Ralph Ellison In Progress
(Yale University Press, 2010)
To most, Ralph Ellison is the author of the greatest novel by and about a black American—Invisible Man. To a growing throng of critics, his inability to finish a second novel more than 40 years in the making is the tragedy that defines him.
In Ralph Ellison In Progress, Adam Bradley, a professor of English at the University of Colorado and co-editor of Ellison’s unfinished second novel, Three Days Before the Shooting, argues the incomplete work bears all the hallmarks of Ellison’s artistic genius and renders false the notion he was a case of “promise unfulfilled, talent dissipated.” The novel, even in its unfinished state, is no less the first candidate for this century’s Great American Novel, Bradley writes.
The claim is bold considering Juneteenth, the truncated version of the novel, earned no such praise when it was published posthumously in 1999, and that, as Bradley himself notes, Arnold Rampersad in his exhaustive Ralph Ellison: A Biography paid little attention to the thousands of pages the author wrote for it. While Bradley’s elevation of the novel to such heights is debatable, he’s right to argue that if Invisible Man was Ellison’s masterpiece, the second novel was his life’s work.
Ellison’s failure to complete the successor to Invisible Man has given rise to much psychoanalysis under the cloak of criticism. He suffered from legendary writer’s block and inveterate procrastination. Or he was stymied by a quixotic quest for literary nirvana. For his part, Ellison blamed a fire that burned down his family summer home in Plainfield, MA, in 1967, and incinerated the novel’s sole manuscript when he was close to completion. Much of what he’d written since 1954 was gone, forcing him to start virtually from scratch. Still, Ellison died in 1994, leaving him more than two decades to finish the novel after the fire.
Perhaps the most compelling explanation for Ellison’s inability to complete the novel resides in the story he was trying to tell. As in Invisible Man, race was at the center of Three Days Before the Shooting. It tells the story of Alonzo Hickman, a black jazz musician-turned-preacher, and his effort to prevent the assassination of his estranged nephew, a race-baiting New England Senator named Adam Sunraider. Sunraider’s father, falsely accused of raping a white woman, was lynched, and his mother, aware of the persecution a mix-raced child would encounter growing up among whites in the Jim Crow South, left him in Hickman’s care after giving birth.
Assassination, miscegenation, lynching—the events that constituted the central drama of the nation at the time of Ellison’s writing. The battles of the Civil Rights movement and murders of Martin Luther King and the Kennedy brothers must have forced Ellison to rethink his subject matter. For Ellison, who was obsessed with rewriting, the cataclysms roiling the nation gave him compelling reasons to re-imagine and refine his work.
Ellison himself was also caught up in the ideological battles of the era. His belief in the possibilities of multi-racial democracy and the central place that blacks occupied in the nation put him at odds with a younger, more radicalized generation increasingly sympathetic to Malcolm X’s separatist vision. The chasm led to one of the most hurtful episodes in Ellison’s life when a college student derided him as an Uncle Tom. The incident, which occurred in 1967 and is recounted in Rampersad’s biography, caused Ellison to break down in tears to a sympathetic student and sob, “I’m not a Tom, I’m not a Tom.”
One can see how Ellison would feel compelled to grapple with his own personal anguish and the public strife around him in his fiction. The thematic affinities were too great to be ignored. The novel thus had to be worthy of the historic moment. Ellison must have seen the finish line recede into the distance on so many occasions as he sought to be equal to the task of “summing up” America.
“The aura of summing up, a redolent phrase, embodies a sense of collective values and identity,” Bradley writes. “It asks the novelist to bear responsibility for both the literary and the socio-political implications of his craft. It may also offer the best explanation of the novel’s incompletion.”
If personal and social conflagrations prevented Ellison from completing his novel in the ’60s and ’70s, a technological spark may have been the culprit in the latter stages of his life. Ellison began using a personal computer in 1982, making him “arguably the first major author of the digital age,” according to Bradley. Ellison saved more than 3,000 pages in 469 files on 83 disks using three computers. The computer, Bradley notes, made it easier for Ellison to recast the scenes that were at the heart of his episodic compositional style, ultimately snarling the novel’s forward momentum.
“Instead of writing horizontally, connecting the episodes into a cohesive narrative, he seems to have written vertically, stacking draft on draft of the same scene upon one another,” Bradley writes. “This much is clear: if an answer can be found for why Ellison did not publish the book, a good part of it is locked up in his computer.”
Bradley makes an eloquent case for conceiving of Ellison’s second novel—“protean, unfinished, grand in vision but often flawed in execution, marked by failures and triumphs”—as a metaphor for the U.S. In an age when novelists are often too timid, Ellison’s refusal to compromise his ambitious goal of “summing up” America is to be admired—and far from a tragedy.