By Ralph Ellison
Random House; 348 pages; $25
Juneteenth, the new novel by the late Ralph Ellison, is not, in fact, the new novel by Ralph Ellison. When the author of the canonical Invisible Man died in 1994, he’d been at work for almost 40 years on a follow-up novel, a work that eventually mutated and grew into what Ellison told friends and colleagues might be several books, the second of which forms the basis for Juneteenth. The mountain of notes, computer disks, and typescript left behind in Ellison’s office was, in the end, what it was: the record of a lifelong creative struggle that was far from finished when it ceased. Still, the urge for closure is powerful, and whether it was Ellison’s wish or not, his copious leavings were tidied up, reshuffled, and bound into a book whose very title is a hunch, a guess.
Juneteenth (named after an annual celebration of the end of slavery) is the reconstruction of a collage. It seems fair to suppose that Ellison himself might never have brought his puzzle to completion. Impressionistic, jazzy, and Faulknerian, assembled from stories inside of stories, dreams, flights of memory, and bolts of rhetoric, the labyrinthine book behind the book was not the sort of straightforward narrative whose size and shape can readily be deduced from a partial manuscript. Appropriately, the editor, John F. Callahan, adopted a conservative salvage strategy, taking the trunk of what might have been book two and fitting it with leaves and branches to make it into a tree. Editors working with living writers’ manuscripts regularly perform operations at least as radical.
The spine of Juneteenth’s narrative is simple: A dying U.S. senator, Adam Sunraider, also known as Bliss, lies in a Washington hospital bed following an assassination attempt. Bliss, an infamous, fulminating racist, has long passed as a white man, though his upbringing was culturally black, spent traveling the back roads of the South as part of a Baptist revival movement led by one Reverend Hickman, Bliss’s father figure. Reunited in the hospital room, the two men undergo a kind of intersubjective psychic journey that is part conversation, part debate, and part shared reverie. Their recollections well up into a braided stream of consciousness from which a rudimentary story emerges. It’s Bliss’s story, mostly, because he’s the one who changes, going from itinerant boy preacher to con-man moviemaker to – in a transformation that’s left vague – race-baiting politician.
He wasn’t supposed to turn out this way, and Bliss’s tragic regression is meant to stand for the course of American white racism in general. The child of a white woman who claimed to have been raped by Hickman’s brother (a charge that resulted in the brother’s lynching), Bliss is dropped as an infant on Hickman’s doorstep. In a reversal of Huckleberry Finn, the black man sets out to break the chains binding his white ward. This time the chains are spiritual, not actual. For Hickman, white people are their own oppressors, held down by denial of their inner black selves. In one of the book’s most powerful meditations, Hickman traces the process by which white children raised by black domestic servants eventually learn to belittle their own first loves. Hickman’s dream is that Bliss will become a second Lincoln who, by first emancipating himself from crippling racial schizophrenia, will someday emancipate blacks in general.
Ellison’s theory of racial synergy cuts the other way, too. Before taking responsibility for the white child’s sentimental education, Hickman is only a partial person, a musician and gambler who lives in his senses. His wide-open, youthful ramblings through the Oklahoma Territory are only lightly touched upon in Juneteenth, which concentrates on his Bliss-provoked conversion to charismatic Christianity. Only among fellow people of faith does Hickman find acceptance and support for his mentoring of the light-skinned boy, who also becomes an instrument of the Lord. Laid by Hickman in a silk-lined coffin with a hidden breathing tube, Bliss enacts phony resurrections for the gullible public. Hickman justifies the deceptive spectacle as a benign evangelical tool, unwittingly planting the seed for Bliss’s development into a crowd-pleasing demagogue. That Bliss’s success as a race-baiting orator is founded on lessons learned in the black church is no small irony.
Irony is everything in Juneteenth, and at times it’s a little too pat, too concentrated. It’s a side effect of the compression of Ellison’s opus into a dance between two polar characters. Bliss’s Pygmalion-style betrayal of Hickman’s hopes and dreams – his change from Abe Lincoln into George Wallace – lacks, in the current version, complexity. The flip-flop is more asserted than described. One catalyst is the appearance at a revival of a red-haired white woman claiming to be Bliss’s mother. Somehow the incident sets Bliss on a course of mounting resentment and cynicism, but how this drama plays out is left unclear. The movies, too, play a role in Bliss’s fall, presumably by replacing his true background with a fairy tale. The name he gives himself – Adam Sunraider – implies that Bliss is a kind of Icarus, his flaw an overweening individualism. The delusion that he can conquer the heavens, alone, cuts him off from history, God, community, and the mixed-race culture that gave birth to him.
Juneteenth tells Bliss’s story, but it’s Hickman’s book. Compared with his stunted pupil, the tutor is an oak of a man, grown out in all directions. When he talks to himself, he’s also talking to God, and his voice is like a literary pipe organ, with a vast rhetorical range that Ellison may have found difficult to contain within the conventional form of the novel. The sermonizing, wisecracking, philosophizing Hickman, brimming over with scripture, song, and folklore, is enough to swamp, single-handedly, the sturdiest fictional outline. Hickman (rhymes with Whitman) has a soul that’s too large for an ordinary body, or an ordinary book. It’s not surprising that Ellison never tamed him; perhaps he just couldn’t bring himself to do it. It’s a lovely thought, at least. If characters are, at bottom, a writer’s slaves, maybe the bravest thing Ellison ever did was to leave his masterpiece unfinished and let his greatest creation run away.
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