Wintersalen Sale
 
 

Review-a-Day
The New Republic Online
Thursday, July 5th, 2001


 

Juneteenth

by Ralph Ellison

The Writer and the Preacher

A review by James Wood

Juneteenth is a lavish disappointment, a false sunset. It closes the permanent summer of Ralph Ellison's literary career with a "second novel" that is neither second nor a novel, and veils in faded colors the bright, remembered perfections of Invisible Man. It is, in some respects, a commercial echo, bounced by publisher and executor off the resonance of that earlier great book, and not approved or overseen by the author. It is hard to imagine that Ralph Ellison would be anything but disappointed by the publication of a three-hundred-and-fifty-page sampler taken from the two thousand or more pages he left behind, and on which he worked for forty years; and hard to imagine that he would not be disappointed by the idea of this little pretender joining, and permanently modifying, the sealed dynasty that was his oeuvre until this moment of publication.

Yet even as an extract Juneteenth is disappointing, and so one is unsure whom to be disappointed by, Ellison or his editor John Callahan. Does it fail because it is an extract, or fail despite its extraction? The book has moments of magnificence, and throughout, one feels the presence of Ellison's moral intelligence, his refined lucidity, his ambition and clean sensibility. But as a "novel" it barely exists: it is technically unconvincing, its premises are unearned, its scenes bleed into one another. It palpably lacks its own hinterland – presumably the hundreds of pages that were to prepare and follow this strand in Ellison's epic plan. Yet, painful to say, even as a passage of writing it is frequently flawed: it is too often homiletic, sentimental, and rhetorical.

The original decision to publish a polished paring from Ellison's posthumous writings rather than the whole rough torso seems a mistake; but within that decision, John Callahan's idea of taking a single, developed story is surely bold and right. Callahan tells us that Ellison's project was vast. Possibly it had become unrealizable, a many-eyed attempt to see the entirety of American society, and to narrate most of the American history of this century – the dance of what he called, in Invisible Man, "the beautiful absurdity" of American identity.

The action of Juneteenth, says Callahan, lay at the heart of Ellison's epic. It is certainly a beautifully ambitious conception. A bigoted, race-baiting senator, Adam Sunraider, is shot on the floor of the Senate, while giving a speech. In the audience is the Reverend Alonzo Hickman, a large, gentle, noble Southern preacher who has been trying for some days without success to meet Senator Sunraider. But the wounded senator, now on his deathbed, calls for Hickman, and the two men begin a conversation which fills the rest of the book. As he is forced to remember his childhood, we learn that the light-skinned senator has been passing for a white man. In fact he is black, or partially black, and was brought up by Hickman, his guardian. As a child, the senator was known as Bliss; Hickman gave him the name as a tribute to the murkiness of his parental origins: ignorance is bliss.

Bliss was raised in an entirely black world, and from an early age had been a successful child-preacher. He and Hickman had a revival-meeting routine, in which Bliss hid in a coffin, and, on hearing Hickman say the words "Suffer the little children to come unto me," would rise up out of the box and cry "Lord, why hast thou forsaken me?" At other meetings, Bliss acted as Hickman's prompter, standing on the other side of the stage and feeding him faux-naive questions: "So please, sir, tell us just how we came to be here in our present condition and in this land.... Was it an act of God, Rev. Hickman, or an act of man?" Bliss was a great hope for Hickman. In working notes for his novel, some of which Callahan wisely prints at the end of Juneteenth, Ellison wrote that "Bliss symbolizes for Hickman an American solution as well as a religious possibility. Hickman thinks of Negroes as the embodiment of American democratic promises, as the last who are fated to become the first, the downtrodden who shall be exalted." But Bliss dirtied that hope by running away from Hickman, moving North, taking a new name, and burying all traces of his black childhood. In the bedside exchange that constitutes the book that we now have, Hickman forces Bliss to recall what he has determined to forget. Sometimes, wrote Ellison in 1969 when an excerpt was published, the two men "actually converse, sometimes the dialogue is illusory and occurs in the isolation of their individual minds, but through it all it is antiphonal in form and an anguished attempt to arrive at the true shape and substance of a sundered past and its meaning."

It must be admitted that this is a somewhat melodramatic, somewhat artificial situation at best – the enforced memory-dredge of the dying man, the coaxing presence of the visitor; but the effect is much more severe when we are denied a novel's proper preparation. Since Juneteenth is an extract, we are bowled straight into the concerns and lives of these characters, whose necessity is simply assumed. We peer in at an encounter that is clearly important for the protagonists, but only waveringly so for us; it is at times as if we were reading an old weather forecast. It takes only thirty pages for Bliss to be shot, and then he is in bed, the victim of the position that he will maintain until the end of the book. The book offers no other mode of action. Thus what should seem the blessed result of an accident – the two men thrown together by the extremity of the shooting – becomes, within the offered extract, a founding device. The encounter becomes a kind of diplomatic gift, something we must accept in order to oil the wheels of process. Naturally, as a device, the reader resents it a little. The effect is a bit Broadwayish, as if we had settled into our seats and opened the program of a second-rate play to find: "Scene: 1955. A hospital room. Bliss, the senator, has been shot and lies in bed. Also present: Hickman, the Baptist preacher. No intermission."

This is a technical problem exaggerated by Juneteenth's isolation from its narrative family. But in fact the whole book is a technical problem, founded by Ellison's decision to surrender most of his narrative to memory and antiphony, and compounded by the decision to distill and to publish it. There is a quality of wish-fulfillment about the narrative – the race-baiting senator who is actually black – that is always in danger of coarsening Ellison's delicate humanism. The book never quite relinquishes its air of instruction – the re-education of Bliss, and thus, in part, of the reader as well. Bliss always "symbolizes for Hickman an American solution as well as a religious possibility," and symbolizes the same for Ellison, too. The artificiality of the situation means that the two protagonists find themselves in the peculiar position of having to remind each other of what they would already know. At one moment, Hickman forces Bliss to remember the seven-day revival meeting that was held around the nineteenth of June (the Juneteenth of the title). "You remember what it was, don't you?" Hickman demands of Bliss:

"The occasion? It was another revival, wasn't it?"
"Course, it was a revival, Bliss – but it was Juneteenth too. We were celebrating Emancipation and thanking God. Remember, it went on for seven days."
"Juneteenth," the Senator said, "I had forgotten the word."
"You've forgotten lots of important things from those days, Bliss."
"I suppose so, but to learn some of the things I've learned I had to forget some others. Do you still call it `Juneteenth,' Revern' Hickman? Is it still celebrated?"
Hickman looked at him with widened eyes, leaning forward as he grasped the arms of the chair. "Do we still? Why, I should say we do. You don't think that because you left.... Both, Bliss. Because we haven't forgot what it means. Even if sometimes folks try to make us believe it never happened or that it was a mistake that it ever did...."

Too much of the book proceeds by means of this kind of sentimental homily, a redundancy of exhortation. Because the two men are exclusively involved in reclaiming the past, reclamation becomes the book's chief mode of narration. And because most of that narration occurs within the heads of the protagonists, they are often forced to tell the reader things that should properly be left to the writer. Sitting in the Senate, just before the shooting, watching Bliss giving a speech at the beginning of the book, Hickman says to himself: "Lord, what a country this is. Even his name's not his own. Made himself from the ground up, you might say. But why this mixed-up way and all this sneering at us who never did more than wish him well? Why this craziness.... Ah, but the glory of that baby boy. I could never forget it and that's why we had to hurry here. He has to be seen, and I'm the one to see him. I don't know how we're going to do it, but soon's this is over we have to find a way to get to him." No one would actually think like this. This seems to exist for the reader.

This is a misuse of stream-of-consciousness, whose characteristic is to alight on apparently accidental details – a random reclamation of the past. The entire difficulty with Juneteenth is that its situation is a programmatic reclamation, but that the technique of random reclamation is used for this programmatic task. The novelistic arts of memory – stream-of-consciousness, dream, reverie – are marched into a purposiveness that should belong to a third-person author, not to that author's characters. As a result, Bliss and Hickman rarely seem quite free. Hortatory and sermonizing, they are articles of allegory paradoxically created by a marvelous novelist in the process of defying his own novelistic freedom: an allegorist and a realist are at battle with each other.

To be fair, all novelists bully a little when using their characters to reclaim their pasts ("And suddenly he remembered that...."). Memory is undramatic, in this sense, because it is backward narration, storytelling in reverse, the forced "discovery" of something that has supposedly already happened and that therefore cannot really be "discovered." But Ellison makes such reclamation the exercise, the necessity, the allegory of the book itself. This may explain why his two protagonists speak to each other almost entirely in tones of exhortation, and not as actual humans would. Hickman too often reminds Bliss of the importance of the reclamation itself: "Time is just like Eatmore used to say, a merry-go-round within a merry-go-round; only people fall off or out of time.... But time turns, Bliss, and remembering helps us to save ourselves. Somewhere through all the falseness and the forgetting there is something solid and good."

"Remembering helps us to save ourselves." Readers who recall the power and the subtlety of Invisible Man will be able to judge for themselves what a diminishment this kind of writing represents. Yet all of Ellison's work in some ways was a struggle between allegory and realism, a struggle that tended to resolve itself in the creation of a super-realism, a phantasmagorical accuracy. In an interview with James Alan McPherson, Ellison described the style of his second novel-in-progress as "a realism extended beyond realism." But this is also the style of Invisible Man, which allows for the insertion of speeches and sermons from various characters, and for exquisite essayistic addresses made by the narrator himself. The combination of the allegorical and the realistic was part of that novel's blended strength. Characters such as the novel's narrator, the principal of the college, Dr. Bledsoe, the blind preacher Homer A. Barbee, the mistress of the boarding house, Mary Rambo, and the charismatic leader Ras the Exhorter have a pleasing fullness and individuation; but they also perform a function as archetypes in a mythic narrative of death and rebirth. The narrator is an Underground Man, who, famously, speaks for us on the lower frequencies. In the process of his folkloric journey out of darkness into light, from the South to the North, he encounters various mythical figures of African American life: the assimilationist educator, the exhortatory preacher, the warm Southern Mother, the urban activist. (Ellison was quite explicit about the mythic underpinning of his novel.) The narrator passes through, and in turn rejects, the ritual postures of black citizenship as they are presented to him: cowed assimilationism, religious consolation, militant Africanism, the radical politics of communist Brotherhood. The narrator emerges, as Ellison once described Twain's Jim, "like all men, ambiguous, limited in circumstance but not in possibility."

This is the great beauty of Invisible Man, that it is a kind of Bildungsroman in reverse, in which the hero instructs himself in the great truth that he will not be instructed. Each lesson ends in a failed test. The novel offers an education in freedom, one arrived at negatively, through the discarding of borrowed clothes. The narrator must be his own nudity. He is housed in the negative; literally, because he has become invisible and because he lives underground. His task will be to make something of his abandoned freedom, to squeeze the air for its invisible atoms and make shape from them. Ellison's novel, in this regard, may not be as "affirmative" or as nicely liberal as it was taken to be (by Irving Howe and others). The narrator wobbles on a pregnable pivot; he can go either way. What the novel allows – and in this respect it contrasts sharply with the extract offered by Juneteenth – is a story of education that confounds its own educative pattern. The narrator of Invisible Man is certainly being instructed by Ellison, but it is an instruction in unraveling. The book can therefore award itself a kind of impossible programmatic freedom, a balancing of the didactic and the random, of the allegorical and the realistic. Invisible Man is a realistic allegory. Juneteenth, alas, which insists on an affirmative reclamation of the past in order to educate its characters, is too often a real allegory.

"The function, the psychology, of artistic selectivity is to eliminate from an art form all those elements of experience which contain no compelling significance," wrote Ellison in 1945, in his essay "Richard Wright's Blues." Even there, at such a young age, we can see the imminent tensions, fruitfully resolved in his first novel and painfully distinct in his second, between allegory and realism, between necessity and freedom. The realist, one might say, wants to flood the novel with detail that may seem insignificant, but that flows into one river of significance: the realist will always err in favor of insignificant abundance. The allegorist, however, wants a symbolic diet, a thinning of the inessential: the allegorist errs in favor of significant emaciation.

The result of this war may well be Ellison's greatest technical problem and anxiety: the challenge of transitions. Even in Invisible Man, the book tends to move from great scene to great scene. Ellison told interviewers that he felt that the novel failed in its ability to effect that movement. He was more anxious still about his inability to connect the disparate material that he was gathering for his second novel. When asked how the book was coming on, he often joked that he was "working on the transitions" – or rather, this was taken as a joke. In an interview published in The Paris Review in 1955, he spoke of how he used "the ritual understructure of the fiction" to help "guide the creation of characters." Then he continued: "The problem for me is to get from A to B to C. My anxiety about transitions greatly prolonged the writing of my book. The naturalists stick to case histories and sociology and are willing to compete with the camera and the tape recorder. I despise concreteness in writing, but when reality is deranged in fiction, one must worry about the seams." His creative practice perhaps did not help: he tended to keep writing scenes that were going well, endlessly extending the favored material, "riffing," a word people like to link with the blues but which, as Ellison surely knew, Melville used about his own ecstatic extensions.

Ellison's anxieties were not misplaced, for once the allegorist and the realist are fighting with each other, the problem of "transitions" becomes the problem, both technical and moral. Transition becomes the problem of how to make form at once free and significant, of how to make characters both necessary and free, essential and accidental. The transitions are what will appear "insignificant." In Juneteenth, again in both the technical and the moral sense, there are no transitions. There is only a march of necessities, from scene to scene. The characters are never really free; but because they are never really free they are never quite necessary either: the two parts of the dilemma need each other's fertilization. Part of this lack has to do with the form of the book's presentation. But it seems possible that this is a widespread affliction in the rest of Ellison's posthumous writings, that the massiveness and the massive nobility of the project caused a toppling, and a dumbfounding of the novelistic in favor of the epically allegorical.

Juneteenth is a lesson in the complexity of American identity, as Invisible Man was a quest for the same. Identity, of course, was Ellison's dear, gnarled subject. Much influenced by Kenneth Burke's writing on ritual and myth, he had absorbed Burke's contention in Attitudes Toward History that identity is the central literary problem. Burke was interested in the friction of individuality and collectivity, as was Ellison for his own personal reasons. (Ellison used to quote Du Bois's complaint that the black community was like a basket of crabs: as soon as one crab tried to get out, the rest pulled him back in.) "How much of one's past identity must be forgotten, how much remolded, as he moves from one role to the next?" asked Burke of modern man. "The nature of our society is such that we are prevented from knowing who we are," added Ellison. For Ellison, this problem of self-knowledge was also a problem of other-knowledge, the recognition of whites and blacks that they contain each other.

It is the fine theme of Juneteenth. The difficulty is that the two men engaged in this discussion of identity are not themselves identities – not individual identities, at least. To be fair, Bliss, when remembering his childhood, has the beginnings of a specificity. We read about his obsession with his white mother, his first visit to the movies and to the circus. The circus scene is a superb example of the power of Ellison's writing when the allegorical and the realistic are working together. Bliss watches a little clown in blackface being cartoonishly assaulted by a number of white clowns. The audience, including Hickman, is laughing. But Bliss, who notices that the clown is the same size as him, cannot laugh. He cannot understand why the clown always runs from his attackers, and does not turn "and see what he can knock out of them." Then Bliss asks Hickman if the clown is black, and Hickman explains that he is not. But the boy is still unappeased. The scene finely renders, with psychological acuity, a moment of charged allegorical import. Elsewhere we read of the little boy's dread of the coffin-routine, and we are introduced to his world of preaching. Ellison reproduces many pages of the kind of sermons and routines the little boy suffered through, feeding Hickman his lines:

"What a crime! Tell us why, Rev. Hickman...."
"It was a crime, Rev. Bliss, brothers and sisters, like the fall of proud Lucifer from Paradise."
"But why, Daddy Hickman? You have taught us of the progressive younger generation to ask why. So we want to know how come it was a crime?"
"Because, Rev. Bliss, this was a country dedicated to the principles of Almighty God. That Mayflower boat that you hear so much about Thanksgiving Day was a Christian ship – amen!...."
"They made our Lord shed tears!"
"Amen! Rev. Bliss, amen."

There are too many pages of this, too many pages of narrative as exhortation. Ellison was probably aware of it. In one of his working notes, he writes: "The thing to remember about the antiphony between Daddy Hickman and little Bliss is that the two are building a scene within a scene and it must be on a borderline between the folk poetry and religious rhetoric." That borderline is thin, indeed, and only creates another thin borderline between rhetoric and description. In Invisible Man, Ellison subtly undermined the solemnity of the affirmation in the speeches and the sermons that he reproduced. In Invisible Man, for instance, the Reverend Homer Barbee is blind, and the narrator remarks on his extreme ugliness. This information ironically qualifies his blazing, omniscient sermon. But the sermons in Juneteenth lack that saving skepticism; even if this were not Ellison's intention, their effect is to drive the book onward in affirmation and edification.

Hickman is the obstacle. Were he as difficult and obscure as Bliss, the antiphony between the two men might escape the instructive. But Hickman is a walking homily. He is a noble educator, and his memories always tend to the general. He is, as it were, Rasselas in a dark suit. Late in the book, he reflects on Bliss's refusal to acknowledge his origins, and praises himself for the simplicity of his function: he hasn't, he says to himself, "asked anything except that he [Bliss] remember and honor the days o f his youth." But precisely the simplicity of his function is his grave defect as a fictional character. He is no more than a lecturer in anagnorisis, and a folksy one at that: "Well, I'm a man and like a man I made my mistakes.... Come on now, we might as well talk this out right here because it's important. Anything you hold in your heart after so long a time is important," he tells Bliss, who is his unwilling captive in the hospital bed.

Hickman talks like a preacher's manual. Perhaps this is Ellison's subtle criticism of Hickman? It is difficult to think so on the evidence supplied. "We had mourned and rejoiced and rejoiced and moaned and he had released the pure agony and raised it to the sky," he tells Bliss about one of their fellow-preachers. "So I had to give them transcendence. Wasn't anything left to do but shift to a higher gear. I had to go beyond the singing and the shouting and reach into the territory of the pure unblemished Word. I had to climb up there where fire is so hot it's ice, and ice so cold it burns like fire." Elsewhere, Hickman delivers himself of folksy opinions about the difference between white and black mothers:

"I tell you, Bliss, when it comes to chillun, women just ain't gentlemen, and the fight between her kind of women and ours goes way back to the beginning. Back, I guess, to when women found that the only way they could turn over the responsibility of raising a child to another woman was to turn over some of the child's love and affection along with it. They been battling ever since. One trying to figure out how to get out of the work without dividing up the affection, and the other trying to hold on to all that weight of care and those cords of emotion and love for which they figure no wages can ever pay. Because while some women work and others don't, to a woman a baby is a baby. She ain't rational about it, way down deep she ain't."

Hickman also delivers homilies about America:

"The first thing you have to understand is that this is a strange country. There's no logic to it or to its ways. In fact, it's been half-crazy from the beginning and it's got so many crazy crooks and turns and blind alleys in it, that half the time a man can't tell where he is or who he is. To tell the truth, Bliss, he can't tell reason from unreason and it's so mixed up and confused that if we tried to straighten it out right this minute, half the folks out there running around the world would have to be locked up. You following me, Bliss?"

Unfortunately, we are following Hickman only too well. One suspects that Ellison does not want Hickman to seem windy, but noble. In a note, he wrote that "there is mysticism involved in his [Hickman's] hope for the boy, and an attempt to transcend the hopelessness of racism.... This involves bringing up the child in love and dedication in the hope that properly raised and trained the child's color and features, his inner substance and his appearance would make it possible for him to enter into the wider affairs of the nation and work toward the betterment of his people and the moral health of the nation." But now, alas, Ellison is sounding like a more formal Hickman.

It is the strangest paradox that Ellison, the careful aesthete, the individualist, would seem to be, in the creation of Hickman, the servant of a generalized noble politics. The nobility of the thought here is unquestioned; but no fictional character can fully exist so comparably unquestioned. Hickman resembles the truly good allegorical figure in Invisible Man, Mary Rambo, the woman from the South who runs the Harlem boarding house where the narrator stays. Her function is to provide succor and food, to represent the moral anchor of a lost port, the South. "She was something more," says the narrator, "a force, a stable, familiar force like something out of my past."

The difficulty is that figures of mythic comfort such as Hickman and Mary Rambo are generalized, not individual. (This was a difficulty in Toni Morrison's Paradise, which also veered between allegory and realism.) They are baptized in a common stream. For certain works of literature, this archetypicality may not matter, but it will prove a genuine difficulty in a novel that contains powerful elements of realism, as this one does. More acutely, generalized archetype poses a problem for a novel that seeks to discuss precisely the ratio of individuality and collectivity in American identity. Quite apart from the boredom of Hickman's homilies, it seems pedagogically weak that the man who is coaxing from Bliss his specific memories, his dreads and confusions, his white man's recoil from the black world and the sources of that recoil, should be so persistently converting that reclaimed individuality into the terms of the general, the tribal, the mythical. Far from challenging Bliss with the wickedness of his adult denials, Hickman seems, to the reader at least, to give good grounds for Bliss's recoil. It would be a point of honor to resist such a maxim-machine, and run far away.

Affirmation of the kind that Hickman teaches and symbolizes is not certain death for a novel, but it menaces it. One can think of optimistic or affirmative novels, but most of them – Middlemarch or The Rainbow or Howards End – describe a crescent of failure around an imagined affirmation. Invisible Man belongs to this tradition. The enactment of affirmation – the success of affirmation – is always the difficulty for novels. Since affirmation is hypothetical or utopian, it lacks specificity; since it lacks specificity, it lacks drama; since it lacks drama, it will tend to the didactic and the general, and its spokesmen are likely to be propagandists. Hickman is such a man, and we are not surprised when he ends the novel dreaming a peroration to himself: "Because this American cloth, the human cloth, is woven too fine for that, that's why. Because you are one of the few who knows where the cry of pain and anguish is still echoing and sounding over all that bloodletting and killing that set you free to set yourself free, that's why again. Because you know that we were born of sacrifice, and that we have had to live by a different truth and that that truth is good and the vision of manhood it stands for is more human, more desirable, more real." This is a flight from the novelistic.

As Hickman leans on the narrative, so an earnest cloud floats over the book, and the weather becomes monochrome. A noble allegory rains down, a kind of religion, and perhaps it is no accident that the management of the novel's education should become so misguidedly religious when it is turned over to the control of a preacher. One misses, by contrast, the secular irreverence of Invisible Man, the crowded combinations of Manhattan life in that book, and one recalls wistfully the scene, both realistic and symbolic, both painful and funny, in which the narrator stands in front of a yam stall in New York. Eating the delicious yam, he is suddenly homesick for the South. "I yam what I am," he says.


Click here to subscribeTry four weeks of the New Republic Digital absolutely free

For nearly 90 years, the New Republic has provided its readers with an intelligent and rigorous examination of American politics, foreign policy, and culture. Today, we're proud to offer a faster, easier, and more economical way to enjoy the magazine — TNR Digital. Subscribe today and we'll give you 4 weeks absolutely free. That's less than 36 cents/week for every word of content available in the print version, a downloadable replica of the print magazine, and an array of special online-only features!

Click here to sign up.

spacer
spacer
  • back to top

FOLLOW US ON...

     
Powell's City of Books is an independent bookstore in Portland, Oregon, that fills a whole city block with more than a million new, used, and out of print books. Shop those shelves — plus literally millions more books, DVDs, and gifts — here at Powells.com.