RALPH Ellison's second novel -- evidently conceived in the early 1950s, first promised for publication in the mid-1960s -- has arrived. Or at least part of it has arrived. As John Callahan, his editor and literary executor, explains in handsome front- and end-piece essays, Juneteenth is one section of a huge projected book left unfinished at the author's death, at the age of eighty, in 1994.
The best news is that Juneteenth is written with unmistakable Ellisonian zest, depth, and elegance, and that the work holds together as a complete, aesthetically satisfying, and at times thrilling whole. A novel set substantially in the black church and in or near the halls of Congress, Juneteenth concerns matters spiritual and political, and is braced with the rhythm of the blues.
Tales of the work's delayed progress have almost upstaged the new fiction itself. Here was a Cinderella writer, virtually unpublished except in journals, whose first novel, Invisible Man (1952), won the National Book Award, became a best seller, and within ten years of its publication began its career as a text routinely assigned in high school and college classrooms all over the nation and then around the world. Called the Moby-Dick of America's racial crisis, Invisible Man may be the century's most translated, celebrated American novel. (In 1985 Invisible Man was required reading for graduate students preparing to take a French national exam called l'agrégation.) It is a book with continuing word-of-mouth currency -- passed around and "thumbed to pieces," as one critic observed, in libraries and homes. As the novel gained fame, its author, who had occasionally slept in Mount Morris Park while first trying to make it as a writer in New York, won a closetful of honorary degrees, medals, and memberships on distinguished boards and in honorary intellectual societies. In 1985 he was awarded the National Medal of Arts.
All of which must have been rather burdensome to the first-novel writer, an Oklahoman by way of Alabama, thirty-eight years old when Invisible Man was published. It didn't take a seer to know that the man who had written this big, ambitious book -- soon issued as one of the first "double-volume" paperbacks, selling for a whopping fifty cents (not the standard quarter) at drugstores and bookshops -- would set out to write another. This time, though, he would be moving in the limelight, wearing, so to speak, all these badges of honor.
Through the years friends reported that Ellison was laboring furiously on a huge tome, from which he had occasionally read bits to them. Fragments surfaced in journals; of the eleven short fictions that Ellison published after Invisible Man, eight were from the new book. Its first published section, "And Hickman Arrives," appeared in 1960 in the oddly named journal The Noble Savage, edited by Saul Bellow, with whom Ellison often exchanged readings in those days. This long piece, forty-four tightly typeset pages in the journal, forms the backbone of the novel. The last fiction published in his lifetime, "Backwacking, A Plea to the Senator" (1977), a slender offshoot of the overdue book, was, like several others of the published pieces, edited out of the present volume.
What, aside from Ellison's perfectionism and the problem of following Invisible Man's extravagant showing, held up the second project? A devastating setback was the loss of a year's revisions, which burned in a fire at the Ellisons' country home, in the Berkshires, in 1967. "With regret in her voice," Callahan reports in the introduction to Juneteenth, "Mrs. Ellison recalled being restrained from approaching the burning house by volunteer firemen who had arrived too late. 'I wish I'd been able to break the window and pull out Ralph's manuscript,' she said. 'I knew right where it was.'" Ellison found it hard to recoup the loss, and the fire became a mythic part of the book's own history. In a section of Juneteenth written years before the fire (and recalling the treacherous set fires in Faulkner's fiction), the main characters storm down a rough dark road in a horsedrawn buggy,
"and way off to one side I looked and saw somebody's barn on fire. It was like a dream.... that big barn filling the night with silent flames. It was too far to see if anyone was there to know about it, and it was too big for anybody except us not to see it.... Way yonder, isolated and lighting up the sky like a solitary torch."
The lag was also caused in part by the effort to build a book across several decades of writing time -- the stretch to make the variously styled pieces hang together. First drafts were typewritten by a man in his late thirties; the last, incomplete touches were entered on computer disks by a man nearing eighty. It is evident that Ellison was a writer of self-contained episodes -- a quick-composing miniaturist always thinking of the immense collage he was preparing. Transitions, he often said, had presented the gravest issues in fitting together Invisible Man's mosaic of sections, two of which had appeared before the book came out. Well, transitions here presented an even harder problem, involving more sections in a much bigger book assembled over many more years. The second novel, Callahan says, alluding to an 1893 poem by Francis Thompson, "remained Ellison's hound of heaven (and hell) pursuing him 'down the labyrinthine ways/Of [his] own mind' until the end of his life."