The title of the posthumous Ralph Ellison novel, Juneteenth, is all-American — and all-Ellisonian — in its muscular musicality. But read the words that follow it and the old saw proves true: Don’t judge a book by its cover.
When he died in 1994, Ellison left behind no less than 1,500 manuscript pages of a work 40 years in progress (and that’s not counting the pages that burned along with his summerhouse in 1967). The controversial task of managing that mass was left to his literary executor, John F. Callahan. In the name of ”organic unity,” Callahan, a first-rate scholar, has pared the monster to a 348-page character study ripe with the writer’s exultant elegance and ardent moral conviction but wholly (inevitably?) absent of the polyphonic glory and nonstop narrative urgency of Ellison’s first novel, the 1952 classic Invisible Man. Juneteenth seems a student’s work, not a master’s; it reads like a stretched and static novella brightened by brief bits of genius.
The title — which Callahan chose — refers to the day in 1865 when Union soldiers effectively freed slaves in Texas: ”’Juneteenth,’ the Senator said, closing his eyes, his bandaged head resting beneath his hands. Words of Emancipation didn’t arrive until the middle of June so they called it Juneteenth.”
The Senator — here slipping into a Proustian reverie — is Adam Sunraider, a New Englander whose political career is founded on race-baiting rhetoric. At the peak of one virtuosic show of vitriolic oration, Sunraider is shot on the Senate floor and awakens in a hospital to find a black Baptist minister at his bedside. Rev. Alonzo Hickman, who helplessly watched from the visitors’ gallery as the shots went off, had come to Washington to warn Sunraider of imminent danger, but how did he know of that danger and how does he know Sunraider?
As the Senator’s flashback to one Juneteenth anniversary partly recounts, the self-invented Sunraider was once named Bliss, a boy of unknown racial identity — unknown, at least, to himself — but raised by Hickman as if he were black. In a story that constantly flips from time present — the 1950s — to times past, we learn what forces brought the pair together and apart. Though this rendition of the South is thick with charm in the manner of Faulkner, Twain, and Toomer, these adventures (much revival-meeting discourse and child’s-eye exploration) and interior monologues (lots of questioning of the universe) are focused narrowly on the underdeveloped relationship between the two men and Bliss’ descent into demagoguery.
Thus, Juneteenth feels more essayistic than novelistic, more philosophically than emotionally constructed. Laid bare is the churning clockwork of a writer who once told an interviewer that the search for identity ”is the American theme.” In a lecture tellingly titled ”The Novel as a Function of American Democracy,” Ellison expanded: ”Even today America remains an undiscovered country…. We don’t know who we are.” He saw American democracy as an existential drama and American racism as a tragedy of manners; such is the mystery play that Hickman and Bliss enact. And it is a mystery play: Ellison, who forged a style by breeding jazz and Henry James, African-American religion and European high modernism, had always been obsessed with words, words, words, and, as evident here, also with The Word.
A potentially Great American Novel has ended up an odd-shaped curio; Callahan’s faithful labor serves but does not satisfy. The executor writes that a coming scholar’s edition will include ”sufficient manuscripts and drafts” to let us follow Ellison’s 40-year drift. But will even that suffice? There is beauty to be found in a moth suspended, mid-metamorphosis, in amber, but of course — and of course disappointingly — that bug will never squirm to life. Juneteenth remains an undiscovered novel. B-