Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle A Joycean Riff of Race

By Mark Busby

JUNE 21, 1999: 

by Ralph Ellison, edited by John F. Callahan
Random House, $25 hard

Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man is probably the most important and influential American novel since World War II, and, arguably, the most important 20th-century American novel, the Moby Dick of the 20th century. It traces the life of a young black boy growing up in the South who attends a black college, moves to Harlem, and learns about the traumas of being "invisible," seen only as "black" and not as a unique human being. It is a book that signifies the end of one literary tradition and the arrival of another. The concept of "invisibility" has entered American vocabulary, much as have "Babbittry" or "Catch-22." Selected by critics as "the most distinguished single work" published since World War II in a 1965 Book Week poll and a 1978 Wilson Quarterly poll, Invisible Man, first published in 1952, was -- until now -- the only novel published by Ellison.

Between 1960 and his death in 1994 Ellison published eight excerpts of a work-in-progress, and by the time of his death, the manuscript was almost 2,000 pages. John Callahan, Morgan S. Odell Professor of Humanities at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon, has pared down the kaleidoscopic novel to a single storyline for this modest novel rather than the massive one Ellison planned. Still, the publication of an edited version of Ellison's novel is a major literary event.

Its appearance doesn't clearly answer the question that has lingered over the years: Why didn't Ellison publish the long-touted second novel during his life? The answer is complex and involves several responses. First, real-world chaos began to mirror Ellison's fictional world of the second novel, which focuses on a political assassination. In 1963, of course, John Kennedy's assassination shook the world, Malcolm X was killed in 1965, and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King were assassinated in 1968. These events led Ellison, as he explained to John Hersey in 1986, to re-examine his work:

One of the things which really chilled me -- slowed down the writing -- was that eruption of assassinations, especially the first. Because, you see, much of the mood of this book was conceived as comic. Not that the assassination was treated comically, but there is humor involved, and that was rather chilling for me, because suddenly life was stepping in and imposing itself upon my fiction. ... I know that it led me to try to give the book a richer structuring, so that the tragic elements could contain the comic and the comic the tragic, without violating our national pieties.

Slowed by the events, Ellison's work on the second novel was further hindered in November 1967 when a fire in his Pittsfield, Massachusetts, home in the Berkshires destroyed 368 pages of manuscript. But he kept working, keenly aware that the world watched his progress. And now we have at least a taste of that novel.

The novel takes place in the 1950s and is set primarily in Washington, D.C., but it goes back to trace the lives of two main characters, the Rev. Alonzo Zuber Hickman and the orphan Bliss, a light-skinned boy of indeterminate race raised to be a traveling evangelist by Hickman, who is black. The setting for the time past is various Southern and Southwestern states, as the traveling evangelist Hickman moves from Georgia to Alabama to Oklahoma and Texas.

During sermons Bliss hides in a coffin until Hickman begins preaching of Christ's agony on the cross, at which point the boy rises up from the coffin. Bliss eventually disappears into the white community and later reappears as the racist Senator Adam Sunraider from an unidentified New England state. As the novel begins, Hickman and members of his congregation have come to Washington to warn Sunraider of danger and watch in horror as he is shot giving a speech on the floor of the Senate.

When Sunraider, seriously wounded but still alive, calls for Hickman from his hospital bed, the point-of-view shifts to the senator's. As he hears Hickman's voice calling him "Bliss," he "seemed to dream, to remember, to recall to himself an uneasy dream." At this point the story flashes back to when the six-year-old Bliss served as "Daddy" Hickman's assistant evangelist as they traveled throughout the South around 1920. Some of the language of Bliss' fevered remembrances sounds like "the dozens" in Joycean language:

What terrible luck! What a sad kind of duck! Daddy strutted with some barbecue and the hot sauce on the bread was red and good -- good -- good. Yes but in Austin they chilled the beans. ...

"But weren't the greens nice in Birmingham?" ...

This game of politics is fraught with fraud, Ferd said -- and a kiyi yippi and a happy nappy! So praise the Lord now, Pappy, and pass the biscuits!"

Bliss recollects how Hickman had used him as a living prop during his sermons by dressing Bliss in a white suit, hiding him in a small silk-lined white coffin behind Hickman on the stage, and having him rise out of the coffin just at the right moment of the sermon and say, "LORD, LORD, WHY HAST THOU FORSAKEN ME?" Ellison reinforces the biblical overtones by having Bliss breathe through a plastic tube in the lid of the coffin, recalling Moses' breathing through a reed while hiding in what Huck Finn called the "Bulrushers," and by having Bliss hold his "Easter bunny" to keep him company in the coffin.

One of the most important revival sermons occurs on Juneteenth, when Hickman consciously amalgamates the black and Jewish experience by drawing from Passover rituals and raises the story to mythic levels: "The Hebrew children have their Passover so that they can keep their history alive in their memories -- so let us take one more page from their book and, on this great day of deliverance, on this day of emancipation, let's us tell ourselves our story." Thus, Hickman tells how black people were brought out of Africa to suffer under slavery, becoming "eyeless, tongueless, drumless, danceless, songless, hornless, soundless, sightless, dayless, nightless, wrongless, rightless, motherless, fatherless -- scattered." He tells how black people recovered from slavery to create a full, rich culture tempered by the struggle against slavery.

Bliss then recollects how a "tall redheaded woman in a purple dress" came screaming into the service, calling out, "He's mine, MINE! That's Cudworth, my child," accusing Hickman of kidnapping. In a tug-of-war the red-haired woman and Sister Bearmasher, a "six-foot city woman from Birmingham," pulled and tugged on Bliss. All of them ended up in the white woman's "rubber-tired buggy" with two white horses, and they raced off into the countryside, which blazed with the burning of a country barn. As the episode ends, Hickman recalls how he prayed but left something out of the prayer: "'I should have been praying for you, back there all torn up inside by those women's hands. ... I prayed the wrong prayer. I left you out Bliss, and I guess right then and there you started to wander.'" The challenge to the young Bliss' identity, Hickman suggests, led to the conflicted sense of self that caused Bliss to remake himself as Sunraider.

Most of the rest of the novel explores the backgrounds of Hickman and Bliss, tracing Bliss' life from young evangelist to movie maker to senator and Hickman's change from jazzman to minister, all told with language influenced by Ellison's reading of James Joyce and William Faulkner. One of the most effective sections details Hickman's visit to the Lincoln Memorial with Hickman "mounting the steps and feeling a sudden release from the frame of time, feeling the old familiar restricting part of himself falling away as when, long ago, he'd found himself improvising upon some old traditional riffs of the blues, or when, as in more recent times, he'd felt the Sacred Word surging rapturously within him, taking possession of his voice and tongue."

Callahan selected June-teenth for the title instead of Ellison's working title, And Hickman Arrives. The title, which Ellison had used for one of the stories from the second novel, refers to the date slaves in Texas were freed. African-Americans in Texas celebrate June 19, 1865, as Emancipation Day because on that day Major General Gordon Granger of the Union Army entered Galveston and declared: "In accordance with a proclamation from the executive of the United States, all slaves are free." When Lincoln had issued his Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, Texas paid allegiance to Jefferson Davis as president of the Confederacy and ignored Lincoln's order. Now widely celebrated in the Southwest, the holiday was less well-known except to black people during Ellison's formative years, and it indicates the novel's emphasis on Ellison's continuing concern with freedom and race in America, drawing from his Southwestern past.

Ralph Waldo Ellison was born in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, on March 1, 1914. One important part of Ellison's past is his name. Having been named for Ralph Waldo Emerson led to complex and confusing questions of identity. The Ellisons left the South for the Oklahoma frontier because they wanted better conditions for their children, and they worked to keep segregationist laws, like those in Texas, out of the Oklahoma constitution. In Oklahoma Ellison and his boyhood friends acted out positive aspects of the American frontier belief in a free and open territory. He referred to himself and his friends growing up there as "frontiersmen" who thought that they "were supposed to be whoever we would and could be and do anything and everything which other boys did, and do it better." After three years at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama studying music and over 40 years living and writing in New York City, Ellison acknowledged that his Southwestern past remained vivid for him, telling an interviewer, "I dream constantly of Oklahoma City."

Through the years after Invisible Man, Ellison alternated between talking freely and reluctantly about his second novel, realizing that the audience expectantly awaited its publication. In an interview Ellison said of the characters: "One man learns how to operate in society to the extent that he loses a great part of his capacity for, shall we say, poetry or for really dealing with life. And another man who seems caught at a very humble stage of society seems to have achieved quite a high level of humanity."

In a 1963 interview, a month before President Kennedy's assassination, Ellison talked easily about the novel and identified its major themes as the search for identity along with "the theme of memory or the suppression of memory in the United States." Almost 20 years later, Ellison again pointed to the theme of past and present: "It's just a matter of the past being active in the present -- or of the characters becoming aware of the manner in which the past operates on their present lives." Juneteenth returns to Ellison's continuing emphasis on the dialectic between past and present, words and actions, ideal and reality, freedom and restriction, innocence and experience -- concerns of Ellison throughout his career.

These are the themes, images, and techniques of the second novel: past versus present; identity; resurrection; transformation; the power of the word; ascent, descent, and fire imagery; Moses, Christ, and other biblical and literary references. The characters' names are also suggestive. "Hickman" implies the lower status of the evangelist, "caught at a very humble stage of society," in Ellison's words. But it also recalls Hickey, Eugene O'Neil's main character in The Ice Man Cometh, a part for which Kevin Spacey was nominated for a 1999 Tony Award, a play about characters who wait for events to change human suffering in the world.

Bliss/Senator Sunraider resembles the shady character Rinehart in Invisible Man, a shape-changer, a trickster who is the master of chaos because he lacks a moral center to sustain him. Disconnected from a meaningful past, "passing for white," Bliss loses his identity and his soul and achieves a kind of death. His death requires a rebirth, an ascension, and certainly there are numerous images of death and rebirth, with the central visual image being Bliss' rising out of the coffin. The ironic Christ imagery, indeterminate race, and identity crisis suggest Ellison's debt to Faulkner's Joe Christmas. The various literary and biblical allusions demonstrate that in the second novel Ellison continues the theme of amalgamation and eclecticism from Invisible Man with the same cautions as before made more emphatic now. Just as Rinehart's eclecticism crossed over the border into chaos, so Bliss' protean shape-changing yields disorder. The Oklahoma frontier where Ellison grew up allowed and required possibility, but as Ellison made clear in Invisible Man, the American frontier emphasis on ignoring the past was one of the negative aspects of the frontier myth. Perhaps the predominant theme of the second novel is the necessity of applying to the present the moral judgments validated by history.

Ultimately, Juneteenth demonstrates how former jazzman Ellison spent the last 40 years of his life riffing on race, identity, and freedom as he struggled to finish a second novel that would be large enough to surpass the first one and to encompass America at the same time. He never made it, but this posthumous publication shows that in those long, last years Ellison continued to listen to the cacophony of American life, trying to write a composition that would resonate with and unite America's voices.

Mark Busby is the Director of the Center for the Study of the Southwest at Southwest Texas State University and is the author of a critical biography, Ralph Ellison (Twayne/Macmillan, 1991).

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