by Scott Saul
Ralph Ellison, who died five years ago at the age of 81, is at this moment singing a graveyard blues. I cannot prove this of course. But it stands to reason that Ellison, who was intrigued with the logic of practical jokes, would be both vexed and fascinated by the publication of Juneteenth, the centerpiece of the epic he pursued in the four decades following his classic, Invisible Man.
This is how the joke goes. An obscure young black writer crafts his first novel painstakingly for seven years. Upon its publication in 1952 he becomes an overnight sensation--National Book Award, fellowship in Rome, lectureships across the United States, and so on. When he undertakes a new novel, however, his imagination is so prophetic that he is consistently overwhelmed by newspaper headlines: he launches his book with an assassination, for instance, then watches presidents and Civil Rights leaders cut down in hails of gunfire. In the mid-1960s, just as he has made his peace with current events, his summer home in the Berkshires catches fire. He loses more than three hundred pages of revisions and hits a new block. By the 1970s he is a venerated essayist and man of letters, specializing in precisely controlled meditations on the interplay of vernacular styles, the blues aesthetic, and the nation's cultural debt to its black citizens. Meanwhile, what he calls his "novel-in-progress (very long in progress)" hangs over him like an electrical storm, a fury of possibilities. When he dies, his second novel is a matter of folklore and no longer anticipated in fact--yet his executor discovers a mountain of manuscripts, remarkably polished and in decent order.
So now we have Juneteenth, the novel that Ellison's executor, John Callahan, has ably quarried from that mountain. The book is more than Ellison fans could expect, yet less than Ellison probably hoped--an ambivalent masterpiece. It celebrates the promise of interracial love even as it cannot square its black and white points-of-view. It flares with stylistic pyrotechnics--passages that match Invisible Man for energy--even as its plot feels unfinished and its monologues too windy. Perhaps most strikingly, Juneteenth aims to speak to our current racial dilemmas even as it harkens to an age before "the inner city," "black power," and the "underclass." It is easy to see why Ellison could not wrap up his epic: the novel revolves in an intelligence too complex and too quick, ironically, to come to completion. As his Invisible Man might say, Ellison was trapped in a groove of history.
That groove was the widening crevice of the mid-1950s, when Martin Luther King Jr. first came to national prominence with the Montgomery bus boycott and white politicians like Orval Faubus and Strom Thurmond took heated stands against the integration of schools and other public facilities. Juneteenth builds on an ingenious fantasy: What if King was father to Faubus? The novel's main characters are Alonzo "Daddy" Hickman, a black jazz trombonist-turned-minister, and race-baiting Senator Adam Sunraider, who was raised, as a child of indeterminate race named "Bliss," by the reverend. It begins in Washington, D.C., where Hickman rushes to avert an assassination plot against the senator--without success. The rest of the novel unfolds in a gauzy blend of rumination and retrospection: Sunraider/Bliss reliving the thrills and traumas of childhood and his subsequent hitch as a movie-maker and con man; Hickman, who tends the senator's hospital bed, remembering their shared life together.
In form, Juneteenth is a spiral, slowly circling back toward the mysteries that first bind Hickman to Bliss and then tear them apart. Its narrative owes much to Faulkner's notion that trauma cannot simply be unveiled--it must be approached gingerly and tentatively, even evasively. The story wheels around the central ritual of the book, the tag-team sermons of Bliss and Hickman. Hickman places his young ward in a pint-sized white coffin while he preaches the glory of Jesus's resurrection. At the sermon's emotional peak, Bliss rises from his box and preaches the word himself. The ritual is both generous and cruel to the child--generous in the power, even ecstasy, it bestows on Bliss, cruel in its Gothic compulsion to orphan him again and again from the world of men. As Bliss/Sunraider remembers, "at the sound of Daddy's Hickman's voice I came floating up like a corpse shaken loose from the bed of a river and the terror rising with me."
The tie between Hickman and Bliss finally breaks during a sermon on June 19, or Juneteenth, the holiday commemorating the moment when Texas slaves realized they were free. A white woman tries to kidnap young Bliss in the middle of the sermon, claiming him as her son, and shouting that he has been robbed of his birthright. She fails, but Bliss becomes haunted by the fantasy of finding a white mother--a fantasy that leads him away from the ministry and toward the silver screen. He sees his mother in the image of Mary Pickford and other white starlets, and deserts Hickman for a career in movies and politics. Their father-son relationship endures, but in peculiar ways. Hickman captures their intertwined fate with a paradox: "little Bliss was father to the man and the man was also me."
Ellison clearly understood Bliss and Hickman's relationship as an intimate parable of our democracy, a uniquely American drama of independence and codependency set in a world of conspicuous racial fractures and invisible solidarities. Their relationship is reminiscent of Twain's Huck and Jim, as are their dilemmas: like the boy and slave drifting down the Mississippi, Bliss and Hickman both seek deliverance even as their imaginations operate at cross-purposes. In the pair, the vast dream of redeeming America clashes with the Franklinian dream of self-invention. As Ellison wrote in his notes, "Bliss symbolizes for Hickman an American solution as well as a religious possibility"--the hope that a common love and a common culture can heal the wounds of the past. So Hickman shouts to his black congregants that "a little child shall lead them," but Bliss cannot step into this role. How can you deliver a people if you do not know where you come from? For Bliss, Juneteenth is not a celebration of collective freedom, but a reminder of his desperate need to free himself from the bonds of the black community. Stripped of its varnish, his American dream becomes, quite simply, the fantasy of being white.
Bliss and Hickman's relationship tested more than just the principles of American democracy: it taxed Ellison's capacities and expectations as a novelist. After Invisible Man, he found it much easier to capture the indivisibility of American culture through eloquently declarative essays than through the elusive workings of fiction. Part of this resistance was a matter of stylistic perfectionism: Ellison explained, somewhat ruefully, that "an act of faith is necessary" when an author departs from the "tidy dramatic form" of novels like Invisible Man. Juneteenth has little of the locomotive urgency of that first novel, which "keep[s] [its] nigger boy running" from misadventure and deception to heroism and insight. At times Juneteenth's plot recedes into the background and it veers toward conceptual art--work that is more interesting to think about than to read.
The high concept, in this case, was to create a novel whose form was commensurate with America itself, one that refused to smooth the country's rough edges. The "mystery" of the "many in the one"-Ellison's favorite encapsulation of the American promise-drew him to a more disjointed collage aesthetic that cut up and threw together clashing personalities, clashing vernaculars, clashing worlds. In a eulogy for his painter friend Romare Bearden, Ellison explained that collage was an aptly American technique because "we are a collage of a nation ... ever shifting about and grousing as we seek the promised design of democracy." Collage meant that Juneteenth's narrators would alternate from chapter to chapter; that passages would root around the past and hop back to the present; and, most crucially, that the language would be shot through with the different social registers that each narrator had experienced.
Put another way: there were no better instances of the many-in-the-one than the characters of Hickman, who blends the cadences of the ministry and the cadenzas of jazz, or Bliss/Sunraider, who fuses evangelicalism, pop culture, statecraft, and childhood games. Here, for instance, is Sunraider ruminating guiltily on why he went from black preacher's sidekick to race-baiting senator:
"Here in this country it's change the reel and change the man. Don't look! Don't listen! Don't say and the living is easy! O.K., so they can go fighting the war but soon the down will rise up and break the niggongraphy and those ghosts who created themselves in the image won't know why they are what they are and then comes a screaming black babel and white connednation! Who, who, who, boo, are we? Daddy, I say where in the dead place between the shadow where does mothermatermammymover so moving on?"
Sunraider has become an echo-chamber; we hear his life played back in snippets, from the end to the beginning. He starts with the newfangled dreams of film and music, the fantasies of Hollywood ("change the reel") and Tin Pan Alley songs like "Summertime" ("and the living is easy"). His imagination turns more apocalyptic as he enlists the black troops of World War II ("they can go on fighting the war") in a Biblical prophecy ("the down will rise up"). These intimations of vengeance yield to the parodic fears and practices of the minstrel stage ("black babel and white connednation" and "who, who, boo, are we?"), mixed with patches of T.S. Eliot ("the dead place between the shadow," which echoes "The Hollow Men"). Finally he comes to the nub of his personal trauma: the mystery of his ancestry ("mothermatermammy") and his flight from Hickman ("mover so moving on").
Such passages suggest an art of extreme compression, and they are the most surreal and perhaps least expected parts of Juneteenth. The novel also offers some more familiar Ellisonian delights: Hickman's exhilarating Juneteenth sermon, which recasts the crucifixion as a profoundly tragicomic trial ("NAILED to the cross-arm like a coonskin fixed to the side of a barn, yes, but with the live coon still inside the furry garment!"); Bliss's lyrical interlude with a black woman ("her surrender was no surrender but something more, a materialization of the heart, the deeper heart that lives in dreams--or once it did"); and the supple, teasing jive of Bliss, his childhood friends, and the black women around him. The rituals of black culture-from the exhortations of the pulpit to the deflating wit of the Dozens--enliven Ellison's book.
Yet behind the novel's strengths lurks a wry twist of fate: Juneteenth may be remembered less for its scenes of compassion and humor, and more for the retrospective light it casts on Invisible Man. Ironically, its gentleness clarifies how much that first book relied upon the pulp menace of Theodore Dreiser and Richard Wright for its appeal in the canon of American modernism. Invisible Man was a literary balancing act, an existential potboiler: its black picaro was repeatedly walloped by the jokes played by fate--so much so that he was compelled to remake himself, with brutal humor, in the teeth of each new reality. His last question--"Who knows but that, in the lower frequencies, I speak for you?"--captured this ambivalence perfectly. It was an invocation of democratic promise--the artist broadcasting in tune with his audience--but also a veiled threat.
Juneteenth, by contrast, is a plea for reconciliation, and it prefers the probings of memory to the wallops of circumstance. It has a more autumnal and afflicted question at its center: as Sunraider asks from his hospital bed, "HOW THE HELL DO YOU GET LOVE INTO POLITICS OR COMPASSION INTO HISTORY?" The question bedevils the senator to the end, and it should hound us too: it is Ellison's riddle for a more ethical country, one that could reconcile the dueling beliefs that we are only as free as the least free members of our society, and that everyone must achieve their own freedom. Such is the message of Juneteenth the holiday and Juneteenth the book. Ellison raised these democratic conundrums indelibly; the brilliant and unfinished Juneteenth suggests that he refused--or perhaps could not finesse--the consolations of a happy ending. n