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Why Ralph Ellison Never Published a Second Novel During His Lifetime


Hailed as one of the greatest novels of the 20th century, “Invisible Man,” established Ralph Ellison as one of the most celebrated writers in America. Fans, critics and scholars alike waited impatiently for his second novel, which Ellison had begun writing by the mid-1950s. They would wait a long time.

Ellison exploded onto the literary scene in 1952 with the publication of his debut novel “Invisible Man,” which spent 16 weeks on the bestseller list and snagged the National Book Award (beating out Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea” and John Steinbeck’s “East of Eden,” among others), becoming the first black author to win the prize.

In the years following “Invisible Man,” Ellison published acclaimed essays but failed to produce the sweeping, ambitious second novel he had promised. In late 1965, Ralph Ellison finally published an excerpt of that long awaited book in the Quarterly Review of Literature. The excerpt, titled “Juneteenth,” referenced the June 19 holiday marking the day in 1865 when a Union general arrived in Texas, and announced that the state’s 250,000 slaves were free according to the Emancipation Proclamation.

The story, about a black Baptist minister who raises a child of undetermined race, only to see him reinvent himself as a race-baiting U.S. senator, whetted the public’s appetite for a forthcoming Ellison novel. Fans hoping to read a new Ellison work in the coming months, however, would be sorely disappointed. In 1967, a fire raged through the author’s summer home, and parts of the unfinished second book were lost in the flames. In the late ‘70s, Ellison’s wife, Fanny, claimed he had been ready to hand the novel to his publisher, right before the fire claimed the manuscript.

Ellison had begun writing his follow-up to “Invisible Man” as early as 1954. Over the next 13 years, he continued to work on it through the rise of the civil rights movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., which brought to the forefront political, social and racial issues that Ellison, as the nation’s most prominent African American writer, might have been expected to weigh in on.

Pressure to publish the book was mounting by November 1967, when Ellison and his wife Fanny returned from running errands to find their home in Plainfield, Massachusetts engulfed in flames. Though the fire would take on mythic proportions over the years, it’s unclear exactly how much work he lost. In his 2007 biography of Ellison, Arnold Rampersad quoted a letter Ellison wrote about five weeks after the incident, in which he seemed relatively untroubled: “I lost part of my manuscript—the revisions over which I had labored [in] the summer and valuable notebooks. But since returning to N.Y. I’ve been hard at work and am gradually reconstructing.”

But over the months and years to come, the loss seemed to intensify in Ellison’s mind. According to Rampersad, by October of the following year Ellison told a reporter in North Carolina that he had lost 365 pages. In later interviews, the total number of destroyed pages became 500.

In a profile published in the New Yorker in early 1994, four decades after Ellison began working on the novel, the author spoke to David Remnick about the impact of the fire. “We lost a summer house and, with it, a good part of the novel. It wasn’t the entire manuscript, but it was over three hundred and sixty pages. There was no copy.” When Remnick asked him how much time he had lost, Ellison paused before responding: “You know, I’m not sure. It’s kind of blurred for me. But the novel has got my attention now. I work every day, so there will be something very soon.”

Two months after that interview, Ellison died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 80. His friend and literary executor, John Callahan, found himself responsible for the more than 2,000 pages of work Ellison left behind, without any instructions on what to do with it. From this voluminous material Callahan extracted what would become a 350-page novel, “Juneteenth,” published in 1999.

The novel opens with an assassination attempt by a young black man against Adam Sunraider, a notoriously bigoted senator from a New England state. Critically injured, the senator calls to his side Reverend Alonzo Hickman, a former jazz musician turned Baptist minister who took in Sunraider as a child and raised him as a preaching prodigy. As Hickman and Sunraider recall their past together, they focus on an eventful sermon celebrating the Juneteenth holiday in a Southern church, during which the young Bliss—as Sunraider was then known—learns his mother was a white woman. The revelation launches him on his path of independence from Hickman, and eventually to a career in entertainment and controversial politics.

In an interview in 2010, Callahan stated that writer’s block hadn’t been Ellison’s problem. “Ellison wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote,” he said. He also agreed with Rampersad’s conclusion that Ellison lost “about a summer’s worth of revisions” in the 1967 fire. In the end, after 40 years of work, it appeared the weight of massive expectations, the unwieldy bulk of the narrative and the pressure to give voice to the transformative events of the times had combined to ensure Ellison would never complete the sweeping novel of America he envisioned.

Despite its long delayed arrival, and its inevitable failure to live up to the success of “Invisible Man,” Ellison’s “Juneteenth” stands as a tribute to a writer’s life spent grappling with the contradictions and complexities of race. On his deathbed, the fictional Senator Sunraider, who dismisses the Juneteenth holiday as “the celebration of a gaudy illusion,” realizes his own narrative is not just a tale of freedom and success. Instead, it is intrinsically tied to the story of the young man who shot him and the story of the former slaves who learned of their independence that June day in 1865.


Ralph Ellison

Ralph Waldo Ellison (March 1, 1913 [a] – April 16, 1994) was an African-American novelist, literary critic, and scholar best known for his novel Invisible Man, which won the National Book Award in 1953. [2] He also wrote Shadow and Act (1964), a collection of political, social and critical essays, and Going to the Territory (1986). For The New York Times, the best of these essays in addition to the novel put him "among the gods of America's literary Parnassus." [3] A posthumous novel, Juneteenth, was published after being assembled from voluminous notes he left upon his death.


The 1940s

During the 1930s and ’40s Hughes and Sterling A. Brown kept the folk spirit alive in African American poetry. An admirer of Hughes, Margaret Walker dedicated For My People (1942), the title poem of which remains one of the most popular texts for recitation and performance in African American literature, to the same Black American rank and file whom Hughes and Brown celebrated. By the early 1940s three figures, Melvin B. Tolson, Robert Hayden, and Chicagoan Gwendolyn Brooks, were showing how the vernacular tradition could be adapted to modernist experimentation. The variety of expressiveness and formal innovation in African American poetry of the 1940s is reflected in Tolson’s densely allusive Rendezvous with America (1942), Hayden’s meditative history poems such as “Middle Passage” (1945) and “Frederick Douglass” (1947), and Brooks’s tribute to the vitality and rigours of Black urban life in A Street in Bronzeville (1945) and her Pulitzer Prize-winning volume, Annie Allen (1949). The 1940s was also a decade of creative experimentation in autobiography, led by Du Bois’s Dusk of Dawn (1940), a self-styled “essay toward an autobiography of a race concept” Hurston’s Dust Tracks on a Road (1942), an early venture in “autoethnography,” the writing of self via the characterization of a culture (in this case, the rural Southern Black culture of Hurston’s roots) J. Saunders Redding’s No Day of Triumph (1942), the story of an alienated Northern professional’s quest for redemptive immersion in Southern Black working-class communities and Wright’s Black Boy.


Ralph Ellison

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Ralph Ellison, in full Ralph Waldo Ellison, (born March 1, 1914, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, U.S.—died April 16, 1994, New York, New York), American writer who won eminence with his first novel (and the only one published during his lifetime), Invisible Man (1952).

Ellison left Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute (now Tuskegee University) in 1936 after three years’ study of music and moved to New York City. There he befriended Richard Wright, who encouraged Ellison to try his hand at writing. In 1937 Ellison began contributing short stories, reviews, and essays to various periodicals. He worked on the Federal Writers’ Project from 1938 to 1942, which he followed with a stint as the managing editor of The Negro Quarterly for just under a year.

Following service in World War II, he produced Invisible Man, which won the 1953 National Book Award for fiction. The story is a bildungsroman that tells of a naive and idealistic (and, significantly, nameless) Southern Black youth who goes to Harlem, joins the fight against white oppression, and ends up ignored by his fellow Blacks as well as by whites. The novel won praise for its stylistic innovations in infusing classic literary motifs with modern Black speech and culture, while providing a thoroughly unique take on the construction of contemporary African American identity. However, Ellison’s treatment of his novel as first and foremost a work of art—as opposed to a primarily polemical work—led to some complaints from his fellow Black novelists at the time that he was not sufficiently devoted to social change.

After Invisible Man appeared, Ellison published only two collections of essays: Shadow and Act (1964) and Going to the Territory (1986). He lectured widely on Black culture, folklore, and creative writing and taught at various American colleges and universities. Flying Home, and Other Stories was published posthumously in 1996. He left a second novel unfinished at his death it was published, in a much-shortened form, as Juneteenth in 1999. The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison was released in 2019.


6.8: Ralph Ellison (1914 - 1994)

  • Berke, Bleil, & Cofer
  • Professors (English) at Middle Georgia State University, College of Coastal Georgia, & Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College
  • Sourced from University of North Georgia Press

Ralph Waldo Ellison was born in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Ellison&rsquos father, Lewis, a manual laborer who delivered ice and coal, was an avid reader who named his son after Ralph Waldo Emerson and who hoped that his son would grow up to be a poet. Unfortunately he died of a work-related accident when Ellison was three, which left the two brothers, Robert and Herbert, to be raised by their single mother, Ida. The absence of his father would remain a recurring theme in Ellison&rsquos work.

As a young man, Ellison was interested in arts and culture, specifically, music. In 1933, he enrolled at the Tuskegee Institute, a historically black college which offered one of the nation&rsquos top programs in music. During his time at Tuskegee, Ellison gained a reputation for spending long hours in the library, reading heavily from several Modernist writers. Ellison cites T. S. Eliot&rsquos The Waste Land as a major influence in his life, inspiring him to be a writer. After college, Ellison moved to New York, where he met influential artist Romare Bearden as well as writer Richard Wright, both of whom were important influences on Ellison&rsquos life. During this time in New York, Ellison began to publish short stories, essays, and book reviews.

In 1952, Ellison published his debut novel, The Invisible Man, a critical best seller which won the National Book Award. The novel vaulted him into the international spotlight as a writer, a position that he did not always embrace. The Invisible Man describes how the protagonist (who is never named and is, hence, &ldquoinvisible&rdquo) experiences various incidents of racism throughout his life after moving from the South to New York. The novel, Ellison&rsquos only one published during his lifetime, has remained one of the most famous and most influential novels in American lit-erature. He spent the remainder of his life working on a follow-up novel. In 1967, he claimed to be near completion of this novel when a house fire consumed his drafts. After his death, his posthumous follow-up was published under the title Juneteenth (1999) later a longer version of this novel was published under the title Three Days Before the Shooting (2010).

Although he never published a second novel in his lifetime, he did publish several essays, including essays about his lifelong love of music. His essay collection Shadow and Act (1964) was named one of the top 100 best non-fiction books of the twentieth century. One of the common themes of Ellison&rsquos work, both in fiction and non-fiction, was the idea of cultural ancestry the idea that our cultural ancestors could be as influential as our biological ancestors. &ldquoBattle Royale,&rdquo the opening chapter of The Invisible Man, describes the protagonist&rsquos humiliating experience accepting a scholarship from a local civic organization. Although it is the introductory chapter, it has been highly anthologized as a short story.


Ralph Ellison’s Never-Ending Novel

Ralph Ellison is most famous for two things: writing the classic Invisible Man and never publishing another novel during his lifetime. The story of his supposed writer’s block has become almost as familiar to many readers as anything he did publish.

Adam Bradley, an associate professor of English at the University of Colorado at Boulder, wants to rewrite that story. In Ralph Ellison in Progress (out this month from Yale University Press), he argues that the work Ellison did in the second half of his life reveals even more about the writer’s artistic agenda and ambition than Invisible Man does—and allows us to read that classic work with fresh eyes.

Too often, “the story of Ellison’s literary life seems like a tragedy: promise unfulfilled, talent dissipated, creativity extinguished too soon,” Bradley writes. But the thousands of pages’ worth of notes, typed manuscripts, and computer printouts that Ellison left behind do not sound like the archival legacy of a blocked writer.

Bradley has had a chance to get to know Ellison’s work in a way most literary scholars never have: He served as co-editor, with John F. Callahan, a professor of humanities at Lewis & Clark College, of Three Days Before the Shooting . (published in January by the Modern Library). It’s the fullest version we have so far of Ellison’s unfinished second novel. (Callahan published portions of the novel in 1999 under the title Juneteenth.)

“I always thought there was something funny when I heard people say Ellison was the victim of writer’s block,” Bradley says in an interview. As for conclusions that “somehow Ellison had taken his eye off his writing and turned simply to other pursuits, be they some sort of social life, his varied social calendar as rendered in Arnold Rampersad’s recent biography [Ralph Ellison: A Biography, published by Knopf in 2007], it seemed to me too easy to blame it on that, especially given the evidence of his work,” Bradley says. Working through the 46,000 items in the Ellison archive, now housed at the Library of Congress, has persuaded him that “this was a man dedicated to his work.”

Bradley has been making a name for himself with his own work on rap and hip-hop. He’s the author of Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip Hop (Basic Civitas Books, 2009), and he is now helping edit an anthology of rap lyrics to be published this fall by Yale University Press.

Ellison, a man devoted to jazz that swings, might seem a long distance removed from today’s rappers, but Bradley sees a connection. “It’s not that Ellison would have liked hip-hop, but he makes me a better listener of hip-hop by teaching me certain things about how to approach African-American culture, how to think about vernacular process, the means by which creative people take what’s to hand and make new forms,” he says.

Later, via e-mail, Bradley amplifies that point. “Ellison often talked about what he termed the ‘vernacular process,’ the means by which one takes an inherited style and combines it with an improvised one to create something entirely new. Hip-hop does precisely this, taking inherited turntables and record albums and creating a new instrument from them or taking familiar verbal rhythms—from nursery rhymes, advertising ditties, whatever—and fashioning them into a modern-day poetry in rap.”

Bradley’s interest in Ellison dates back to the spring of 1993, when he was a freshman at Lewis & Clark College, in Portland, Ore., where he studied with Callahan. Among the novels he read, Invisible Man meant the most.

“It spoke to a lot of the things I was confronting myself at the moment, being a biracial child with a black father and white mother,” Bradley recalls. “Reading that book became my lodestar in a lot of ways.”

Ellison died in the spring of 1994, a year after Bradley read Invisible Man. Callahan, who was named literary executor, needed a research assistant and asked Bradley, then 19 and a sophomore, whether he’d be interested. “I didn’t have to think long on that one,” Bradley says, calling it a “miraculous moment.”

In an interview, Callahan recalls how strongly Bradley responded to Ellison’s writing. “Invisible Man went to the very bone of Adam’s identity and the person he was becoming,” he says.

That engagement with Ellison has persisted, with a few breaks. Bradley wrote his dissertation on theories of evil in African-American novels written after 1950—but did not include Invisible Man. “I was so much in the sway of Ellison’s thought,” he explains. “I felt a need to break away and create an independent perspective. The funny part about that is that the times I’ve tried to get away from Ellison over the course of my career, I’ve ended up boomeranging back.”

Bradley’s book, Callahan says, opens up the conversation about what the notes and manuscripts in the archive tell us not just about Ellison’s second novel but also about his first. It helps that scholars now have greater access to the Ellison archive, although some restrictions remain.

Before the archive went to the Library of Congress, it was housed for a time at Lewis & Clark. Bradley remembers helping Callahan carry boxes up to a room in an old house on the campus. “Another miraculous moment occurred when Professor Callahan said to me, ‘If you have some time and you’re interested, you could go ahead and start looking through some of these manuscript pages for Ellison’s second novel,’ he recalls.

So Bradley found himself reading Ellison’s most recent work, some of it pages the writer had composed on his computer only a few months earlier. “The thing that struck me—and this was a moment that changed the course of my life, I don’t think it’s too much to say—was coming across something I would never have expected to find in the work of a writer of Ellison’s stature, and that was a typo,” Bradley says. “And then I saw another and another and another. And then I got a little bit cocky and thought, That’s not a very good sentence.”

As he worked more with the manuscripts and saw Ellison making changes along the way, however, Bradley thought to himself, “This is how greatness comes into being. This is Ralph Ellison in progress.” Hence the title for the new book, which the scholar says “embodies all the thinking I’ve done about Ellison since I was 19 years old.”

Ralph Ellison in Progress: From “Invisible Man” to “Three Days Before the Shooting. ” focuses on watershed years in Ellison’s writing life. It works backward in time: 1982, when he began to work on a computer 1970, when he was “an author under siege,” as Bradley puts it, attacked as “an Establishment writer” and “an Uncle Tom,” in the words of one Marxist critic the 1950s, at the birth of the civil-rights movement, when Ellison may have already been making notes for his second novel while working on the first 1945, when he began work on Invisible Man.

Throughout his book, Bradley teases out threads that connect Ellison’s first and second novels. For instance, in the section on 1945, Bradley identifies “dilated realism” as the “governing philosophy” of both books. The notion of dilated realism—more than naturalism, not quite surrealism—comes from Ellison, who, in an introduction to an excerpt of Invisible Man published in 1948, explained that the book was meant as “a near-allegory or an extended metaphor. . A realism dilated to deal with the almost surreal state of our everyday American life.”

He also finds evidence in the archive that “Invisible Man once had a wife.” Ellison’s working notes reveal that early on he imagined an interracial love affair as one of the prime movers of the story, only to discard it. “As Ellison imagined it, Invisible Man would be a kind of love story, albeit one in which the primary motive of the relationship was not the communion of souls but the fashioning of an individual entity,” Bradley writes. “This textual note and the manuscript drafts that reflect the spirit of it in fiction suggest a radical departure from the published novel, a new fictive vision in which Invisible Man’s relationship with a woman is not only significant but elemental.”

In drafts of the second novel, Bradley finds Ellison really trying to grapple with love as a subject. He thinks that might partly be the liberating result of working on a computer rather than on a typewriter or in longhand.

“His greatest improvisations on the computer, particularly those departures that take him away from familiar fictional ground, are among the most emotionally bare writings Ellison produced,” Bradley writes in Ralph Ellison in Progress. “Within them he attends to themes left largely unconsidered elsewhere in his fiction—even in earlier incarnations of the second novel. Notable among these is love, both filial and romantic.”

The novel involves an older black jazzman and preacher named Alonzo Hickman and a race-baiting senator named Adam Sunraider. As a younger man, in rural Georgia, Hickman helped raise Sunraider, then called Bliss, an orphan “of indefinite race who looks white.” Years later, Hickman comes to Washington to try to stop the assassination of Sunraider by the senator’s estranged son.

Three Days Before the Shooting . , the version that Callahan and Bradley assembled from the second-novel notes and drafts in the Ellison archive, runs to almost a thousand pages. It’s a big book in every sense, full of democracy and demagoguery, race and religion, fathers (real and surrogate) and sons.

The archival evidence suggests that the computer gave Ellison more latitude for experimentation. “You can see Ellison at play in the computer files,” Bradley says. “You can see him riffing on the word itself and having a lot of fun with his creation. At the same time, you can sense that the computer may have become an enabler of certain of Ellison’s literary foibles, the biggest one being his near-mania for revision.”

The drafts of Invisible Man show that Ellison would take bunches of notes, then write “longhand riffs that he would integrate into typed drafts,” Bradley writes in his book. “He would take pen or pencil to these typed pages, putting them through scrupulous revisions, often producing half a dozen—even a dozen—drafts until he was satisfied.” Then he or his wife, Fanny, would take those drafts and type them all out again into a clean copy that he would edit further.

Bradley sees the second novel as a fluid text. “The same scene can exist in multiple iterations, each maintaining equal authority,” he writes. “In other words, there is really no such thing as a superannuated draft nothing is ever obsolete because Ellison never made any final judgments, never made the tough decisions that turn a manuscript into a novel. The computer enabled this by creating a ‘fluid text,’ one that postponed indefinitely the fixity of a printed manuscript.”

A writer might find it hard to let go of that sense of endless possibility, but a finished book requires an author to make choices and to foreclose certain possibilities. It’s tempting to say that the computer, which makes it easy to do revision after revision after revision ad infinitum, is what kept Ellison from finishing the second novel.

Bradley thinks that’s too easy an analysis. “No matter how much time Ellison had, I’m not sure he would ever have finished the book,” he says. “No matter what kind of equipment he had, I’m not sure he would ever have finished the book.”

Even before Ellison switched to the computer, he had enough for a novel. “It’s a good editor away from being a publishable work of fiction,” Bradley says of the manuscript evidence at that middle stage. “The question comes down to why Ellison wasn’t ready to let the manuscript go.”

For Bradley, the answer has something to do with Ellison’s subject matter: America itself. “He sits down to write this just as the civil-rights movement is taking shape,” Bradley says. After Invisible Man, Ellison wrote through the rest of the 1950s and on into the 1960s, through the assassinations and the legislative and social milestones and the Vietnam War. Time moved on decades passed America changed, so the novel had to keep changing, too. “I imagine him sitting down and looking up, when he was satisfied with what he’d done, to see the world had changed, then go back to work, and on and on and on,” Bradley explains.

When he announced on his Facebook page that Three Days Before the Shooting . was coming out, he got comments from several of the hip-hop artists he has gotten to know, including the rapper Bun B.

“He was so excited,” Bradley recalls. “I sent him a copy, and he’s been reading it. That just shows you the thing that Ellison understood so well. He would often say, ‘This is a crazy country.’ He meant that as a form of praise. He meant that it’s a country where anything is possible.”

In the end, Bradley suggests, what might have kept Ellison from publishing a second novel was not writer’s block but the desire to hold up a mirror big enough to reflect the complexities of America. In that second novel, Ellison was trying to figure out “how to achieve describing America to itself and the world,” Bradley says. “This may be the closest we’ll ever get to the Great American Novel in the purest sense, a great, messy, conflicted place that nonetheless has great beauty and potential in it.”


Blogis librorum. A blog about books. Rare books.

On March 30, 1820, Anna Sewell was born into a devoutly Quaker family. Her mother, Mary Wright Sewell, was a successful children's book author. Sewell was mostly educated at home and did not attend school for the first time until she was twelve years old. Two years later, she seriously injured both ankles in an accident. From then on, Sewell had extremely limited mobility she required crutches and could never walk great distances.

Sewell resorted to using horse-drawn carriages for transportation. Soon she fell in love with horses and became deeply concerned about their humane treatment. That concern led her to undertake the children's classic Black Beauty. Sewell undertook the novel not for children, but for those who cared for horses. She said her "special aim [was] to induce kindness, sympathy, and an understanding" toward equines. But when Sewell began the novel in 1871, her health was already failing. At first, she narrated the story to her mother. In 1876, Sewell began writing on small slips of paper, which her mother would then transcribe.

Sewell completed Black Beauty in 1877, only five months before she passed away. She did, however, live long enough to enjoy the book's initial success. Though Sewell finished only one novel during her lifetime, that book has survived as a wonderful literary legacy.

Sewell is one of many legendary authors who managed to publish only a single novel during their lifetime. Here are a couple more examples of such authors.

Edgar Allan Poe

One of the earliest American authors to embrace the short story, Edgar Allan Poe was a master of suspense and horror. He's credited with originating detective fiction and contributing to the evolution of science fiction. A truly prolific author, Poe was the first American author to earn his living (paltry though it sometimes was) through writing. Yet he only wrote one novel: The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838). Jules Verne would later write a sequel in 1897 called An Anarctic Mystery, but also known as The Sphinx of the Ice Fields.

Emily Brontë

Like her sisters, Emily Brontë originally published under a more androgynous pseudonym. When Wuthering Heights was published in 1847, it bore the name of Ellis Bell. The novel met with mixed reviews from critics, who mostly found the book unbelievable and even scandalous. In a later edition, Charlotte Brontë wrote a preface to the novel, defending her sister's work. Unfortunately Emily would not survive to write another masterpiece she died of tuberculosis only a year after Wuthering Heights was published.

Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde wrote plenty of plays and poetry, but The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) would be his only novel. It didn't win Wilde any friends with literary critics, who called the novel everything from "effeminate" to "unclean." Always eager to please, Wilde revised the novel but directed the rest of his energies to plays and poetry. During Wilde's lifetime, he would be best known for these, but it was Dorian Gray that earned Wilde a place in the literary canon.

Margaret Mitchell

Margaret Mitchell had never wanted to publish a novel, but then a colleague expressed doubt that Mitchell could accomplish such a feat. Gone with the Wind was published in 1936, propelling Mitchell to the exact kind of fame she had wanted to avoid. She won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1957.

Gone with the Wind has remained one of the bestselling books of all time. Mitchell, who hated being in the limelight, refused to publish another novel and had little time to reconsider — she died at age 49, after being struck by a car. Her novella Lost Laysen was published posthumously in 1996.

Ross Lockridge, Jr

Though Ross Lockridge, Jr. has yet to become a household name, the author received considerable acclaim for his first novel, Raintree County, published in 1948. The book is often considered a Great American Novel, placing Lockridge in the illustrious company of legendary authors like Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway. Raintree County topped the New York Times bestseller list and was adapted for the silver screen in 1951. But it would be Lockridge's last work he committed suicide only three months after Raintree County was published.

Ralph Ellison

When Ralph Ellison published Invisible Man in 1952, it met with almost immediate acclaim. It won the U.S. National Book Award for Fiction in 1953. Ellison continued to write, hoping to match the success of his debut novel. But in 1967, a fire in his home destroyed Ellison's second manuscript. Ellison persevered, eventually producing a new manuscript that sprawled to over 2,000 pages. After he died, the manuscript was condensed, edited, and published as Juneteenth.

Boris Pasternak

Boris Pasternak is remembered as a titan of twentieth-century poetry. It's no wonder that his attempt at a novel would be nothing short of spectacular — yet Dr. Zhivago (1957) was almost not published at all. The manuscript had to be smuggled out of Russia and published abroad. In 1958, Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, and his latest novel certainly contributed to the Swedish committee's decision. Unfortunately the Russian government disapproved of Pasternak's perspective, and he was forced to decline the Nobel Prize under threat of punishment.

Harper Lee

Since Harper Lee published To Kill a Mockingbird in 1960, it has become one of the most popular and enduring works of American literature. The novel earned the 1961 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and consistently finds its way onto school reading lists. In 2007, Lee was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her contribution to letters. Lee published a second novel the year before her death, but circumstances surrounding it are murky at best. Although Go Set a Watchman was marketed by its publisher as a sequel to Lee's magnum opus, we now know it was merely a rough draft for To Kill A Mockingbird.

It's unclear why Lee never published again between Mockingbird and the release of Watchman, though she did spend several years on a novel called The Long Goodbye before abandoning the project. Lee has made another mark on literature thanks to her friendship with Truman Capote, whom she assisted in researching In Cold Blood.

John Kennedy Toole

When A Confederacy of Dunces was published in 1980, it earned author John Kennedy Toole a posthumous Pulitzer Prize. The brilliant but troubled Toole had finished the novel much earlier. But the stress of consistent rejections from publishers wore on Toole, as did other aspects of his life. He committed suicide in 1969. The book was published thanks to the hard work of Toole's mother and has since been recognized as an outstanding work of twentieth-century American literature.

Whom are we missing? Share your favorite with us in the comments below, and maybe we'll feature it in a future post!


‘The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison’ Review: Staking Out His Territory

Arguably unique in American literature, Ralph Ellison became nearly as well known for what he didn’t publish as for what he did. His towering achievement, “Invisible Man” (1952), which won the National Book Award, was Ellison’s only novel to appear during his lifetime. With that book began the literary community’s anticipation of the follow-up, an eagerness that over the decades shaded into a distant hope and then, in the end—with Ellison’s death at 81 in 1994—brought not so much disappointment as confirmation of what we had already accepted. The posthumous publication of the second novel that Ellison had worked on fitfully and for so long, first in a greatly shortened version (“Juneteenth,” 1999) and then in its mammoth, unfinished entirety (“Three Days Before the Shooting . . . ,” 2010), was anticlimactic the appearances of Ellison’s brilliant essay collections, “Shadow and Act” (1964) and “Going to the Territory” (1986), failed to satisfy those clamoring for another novel, as did the collection of his apprentice stories, “Flying Home” (1996). Nonetheless, Ellison’s eminence endured, and “Invisible Man”—like a single musical note followed by a silence that allows it to resonate—continued to engage the American imagination, and does so still.

That is, perhaps, because the novel went such a long way toward fulfilling that ever-enticing, ultimately doomed mission of defining America, with the yawing gap between the country’s vision of freedom and its unjust reality, with the surreality confronted daily by its darker-skinned people. The journey of the book’s narrator, a young black man on what he thinks is a temporary leave from college, takes him from the absurd conditions of his native Jim Crow South to a seemingly more promising life in New York there he makes his naive way inside the entities and movements that define his time, becoming first a cog in a corporate plant and then the unwitting tool of a Communist-like organization whose real aims the narrator discovers, as he discovers everything, just a little too late. If “Invisible Man” was, is, an indictment of America’s reality, it is also, in its dark, ironic, satiric way, a celebration of its grandness and its potential, as well as its tendency—often in spite of itself—to weave one culture out of many. Ellison was that rare figure who saw through the rhetoric about his nation to its reality but who also, unlike the black nationalists who came along a generation or more after Ellison, saw America’s promise as well as its tragic flaws. Perhaps the narrator of “Invisible Man” speaks for Ellison when he says near the end of the novel, “I denounce and I defend and I hate and I love.”

John F. Callahan, Ellison’s literary executor, has now given us, in collaboration with Marc C. Conner, the 1,000-plus-page “Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison.” The letters span six decades, from 1933, when Ellison was a penniless 20-year-old student at Tuskegee Institute, in Alabama, to 1993, when he was a revered, 80-year-old, New York-based man of letters. This book is a treasure. It serves in part as an alternative to the view of Ellison provided by Arnold Rampersad’s 2007 biography, a highly informative, eminently readable work that nonetheless portrayed its subject as something of a cold fish. The man who emerges from “Selected Letters” is complex and has his prickly moments but comes across, in the main, as a warm human being who valued artistic achievement, meaningful intellectual exchanges, good music, Southern cooking, a sip of whiskey and good times with old friends. And in an age when people text because they can’t be bothered with email, it is a pleasure to read the letters of one who wrote at length, thoughtfully, and with wonderful humor about everything from family stories to literature to the state of his nation to—inevitably—race.

The book is divided into six sections, one per decade, with the letters from the 1980s and ’90s collapsed into the final section. Mr. Callahan provides a general introduction to the book as well as a warm, perceptive introduction to each decade of letters. Ellison’s mother, Ida, saved his letters, cards and notes, and as a young man in New York Ellison began making copies of the letters he wrote, sometimes revising them the way others revise their fiction, essays or poems. Beginning when he was in college, the letters chart every phase of his life.

Ralph Waldo Ellison was born in 1913 in Oklahoma City. When the boy was 3, his father, who ran an ice and coal business, suffered an accident on the job: A large block of ice landed on his abdomen, aggravating an ulcer and leading to a fatal infection. From that time on, Ellison’s mother worked long hours as a domestic to support the family, which included Ralph’s younger brother. In his teens Ellison displayed a bottomless hunger for knowledge, reading the likes of George Bernard Shaw during breaks in a series of odd jobs. He also followed his passion for music: He listened, entranced, at local performances by Louis Armstrong, Count Basie and other jazz greats, and he paid $2 a week for trumpet lessons. Ellison studied the instrument at Tuskegee he left before his senior year, after the school’s music curriculum had been reduced, and made his way to New York City to work and save money as part of his plan—never realized—to return to school eventually. The morning after his arrival in New York, in July 1936, he met the African-American poet Langston Hughes and soon came to know another black writer, Richard Wright, whose novel “Native Son” would appear in 1940. With Wright’s encouragement, Ellison turned to writing prose, first a book review and then some short fiction.


Literary Executor For Ralph Ellison Reflects On Author's Life And Collection Of Letters

Before becoming the internationally recognized author of Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison grew up a precocious child in Deep Deuce, Oklahoma City. Now, a collection of his letters is available in hardback. KGOU’s Richard Bassett spoke with John Callahan, the literary executor for Ralph Ellison and one of the editors of the book. Bassett began by asking what the letters reveal about Ellison’s feelings for Oklahoma.

John Callahan: Well, he loved Oklahoma, Richard. He loved it while he was there and more and more unreservedly as he left. For example, I'd like to read a letter he writes in 1961 to a woman named Hester Holloway. She was his mother's best friend in Oklahoma City and she typifies the kind of spirit and the quality that these elders had in Oklahoma City, and that formed his life from the point he was a boy on. So he writes:

"That you were adventurous people and that you reached out for some of the joy of life. I've seen a lot of places, countries, and people from places in this society whom if somebody had told me I would grow up to know and observe I would have thought they were trying to kid me but for all of that, there are few of them who impress me as being more interesting or more human or imbued with a greater feeling for life than some of you. This has come to mean a great deal to me and I know that I've been extremely lucky to have grown up in that place and in that time and thus around you. Thanks to those like you I never had to apologize to myself, or make excuses to anyone, for being a Negro. That is much more than anything I got at Tuskegee or anywhere else. I couldn't have bought it with gold, and all that was necessary for me to get it was for you to be true to yourself."

I mean, this is Ellison writing almost 30 years after he's left Oklahoma and you can see how it's still deep in his heart.

Richard Bassett: So Ellison only completed the one novel in his lifetime, "Invisible Man." At one point, though, he lost over 200 pages of a second novel in a fire, which is really kind of to hard to fathom how he would have responded to that.

Callahan: Well, it's funny you should mention that, Richard, because a letter does the trick better than anything else. The fire and the loss of a very important chunk of the second novel grew into something of a myth in terms of the way that Ellison would refer to it. And we're very lucky that he, eight or nine days after the fire—and the fire happened in late November of 1967—and he has agreed to write a preface to this young scholar's book about culture and poverty. And so Elison sits down to write him about why he can't write the preface for the guy and he mentions the fire. And it's a brief passage that I'd like to read:

"On the late afternoon of November 29 at our home in Plainfield, Massachusetts, was destroyed by fire. The loss was particularly severe for me as a section of my work in progress was destroyed with it. I write this to say that as much as I had hoped to write the foreword to your forthcoming book, "Culture and Poverty," under the circumstances, I don't believe I can take time out now. Fortunately, much of my summer's work on the new novel is still in mind. And if my imagination can feed it, I'll be all right. But I must work quickly."

Now, that's very different than a notion that the whole novel was destroyed. It obviously hampered his work on the novel. He had difficulty really getting it back together. Two years later, in 1969, less than two years later, he has written and published probably the best thing that was published in his lifetime from the second novel. It's a magnificent piece of work called "Night Talk." So he managed to do that less than two years after the fire. So it seems to me that this letter sheds light on the notion that the novel was giving Ellison fits long before the fire. Did the fire hurt his efforts? Yeah, yeah, it did. But it didn't comply entirely disable him. I think other literary problems were at the core of his inability to finish the novel. He had, he didn't make certain decisions about what to cut. He talks at the same time in 1969, he talks to the young writer Jim McPherson. They're collaborating on a wonderful essay interview called "Indivisible Man." And Ellison is talking to McPherson in his apartment in New York and is surrounded by all of his manuscripts and typed scripts. And he starts pulling them out and he says to McPherson, I could publish three volumes. I have the material for three novels. But I'm trying to integrate all this material into one. Now, that was in 1969 and I found when I was going through editing "Juneteenth," and then also doing this scholarly edition of the novel that came out in 2010, that these distinct narratives were still there, but he never did completed one and never completed the other two and never knit the three of them together.

Bassett: Despite only completing the one novel, Ellison is rightfully regarded as a literary giant through his stories, essays, and these letters. It's really an extraordinary collection that offers a look at a disappearing craft. Tell us a little bit about his letter-writing process and what letter writing meant to Ralph Ellison.

Callahan: Well, it damn near meant everything to him. He writes Richard Wright in 1953—January 53—about the hiatus in his letter writing. He hadn't written many letters since sometime in 1948 or 1949 because he was on the home stretch of "Invisible Man." So, he writes to Dick Wright in January of 1953. And he just flat out says somewhere along the way, I've flat out lost the joy of corresponding. And he goes on to say that there was a time when he never felt as much himself as when he was writing letters, and he doesn't know why that pleasure, that joy has gone away. Now, that's in early 1953. But he gets it back . The wonderful thing is he gets it back and from then on the decade of the fifties has twice as many letters as any other decade.

Bassett: It was fun to read about his interactions with other notable 20th century writers and artists like Richard Wright, as you just mentioned, and William "Bill" Faulkner. Are there any interesting stories in the collection that you'd like to share that readers might be drawn to?

Callahan: Well, it's interesting because one of the correspondences that seems to me to be really as important as any other is Saul Bellow. Ellison and Bellow had a real affinity as friends. There is an amusing story about the letter he writes to Faulkner. I think it's in 1957. And few people knew this. I didn't really know this until I came across the letter. There's a kind of writing, or Association of American Writers. And Faulkner for a while is charged with writing the other writers and to ask him to do this or that. There's a situation in 1957 where a number of writers and artists and various people get together and petition Eisenhower, who's president then, to release Ezra Pound from his confinement in St. Elizabeth's mental hospital. There were two people, two American writers who oppose this, one Ellison, and Bellow was the other. And Ellison writes to Faulkner, who's asked him for it to do a couple of things, and he says, I'm fine with this and that, but I'm not fine with your petition to the president about Ezra Pound. And he goes on to say how much he admires Pound's poetry. But he feels that Pound's actions in World War II, wherefrom fascist Italy he makes these recordings that are vicious things. Not only against Jews, but also against black people. And and he says to Faulkner, look, if Pound and his views had triumphed, I wouldn't be here to write you this letter. So he says, doesn't mean I don't love his poetry, that I haven't admired and gotten a lot from his poetry, but it seems to me that the punishment that he's serving is just. That was Ellison. You know, what he believed he was prepared to go with.

Bassett: So one of the most fascinating things about this collection is that it does provide a window into American history. The letters span, you know, 60 years of the 20th century from the 1930s to the 1990s.

Callahan: Ellison's letters have both a timely and a timeless quality to them. And in our culture there is a sense that every moment is utterly different from every other moment. And that's true. But some of the values that we have or don't have, certainly some of the values that Ralph Ellison had, remained constant. That's not to say they remain unchanging, but there's a fundamental quality and truth to them. And you mentioned American history . In one such cases, he writes a letter to his old teacher—the guy was the librarian while he was at Tuskegee—Morteza Sprague. And he writes it two days after the Supreme Court hands down the Brown v. Board decision. He writes it on May 19th, 1954, and he writes it about the decision declaring segregation unconstitutional and declaring integration as the law of the land. And I think I will read some of that letter:

"Well so now the court has found in our favor and recognized our human psychological complexity and citizenship. And another battle of the Civil War has been won. The rest is up to us and I'm very glad. The decision came while I was reading "A Stillness at Appomattox," and a study of the "Negro Freedman" and it made a heightening of emotion and a telescoping of perspective, yes, and a sense of the problems that lie ahead left me wet-eyed. I could see the whole road stretched out and it got all mixed up with this book I'm trying to write and it left me twisted with joy and a sense of inadequacy. Why did I have to be a writer during a time when events sneer openly at your efforts defying consciousness and form? Well, so now the judges have found Negroes must be individuals and that is hopeful and good. What a wonderful world of possibilities are unfolded for the children! For me there is still the problem of making meaning out of the past and I guess I'm lucky I described Bledsoe before he was checked out. Now I'm writing about the evasion of identity that is another characteristically American problem that must be about to change. I hope so. It's giving me enough trouble."

And then he ends with this wonderful mock toast to Sprague:

"Anyway, here's to integration, the only integration that counts: that of the personality. See you soon, Ralph."

So he gets out a whole lot there. And it seems to me he talks about that decision and he's very much aware of some of the ambiguities, not about the decision itself, but about the consequences and effects that that decision will have. And one of them that disturbed him, and actually Toni Morrison in very similar ways, is the way that carefully built and nourished communities of African-Americans, black people, especially the teachers who couldn't find positions anywhere but Negro schools, which were segregated, and they had given their wonderful gifts to the black students they taught. And in many sections of the country, many school districts that got wiped out. And they, you know, some black kids were integrated into white schools, but they didn't bring any teachers with them, you know. And then, his point did that integration of the personality, that integration, really is work every single last person has got to do. And that is incredibly tied to integration of races in America. It's a very moving letter. It makes me tongue-tied.

Bassett: There is this line in the introduction of the book where you write that Ralph Ellison's story is an African-American variation of the American dream.

Callahan: Sure. Here he is. He's a kid. He's growing up and in Oklahoma City and he loses his father when he's three years old and his mother must become a domestic. They're very, very poor. He's obviously a gifted child and he takes up music. But he's also in many ways, he's really got to understand solitude. So you say, well, here he is, these are the cards he was dealt. But Oklahoma City is a very key place for jazz during the 20s and when Ellison's growing up early 30s. And he really loves jazz. He sneaks around to some of the jazz joints and hides in the shadows and listens to Jimmy Rushing. He listens to Basie's orchestra. He hears Louis Armstrong a couple of times and never forgets what he sounded like then. And so, you know, he has his dreams and he talks about his friends and him. He calls Renaissance, we were Renaissance men, men, Renaissance boys. And they all had their dreams. They all had their aspirations and their ambitions. And he kept at it and left Oklahoma City to go to Tuskegee, where he got other chances. And he went there determined to be a composer and a musician. And that didn't work. But he seized on writing and he became a writer. And it was a dream that was, that was his, but it was connected to what was to the possibilities in American life.

Bassett: So, I am curious about your experience putting this collection together. Did you learn anything new about Ellison or what his perspective offers, or what was the emotional experience like for you doing this project?

Callahan: Reading the letters just gives me a sense of the richness of this guy's consciousness. And there's another point when Harvard asks him to address the 25th reunion of its class of 1949. So this would have been in '74. And Ellison gives an address and this is right at about the time of . Nixon hasn't yet resigned . but all the wealthier of chaos that went with that time is still very much present. And he talks about hubris as being an American characteristic. And he reminds these graduates of Harvard that hubris almost inevitably leads to nemesis. So then he says, so what are we to do now? How do we live today? What kinds of qualities do we Americans need? And then he says, I guess the best I can say is we ought to go back to that earlier Ralph Waldo, meaning Ralph Waldo Emerson. And that we need conscience, more conscience and more consciousness. And then he adds a word into this. He says we need conscience and conscientious consciousness. So I learned that about him, just how the man was conscious from day to day. And then many other things. I mean, I knew, of course, I'd been to Oklahoma a number of times, I knew that he was fond of Oklahoma, but I did not know how deep and profound his love for Oklahoma City was, aware, as he was, of the limitations of Jim Crow, Oklahoma. Also aware of the way that the people in the black community, in Deep Deuce, were so rich as human beings. And you can't miss that reading the letters.

Bassett: Who should read this collection and what do you hope people take away from it?

Callahan: There is a human being. There's a man. There's a human being. And, particularly in these times, by God, there's an American. That's what we need to be. We need to bring the kind of humanity and compassion and brilliance and risk, bravery, to our lives as we lead them, as we're conscious and as we go through life and experience things and our citizens. We need more of his conscientious consciousness.

Bassett: So as someone that knew Ellison well, what do you think he would say about 21st century America?

Callahan: Oh, I can tell you what he'd say. Every time I saw him in person or talked to him on the phone, he said the same damn thing. He said, "God, John. It's a crazy country." And he said that with what he might call a sanity-saving comedy. He didn't say that in horror, or being aghast or the world is going to collapse and is gonna be destroyed and he's gonna cease to exist in a half an hour. He had a sense of . America was a tragic-comic place with a tragic-comic experience. And for Ralph, that comedy, and he talks about it, writes a letter to McPherson where he says, you know, we've got to keep our sense of black comedy because it keeps us sane. I mean, he believed we had to laugh. He said if Americans stop laughing at each other, they're going to start killing each other. The Civil War. And he, Ellison, believed in some ways the Civil War was never over, not yet over entirely in America. So it seems to me, again, there's a sense of, he insisted on a complexity. So what he is, you know, what do you expect? It's a crazy country. So he loved the country and he was impatient at much of the country, angry at the things of the country, but also joyous about much in American life. And he still would be.

Bassett: You think so?

Callahan: Yes, I do. Because the other side of that coin, it's a crazy, in other words, we can't deal with America without realizing it's a crazy country. And that word crazy, you know, turns and spins a lot of ways. It's not just a horror. There's horror and darkness, and lack of compassion and viciousness. But there's also compassion and generosity, and all these things mix and have mixed. And again, the guy just had a tremendous sense of life, a tremendous sense of vitality and curiosity. You know . that's one of the reasons . I was with him his last days. I was with him when he died. And I remember him saying, why, John? And then, as if he was afraid I might not understand what he meant, he said, I don't mean why, I mean why now. He knew he was dying. It was why now. And what he had to come to grips with was not just simply death, but dying now, dying in April, April 16th, 1994. You know, and he had to develop in a very short time a certain readiness to die because he was so curious about what was happening in himself, around him, in the country, in New York City, down in the park and he wanted to be a part of it.


The Jazz of Ralph Ellison

It is too difficult and twistingly deep to start from the beginning, when the great man, Ralph Ellison, was young and lived to put words on paper. When he was suddenly made comfortable and well-off from that staggering first novel, Invisible Man, and then went, you might say, underground. For four decades, he tried to get his second book written and published. But the chasm only got deeper for him. And it’s easy to say it was the jazz and the Harlem nights and the stares and whispers and literary gossip that stalled him.

No one knows for sure. Call it the mystery of Ralph Ellison.

Call it the obsession of two Lewis & Clark scholars who formed a bond at the college and went on to devote more than a decade of their lives to the great writer’s unfinished novel. The result of John Callahan’s and Adam Bradley’s editing prowess has now been published, by the esteemed Modern Library imprint, as Three Days Before the Shooting. An eccentric and voluminous work (1,000- plus pages), it is a kind of investigative look into Ellison’s mindset, a writer long thought to be, not unlike Harper Lee with To Kill a Mockingbird, a one-book wonder.

Yes, Ellison wrote essays and short stories, but the public wanted, demanded, insisted on a follow-up to Invisible Man. He made them wait, and wait, and then the breath went out of him. (A posthumous work, Juneteenth, was edited by Callahan and published in 1999, and while many admired it, many did not, claiming it was still an unfinished work.)

The critics have weighed in on Three Days, among them the staff at Booklist, calling the book “eloquent, dreamlike … allegorical, lyrical.” The long-awaited opus—eccentric, quirky, bold: not unlike Ellison himself, to judge from the biographies— comes face-to-face with the great mystery of Ellison: why he could not get his next novel finished and out to the public why he seemed to deny himself a Second Act in American Letters.

Why he, in fact, allowed a great guessing game to take place in the literary world about his work.

But let’s start in another place—that place where research and document combing and reading and sifting through old handwritten letters started to coalesce into a new piece of jazz.

Writers and researchers from the world over travel to Washington, D.C., to tackle their respective projects inside the James Madison Memorial Building, which houses the Library of Congress. It’s a huge place of wooden desks and lamplight and hushed-up voices.

During the summer of 2007, I was a couple of years into my own writing project, a biography of the prizefighter Sugar Ray Robinson. (Ellison used to pop in and out of Robinson’s hepcat nightclub in Harlem, called Sugar Ray’s.)

Inside the Madison, you sit in rooms reading old newspapers on microfilm, or sit at a workspace waiting for this or that obscure book to be delivered by one of the staffers, or sit there worrying about whether you’re making any real progress on your project. Then, invariably before the clock strikes noon, you start wondering what’s for lunch in the cafeteria down the long hallway, where a group of mostly soft-voiced black women work. On many days the offerings tend toward the Southern: black-eyed peas, cornbread, cabbage, chicken.

It was in the Madison cafeteria that I first met Adam Bradley BA ’96. Tall, light-complexioned, quick to smile, he wouldn’t tell me what he was working on. “It’s a secret project,” he said. “I can’t talk about it.”

I’ve worked as a newspaperman for 20-odd years when he told me his project was secret, he might as well have thrown a piece of red meat to a tiger. I pounced with questions. He grinned me away, changed the subject, upon which I circled back to it. As the days passed, I’d run into him in the hallways, still begging for any information on what he was working on.

I imagine I wore him down.

“It’s a project involving Ralph Ellison,” he said one day. He had been dispatched to the Library of Congress by John Callahan, Odell Professor of Humanities at Lewis & Clark—and the literary executor of Ellison’s estate. So a pebble had been dropped into the lake before me, and the little waves kept washing ashore in the days ahead.

It soon became clear that Ellison wasn’t suffering from writer’s block he was, rather, a writer afire: he wrote and wrote and wrote.

Not long thereafter we had lunch in the sunshine at a little café across the street from the Madison Building. Bradley then began confiding to me he was working, along with John Callahan, on the literary remains of Ralph Ellison’s second novel. And there was a mystery: how come Ralph Ellison was never able to complete another novel after Invisible Man? I was fascinated. When I went home that evening, I pulled out my copy of Invisible Man. Yes, I now suddenly wondered: What had happened to Ralph Ellison? What had he been doing for all those years? Bradley said he and Callahan had been combing through the Ellison archives for years—nearly 13 at that moment, which I found astonishing— doing a good deal of that work on the Lewis & Clark campus.

Ellison died on April 16, 1994, at age 80, in his Manhattan apartment. It seemed that what the world wanted from the National Book Award–winning author—his second novel—died with him. But now here sat Adam Bradley, working closely with John Callahan, telling me the two of them had a bead on what had happened inside the artistic world of Ralph Ellison through the years. I knew of Ellison, but now I really wanted to know: Who in the world is Adam Bradley? And who is John Callahan? And how did they come to be dropped into this complex literary score? And what were they finding in it— inside all those pages and Ellisonian riffs?

It is a compelling story that cuts across race and literature and that turns on that peculiar human connection between hero and admirer in one generation, and advocate and student in another.

In 1977 John Callahan—energetic, voluble, curious—was teaching literature at Lewis & Clark. Like many, he had fallen under the hypnotic spell of Invisible Man. When that novel was published, Ellison was mostly unknown in the literary world, save by an intellectual crowd including the likes of novelist Saul Bellow, novelist Robert Penn Warren, and poet Langston Hughes.

Critics hailed Invisible Man for its bravery, originality, and sweeping prose. The book’s narrator was unnamed, and the theme of the book revolved around the plight of blacks in America and the titanic scars inflicted by stereotyping. The reviews were mighty with praise there were literary honors there were feature stories in publications for a time Ellison was the most famous Negro writer (the term used then) in America. He soon announced he was at work on his next book. He had readers willing to wait both in America and abroad. And wait they were forced to do. The years began to roll by—5 then 10, 10 then 15—and still no second novel.

Callahan did what academics mesmerized by a certain kind of book— a book that gets studied, constantly debated, and called a classic—sometimes do: he taught it and even wrote about it. His 1977 essay, “Chaos, Complexity, and Possibility: The Historical Frequencies of Ralph Waldo Ellison,” did not go unnoticed by Ellison himself. The novelist soon invited Callahan to visit him in New York City. The two formed a lasting and soulful friendship. They shared meals and sipped wine together and talked about the world of academia. Ellison’s wife, Fanny, came to admire Callahan. Upon the writer’s death in 1994, Fanny Ellison named Callahan literary executor of Ellison’s estate.

And yet, what would a literary executor do regarding an author with one full-length novel—albeit a novel with defying endurance—in his canon? The boulder at the bottom of the hill was always the second novel. In Fanny’s mind, that meant the voluminous papers and drafts Ellison had left behind—the work-in-progress that was to be the second novel. It would be her husband’s follow-up gift to the world.

Fanny Ellison had the boxes shipped to Callahan at Lewis & Clark. And the boxes just kept coming—filled with scribbled notes, thousands of typed pages, and 80 old computer discs—an accumulation of material that Ellison had hoarded over decades. It soon became clear that Ellison wasn’t suffering from writer’s block he was, rather, a writer afire: he wrote and wrote and wrote, an exacting man with a terrifying belief that his second novel must be as grand, and grandly received, as his first —or perhaps more so.

So there stood, on the Lewis & Clark campus, a harried professor with Ellison materials raining down upon him. He needed help. A curious and nimble mind was called for a pair of coltish legs wouldn’t hurt either.

Sometimes, in literature, the stars align just so: Perhaps a nomadic writer working against the backdrop of a segregated America is bold enough to proclaim he intends to write a Great American Novel. And damned if Ralph Ellison doesn’t pull it off.

And then the stars aligned again. Enter a young student who arrived at Lewis & Clark in 1992 from Salt Lake City. White mother and black father. Haunted, but not in a frightful way, by his multiracial background. He struck many as a precocious student, a reader, and a worker. The professor took notice of the student. He befriended him and, sensing something arresting about his background, introduced him to the works of the writer who had cracked open the discussion of race in America all those years ago.

While he was growing up, Adam Bradley found his father to be a mystery. Ellison’s own father had died when Ralph was a young boy. “Be your own father,” Ellison once wrote. Easily uttered and hard to fathom. John Callahan—who had issues with his own father too—plucked Bradley from the student body and tested the young man’s curiosity about America and history and literature. Then the professor told the student about his Ellison project. Bradley jumped at it. He was all of 19 years old.

The project would stretch into years. Bradley and Callahan pored through the Ellison archives, trying to piece together, as best they could, the mystery of Ellison’s tortuous timetable. They measured Ellison’s output—as well as his lack of output while tinkering with 1980s-era computers—and delved into his creative mind.

So it comes down to being the story of two men, a young scholar and an older scholar, a black man and a white man, operating for a common purpose.

Initially, Bradley thought the project was drudgery, riffling through boxes and poring over the contents of folders. But over time, he found the process fascinating. He spent years stitching together clues about Ellison’s work habits. He had sessions with Callahan about a writer at work who had hit some kind of wall. He pondered the riddle of what Ellison’s switch from typewriter to computer seemed to do to his psyche. And yet, as I sat with Bradley at the Library of Congress, asking him about his own life, it came to me that—perhaps unknowingly at the time—he was searching for his own identity. He himself, in a way, is an Ellisonian figure for the 21st century.

So it comes down to being the story of two men, a young scholar and an older scholar, a black man and a white man, operating for a common purpose.

Both Bradley and Callahan have put their respective life histories into this mammoth work, each gleaning from Ellison, it now seems, lessons about art, perseverance, and the folly of perfection.

Three Days is not, in the least, a linear novel as both Bradley and Callahan have explained, it is an amalgam of artistic ambition. Readers will take from it what they will. It is Ellison scratching out the beautiful music he made in the dark. It is Ellison at war with words.

On a wintry February night in the nation’s capital—baby, it’s cold outside, as Ellison himself might have put it— some hardy souls are sitting in an auditorium at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. Adam Bradley and John Callahan are on stage talking about their just-released Ellison chronicle. It is a book about race and an American politician and an assassination. They talk about differing versions of Ellison chapters, how he changed gears and wrote anew, trying to perfect a character’s outlines. Audience members sit riveted. There are questions and questions. It turns into a fascinating riff between the two men about America, President Obama, loyalties, the passage of time, a redemptive novel published back in 1952.

It seems rather fortuitous to both Callahan and Bradley that Three Days has been published in the time of Obama. For if one chooses to reflect on what America has done with his election—a nation bloodied by slavery now anointing a black man as its leader—it represents a leap both moving and profound. It’s a moment, the two editors believe, that Ellison himself could have envisioned. They called him a visionary writer, a figure who never stopped wrestling with race all the while hearing the optimistic notes on the American score. The Ellison mystery, then, seems to represent but Ellison in motion, like America herself.

“I think this book will bring about a profound shift in the study of Ellison,” Bradley asserts.

“Ellison,” says Callahan, “will now be seen in the round.”

Both editors have now turned their attention to other work. Callahan, on sabbatical from Lewis & Clark, is trying to finish The Learning Room, his second novel, whose hero is a 5-year-old autistic child—an invisible boy, perhaps. Bradley, who completed his doctorate at Harvard, is now an associate professor of English at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

In May, Yale University will publish Bradley’s next book, titled Ralph Ellison in Progress. The book is dedicated to the professor who saw him, all those years ago, striding across campus amid the fir trees: “To John F. Callahan—On the Higher Frequencies.”

It’s a nice touch by Bradley. It also has echoes.

Callahan dedicated his 1988 book, In the African-American Grain, “To Ralph Ellison—on the higher frequencies.”

Both dedications, of course, are a nod to Ellison, who had written of those who dwell on “the lower frequencies”—where the mind might not soar as high, where ambitions are often laid to waste, where dreams lie unfulfilled. Yet Ellison, even as his America moved forward in fits and starts, through the smoke of riots and assassinations, believed. He believed in the higher form of art where literature might be produced.

And on a cold night in the nation’s capital, as two scholars of different races, of different generations, discussed Ellison’s work, we were all in tune with the higher frequencies.

Wil Haygood is a staff writer for the Washington Post and the author, most recently, of Sweet Thunder: The Life and Times of Sugar Ray Robinson.


Watch the video: Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. Summary u0026 Analysis (December 2021).