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Ellison’s Promised Land

But above all he was an artist. The intense pleasure he took in the uses of literature as well as in jazz and in the sumptuousness of black language demonstrate the aesthetic perceptions behind his impulse to speak out. In his acceptance speech on receiving the National Book Award in 1953, he referred to “the rich babel of idiomatic expression around me, a language full of imagery and rhetorical canniness.” The tragedy for him and for us is that the vision of a poet and prophet can only be truly validated through his creations. Had he been armed with the works of fiction expected of him, he could never have been dismissed so unfairly, during an age when much of academia was posing for its revolutionary portrait by Delacroix, as insufficiently concerned with rights. His accomplishment remains unique and irreplaceable, but there is not enough of it. His near silence lost him the attention of millions for whom he intended an urgent message.

All his life, Ellison looked back to the post-frontier Oklahoma of his boyhood, an amalgam of three peoples—white, black, American Indian—as representing a glorious possibility that American white racism tragically denied. Oklahoma had been “the territory” where long ago Huckleberry Finn imagined new beginnings. In Ellison, “the territory” contained a secret promise that transcended its mutilated, segregated history. Indeed, it was a Promised Land, an alternative America whose potential could be construed from the country’s founding principles, a land from which a post-racist America might spring forth.

Ellison seems to have taken too much pleasure in négritude to desire a post-racial society, but he plainly argued for the recognition of a truly multiracial one. The “territory” of his dreams would provide a background against which the genius of a multiplicitous America could thrive in freedom. Ironically, the anti-ideological Ellison shared a utopian tendency with his Marxist-influenced contemporaries. His vision of America as “the territory” fulfilling its possibilities may have been too optimistic, too confident in human nature. But it was a noble belief. How many American writers, so talented, have been visionaries on such a scale?

The balance of Ellison’s legacy is now before us in the work produced by John F. Callahan, his literary executor, in the form of Juneteenth. The title was chosen by Mr. Callahan and the structure follows his sense of Ralph Ellison’s intentions. The epigraph was selected by the novelist himself, from T.S. Eliot’s “Little Gidding”:

   This is the use of memory:
For liberation—not less of love but expanding
Of love beyond desire, and so liberation
From the future as well as the past. Thus, love of a country
Begins as attachment to our own field of action
And comes to find that action of little importance
Though never indifferent. History may be servitude,
History may be freedom. See, now they vanish,
The faces and places, with the self which, as it could, loved them,
To become renewed, transfigured, in another pattern.

Eliot’s lines evoke the subsuming of passion and identity in an endless swirl of historical extremes, with a glimpsed vision of hope beyond hope. Sibylline and elegiac, they are an appropriate frame for Juneteenth. In his editor’s introduction, Callahan tells us that after Ellison’s death in 1994, the novelist’s widow asked him whether a “beginning, middle, and end” could be extracted from the two thousand pages of typescript and printout Ellison had left, along with “scraps of notes, jottings on old newspapers and magazine subscription cards, and several neat boxes of computer disks.” Callahan says he kept Fanny Ellison’s question constantly in mind, and his version of Ellison’s novel adheres to a central story line.

A group of Southern black church people arrive in Washington to deliver a warning to a notorious race-baiting senator who represents a New England state. They are put off and prevented from seeing the senator by officious and racist functionaries. Later, the church folk, led by their pastor, the Reverend Alonzo Hickman, hear the senator, called Sunraider, deliver a rambling, offensive speech on the Senate floor. As they watch from the gallery, a young black man gets to his feet and shoots the senator down. The point of view shifts back and forth between that of Hickman and that of the wounded Sunraider.

Dying, Senator Sunraider surprises everyone by calling Alonzo Hickman to his hospital bedside. A Joycean stream-of-consciousness narrative begins, composed of past and present dialogues between Hickman and Sunraider and of Sunraider’s delirious recollections.

The reader learns that “Senator Sunraider” is a self-invented ex-drifter and confidence man who was once a child called Bliss. Bliss, who appeared to be white, was raised by Hickman and his congregation in the South during what seems like a period before World War II. He thought of himself as black, like the churchfolk, who were all the family he had.

Hickman, a former minister, jazz musician, and loose-living backdoor man, has become, in his mature years, a consecrated man of God and a wise leader who travels the South with his revival show. Like many old-time, star-turn Southern revivalists, Hickman uses props. His main prop used to be young Bliss, who at a critical moment in the service would arise from a child-size white coffin to preach and testify to the salvific power of the Lord. In the tradition of the Southern black church, Hickman’s theology incorporates a measure of messianic racial liberation along with the Christian image of redemption.

During a huge revival meeting on the anniversary of “Juneteenth”—June 19, 1865, the day Union troops in Texas declared the state’s slaves free—a deranged-appearing white woman fights her way to the platform and attempts to make off with Bliss.

He’s mine, MINE!… You gypsy niggers stole him, my baby. You robbed him of his birthright!…”

The congregation fends off the mad white woman but Bliss never forgets the incident. At the movies, sitting in the segregated section, watching the silky, powdered white actresses on screen, Bliss fantasizes about his “birthright,” the frightening, intriguing world beyond the warm and affectionate community Hickman and the churchfolk have made for him. He is their darling boy and “Daddy” Hickman has raised him for some transcendent destiny that will redeem and liberate black people and all America. Yet he flees, becomes a carny, a fast-talking womanizer on the grift; he slides into the white world, makes the big time, and finally surfaces as the appalling racist politician Sunraider. Dying, with Daddy Hickman at his bedside, he relives it all again. Hickman, like the hound of heaven, has pursued him down the years, tracking him through a network of musicians, bellhops, Pullman porters. The old preacher is by his side, gently consoling, as the dying senator, reliving his past, is assailed at the last by vengeful phantoms. In his fevered hallucinations, projections of black violence, mocking, Cadillac-cruising, switchblade-wielding outlaws threaten to bear him off to hell.

To use an architectural metaphor,” Callahan writes of the central plot he has isolated, “this was the true center of Ellison’s great, unfinished house of fiction. And although he did not complete the wings of the edifice, their absence does not significantly mar the organic unity of the book we do have, Juneteenth.”

Architectural metaphors seem apt. Juneteenth, in some ways, is like an old and stately house. As often with great mansions, to approach it is to enter into the spirit of another time. The fact that it remained unfinished gives it an air of dereliction. The tools and components of its construction lie about the floor. Its rooms seem long closed off, the formal furnishings are dusty and partly covered. Some walls are incomplete, others peeling. Entering we find ourselves in the atmosphere of a bygone age. There are rich but familiar fragrances and ghostly music.

This is a half-built petit palais in the great castle of Modernism. How confusing to the perception it is to enter rooms that are at once new and unfinished and old. Names and phrases come to the mind of the reader, half heard. A stone, a leaf, an unfound door. James Weldon Johnson, God’s Trombones. Richard Wright, Max and Bigger talking in the deathhouse in Native Son, Bigger saying: “I got to believe in myself.” Willie Stark, Burdens Landing. Man conceived in corruption. Sartoris. The Compsons. The McCaslins. The land ours before we were the land’s. The dark fields of the republic rolling on under the night. All of these seem present.

Music. Is it Louis Jordan? Lester Young? Fletcher Henderson? Ellington?

In this shadowy house, a writer from the recent past prophesies a future which is itself partly over and he does so in language that is sometimes delicious, sometimes tedious, sometimes frustrating, sometimes full of astonishing confusion. We get the impression of a brilliant, disconnected series of mirrors, some broken, some glittering, some rusted, some still in their brown paper. Juneteenth has all the difficulties of a text assembled from an uncompleted book, though it was plainly put together with great diligence and respect. It has many of the satisfactions of Ralph Ellison’s fiction, including passages of his best work. It has to be recalled (unfortunately) that this is very good indeed.

How long a ball was Mr. Ellison aiming to hit? John Callahan gives us some idea in the introduction:

In conception and execution, Juneteenth is multifarious, multifaceted, multifocused, multivoiced, multitoned. After hearing Ellison read from the novel in the summer of 1969, James Allan McPherson brooded for many years about what he had heard and slowly came to the conclusion that “in his novel Ellison was trying to solve the central problem of American literature. He was trying to find forms invested with enough familiarity to reinvent a much broader and much more diverse world for those who take their provisional identities from groups.” Finally, McPherson added what might serve as a benediction for Juneteenth: “I think he was trying to Negro-Americanize the novel form, at the same time he was attempting to move beyond it.”

From the book itself we sense he was attempting something close to that description. It was not for lack of time or lack of talent that he did not live to complete it.

What did he accomplish? The beginning is not promising. The patience and benignity of the elderly church-going “Southern Negroes” make the reader in 1999 feel uneasy. Their leader Reverend Hickman seems a stereotype, the broad-shouldered, fatherly, bass-voiced black preacher, all dignity and kindness, who leads his flock to the Lincoln Memorial when they are turned away from Senator Sunraider’s office. Then Sunraider himself, or rather Bliss in his incarnation as Sunraider, seems unsteadily conceived. The speech we hear him delivering on the Senate floor is too long and gaseous to be sustained as working prose, even intended as parody or hyperbole. In some places it seems to echo insights we know Ellison himself subscribed to, in others it is too crudely racist to be credible even in the Senate of the Fifties. The paradox of his association with New England falls flat; indeed Bliss as a senator doesn’t really work. The novel fails to pay off on its suggested tragical-ironical connections between Bliss/Sunraider and his assassin.

With Sunraider on his deathbed and Hickman by his side, things begin to radically improve. Bliss’s recollections of his strange Southern childhood and the selfless, obsessive fidelity of the old man at his side cast a spell. Once the spell takes hold, the pattern begins to unfold. The reader yields to a vastly ambitious informing allegory, an allegory made rich, as in Invisible Man, with the sensory details of which Ellison was such a master.

With the allegory engaged, characters suddenly come to life within it. Bliss, frightened, wounded, haunted, and self-invented, can be taken to represent the country itself. Conceived in liberty, dedicated to equality, he has fled and rejected his origins, traded his true parentage for a false, foolishly idealized one, betrayed himself through lies, subterfuges, stalls, betrayals. And Hickman, strong, enduring, patient, humorous, stands for Ellison’s view of rejected black America, still largely invisible, wiser through suffering, forever trying to win to reason the unstable, greedy child-personage with whom it shares identity. Bliss pretends to be white; so does America. But he is not, and it is not, and there will never be peace until this is firmly recognized.

So the vast scheme of what is now known to us as Juneteenth was sacramental in nature; it was to be literature as incantation, a work on the order of Melville’s, with a musical prose accompaniment that was soaring and profound. Without question, Ellison had thoroughly conceived the argument. And at least in some measure, he carried out his design. Much of the music is there.

Despite the scale of its intention, the reconstructed Juneteenth is not particularly long. The heart of the sacrament, the Sanctus of Ellison’s novel as Missa Solemnis, is a passage in the first half, on the Juneteenth revival celebration itself, which is terminated by the intrusion of the white woman who claims to be Bliss’s mother. This passage reproduces the antiphonal rhythms of Pentecostal preaching, with young Bliss and Reverend Hickman using the form of interrogatory and response. Much has been said by writers from Kerouac to Amiri Baraka about the rendering of jazz and gospel music on the page; all the same, it had always seemed, at least to this reviewer, an elusive aesthetic possibility given the nature of the music, language, and the mind’s ear. In the sections designated as chapters seven and eight of Juneteenth, Ellison does it as it’s never before been done; the revival sequences contain passages to haul the reader right up out of his chair. In sensory impact, they are unique in fiction, and it seems a certainty that they will be pounced on and excerpted for performance.

In fact I think it would be surprising if we did not see the story Callahan has salvaged, adorned as it is with Ellison’s virtuoso gospel “riffs,” adapted to some kind of theatrical presentation. These gospel sections, along with some of the lyrical, associative neo-Joycean passages in which Bliss reflects and recollects his scams, his love life, his movie fantasies, confirm the esteem in which Ralph Ellison has been held since his debut. Juneteenth is, by default, not the world-historical masterpiece Ellison undertook and it cannot be judged fairly until we see the pages that have been excluded in order to cobble it together; but it is far from being the ersatz publishing promotion some have suggested. All in all, the work will sustain and enlarge Ellison’s artistic reputation.

Ralph Waldo Ellison of Oklahoma was not ashamed to seek the laurel wreath. The masterpiece through which he sought it finally eluded him. But for the sum of his work and the grandeur and generosity of his vision, I believe his country and the literary community of which he was so important a part owe him more than has been acknowledged. And reading his unfinished work, we are left with the thought that the “territory” of his heart still lies beyond a wall, one so high we can’t get over it, and so wide we can’t get around it.

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