By Ralph Ellison

Edited by John F. Callahan

Random House. 368 pp. $25

Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man is one of the great American novels of the century -- not merely, and most obviously, the preeminent work of fiction about the African-American experience but also a singular, original book about America itself -- and the only novel Ellison published during his lifetime. From the time it appeared in 1952 (it won the National Book Award the following year) until Ellison's death in 1994, he worked on a second novel, but for a number of reasons, some known and some not, he never permitted anything beyond a handful of brief extracts from it to see the light of day.

Now, five years after his death, we have Juneteenth, which has been cobbled together from Ellison's papers by his friend and literary executor, John F. Callahan, with the cooperation and encouragement of his widow, Fanny. In absolutely no way does this undertaking seem the fruit of avarice or self-aggrandizement, as is so often the case when an author's heirs (most notoriously Ernest Hemingway's) plunder his literary remains to squeeze the last ounce of profit therefrom. To the contrary, the editing of this book appears to have been an act of homage and love, growing out of deep respect for Ellison and equally deep regret that he was never able to bring this book to completion; every honest effort seems to have been made to present it in a way that honors Ellison's intentions as others perceive them.

The difficulty, alas, is that when an author of Ellison's standing labors over a manuscript for more than four decades without letting it be published, one almost always has little choice except to conclude that he was in some way deeply dissatisfied with it and that he may not fully have understood his own intentions. Ralph Ellison was the most scrupulous and fastidious of men, perfectionist almost to a fault and quite surely aware that he faced, in the expectations raised by Invisible Man, a formidably daunting challenge. When one considers that during these same four decades he published many distinguished essays on the same themes he was attempting to explore in this manuscript, one is forced to conclude that he may have found fiction -- or at least the specific fiction he was trying to write -- an inadequate or inappropriate form.

Whatever the unknown and unknowable truth with regard to these questions, the book that comes before us now must be judged by standards as exacting as those Ellison himself quite obviously held it up to, and by those standards it can only be called a failure: not merely that but a heartbreaking failure, for what one sees in these pages is not Ellison working his way toward some clear purpose but Ellison struggling, manfully but vainly, to give shape, coherence and meaning to a piece of work that resolutely defied his best efforts. As one who respects Ellison (his work, for I never met or corresponded with the man) nearly to the point of veneration, I devoutly wish that I could say otherwise, but do so would be to patronize both him and his work, and that he would have loathed.

The expectations raised by Invisible Man must have haunted Ellison, and he must have been vexed as well by speculation -- which intensified as the wait for his second novel grew ever longer -- that he was a one-book writer. At the time of his death, I wrote a column rejecting this criticism, saying that the achievement of Invisible Man was quite enough for any lifetime and should be respected for what it was, but Juneteenth does make us see Invisible Man in a new light. It suggests that after exhausting the autobiographical material at the core of Invisible Man, Ellison had nothing left to draw from for additional works of fiction. To his immense credit, he resisted the temptation of endlessly writing and rewriting his own story, but in that courageous act he inadvertently revealed the limitations of his creative resources; he had more to say as an essayist, and he said it brilliantly (viz., The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison, in the Modern Library), but as a novelist he was spent.

In the introduction to Juneteenth, John Callahan says that Fanny Ellison asked, as she contemplated her late husband's vast stash of papers, "Beginning, middle and end. Does it have a beginning, middle and end?" This is the right question, or a very big part of it, but there is little in Juneteenth to support Callahan's answer in the affirmative. Ellison knew what he wanted to do in these pages -- to write a novel that would show how all Americans, whatever their color, are bound by their American-ness, as well as how the African-American presence in our common life is central, inescapable and pervasive -- but he couldn't figure out how to do it.

The tale, upon which there is little point in dwelling at length, has to do with an old black man, a preacher named Alonzo Z. Hickman, and a white U.S. senator named Adam Sunraider, who has climbed to his eminence by playing what is now called the race card. As the novel begins Sunraider has been shot on the Senate floor; he calls at once for Hickman, who accompanies him to the hospital, where the two engage in a conversation, or meditation, on their shared past. Sunraider, known as a boy and youth as Bliss, had been left by his mother to be raised by Hickman and the rest of his black community in Oklahoma. The boy was seen as having rare potential for goodness that would transcend race, and was reared in the hope of achieving it, of becoming, as revealed toward the novel's close, a latter-day Lincoln, the "kind of man who will do what he sees as justice even if the earth yawns and swallows him down, and even then his deeds will persist in the land forever."

Sunraider betrays that dream but doesn't kill it, and in his dying hours achieves a reconciliation of sorts with his complex racial heritage, with the blackness that is in some way a part of him and, so Ellison believed, in all of us. This theme -- the triumph of the ties that unite Americans and make them what they are over the hatreds and misunderstandings that divide them -- is at the heart of all Ellison's work, for he himself had risen far above race to become the most tolerant and empathetic of men. But the reader must work hard to find it here, for it gets lost in the dense thickets of the novel's plot and the willful obfuscation of its prose.

Ellison was the most lucid and graceful of writers, but here he lapses over and over into half-baked Faulkner and Joyce, as though he feared that his own voice was all wrong for what he was trying to do. Much of the narrative is in the form and/or the language of sermons (Bliss/Sunraider was reared as a boy preacher), which has pertinence and energy at first but soon becomes merely fatiguing. The plot lurches along from episode to episode, a few of which have their own internal logic (the celebration in Hickman's community of "Juneteenth," June 19, when word of Emancipation came at last to the Southwest, is one of these), but many of which barely make sense.

Ellison seems to have been trying to combine the language and form of literary modernism with the themes of racial tolerance and interdependence that he so treasured, but he was unable to bring it off. He seems as well to have understood this failure better than anyone else, to wit his refusal to publish the book. Doubtless he would have recognized the work of those who produced it after his death as the expression of their love, but doubtless, too, he would have pleaded with them to let sleeping manuscripts lie.

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardley@twp.com.

CAPTION: Ralph Ellison in 1982