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The Lost Ones

February 24, 2011 By:
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SPEAKING VOLUMES

The history of 20th-century literature is littered with famous writer's blocks. Two of the most documented and analyzed were suffered by a Jewish American, Henry Roth, and an African-American, Ralph Ellison. Both novelists wrote a single -- and singular -- work, and then seemingly fell silent.

With Roth, the first work was Call It Sleep, which has a justifiably stellar reputation as perhaps the finest novel of the Jewish immigrant experience. It appeared at the height of the Depression, issued by a small publisher. It garnered respectful reviews, then sank from sight, mostly because the publisher went belly up.

But also, by the time Call It Sleep appeared in 1934, Roth had joined the Communist Party, and began work on what one significant editor judged would be the greatest proletarian novel in American letters. Soon after receiving this judgment, Roth burned what there was of the manuscript and sank into despair. He then decided what he and his family needed was to leave New York and head to the wilds of Maine. There, he began raising waterfowl and nursed his sense of resentment as he watched his writer's block balloon to massive proportions.

In the case of Ellison, his first and only novel, Invisible Man, was a cultural high point of the early 1950s. It, too, occupies -- justifiably -- an exalted spot in the American pantheon. In a style that switches, often without warning, from realism to an almost surreal comedy, it tells the story of the unnamed title character, a young black man. His odyssey begins in the South in the early 20th century, then moves on in his maturity to New York City and his life in Harlem, including his brush with the Communist party in the 1930s, before he decides to retreat from life and live "underground."

But where Roth was something of a forgotten man in literary circles -- caught in the hell of not writing in watery Maine -- Ellison was becoming a figure of note, praised and feted everywhere he went. Supposedly, he was working on his second novel, which was long anticipated, though it never appeared in his lifetime. He began instead to publish insightful essays gathered in several volumes while lecturing around the country and the world.

Bits and pieces of this novel in progress, which never had a name, appeared in literary journals over the years, impressing readers and critics, though the manuscript never seemed to evolve or coalesce. Some people conjectured that it didn't exist -- they were quieted for a time when a fire hit Ellison's house and destroyed a portion of the novel -- while others defended him as working on a massive piece of fiction that would overshadowInvisible Man. That would truly have been an accomplishment since his first is one of America's great works, a must-read for all, fitting for any time, but perhaps even more so during February, Black History Month.

(One more point about Roth before moving solely to Ellison. He returned to literary consciousness, if not to New York City, in the 1960s, when Call It Sleep was reissued in paperback and "re-reviewed" on the front page of The New York Times Book Review. The work sold steadily, and Roth was sought out by journalists for interviews. This older, disillusioned fellow seemed baffled by his novel's sudden fame and the spotlight turned on him; in these interviews, he sounded more baffled than pleased, as if it were happening to someone else. He didn't return to writing until he was much older -- in his ninth decade, to be exact -- when he was given a word processor that kick-started his muse. He then experienced one of the most astonishing second acts in American literature, at least from a biographical point of view.)

Much the same sort of reinvigoration of interest in the redoubtable Ellison and his work seems to be taking place just about now, albeit posthumously. The fact that his almost mythic second novel never appeared before his death in 1994 seems to have fascinated people, including his literary executor and many critics. Word got out that there was a massive pile of papers -- supposedly amounting to 2,000 pages -- but it was all unfinished, uncooked even, with some brilliant stretches (most had already been in print), while there were lots more that seemed vague or unfocused.

From the Morass

Ellison's literary executor, John Callahan, decided to try to extract something coherent from the morass; and so in 1999, Ellison's "second" novel, with the title Juneteenth, appeared, and was treated with curiosity and guarded respect by the critics. This new novel centered on two characters: Sunraider, a white, bigoted senator from New England; and Hickman, a black Baptist minister from the South who, it seems, has a familial connection to the racist lawmaker.

In the opening scenes of this lovingly carpentered manuscript, Sunraider is speaking on the Senate floor, indulging in his typical harangue, when he's felled by an assassin's bullets. Grievously wounded, he calls Hickman to his hospital bedside, and the two begin a lengthy dialogue about the years they shared.

Sunraider, it turns out, was born Bliss, and raised by Hickman in the black community; he was even being groomed to be a minister. These scenes of the dredged-up past are among the strongest in the book; not much else compared to them in this well-intentioned but uneven effort at literary retrieval.

Some people felt that a whittled-down Ellison -- considering how long he'd toiled over it and how many manuscript pages were extant -- did not do the novelist's vision a service. Ellison had clearly had something far grander in mind, structurally at the very least, thanJuneteenth would lead readers to believe.

And so critic and professor Adam Bradley teamed up with Callahan and assembled Three Days Before the Shooting ... , which Modern Library published last year. In size and scope, this seems closer to what Ellison was reaching for. But it, too, has its problems. Its bulk alone would be daunting to most readers.

This doorstopper of a book is for the totally committed, the true Ellison lover. The main problem is that Ellison worked and worked on this basic idea, creating multiple versions, and revisions of those versions, which Bradley and Callahan tried to make sense of.

The plot is much the same as in Juneteenth, centering on Sunraider and Hickman, but lots of other characters and perspectives have been added to the mix. For those interested in how novels get put together -- or, in the end, don't -- this tome to Ellison's grand struggle is a must-have.

As is Adam Bradley's Ralph Ellison in Progress, a critical work that on one level can be read as a justification for having put together Three Days Before the Shooting ... . But there's more to it than that. It's a meditation on what it takes to create a novel, as well as the pitfalls of revising material without an endpoint in sight.

Ellison, like Roth late in life, began using a computer. Especially after the tragic fire, he strove to reconstruct his novel and found the effort aided by the facility the computer gave him. Bradley wades through the various versions and compares them with a deft critical eye.

In the end, Bradley makes too much fuss over the greatness of this manuscript -- he says near the end of his study that it may surpass Invisible Man. But there is one thing Bradley's book makes clear: Its subject might have been stuck in the tangle of pages he produced, but he never really was blocked, as Roth was for so long. Ellison let hundreds of words -- many of them indelible -- flow from his imagination. That he could not meld them into a satisfying whole, as all his devotees might have wished, is likely beside the point.

 

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