The Invisible Manuscript
On April 16, 1994, a writer famous for a singular and bone-deep literary accomplishment died in his Riverside Drive apartment in Manhattan, his sweet and elegant wife, Fanny, by his side. It was pancreatic cancer that laid him low, then silenced him. He was 80. Because fame had found Ralph Waldo Ellison upon publication of Invisible Man in 1952, because that novel -- about the terrible and bewitching pain heaped upon its Negro (Ellison loved that word) protagonist -- had changed the literary landscape of the nation, touching millions, there was, of course, a moving public tribute. Literary lions and common folk converged at the American Academy of Arts and Letters in Manhattan six weeks after Ellison's death. Musicians pulled out their instruments. Ellison had long been into music, particularly jazz. Years earlier, when he was traipsing around Manhattan in long tweed coat and fedora, he sat in on gigs with some known hepcats. At the tribute after Ellison's death, Wynton Marsalis played "Stardust," made popular by Louis Armstrong. Ellison loved Armstrong.
But there was a notable absence: Ellison's long-rumored second novel. In the 41 years since Invisible Man won the National Book Award, the author had made it clear to all that he was working on something that would be grander, more ambitious even, than his acknowledged masterpiece. In 1967, 14 years into his struggle, Ellison lost pieces of the manuscript in a New England house fire. Scholars have since largely dismissed the significance of the loss, about 200 pages, mostly revisions, most of which Ellison was able to retrieve. But he allowed the fire to take on psychological weight through the years and would talk of the loss as if it had caused an ever-deepening wound upon his artistic focus. More years passed, then decades. Ellison wrote essays, gave speeches and got invited to the White House. Medals were draped around his neck. He was praised in multiple languages. Biographies and dissertations were written. Seminars organized, conferences held.
But no second novel emerged.
IN THE 1960S, WHEN ACADEMIC INTEREST IN RACE HEATED UP, SCHOLARS REALLY BEGAN TO BUZZ AROUND RALPH ELLISON. They wrote him letters, tried to get him to come to the telephone. His Invisible Man, the story of the many levels of Hell faced by a black man trying to make good on the promise of America, had made Ellison that rarest of writers -- not unlike Harper Lee of To Kill a Mockingbird fame -- in that his one novel sold so well that the royalty checks provided a welcome cushion for the rest of his life. The book found a permanent place in the literary canon, embedded in countless college reading lists and constantly debated. But Ellison remained elusive, prickly and somewhat shy. Try as they might, none got close to him.
Then, in 1977, John Callahan, a 36-year-old professor at Oregon's Lewis & Clark College, published an essay titled "Chaos, Complexity and Possibility: The Historical Frequencies of Ralph Waldo Ellison." He mailed it to the man he had admired ever since staying up one night in 1960, unable to stop reading Invisible Man. Callahan's piece, which riffed on the way Ellison challenged narrow, "official" views of American history, caught the author's attention. Soon Callahan found himself invited to the Ellisons' home in New York City.
Ralph and Fanny -- poet Langston Hughes had introduced the couple -- took to Callahan. The white, Irish professor struck Ellison as earthy and open. There was much laughter and dining during the visits. And there was something else: "I was one of many people . . . estranged from my own father," says Callahan. In Ellison, who had never had children himself, Callahan had found a father figure.
Callahan remained close to the Ellisons over the next 17 years. As Ellison's death approached, Callahan says, his friend seemed so thunderstruck by the prospect of leaving this world that he couldn't bring himself to discuss matters of literary executorship. Ellison thought of his wife and her well-being. He thought of his unfinished novel. He was worried and afraid. "His final days," says Callahan, "were given over to brooding about death, trying to understand what was happening to him. The practicality of his literary legacy was not on his mind."
It was only after Ellison's death that Fanny Ellison chose Callahan to become literary executor. This was an honor, but it soon became clear it was also a Herculean task. Manuscript pages, computer disks and scribbled notes lay helter-skelter, everywhere in his home. Ellison had not suffered from writer's block, after all. He had writer's fury. He had written and written and written. A gush of words, and chapters and notes about the chapters. There were background notes -- musings on writing and America and fiction -- much of it also beautifully written; notes about plot outlines and more characters, built word by word, then buried under more notes. It was a spouting gusher of artistic creation, fat manuscripts covering other fat manuscripts, almost all related to that second novel.
And Fanny had hoarded it all. The one thing she didn't save, because it had never existed, was any instruction about what to do with it.
Callahan returned to Oregon. Soon, boxes and boxes of the Ellison work began arriving. Between teaching duties, he aimed to sort through the materials. When Callahan believed the last of the papers had arrived, another shipment was set down before him. So many words, so many plots, so many chapters. It smacked of mania, but Ellison had never struck Callahan as unhinged. "I think a lot of what was going on with Ralph were writerly issues," he says, "not psychological issues."
Invisible Man was relatively simple structurally, having a single narrator, a single perspective from which the entire book sprang forth. Even so, at a time when Ellison was barely scraping by as a freelance writer and living primarily on Fanny's secretary's salary, he still went about writing that novel with either admirable or damnable irreverence for time. He described that period as "an obscurity in which I had worked for five years undisturbed by thoughts of future sales or reviewers notices, and in which the possibility of winning prizes was utterly undreamed. My sole preoccupation had been with transforming a body of seemingly intractable material into a work of art."
If his first novel seemed "intractable material," the second verged on impossible -- a sprawling plot, with multiple protag-onists and points of view. Callahan knew that with Invisible Man, Ellison had felt like he was moving a mountain with a teaspoon. Callahan saw that Ellison had been attempting the same process here, only with a much bigger mountain.