Ralph Ellison’s Unfinished Manuscript

'Three Days Before the Shooting...' by Ralph Ellison (Modern Library)

“We Americans are great forgetters.” So declares reporter Welborn McIntyre in one of the oldest fragments of Ralph Ellison’s unfinished second novel, “Three Days Before the Shooting....” Previously available only in heavily-edited form as “Juneteenth,” it is a work in which the most significant voices are those dedicated to memory and to the preservation and interpretation of experience—whether through reporting, storytelling, preaching, or even prophecy. McIntyre’s proclamation stands as a challenge to an entire nation to, in the words of jazzman-turned-preacher Alonzo Hickman, “give melodic coherence to a progression of dissonant chords.”

Spanning over 2,000 manuscript pages and four decades of work, the novel’s incompleteness does not undermine the masterful and comprehensive expression of an author whose first novel alone, “Invisible Man,” was enough to vault him into 20th century literary canon. Like “Invisible Man,” Ellison’s unfinished novel addresses the construction of personal, racial, and national identities. The sheer number of voices represented makes this second effort a Faulknerian pinwheel of shifting perspectives. In his notes, Ellison explains that he was attempting to create in “intricate dialogue” among his characters.

From these many voices, two primary characters emerge to drive the dialogue. Reverend Hickman is “God’s Trombone,” a powerful preacher who discovers the same joy in the vigor and spirituality of his preaching as he had in making “heartfelt patterns of soul-felt sound” on his trombone. Unlike the well-defined character of Hickman, white senator Adam Sunraider—originally named “Bliss” by Hickman, his former foster parent—eludes definition. Little of what Ellison left behind provides any explanation for Sunraider’s radical transformations, as he changes from Reverend-in-training to filmmaker, to powerful race-baiting politician.

However, the purpose of this character becomes clearer when he meets his eventual fate. When Sunraider is shot in the middle of a Senate address by Severen, his long-abandoned son, he faces the consequences of his unwillingness to come to terms with his past. Examining the shooter’s body, McIntyre wonders whether Severen’s attempt on his father’s life might have been, for the son, “his best, his most meaningful assertion of self”—an assertion that Sunraider never made. Sunraider’s inability to understand himself is illustrated when, as a filmmaker, he is unable to identify why a particular film reel stirs him to terrible wonderment. He can only ask himself: “Why these images, and what was their power?”

Because the novel contains many story lines, characters, and flashbacks, the plot can often lack cohesion, especially without the connections Ellison would presumably have made between characters and episodes. Trippy visions of talking buzzards and hitching-post men have startling force but seem disconnected from the central story line, and some of Hickman and Sunraider’s extended flashback sequences stall without a strong narrative arc to support them. Nevertheless, the intrigue of these two characters and the vividness of their stories—however disjointed they may be—is more than enough to make “Three Days” engrossing.

In one particularly memorable episode, Hickman leads his church group to the Lincoln Memorial. Looking up into Lincoln’s eyes with “their sad revelation of what it means to be a man of vulnerable heart and floundering mind who found clinging to an elusive ideal more desirable than all the pride and glory of great wealth and great armies,” Hickman exclaims to himself, ”Yes! And with all I know about the things you had to do to be you and remain yourself—Yes! You are one of the few who ever earned the right to be called ‘Father.’” In this moment, the reverend discovers his power to forge his own meaning from a confused reality.

Ellison, a blues man himself, seems most at home writing in Hickman’s rhythmic cadence, oftentimes lulling but punctuated with ecstatic outbursts of emotion. But he also finds resonant expression in the simple, clear voice of Bliss’s early memories and seems to favor this more restrained style in some of his later compositions. Recalling the love affair that would end in the birth of his son and future assailant, Bliss reflects: “High up the trees flurried with birdsong, and one clear note sang above the rest, a lucid soaring strand of sound; while in the grass cicadas dreamed.” Ellison’s ability to give the voices of his characters such melodious presentation is perhaps the most impressive single aspect of this book.

The thoroughness of the publisher’s collection helps to highlight the virtuosity of Ellison’s work. Quickly written drafts from the 1950s are presented alongside Ellison’s final computer files from the early 1990s. Because several scenes are represented multiple times, it is possible to see Ellison’s attempts to refine and unify his work. This provides rare insight into the writing process of a literary master—even if that writing process was not wholly successful.

But “Three Days” is not simply a literary curiosity, whose appeal would be confined to the aspiring author or the Ellison specialist. The incompleteness of the novel does not detract from its overall power. “I was awed by the sweep of it,” says McIntyre as he is led into the war-rent ruins of a French cathedral, “and the very damage, the smashed incompleteness, made me realize as never before the grandeur of its inspiration.” The same might be said of “Three Days Before the Shooting...,” a collection whose lack of narrative cohesion makes the book itself a commentary on Ellison’s declaration of the essentially fragmented nature of our experience.

The final sequences of Ellison’s narrative, which occur early on in his manuscript, leave Sunraider facing not hopelessness but uncertainty. Bliss lies in critical condition but is still alive, with Hickman helping him finally retrace the complexity of his muddled experience. Hickman’s advice to Bliss is equally applicable to Ellison’s unfinished novel: “Somewhere through all the falseness and the forgetting,” Hickman urges, “there is something solid and good.”

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