So going into this, you should know that it’s not Ralph Ellison’s second novel. And despite what the cover of the other version of this material “Juneteenth” says, that’s also not Ralph Ellison’s second novel. John F Callahan edited both, but his editing here suggests he knows better. Instead, this represents some half of the written material that Ralph Ellison wrote after the publication of Invisible Man. The basic editorial decision making process was: where they could determine Ralph Ellison’s intentions, they honored those. That’s a difficult process in part because he rewrote numerous of the sections, sometimes with very little change. According to Callahan, one section was a nearly identical section except for one punctuation change. So what we’re looking at here is about 1000 pages (and these are dense pages too) of text toward a second novel, and not the 2000-3000 pages of total material produced. This suggests to me (and this have nothing to do with intent) is that we have more than enough material to make some choices as readers. If you have read the collected letters, you’ll recall that Ellison talking about the novel begins before the final edits of Invisible Man were complete in 1952 or so, and he continues to work on it possibly to the day he died 40 years later. He published a few pieces of it throughout the years, but that amounts to like a 30 page chapter in the early 60s, and then another in the 70s. You’ve probably run across an anthologized version of “Battle Royal” in lit anthologies. Imagine trying to extrapolate the whole novel from that chapter.
So the novel begins in Washington DC where a group of Southern Black church members fronted by Rev Hickman have arrived to warn a US senator of some kind of danger. They are turned away at his office, where they are harassed by security, and later that day he is shot by an assassin. We know from this opening that this group knows this senator, and there’s clearly some sense of their losing that connection over the years. The next section is narrated by a white reporter who is on the scene and tries to piece together event through he very confused perspective and the ambiguous pieces of information available to him. And by first section, I mean some 300 pages or so. From there, the next big section is about the origins of Hickman and a boy named Bliss, who will grow up to become the senator. What I haven’t mentioned is that the senator is a kind messianic/demagogue figure that embodied the worst impulses of racist white America.
So I mention these first two sections because according to the Callahan, they are the oldest and most polished (or possibly most worked over) sections. What seems clear to me is that Ralph Ellison was just simply not working on a single novel. The quality of these opening sections tells me there’s at least three novels, and possibly four. So the shame of the project is not so much that he couldn’t pull it all together (which he never needed to do) but to recognize the more fractured nature of the project and turn this into a multi-novel writing project like Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead books, where it’s not all one continuous narrative, but a constant revisiting. Or maybe Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha is a better comparison, given Ellison’s affection for Faulkner’s work and the clear influence on this novel (as well as Invisible Man).
For me the novels are this:
1) The shooting told by McIntyre
2) Hickman’s and Bliss’s origins
3) Hickman in DC, Georgia, and Oklahoma
4) The further continuing story of Bliss