahan opened Ellison's Invisible Man in 1960, he couldn't put it down. "I read all night and through the next day, and even cut a class in Tacitus where I was struggling to hang onto a D. More than with Stephen Daedalus or Fitzgerald's Irish Catholics, I identified with Invisible Man—his estrangement and then his qualified (so all the more convincing) resolve to engage the world. If he could do it, I felt, so could I." Thus a black character entered Callahan's heart and mind and moves, and Ellison the writer became, he says, "indelibly a part of me." Ellison the man became an indelible part of his life almost two decades later, during a 16-year friendship that began in 1978 after he mailed Ellison a copy of an article he'd written about his novel. "Back came a long letter ending with an invitation to stop by when I visited Manhattan," says Callahan. At the first of many dinners at the apartment of Ralph and Fanny Ellison, "Ralph was such a brilliant talker I felt at bat against a pitcher with a hard fastball. All I could do was try not to strike out." But they quickly became comfortable friends. "We liked engaging each other on topics ranging from literature to politics to our boyhoods. And we shared an irreverence for the way race is usually discussed in this country. Like other important things you take race very seriously, but you have to laugh at the fraudulent nonsense said about it." When Ellison died in 1994, Callahan was named literary executor of his estate. In the course of compiling Ellison's Collected Essays, Callahan was astonished to find among the author's papers a briefcase full of short fiction, which became Flying Home and Other Stories (1996). After this editing work he felt ready to extract Juneteenth from a vast, uneven work-in-progress. Ellison had begun drafting this second novel just before Invisible Man was published in 1952. A painstaking writer who made inordinate demands on himself, Ellison revised each scene and edited every sentence many times. In 1967, when he seemed close to finishing a draft of his second novel, a fire swept the family vacation home while he and his wife were out on errands, destroying a year's worth of revisions. It wasn't until 1980 that Ellison told a friend he'd succeeded in recapturing the narrative, which had tripled in length as he worked. When he died he was still trying to orchestrate more than 1,500 pages and boxfuls of notes, some on tiny scraps of paper. Publishing unfinished manuscripts by famous dead authors is, of course, a fraught enterprise. A draft that Hemingway pronounced unfit for publication was radically revised by his son Patrick into the forthcoming True at First Light—by all accounts an embarrassingly bad book. But marketed as autobiographical fiction to a public hungry for memoirs and confessions, the novel will undoubtedly do well, especially when ad campaigns deliberately spark fantasies that the author (like his protagonist, "Papa") made love to an African girl while on safari with his wife. Callahan and Random House, however, have been faithful to the wishes of Ellison and his widow. "Juneteenth is the part of the manuscript that Ralph most reworked," Callahan says. "You can see on earlier drafts the subtle revisions he made. This part is pretty much as he wanted it to be, though he was still tinkering and fussing with the rest." The rest is enough material for two more books. So as Callahan worked on Juneteenth, "people kept asking me, 'How much of it are you going to write?' I wasn't going to write any of it. 'Are you going to finish it?' No, I wasn't going to finish it. 'If you revise using the notes, you can produce a trilogy.' I refused. Mrs. Ellison and I were very clear: Whatever got published must be exactly as Ellison wrote it." Juneteenth is no condensation, then, and every word is Ellison's. Callahan used the notes to sequence the sections, and inserted three chapters and several passages from the larger manuscript to make the narrative cohere. "Editing the essays and stories was fortuitous preparation for working on Juneteenth," he says, quoting Hemingway's words on his own art: "'First I did arithmetic, then I did algebra, and finally I was ready for calculus.' Juneteenth is calculus." It's "calculus" partly because, unlike Invisible Man, which contains many contradictions within a single point of view, Juneteenth tacks between the voices of two protagonists, black and white. "At first the narration drove me crazy!" Callahan laughs, flattening his flyaway hair with the palms of both hands. "But I learned how it works. And the shifting point of view—Ellison is using it to break down barriers we imagine between the races. He loved crossing the narrative color line." What about the rest of the manuscript? Callahan will produce a scholarly edition containing all the pages and notes from Ellison's unfinished saga. "Everything'll be out there," he smiles, "an American thinker-tinker's literary do-it-yourself kit that readers can use to make their own personal versions of Ellison's last novel."

 
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