Ralph Ellison’s Legacy
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ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: 47 years ago, an unknown writer from Oklahoma caught the nation’s attention with a first novel that opened with these words: “I am an invisible man.” The storyteller was Ralph Waldo Ellison, and the book told the tale of a man invisible, as he said, “simply because people refused to see me.” That chronicle of a black man’s struggle for identity in White America won the National Book Award in 1953.
Today, it’s considered among the great works in modern literature. Ellison grew up poor, but got a scholarship to attend Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute in the 1930′s. Over the years, he developed a broad range of vocations, including photography, teaching, jazz trumpet and writing. In a 1960′s interview, Ellison spoke about his craft.
RALPH WALDO ELLISON: Power for the writer, it seems to me, lies in his ability to reveal — only a little bit more about the complexity of humanity. And in this country, I think it’s very, very important for the writer to, no matter what the agony of his experience, he should stick to what he’s doing, because the slightest thing that is new or the slightest thing which has been overlooked, which would tell us about the unity of American experience, beyond all considerations of class, of race or religion are very, very important.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: After Invisible Man Ellison published collections of short stories and essays. He began a second full-length novel, but lost some of the manuscript when his home burned in 1967. He died in 1994 without finishing the book, but left behind thousands of pages of notes and drafts. His widow asked Ellison’s literary executor to compile the book and the final product, Juneteenth, has just been published. Its title refers to June 19, 1865, when Texas slaves first got word they were free, two years after Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And we turn to the editor of Juneteenth. He is John Callahan, Ralph Ellison’s literary executor, and to Charles Johnson, professor of humanities at the University of Washington, whose novel Middle Passage won the National Book Award in 1990. Thank you both for being with us. Mr. Callahan, briefly tell us the story of Juneteenth and tell us how it came to be.
JOHN CALLAHAN: The heart of the book is the story of Reverend Hickman, a jazz man turned black minister, and little Bliss, the child whose mother is white and father is unknown, whom Hickman and other black brothers and sisters in Hickman’s congregation raise as a black child, who’s run away in his adolescence and becomes a race-baiting Senator from a New England state and is assassinated. And then he and Reverend Hickman reconstruct their respective past as the Senator is dying in the hospital.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Uh-huh. Now, tell us how the book came to be. You went through these fragments that were left behind and constructed this novel. You wrote none of the words, right?
JOHN CALLAHAN: That’s right. Every word is Ellison’s. I went through all of the manuscripts and determine that Ellison had several potential novels going. And the one that was the most complete and coherent and the very veritable heart of the story, Bliss and Hickman, was all but finished, and that is what is Juneteenth.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And some have suggested that Ralph Ellison himself might have objected to this, because he didn’t publish the novel himself, that these fragments maybe don’t make up a final novel. What do you think about that?
JOHN CALLAHAN: Well, I couldn’t pretend to — unlike some, I couldn’t pretend to know what Ralph Ellison would have thought about this. I think he would chuckle at the controversy. And I think he would say, “aye- yie-yie,” as he used to say. And I think he would be glad to have his writing out there and to let every individual reader to make up his or her mind to about this novel, this work of art.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And Charles Johnson, is this novel– the publication of Juneteenth– a big event for American literature in general, and for African American literature in particular?
CHARLES JOHNSON: Yes, it is. I think the publication of Juneteenth, which we owe to Dr. Callahan, is a cause for celebration all over America. We will have in Seattle tomorrow a 12-hour reading from Juneteenth. I will start it off at 10 A.M. It’s been a long time since we’ve had writing as fine — as magnificent — I would even say as exquisite as we find in Juneteenth.
You know, we have to talk about, I think, in terms of Invisible Man, too. It gives us a chance to reevaluate Ellison’s status in American literature. That one book of his, that first book, is probably the most influential novel in the second half of the 20th century. It influenced two or three generations of writers, black and white, and the reason is because Ellison raised the artistic and intellectual standards of the American novel.
It’s always been the case that, you know, Ellison is the writer that other black writers felt that they had to be. And none of us have been able to do that in 50 years, you know, not a single one of us. So having Juneteenth is really a treasure.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Johnson, tell me specifically how he influenced you.
CHARLES JOHNSON: How did he influence me? I first read Ellison’s Invisible Man in the late 60′s. A friend said to me that she read it every year and recommended it to me. I was astonished by the multidimensional project of that novel, the richness of the language, the democracy of all the voices, and the philosophical probing that is going on. It’s probably the first post- modern American novel. And, of course, I didn’t understand it. You know, I was, like, 18 or 19 years old.
So I came back to it again and again. I’ve taught that book, oh, many, many times over the last 20 or 30 years or so, and each time, I discover something new; I discover a new region of richness, a new provocative idea. So I think Ellison’s Invisible Man and also Juneteenth are books that we will not just read once and put on a bookshelf. These are books that we will revisit.
We have to come back to them every five years, so that as we grow, a our experiences, our ideas become more interesting and rich and complex, we will encounter the book with a great deal more complexity.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: John Callahan, tell us about Ralph Ellison as a person. You knew him well, didn’t you?
JOHN CALLAHAN: Yes. He was a wonderful, wonderful man. I think I would tell the story of Ralph Ellison and Charles Johnson. It happened that shortly after Charles received the National Book Award, I was having dinner with Ralph and Fanny Ellison, and he said, “John, you’ll never guess what happened.”
And he told me how he went to the National Book Awards ceremony, and when Charles Johnson was announced as the winner and read his statement, it was a testimonial to Ralph. And tears came to Ralph’s eyes when he talked about that. He said “I never thought that this would happen in my lifetime. I didn’t know that my work was having such an influence on young writers, especially this gifted, young, African American writer, Charles Johnson, whose work I knew, but whom I didn’t know.” And he was a generous man.
He had a defiant mind. He defied categories and stereotypes and believed in the indivisibility of American experience, and believed that when we evaded that indivisibility and when we evaded our identity, that tragic consequences would result. But he was an enormously warm and generous man. And I miss him very much as a man, and I’m delighted we have him as a writer.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Charles Johnson, expand on that indivisibility of American experience. I was really struck by that in reading Juneteenth and looking back at Invisible Man, too.
CHARLES JOHNSON: I think that’s very important in any discussion about Ralph Ellison. You know, just as Dr. Martin Luther King is a leader for all of us — black and white — Ralph Ellison is a writer for all of us, black, white, and otherwise.
He understands and meditated upon the American experience, I think more deeply than anyone else that I have read. You look at certain sections of Juneteenth, for example, where Hickman, I believe, is meditating on the Lincoln Memorial. And you see that Ellison was deliberating always on the meaning of democracy, on what kind of people we should be, you know, as Americans.
His emphasis is always on our interconnectedness as Americans, how blacks have affected whites, whites have affected blacks, how our lives, as King would possibly say, are a — constitute a mutual network or a network of mutuality. That’s the Ellison that I see– the champion of integration, the man who believes that democracy itself operates on the principle of integration.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And Mr. Callahan, do you think that’s why he never finished this multi — I guess it was — he was working on many volumes of a novel, because he so didn’t want to portray the experience of African Americans and all Americans in a unidimensional way, so he set himself an impossible task, basically?
JOHN CALLAHAN: Well, I think — I don’t think that the task he set was impossible. I think he was an ambitious writer, and I think the material got more and more complex. And I also think it should be said that Ralph did not expect to pass away when he did. He was engaged with the novel, and he was grappling with it.
He was struggling with it. It reminds me of the inscription that he wrote on my copy of “Going to the Territory” in 1986. He wrote this: “For John Callahan, my friend who knows that the territory is an ideal place ever to be sought, ever to be missed, but always there.” Ralph Ellison’s novel seemed to me, as I was working on it, like the territory– ideal and real.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And Charles Johnson, just in the very brief time we have, why do you think he did not finish these novels? He wrote on them for many, many years– 40 years, I think.
CHARLES JOHNSON: Yes, he worked for 40 years. And I think the reason Ellison didn’t put a book out every two years as some writers do is because his models really were the great writers of the American experience, going back to the 19th and 18th century, and also the great writers of the western tradition. I think he had in mind a book that would be an epic dialogue with the finest writers, going back to Homer and Virgil and Shakespeare and others.
The books that are on the top shelf of our library, that’s where Ellison wanted this multi-volume work to be placed. And there are sections that do rise to, I think, the level of some of the greatest writing that we’ve seen in the American experience.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, Charles Johnson and John Callahan, thanks for being with us.
JOHN CALLAHAN: My pleasure.
CHARLES JOHNSON: Thank you.