Ralph Ellison is a victim of posthumous exploitation

BOOKS; THE ARGUMENT

'Juneteenth' is a book he never intended to publish, and he deserved to be left standing on the great 'Invisible Man.'

June 06, 1999|By M. DION THOMPSON | M. DION THOMPSON,SUN STAFF

I come to praise Ralph Ellison and to defend his legacy, to say once again that "Invisible Man" is one of the great literary testaments of all time. But now, a fine writer has been wronged. His reputation should have been allowed to stand on what he published in his lifetime.

"Juneteenth," the novel Ellison sweated and labored over for the better part of 40 years and never completed to his satisfaction, is now in the public domain. He deserves better from the literary trade.

Why can't we be satisfied with what our great artists saw fit to give us before their deaths? Editors and archivists can't seem to resist the urge to root through boxes of manuscripts and bring forth unpublished novels. Anything might appear. The only requirement is that the great one "created" the work, not that he or she finished it, admired it, endorsed its being sent into the world.

Often these releases quickly reveal why the author kept them out of public view. They show the artist as human. But these days pressures -- financial or scholarly --propel literary caretakers into trying to find genius in notes, scribblings and unpolished work. This is deplorable exploitation of the dead.

For me, "Invisible Man" is enough. I've read the book a half-dozen times since it was assigned to me in a college comparative literature course. I'll probably read it another half-dozen times.

My tattered paperback copy, veteran of lord knows how many moves and thousands of miles, its spine held together with tape, is priceless. I bought it for a quarter in a used book store in Long Beach, Calif. -- best investment I ever made.

Ellison spent seven years crafting the novel. When he finished, he had a National Book Award winner of such scope, depth and resonance there seemed little else for him to say in fiction. Remember the opening sentence?

"I am an invisible man."

I've opted out of the Great American Novel debate. I'm sticking with "Invisible Man." Ellison understood life's absurdities, its pain, heartbreak and confusion. Revelations hit his unnamed narrator with the force of jaw-rattling, cold slaps upside the head. So it is in life.

But all is not dark. As well as making us think, Ellison made us laugh. Every great novel needs an element of comedy because that too is a vital part of life. William Faulkner weaves incredible stories, yet there is no respite from the gloom. I'm not saying a book has to have the tour-de-force farce of John Kennedy Toole's "Confederacy of Dunces" or Joseph Heller's "Catch-22." But a little humor, please, a joke or two to get us through the day and salve our wounded spirits.

The other day, while dipping into the novel's deep well -- it runs 503 pages in paperback -- I laughed out loud over lines and scenes I have known for years. That's another reason why I'm sticking with "Invisible Man."

Yes, it is a "black" novel, rich in the ways and language of black America. An early scene in a "sporting house" is classic, full of asides and gems, such as two World War I veterans joking about miscegenation and Thomas Jefferson. This is not a "race" novel or a "protest" novel. The narrator is not standing on a pedestal and crying, "Look what the white folks have done to me!" He stumbles along, getting knocked silly by black folks and white folks.

The last sentence is a triumphant statement, recasting the story in the imagination. The young man's bumpy journey from ignorance to an understanding of life's twists and turns is but one level of the novel.

"Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?"

Ellison is taking us beyond skin color and nationality, asking us to consider that universal place where we live with our anxieties, joys and fears. It is not simply that blacks are invisible to whites. We are all invisible to each other.

Some critics say Ellison was not angry enough, that he didn't have the brooding, smoldering, murderous rage found in Richard Wright, that he was out of touch. His art was too subtle, too refined. For him, writing was not a sledgehammer. Even worse in some eyes was his defiantly American stance. He was forever wriggling out of pigeon-holes, always celebrating this land of possibility. He didn't run off to France. He stayed here and wrote.

He kept writing long after his tribe of Negroes moved off the public stage. He gave us two collections of essays. And there was rumor of a novel. The unfinished work became legend. A million hearts sank when a 1967 fire at his summer home in the Berkshire mountains destroyed much of the work. That didn't stop Ellison. He kept writing, kept saying he was almost there, almost there, just a little more time. When asked if he had writer's block, he told the New York Times: "The blockage is that I am careful about what I submit for publication."

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