Conversation: Ralph Ellison’s Unfinished Novel Gets Some Visibility

BY Arts Desk  February 5, 2010 at 1:09 PM EST

Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man”, his first novel, is widely-considered one of the great works of modern literature. After it came out in 1952, Ellison wrote and wrote, and readers waited and waited, but a second novel never came. When he died in 1994, Ellison left thousands of pages of material.

Written over nearly four decades, now comes “Three Days Before The Shooting…”, the unfinished second novel by Ralph Ellison, edited by John Callahan and Adam Bradley. John Callahan, a professor at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Ore., is the literary executor of Ralph Ellison’s estate, and joined me recently to discuss the project.

A full transcript is after the jump.

Editor’s Note: John Callahan appeared on the NewsHour in 1999 to talk about the publication of Ralph Ellison’s “Juneteenth,” which is an excerpt of the larger work that has just been published.

JEFFREY BROWN: Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” his first novel, is widely considered one of the great works of modern literature. After it came out in 1952, Ellison wrote and wrote and readers waited and waited, but a second novel never came. When he died in 1994, Ellison left thousands of pages of material written over nearly four decades. Now comes “Three Days Before the Shooting,” the unfinished second novel by Ralph Ellison, edited by John Callahan and Adam Bradley. John Callahan, a professor at Louis & Clark College in Portland Ore., is the literary executor of Ralph Ellison’s estate and joins me now. Welcome to you.

JOHN CALLAHAN: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: So first explain what this is and what it is not. How do you see this volume?

JOHN CALLAHAN: Well, the volume is the chief extended narratives that Ellison wrote toward, we’ll say, his second novel. Part 1 has the typescripts of Books 1 and 2, and then a really pivotal 40-page manuscript called “Bliss’s Birth.” Part 2 has two long extended narratives composed entirely on the computer in the ’80s and early ’90s, plus one fragment, which curiously revises and repeats Chapter 4 from the typescript of Book 1 and his notes and various…

JEFFREY BROWN: So you had a quite a task.

JOHN CALLAHAN: Yes, indeed.

JEFFREY BROWN: So how did you construct it? I mean, how did you go about doing this?

JOHN CALLAHAN: Well, I think a learned from doing “Juneteenth,” where “Juneteenth” published in ’99 was in my judgment the most central narrative in the epic Ellison was trying for.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you published that as a standalone separate novel.

JOHN CALLAHAN: Yeah that’s right. There was much too much ballyhoo about “Juneteenth” as Ellison’s second novel. It wasn’t Ellison’s second novel, but it was a chunk, it’s crucial, and it is Book 2 of “Three Days Before the Shooting.” It’s perhaps a quarter, a fifth to a quarter of what is in “Three Days Before the Shooting.” And at that time it was clear that the other narratives — if I and my student-colleague-compadre Adam Bradley could sort through it and make it work — it was clear to me that really readers ought to have the rest of it as well.

JEFFREY BROWN: Is there a, explain the basic story or themes that run through here?

JOHN CALLAHAN: Well, first the theme, Jeff. Ellison was reading a book about the civil war when he heard on the radio that Brown v. Ward had come down. Integration. And he immediately sits down and writes his old teacher at Tuskegee a letter about this. And he talks about this as a really crucial point in American history. And then he says, you know, now I’m writing a novel about the evasion of identity. This novel was about the evasion of identify on the part of this little boy who is mid-wifed by Hickman, the jazzman-turned-preacher, and who, you know, looks white.

JEFFREY BROWN: So it’s really some of the issues, it’s identity, it’s race, it’s some of the issues that we are familiar with from “Invisible Man.”

JOHN CALLAHAN: That’s right. Fatherhood, kinship.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now I said that Ralph Ellison wrote and wrote, so this was not a man suffering from writer’s block right?

JOHN CALLAHAN: No. If anything he might have written too much.

JEFFREY BROWN: He might have written too much…

JOHN CALLAHAN: And what I mean by that is some of these episodes, particularly in the computer sections, he wrote 40 variances.

JEFFREY BROWN: Forty?

JOHN CALLAHAN: Yeah, it’s like jazz takes. You know, and say, what’s the tune? What is the one we want to hear?

JEFFREY BROWN: But what explains the inability to put it all together into a finished product?

JOHN CALLAHAN: I don’t know. I’ll take a stab at it. It’s a mystery. Jeff. For one thing he was a perfectionist. For another thing, I think he was troubled by the different choices that seemed to before him in terms of bringing it all together. He never really solved that, so he kept writing and writing and writing and writing, and sometimes going or compulsively going over the same episodes, get them perfect. He was a perfectionist.

JEFFREY BROWN: You knew him in his last years.

JOHN CALLAHAN: Oh yeah. I knew him very well.

JEFFREY BROWN: But he did anguish over it?

JOHN CALLAHAN: Sure he did.

JEFFREY BROWN: He did.

JOHN CALLAHAN: He had this thing, he had this way of talking about writing. He talked about writing as that same pain, that same pleasure. He got a lot of pleasure from these computer episodes, a lot of pain. It was excruciating. Everybody expected him to finish it, whereas every year that went by he didn’t finish it and “Invisible Man” rose higher and higher in the American pantheon. It was terrible.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, what do we learn about Ralph Ellison the writer from this?

JOHN CALLAHAN: We learn he has many voices. Book 1 told almost entirely by a white guy, a white reporter from Kentucky. We learn he was a modernist in Book 2, but we’d learned that already. We learn, too, that he has an incredible capacity to invent these wonderfully wild and interesting minor characters. The book is full of wonderful minor characters and readers are going to be meeting many of them for the first time. We learned that he couldn’t stop and yet we learn that at least, and we learn finally, Jeff, finally, I have to say, we learn that it was too much. Bringing this thing to a conclusion was too much for Ralph Ellison as he moved into his 70s and even his 80th year.

JEFFREY BROWN: When “Juneteenth” came out there was some question even some controversy, I guess, about you know bringing out the work, an unfinished work, that the author himself never completed, right?

JOHN CALLAHAN: That’s right. That’s right.

JEFFREY BROWN: This is the sort of thing you have to deal with as the editor and bringing out this volume. How do you think about it?

JOHN CALLAHAN: I think that the crucial issues is whether the stuff is good enough to be attached to the name of a great writer like Ralph Ellison, and I think it passes that test. It’s flawed. It’s incomplete. And then the second thing is whether the editor or editors and publisher are scrupulously honest about what this thing is. This is not a masterpiece, Jeff. It’s not going to be a classic. It’s not like, it’s not “Invisible Man.” He didn’t finish it. But it’s better than worthy work, and it has all of Ellison’s themes, and so it seems to me his readers will want to savor it. But, you know again, it’s not the kind of book that you can pick up Friday night and finish for brunch on Sunday. Readers are going to dip into it and out of it. It’s going to be a kind of companion and they are going to have their own relationship with it. Every reader who reads this is going say, hey, how would I have finished this? I mean, it invites the reader to participate in the creative process.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you can partake of this even as “Invisible Man” continues to cast its spell for so many readers.

JOHN CALLAHAN: Yes, because in a way it’s a sequel to “Invisible Man.”

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, John Callahan is the editor, the co-editor of “Three Days Before the Shooting,” the unfinished second novel by Ralph Ellison. Thanks so much.

JOHN CALLAHAN: You bet.