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 Here was a Cinderella writer, virtually unpublished except in journals, whose first novel, Invisible Man (1952), won the National Book Award, became a best seller, and within ten years of its publication began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."
ON a more mundane level, Ellison was dedicated to teaching and lecturing, both enterprises occasionally inspiring the novelist while, alas, tearing pages from his writing schedule. He was also an exuberant, storytelling writer of letters, as indicated by his wonderful exchanges with his friend the writer Albert Murray, which are slated for publication in the near future. He wrote to friends and family; he also surprised his critics with letters, correcting their errors and praising them, too, when praise was due. I never knew him well, but he did write me a few longish letters, one in response to an inquiry about his use of the folk character Peter Wheatstraw. In Invisible Man and -- though I did not know it at the time -- also in Juneteenth, Wheatstraw plays a part. On March 11, 1988, Ellison answered me with fullness and care.
As far as I know "Peter Wheatstraw" was not, and is not, a living individual, but a character born of Afro-American mythology. Unfortunately, I know nothing of his legend, nor of how it originated, but as a boy who had friends who were aspiring pool & billiards sharks I was familiar with "Peter Wheatstraw" as one half of a dual persona that was evoked in the form of a frontier brag (or boast) when players wished to challenge prospective opponents to combat upon the green cloth of pool tables. The name of "Wheatstraw's" other half (by the way, he was never "Peetie" but always "Peter") was "Lord God Stingerroy." Thus when a challenger banged through the swinging doors of the pool parlor he'd stamp his foot and let out a belligerent roar that went:This was tremendously helpful to me in my work on the folk sources of Ellison's art, and aids us now in probing Juneteenth -- where again Wheatstraw-like characters provide clues for "orientation and survival." But such letters may also indicate where some of the novelist's creative energies went while he was not facing the new novel's uncompleted pages.
My name is Peter Wheatstraw
I'm the Devil's only son-in-law --
So who wants to play [or shoot]
the Devil's Son -- Lord God
That is the extent of my Wheatstraw knowledge, and the circumstance out of which I appropriated the name when I used it in my novel. In other words, I "novelized" it, and you'll note that it appears at a point when the narrator is being challenged to draw upon his folk-based background for orientation and survival.... For a novelist and descendant of storytellers, such items of folk tradition are part of his inheritance and are to be used -- much as the composers of music used the folk music of their individual backgrounds -- in the expression of his own unique vision. They are part of the mother lode which supports his storytelling and are as free to be used by the conscious writer as they are by the oral tellers of tales.
WISELY, Callahan extracted the most finished of the big manuscript's three sections: "Juneteenth" (the title came from a piece of the book which was published in 1965), book two of the saga of the Reverend A.Z. Hickman and the Reverend Bliss Hickman. Like Invisible Man, is concerned with American leadership and identity ("the American theme," Ellison once told an interviewer); here, too, race is the primary metaphor. A. Z. Hickman is a reformed jazz trombonist who has taken up a calling as an itinerant preacher. Now he keeps his trombone at hand not to riff for dancers at parties or to cool off Saturday-nighters ready to fight but to soothe a congregation shouting with the power of the Lord.
Hickman has adopted a baby boy, Bliss, who looks white but whose true racial heritage is not known. "In my work in progress," Ellison told a college group in 1966, "I don't know whether one of the main characters is black or white, and I don't feel it important in telling the story I wish to tell." Hickman names the baby Bliss, hoping that his ignorance about his paternity will be Bliss. The name also suggests spiritual equipoise and power, and Hickman regards Bliss as mythically gifted, in the African-American tradition that expects every child to be a candidate to lead his people to higher ground. Accordingly, Hickman raises Bliss as a boy-preacher who accompanies him in majestic, improvised dialogue sermons, balancing his trombone voice with Bliss's innocent piccolo sound. In their most dramatic sermon Bliss, on cue from Hickman, sits up from a white coffin to state Jesus Christ's anguished, dying question: "Lord, why has thou forsaken me?!"
The mystery of the novel is that this youngster of exceptional promise forsakes Hickman not just to pass for white but eventually to claim a new life as a compulsively anti-black member of the U.S. Senate from a New England state: the race-baiting Senator Adam Sunraider.
Soon after the book opens, Bliss/Sunraider has been shot down on the Senate floor. Much of Juneteenth is framed as a conversation between Hickman and Sunraider in the Washington, D.C., hospital room where the wounded senator is being treated. In a headnote to an excerpt from the novel which was published in 1969, Ellison explained the situation and, in the process, the novel's jazzlike call-and-recall form.
The Senator is passing through alternate periods of lucidity and delirium attending wounds resulting from a gunman's attempt on his life. Hickman, in turn, is weary from the long hours of sleeplessness and emotional strain which have accumulated while he has sought to see the Senator through his ordeal. The men have been separated for many years, and time, conflicts of value, the desire of one to remember nothing and the tendency of the other to remember too much, have rendered communication between them difficult.Why has the secret son turned against his black family? Beneath the great stone of this, the novel's central question, lie others, unresolved, that touch on Ellison's view of the American national experiment. In a moment of clairvoyance Sunraider eloquently pronounces U.S. history's "three fatal questions ... written across our sky in accents of accusation. They are, How can the many be as one? How can the future deny the Past? And How can the light deny the dark?" Operating like the son that he was of the great Russian novelists (as well as, more obviously, of Joyce, Hemingway, and Faulkner), Ellison granted his character a poetic and analytical set of responses.
Sometimes they actually converse, sometimes the dialogue is illusory and occurs in the isolation of their individual minds, but through it all it is antiphonal in form and an anguished attempt to arrive at the true shape and substance of a sundered past and its meaning.
The answer to the first is: Through a balanced consciousness of unity in diversity and diversity in unity, through a willed and conscious balance -- that is the key phrase, so easy to say yet so difficult to maintain.Here, between bursts of violently racist rhetoric, Bliss shows his down-home lineage by offering a jazz player's solution to radical problems of democracy in a land based on breaking with Old World history while creating the new. "We seek not perfection," he says, "but coordination. Not sterile stability but creative momentum. Ours is a youthful nation; the perfection we seek is futuristic and to be made manifest in creative action." The solution, in other words, is to remain resilient in the face of the blues -- ready to improvise, ready to coordinate, ready to swing. God "always plans for the loooong haul," Hickman preaches in the brilliant Juneteenth-day sermon.
For the second, the answer lies in remembering that, given the nature of our vision, of our covenant, to remember is to forget and to forget is to remember selectively, creatively! ...
And how can the light deny the dark? Why, by seeking ever the darkness in lightness and the lightness in darkness. As we incorporate and humanize nature we filter and blend the spectrum, we exalt and we anguish, we order the world.
"He wants a well-tested people to work his will.... He wants us limber as willow switches and he wants us tough as whip leather, so that when we have to bend, we can bend and snap back into place.... Roll with the blow like ole Jack Johnson.... Keep to the rhythm and you'll keep to life."As is typical of Ellison, Juneteenth is organized around a series of rituals, which, as a modernist, he regarded as one of the bases of all art. Through the novel Bliss is initiated into manhood and into the mysteries of being black (and then white) in America, and therefore profoundly American. At the novel's center, too, is the horror of a lynching. Hickman's brother, falsely accused of being the one who impregnated Bliss's white mother, is killed by a white mob. Thus is he sacrificed in the brutal racial scapegoat ritual that scorches the earth of so much American history -- the hopeless fire-and-blood fantasy, Ellison has written, of purifying the American bloodstream by removing the ones accused of intrinsic impurity, the unassimilable figures in black. This partly explains Bliss's betrayal: he will escape personal candidacy for the lynching bee if he simplifies his identity by getting shut of the black boy who caused all the confusion. Of course, the trouble, in a centerpiece Ellisonism, is that the enemy he would remove is himself, is Bliss. To prevent a continuous re-enactment of the Civil War -- always in the background of Ellison's writing, and of which the rift between Bliss and Hickman is symbolic -- reconciliation, however arduous and painful, is the only viable course.
Perhaps most profound of all the novel's underlying rituals are the ones set in the churches and revival tents of the evangelical circuit that Hickman and Bliss travel. One of the novel's most alluring sermons is the one preached on June 19, Juneteenth, the day on which blacks have traditionally remembered their emancipation from slavery with parades, dances, contests, and speeches on the history and memory of black people and the meaning of delayed freedom. In an earlier sermon on Jesus' painful death and resurrection Hickman and Bliss sound the luminescent darkness of this meditative novel's deepest places. Here they speak of the challenge given humanity to confront life's ineffable suffering and death. In keeping with this tragic sense of life, the sermon yearns for continuity and community in the American land -- offers the hope, that is, of rebirth, another of Ellison's key artistic motifs. "A man doesn't live just one life, Bliss," Hickman says, "he lives more lives than a cat -- only he doesn't like to face it because the bitter is there nine times nine, right along with the sweet he wants all the time. So he forgets."
Why does Bliss/Sunraider choose to forget Hickman? Maybe, as Hickman surmises, because of a mistake of fathering -- spoiling when he should have disciplined the boy. Or, as Hickman says, perhaps he "prayed the wrong prayer," taking the brilliant boy for granted. Is Bliss dangerously under the spell of pop culture, movies in particular, and superficially read? Does he mistake the traveling evangelist's trade for nothing but Hollywood hucksterism, forgetting that spiritual values are where you may find them (even in the movies, even in the blues)? Hickman prays,
Down there in the craziness of the Southland, in the madhouse of down home ... I was learning to live and to glean some sense of how Thy voice could sing through the blues and even speak through the dirty dozens if only the players were rich-spirited and resourceful enough, comical enough, vital enough and enough aware of the disciplines of life. In the zest and richness Thou were there, yes!Intellectual novelist that he was, Ellison probed all his possible answers to the book's great question of why the national family remains divided against itself. Most compelling is the warning that like Bliss, white and nonwhite Americans alike routinely "pass for white" by denying their country's pluralism and interdependency, its beautiful but tragic contour. Thus they escape confronting more historical complexity than they want, as they plunge headlong toward an imagined future of personal gain and power. In the face of this national impulse to forget and deny, the novel's well-rehearsed but nonetheless improvised sermons ring with the poetry of the blues, America's great music of truth-telling and perseverance. "Trouble, trouble," shouts the singer Jimmy Rushing (Ellison's childhood friend from Oklahoma, eventually with the Count Basie band), "I've had it all my days." And yet "the blues voice," Ellison wrote elsewhere,
mocks the despair stated explicitly in the lyric, and it expresses the great human joke directed against the universe, that joke which is the secret of all folklore and myth: that though we be dismembered daily we shall always rise up again.This is the novel's urgent take-home spiritual message, its call for consciousness and for true Juneteenth: broad, bright freedom for blacks and for all of us -- all of us in America, Ellison always insisted, being culturally black anyhow. "There is a de'z and do'z of slave speech," Ellison wrote in 1970, "sounding beneath our most polished Harvard accents, and if there is such a thing as a Yale accent, there is a Negro wail in it / doubtless introduced there by Old Yalie John C. Calhoun, who probably got it from his mammy."
Bravo Ellison, bravo Callahan. Next we are promised a full scholarly edition, so that the remaining overdue pages can appear somewhere outside the reading room at the Library of Congress, where Ellison's papers are housed. For now we are grateful to have Juneteenth: a smaller but still bountiful festival of a novel in which we meet a deeply patriotic novelist at the summit of his wisdom and eloquence.
Robert G. O'Meally is the Zora Neale Hurston Professor of Literature at Columbia University. He is the author of (1980) and the editor of (1998).
Illustration by Mark Summers.
The Atlantic Monthly; July 1999; "How Can the Light Deny the Dark?" - 99.07; Volume 284, No. 1; page 89-94.