Hailed as one of the greatest novels of the 20th century, “Invisible Man,” established Ralph Ellison as one of the most celebrated writers in America. Fans, critics and scholars alike waited impatiently for his second novel, which Ellison had begun writing by the mid-1950s. They would wait a long time.
Ellison exploded onto the literary scene in 1952 with the publication of his debut novel “Invisible Man,” which spent 16 weeks on the bestseller list and snagged the National Book Award (beating out Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea” and John Steinbeck’s “East of Eden,” among others), becoming the first black author to win the prize.
In the years following “Invisible Man,” Ellison published acclaimed essays but failed to produce the sweeping, ambitious second novel he had promised. In late 1965, Ralph Ellison finally published an excerpt of that long awaited book in the Quarterly Review of Literature. The excerpt, titled “Juneteenth,” referenced the June 19 holiday marking the day in 1865 when a Union general arrived in Texas, and announced that the state’s 250,000 slaves were free according to the Emancipation Proclamation.
The story, about a black Baptist minister who raises a child of undetermined race, only to see him reinvent himself as a race-baiting U.S. senator, whetted the public’s appetite for a forthcoming Ellison novel. Fans hoping to read a new Ellison work in the coming months, however, would be sorely disappointed. In 1967, a fire raged through the author’s summer home, and parts of the unfinished second book were lost in the flames. In the late ‘70s, Ellison’s wife, Fanny, claimed he had been ready to hand the novel to his publisher, right before the fire claimed the manuscript.
Ellison had begun writing his follow-up to “Invisible Man” as early as 1954. Over the next 13 years, he continued to work on it through the rise of the civil rights movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., which brought to the forefront political, social and racial issues that Ellison, as the nation’s most prominent African-American writer, might have been expected to weigh in on.
Pressure to publish the book was mounting by November 1967, when Ellison and his wife Fanny returned from running errands to find their home in Plainfield, Massachusetts engulfed in flames. Though the fire would take on mythic proportions over the years, it’s unclear exactly how much work he lost. In his 2007 biography of Ellison, Arnold Rampersad quoted a letter Ellison wrote about five weeks after the incident, in which he seemed relatively untroubled: “I lost part of my manuscript—the revisions over which I had labored [in] the summer and valuable notebooks. But since returning to N.Y. I’ve been hard at work and am gradually reconstructing.”
But over the months and years to come, the loss seemed to intensify in Ellison’s mind. According to Rampersad, by October of the following year Ellison told a reporter in North Carolina that he had lost 365 pages. In later interviews, the total number of destroyed pages became 500.
In a profile published in the New Yorker in early 1994, four decades after Ellison began working on the novel, the author spoke to David Remnick about the impact of the fire. “We lost a summer house and, with it, a good part of the novel. It wasn’t the entire manuscript, but it was over three hundred and sixty pages. There was no copy.” When Remnick asked him how much time he had lost, Ellison paused before responding: “You know, I’m not sure. It’s kind of blurred for me. But the novel has got my attention now. I work every day, so there will be something very soon.”
Two months after that interview, Ellison died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 80. His friend and literary executor, John Callahan, found himself responsible for the more than 2,000 pages of work Ellison left behind, without any instructions on what to do with it. From this voluminous material Callahan extracted what would become a 350-page novel, “Juneteenth,” published in 1999.
The novel opens with an assassination attempt by a young black man against Adam Sunraider, a notoriously bigoted senator from a New England state. Critically injured, the senator calls to his side Reverend Alonzo Hickman, a former jazz musician turned Baptist minister who took in Sunraider as a child and raised him as a preaching prodigy. As Hickman and Sunraider recall their past together, they focus on an eventful sermon celebrating the Juneteenth holiday in a Southern church, during which the young Bliss—as Sunraider was then known—learns his mother was a white woman. The revelation launches him on his path of independence from Hickman, and eventually to a career in entertainment and controversial politics.
In an interview in 2010, Callahan stated that writer’s block hadn’t been Ellison’s problem. “Ellison wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote,” he said. He also agreed with Rampersad’s conclusion that Ellison lost “about a summer’s worth of revisions” in the 1967 fire. In the end, after 40 years of work, it appeared the weight of massive expectations, the unwieldy bulk of the narrative and the pressure to give voice to the transformative events of the times had combined to ensure Ellison would never complete the sweeping novel of America he envisioned.
Despite its long delayed arrival, and its inevitable failure to live up to the success of “Invisible Man,” Ellison’s “Juneteenth” stands as a tribute to a writer’s life spent grappling with the contradictions and complexities of race. On his deathbed, the fictional Senator Sunraider, who dismisses the Juneteenth holiday as “the celebration of a gaudy illusion,” realizes his own narrative is not just a tale of freedom and success. Instead, it is intrinsically tied to the story of the young man who shot him and the story of the former slaves who learned of their independence that June day in 1865.