The editors of Ralph Ellison’s posthumously published second novel, "Three Days Before the Shooting..." told an audience at the Harvard Bookstore last night that the celebrated author’s unfinished work is not a masterpiece.
Ellison, whose "Invisible Man" won the National Book Award in 1953, spent the next forty years struggling to compose his second novel.
John F. Callahan, a humanities professor at Lewis and Clark College, was friends with Ellison during his lifetime. Ellison’s wife named him literary executor after the author’s death in 1994.
Callahan, along with Adam F. Bradley, an associate professor of English at the University of Colorado-Boulder, spent fourteen years sorting through computer disks and boxes of notes that Ellison compiled over four decades.
In 1999, Callahan published "Juneteenth," a portion of the second half of "Three Days Before the Shooting..." to mixed reviews.
Callahan described Ellison’s work as a "fragment" that needed to be edited. During the editing process for this book, some of the author’s notes were given "more weight and heft" to create the narrative of the story, Callahan said.
Bradley, who was 19 when he began working on the project, described his "shock" at seeing typos and "rough sentences that needed honing" while sifting through Ellison’s notes. Despite the notes’ roughness, the editors said it was clear that Ellison was experimenting with the possibilities and variations of language.
This experimentation is reflected in the novel, and Callahan hopes that the book will "fill out the picture" of Ellison.
"Three Days Before the Shooting..." tells the story of a young man of ambiguous race named Bliss who is raised by a black preacher and as an adult becomes a white, race-baiting United States Senator named Adam Sunraider.
The editors said that the novel, despite and because of it’s unfinished state, can function as a window into the literary master’s mind. Callahan said he hopes the work will humanize Ellison. Instead of being seen as a self-critical perfectionist, it is Callahan’s wish that Ellison be seen as a good-humored man who loved dogs and children and had a "defiant imagination."
Glenda R. Carpio, professor of African and African American Studies and English, moderated the discussion.
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