Post Magazine: Ralph Ellison's lost second novel
Monday, August 20, 2007; 12:00 PM
Readers have waited more than 40 years for Ralph Ellison, author of the American classic, "The Invisible Man," to complete his second novel. When Ellison died in 1994, leaving thousands of pages of notes and chapters, a college professor took up the task of uniting the parts into an epic whole. He needed an assistant. Adam Bradley stepped in to help, and in the process learned to accept his own past as the biracial son of an absent father.
In this week's issue of Washington Post Magazine, Wil Haygood pieces together Adam Bradley's story of piecing together Ellison's work and his own past.
A transcript follows
Wil Haygood is a staff writer for The Washington Post's Style section. Joining him in the conversation is Adam Bradley, an assistant professor of literature at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif.
Adam Bradley: This is Adam Bradley. I'm looking forward to the discussion.
Wil Haygood: Hi, this is Wil Haygood.
Looking forward to the chat today revolving around Ralph Ellison's long "lost" manuscript.
Franconia, Va.: I loved your article. It made me think about other uncompleted works left after authors' deaths.
There has been more than one attempt to finish Jane Austen's last book and Charles Dickens's "The Mystery of Edwin Drood," but people are just imagining their own endings. In lighter fiction, C.S. Forrester left detailed notes for the last Hornblower book (Hornblower During the Crisis), so the publisher simply published the chapters that had been written, followed by his outline.
The project that seems most similar may seem like a strange analogy -- "The Salmon of Doubt" by Douglas Adams, the science fiction writer, humorist and environmentalist who died suddenly of heart failure. He had been claiming to be working on the book for years and they found many pieces, both false starts and whole segments, in his computer. Someone wove them together to create a sort-of quasi-novel, but it doesn't read like a finished book.
Thinking about those other cases, were the Ellison editors able to make a unified novel without writing any scenes or connecting materials themselves? Is it really all Ellison?
Wil Haygood: I think the editors will be obliged to add explanatory inserts before the raw ellison writing, just to help and explain to the reader.
Darnestown, MD: Great article.
Mr. Bradley -- I've often wondered how one goes about taking on such a task -- was there enough material to make the novel coherently whole? Is the finished product taken entirely from Ellison's notes? And ultimately, do you think the earlier work was better than what was produced on the computer or just different?
Adam Bradley: This is a very important question. The first thing readers should know is that every word of fiction in the forthcoming Modern Library edition is Ellison's alone. As editors we saw it as our task to present as clearly as possible the range of Ellison's novel as he conceived it (and reconceived it!) over those many decades. We wanted to make our editorial footprint as small as possible while maintaining the highest level of editorial responsibility. We provide explanatory notes and introductory essays but nothing more to get in the way of Ellison's fiction.
As for the computer material, I would say that what it sometimes lacks in polish, it makes up for in the richness of the characters' voices-particularly that of the jazzman turned preacher, Alonzo Hickman, who emerges as the governing voice of the novel.
Petworth, Washington, D.C.: The magazine article offered the most sanitized presentation of Ellison I've read in a good while. By the time he died, Ellison was widely recognized as an unfaithful and emotionally abusive husband, a stymied writer and a marginalized African American luminary who was notoriously jealous of other, arguably more gifted black writers and their success.
Why did you feel compelled to present such a sanitized version of Ellison?
Wil Haygood: I didn't think it was sanitized. There just wasn't room to get into every facet of his life. He certainly could have been a more giving writing, inasmuch as spending time with others. But he kept to himself mostly. And goodness knows it would have taken more than one article to get into his marital life, inasmuch as it lasted so long.
Chevy Chase, Md.: Have any of Ralph Ellison's children or grandchildren become writers? What are their professions? Also, please tell us about Adam Bradley's life these days.
Wil Haygood: Adam Bradley is a literary scholar who teaches at Claremont-McKenna College. His fellow scholars think very very highly of him, and it is widely expected he will publish significant works himself, sooner rather than later.
Ames, Iowa: Has either of you read or heard about the irreverent satire of this very situation (Ellison's missing second book), a Faulkner Award-winning work called "What the Shadow Told Me"? I believe it was written by two English professors from Virginia Military Institute, of all places!
Wil Haygood: I never heard of this.
Washington, D.C.: Excellent story -- Did you get any sense that Ellison, deep down and in his later years, didn't want to publish his second novel in his lifetime? Maybe there was a part of him that wanted the novel to come out posthumously.
Also, the mess of notes and disorganized manuscript he left behind has me wondering, didn't he have an editor?
Wil Haygood: Wil answering on this and I'm sure Adam will weigh in: I happen to think he WANTED to publish in his lifetime. Writers do want their work viewed.
Washington, D.C.: It's hard to accept "the computer made him do it" as the reason Ellison never finished his second novel. Hadn't he been working on it for twenty-five years before he owned a computer?
Adam Bradley: I'm not sure that moving to the computer necessarily was responsible for his failure to publish the book. We move into the area of psychological speculation when we consider it in those terms. I prefer to interpret the challenges Ellison faced with the second novel as writerly ones rather than personal ones. He set such an ambitious task for himself. The computer, while it certainly helped him write MORE, did not, I think change the nature of the challenge he faced with the fiction.
Potomac, Md.: I thoroughly enjoyed your article and both you individuals, but still am not certain if the second novel will be published or not. Will it?
Wil Haygood: Well it will be published in the most complete version the editors could get it across the finish line. It was go far far beyond Juneteenth.
Cambridge, Mass.: Hello,
My name is Alisa Braithwaite and I'm a literature prof. at MIT. Adam Bradley and I were in the same program at Harvard and I'd first like to congratulate him on the completion of this amazing project. I was really struck by your ability to see Ellison's work progress from typed manuscript to computer manuscript. What insights do you think you gained about the writer's process (Ellison and perhaps also writers in general) from witnessing this transition?
Adam Bradley: Hello, Alisa. And thanks for the question, which relates in some ways to one of the earlier ones on the challenge Ellison faced on the computer. I believe that the computer has fundamentally transformed the way writers write and readers read. The implications are stylistic (shorter paragraphs, more disjointed narratives) but also practical (we can play games, surf the web, even participate in online chats!). Ellison might not have done all of those things on his computer--he couldn't have--but it nonetheless was a radically different tool than the typewriter.
Upper Marlboro, MD: I planned to just skim the article, find the name of the new book and move on. Instead, WaPo put another excellent writer's work under my eyes, and I ended up speed reading the whole thing. Against my will. Happily.
Just wanted to say thanks; it was a splendid article about both Ellison and Bradley.
Wil Haygood: Well, thank you. It was wonderful that Adam and Callahan had reached the finish line and made time to talk to me about the years behind them on this project.
Falls Church, Va.: Wil,
Your article was insightful and a pleasure to read!
What were your parents thoughts of your involvement with this book?
Adam Bradley: Thanks you. Both of my parents saw how important this project was to me--they had to, as often as I talked about it! I think they both had to become Ellisonians in some ways.
Vero Beach, Fla: I agree with reviewer Joseph Epstein who wrote that "possibly the saddest thing to have happened to Ralph Ellison came after he died, when the assignment of writing his biography was given to Arnold Rampersad." Was John Callahan responsible for that decision? What gives John Callahan the right to create yet another artificial title, "Three Days Before the Shooting," for an unfinished work that Ralph Ellison apparently never named? Why can't the Library of America simply publish it as "The Unfinished Second Novel"? Likewise, why should we, the readers, care that Henry Louis Gates Jr. has determined that "Ellison sought no less than to create a book of Blackness -sic]", a description that >Ellison himself would undoubtedly have laughed at? Henry Louis Gates Jr. is one of the four or five literary scholars whose petty grievances against Ralph Ellison are aired in the text of an "authorized" biography that they also blurb on the back cover. James Agee, on the other hand, like Ralph Ellison, lost his father at an early age, and yet his "literary executors" somehow managed to piece together disparate material into a Pulitzer Prize-winnning novel. Toni Morrison did something similar with a lengthy, unfinished, unedited work by Toni Cade Bambara, and Annie Dillard just mentioned in a recent NPR interview that Books-on-Tape actually improved her first novel by cutting its length in half. Again, why should the reader care if Ralph Ellison was a father figure to John Callahan?
Wil Haygood: I think the Callahan-Ellison friendship is noteworthy because it places Callahan in a position to be named literary executor. A decision like that can't be made in a throw-the-dice manner. Ellison's wife trusted Callahan; there was a lot of work around that had to be sifted and sorted.
Chantilly, Va.: Mr. Bradley,
What alternate voices do you think Mr. Ellison's novel will lend to discussions about the perceptions of race and social responsibility if the novel is released right before the presidential primaries in early 2008?
Adam Bradley: This is a rich question, particularly because the novel is so deeply political. One of the protagonists (whom some may be familiar with from Juneteenth) is named Adam Sunraider and he is a powerful New England Senator, shot on the Senate floor. But before that he was the child Bliss, a boy of indeterminate race raised by Hickman as a kind of salvific figure who would somehow unify black and white in the same way black and white was unified in him. Of course, this doesn't happen. But the hope, the promise, of multiracial democratic unity is at the center of this book. In an historic election such as this, where we have a black man and woman as leading candidates for their party's nomination, the connections to Ellison novel run deep.
Spotsylvania, VA: Mr. Bradley, I read "Invisible Man" in college and always considered it one of the great American novels. I did not realize that Ellison never wrote another (like J. D. Salinger). Do you feel that the themes of the second novel will be as relevent in 2007 as they would have been if Ellison had completed the work in the 1960's, 1970's, or 1980's?
Adam Bradley: Ellison wrote with a tremendous sense of how the present moment related to the past and how both might relate to the future. He once said in an interview that what he was searching for in the second novel was the "aura of summing up, that pause for contemplation of the moral significance of the history we've been through." The passage of time, I would say, has only intensified the significance of Ellison's themes: the challenge of perfecting a multiracial American democracy and the mystery of American identity.
Staunton, Va.: The example of three different versions of a single sentence in the manuscripts/typescripts/disks not only shows how Ellison changed what he was doing stylistically over time; it raises the question of whether or not the editors felt compelled to accept the latest version of any given passage as Ellison's last word. The most recent version in an ongoing series of rough drafts isn't necessarily best. I never felt that Auden's revision of "In Memory of W.B. Yeats" was as good as the original, and Twain's third (but still incomplete) version of "The Mysterious Stranger," though preferred by some scholars, seems to me to be a narrative mess compared to the tighter original version that made up the bulk of what his executors originally published. I know this is a matter of subjective, aesthetic judgment, but what ground rules did you apply for choosing between two or three different versions of a passage, knowing that Ellison might have revised further or even gone back and decided to use something he had scrapped at first?
Adam Bradley: Excellent insight--one of the challenges that John Callahan and I grappeled with for a long, long time. I could go into great detail, but I'll refer you to our introductory essay in the forthcoming edition for a more extended treatment of this. Our editorial principle was to present Ellison's latest revisions for a EACH PARTICULAR PERIOD of the novel's composition. This means that even if he rewrote the same scene (or sentence) in both the 1970s and 1990s, they both might have a place in the edition if each was part of a greater whole. What you'll see in the edition is not a single continuous narrative cobbled together from forty years of writing, but a series of manuscripts--related but distinct--that not only tell the story, but show how Ellison was telling his story at any given moment.
Harrisburg, Pa.: I gather the manuscript was pieced together from several sources. How much editing and connecting writing, if any, was required to make this into a cohesive manuscript?
Wil Haygood: I'm sure Adam will weigh in here but that is why the project took so long. Both Adam and Callahan were constantly looking at connecting tissues between the 1950s-era material and the 1960s-era material and the 1970s-era material.
College Park, Md.: Adam,
I hope you will permit a personal question from a former student. Invisible Man speaks consistently of the ability, afforded by IM's blackness, to see around corners and hear the throbs of the city pulsing underground. The young Bliss in Juneteenth seems to harbor a similar ability in the midst of his own racial self-questioning. Can you say more about whether your personal history has helped you with your gift at reading Ellison?
Adam Bradley: Thanks for the question, which I feel compelled to answer not just because you're a former student, but because it speaks to the complex blend of the literary and the personal in what Wil wrote. After reading the article yesterday, I was struck once again with the numerous ways that Ellison has shaped my life--not just in my chosen profession or scholarly labors, but in the more private interstices of my identity. I owe a lot to Wil Haygood for giving me a way to stand outstide myself while looking back in.
Connecticut: Question for Adam:
Have you considered doing a spin-off novel of any of the characters or stories you have encountered on Mr. Ellison' manuscripts?
Adam Bradley: No.
Amherst, Va.: Dr. Bradley, was there an "a ha" moment when you realized that you finally had the second book "figured out"?
Adam Bradley: I'm not sure John and I will ever figure the book out (I'm not sure that Ellison did), but it's certainly afforded me numerous moments of recognition. The first one I can remember came when I was reading the material for the first time, as a nineteen year old. I was looking over one of Ellison's numerous early drafts of the opening paragraph when I came across something completely unexpected. . . A typo. Now that might seem like a small thing, but for a college student who had just finished reading Invibile Man, it was a jarring moment. It exposed Ellison's vulnerability and made him look a little bit, well, like me writing a five page paper for John Callahan's class.
Of course, I would see many, many more such small infelicities and errors in Ellison's papers, but in the end they have actually made him grow in my estimation. An author's greatness, I've come to believe, lives in imperfection as well as perfection, for in imperfection lies in the labor of the art.
Minneapolis, Jinn.: I just finished "Invisible Man" today (I don't know how I was allowed to get through a literature BA without reading it), and stumbled fortuitously upon Mr. Haygood's article.
How large did the spectre of "Invisible Man" loom while organizing the second novel? Naturally, readers will compare Ellison's second novel to his first, and if the comparison is unfavorable, blame is more likely to fall on the editors than upon the deceased.
Wil Haygood: I think editors who publish posthumous works know going in it wll be touch going on.
Los Angeles, Calif.: Adam -- how has Ellison inspired you and changed you as a writer? Who do you think, if anyone, picked up where Ellison left off as the next great American novelist?
Adam Bradley: I think Ellison has a lot of literary sons and daughters running (and writing) around today. There are those writers who acknowledge their debt to him--Toni Morrison and Charles Johnson come to mind--and there are those for whom his influence is largely unacknolwedged, however present.
I've certainly be shaped in my work by his example. I'm finishing two books right now: one, not surprisingly, about Ellison and the saga of this second novel. The second is on the poetry of hip-hop. Now you might think that Nas and Jay-Z are pretty far from Ralph Waldo Ellison, but I Ellison has really directed and inspired my work. He might not have listened to hip-hop, but he taught me how to listen to hip-hop better.
Hyattsville, Md.: Wil~
Thank you for this article! I like one of the previous commentators was going to overlook this article, but as I initially forced myself to read it..I began to truly enjoy it and learned something I never knew before! Bravo sir! Perhaps you yourself should consider writing a book...
Wil Haygood: Oh, I've got a few of em out there.
And thank you
Silver Spring, Md.: Ralph Ellison was a major writer with his use of words. He once, in the 1960's, was the subject of a film as he read from his unfinished manuscripts, And Hickman Arrives. Much of the second novel was in a firm form by that time. And, about 5 parts were published in minor journals after 1960. But, in the apartment in Manhattan were many, many photographs -- also art works by R. Bearden. Ellison once wanted to be a photographer and even made his early Christmas cards -- cut and paste and with a photograph. How does photography and Bearden's collages contribute to Ellison's prose form?
Wil Haygood: Personally I think the jazz was more influential in his writing life than photography and art.
Chevy Chase, Md.: Following up: Will it incorporate exclusively material that's never been published, or will it draw also on material in "Juneteenth"?
Adam Bradley: Whereas Juneteenth, the portion of Ellison's novel published in 1999, drew primarily from one of the several manuscripts comprising Ellison's novel-in-progress, this new edition gives readers a first look at the complex vision of Ellison's composition. Juneteenth might usefully be considered a prelude to the Modern Library edition; that is, it is both its own self-contained work of art, as well as an introduction to the characters and themes Ellison develops in far greater detail in the manuscripts included here.
Wil Haygood: Wil Haygood signing off.
Thank you all for joining in!
The questions were wonderful.
Baltimore, Md.: What a great story: both the Post magazine article and Mr. Bradley's and Mr. Callahan's story. The article did a nice job of outlining the sheer effort and persistence it must have taken to make sense of Ellison's notes and chapters, but as a writer, all of it really blows my mind. Mr. Bradley: were there ever moments when you almost threw up your hands and thought the job couldn't be done?
Also: Do you have any sense about how Ellison himself would react to this new book?
Adam Bradley: Ellison spent nearly forty years on this book, so we could at least give him a decade. I hope Ellison would be pleased to know that his words reached his audience.
Adam Bradley: Thank you all for a challenging and engaging discussion! I look forward to hearing your impressions of the book when it comes out next year.
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