Ellison's novel is finally ready

Writing: The author of "Invisible Man" left a very long manuscript when he died in 1994. It is at long last ready for publication.

January 25, 1999|By Paul D. Colford | Paul D. Colford,NEWSDAY

NEW YORK -- When the novelist Ralph Ellison died in April 1994, the status of his long-awaited follow-up to the 1952 classic "Invisible Man" was unclear.

Eight short stories he had published since 1960 were pieces of a novel-in-progress, but a completed manuscript would have to be mined from his Harlem apartment. "I did have the impression it was close to being finished," Ellison's editor at Random House, Joe Fox, said at the time.

But only now is the book finally ready for publication -- by Random House in June, under the title "Juneteenth," the name of a celebration marking the emancipation of Texas slaves on June 19, 1865. The publishing house did not trumpet this literary event with a special announcement, instead heralding publication in its summer catalog, circulated to booksellers earlier this month.

"It was a very, very long novel that needed to be cut," said Random House Publisher Ann Godoff. "But no extra material was needed to make it work. It's quite a remarkable piece of work -- and all his own."

The cutting was done by John F. Callahan, Ellison's literary executor, who earlier edited the posthumous "Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison" (Modern Library) and "Flying Home and Other Stories" (Vintage), a 1996 collection that included previously unpublished stories discovered in the writer's apartment.

In the introduction to "Flying Home," Callahan recalled that Ellison had spoken of the novel that would become "Juneteenth" shortly before his death at age 80, saying that "the damn transitions are still giving me fits, but I'm having fun."

However, the pages that Ellison left behind, representing 40 years of work, presented a daunting challenge. Callahan, now on sabbatical from the faculty of Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Ore., recalled in an interview three years ago that Ellison's novel "had erupted in chaos over his desk, chair, computer table and copying machine, finally covering the floor like a blizzard of ash."

Reached earlier this month, Callahan said "Juneteenth" derives from 410 pages of this chaos, what he called "the most finished and coherent and free-standing" portion, a discrete unit of what Ellison had envisioned as a much larger saga.

"Is it a finished novel?" Callahan asked. "Damn near it."

The story, set in the 1950s, centers on the son of a mixed marriage who goes on to become a race-baiting U.S. senator and later is shot by a black man on the Senate floor.

Ellison, an Oklahoma City native, wrote the novel in flashbacks, as they are related during a deathbed conversation between the senator and a mysterious black minister from Oklahoma whom he summons to his side.

Random House's catalog invitingly describes "Juneteenth" as a "jazz novel, a sermon, a song of praise to the richness of the African-American experience an autobiographical reckoning with Ellison's own life journey."

"Ellison had come to terms with how black are all Americans," said Scott Moyers, the Random House editor shepherding the book to publication. "The answer is: profoundly black. Blackness is in the culture and the music. It's in the ground water."

Moyers added: "Ellison's widow, Fanny, was convinced that Callahan had done a terrific job and represented what her husband wanted."

An early excerpt will appear in The New Yorker.

Pub Date: 1/25/99

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