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Tucson Weekly Ethereal Ellison

America's 'Invisible Man' Again Speaks To Our Collective Conscience In His Posthumously Published 'Juneteenth.'

By Sharon Preiss

JUNE 14, 1999: 

Juneteenth, by Ralph Ellison (Random House). Cloth, $25.

IN HIS 1952 debut novel, Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison masterfully explored the American search for identity. Widely considered a 20th-century American classic, Invisible Man won the National Book Award that year and brought the writer vast acclaim and recognition. Almost half a century later, Ellison returns with his long-awaited second novel, Juneteenth. The theme again is identity; and once again, Ellison proves himself a master of American fiction.

His prose has become even more beautiful and supple over time, and Ellison skillfully uses dream sequences, hazy flashbacks, and delirious hallucinations to unfurl the stories of a white racist senator from the North and a black country preacher from the South. The narrative takes lovely and unexpected twists and leaps to move from one voice to another, and one period to another, so as to read more like poetry than prose. As with poetry, regular notions of time and space are suspended, inviting the reader to enter a world of startling but veiled images where information is artfully withheld and later revealed with lyrical rhythm.

In this sense, it also reads like mystery. The opening chapters set the story in Washington, D.C. in the 1950s, where an unlikely and unexplained group of 44 elderly black Southerners show up unannounced at the aforementioned senator's office. Later they witness a Senate chamber speech in which the senator not only propounds his racist agenda, expertly couched in terms of patriotism, but has a dangerous hallucinatory encounter with some "turbulence centering around the rich emblazonry of the Great Seal." These opening chapters culminate in a crime--an assassination attempt on the senator. Unlike a conventional mystery, however, we know from the get-go whodunit and why. And while the shooting propels the story onward, this is neither the mystery nor the true crime.

The true crime, we find out, is the senator's denial of his true identity; and it's on his hospital deathbed that he's compelled to examine this masked history. At his side is the reverend, who in helping the senator to untangle his past, works simultaneously to untangle his own.

That these two men need each other to recover their lost identities is not only a concern of the book, but symbolic of Ellison's larger ideas about literature, race and identity in America. In a 1964 essay, he writes: "The American novel [has] long concerned itself with the puzzle of the one-and-the-many; the mystery of how each of us, despite his origin in diverse regions, with our diverse racial, cultural, religious backgrounds, speaking his own diverse idiom of the American in his own accent, is, nevertheless, American."

The mastery and mystery of Juneteenth is in the slow revelation of the relationship between these two men and how their pasts have shaped them. Note to would-be readers: skip the introduction by John Callahan, who for some reason feels the need to explain away a story the author clearly meant to be an exercise in discovery.

Ellison died in 1994, leaving the novel unfinished. The book that became Juneteenth is a collection of the chapters and notes Ellison left behind, compiled and completed by Callahan, his longtime editor. With the exception of the egregious editorial undertaking on the book's dust jacket and opening pages, Callahan has respectfully and admirably finished the project in keeping with Ellison's style. The voice of the author rings true, even though his presence has been long absent.

Like its predecessor, Juneteenth has no tidy moral or ending. The relationships between race, identity and patriotism are explored but never defined, other than to illustrate that they are inextricable. "[The search for identity] is the American theme," Ellison told the Paris Review in 1955. "The nature of our society is such that we are prevented from knowing who we are. It is still a young society, and this is an integral part of its development."

Richly written and intense, Juneteenth makes a respectable epitaph for a thoughtful, if not prolific, talent. It's a fine, and one hopes enduring, addition to the canon of American literary fiction. And it's perhaps even fitting that at the time of his death, Ellison's novel would remain without an ending. Even in this, he reminds us the story of American identity is yet a work in progress.


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