A Glorious Call and Response: Ellison Thrills Himself and Us

Juneteenth , by Ralph Ellison. Random House, 368 pages, $25.

Oh, has a novel ever had a murkier provenance than this one? I mean, fires and file cabinets with multiple drafts and handwritten notes on loose pieces of paper and a widow who changed her mind? “The real quality of the paint is always determined by the man who ships it rather than by those who mix it,” the luckless narrator of Invisible Man learns. Cut and paste and, whoosh, call it a novel.

I don’t think Ellison would have minded the battle royal over the publication of Juneteenth . No one was fonder of the polyphony of American democracy than Ralph Waldo Ellison; he enjoyed it so much it practically consumed him.

Still, have any of the disappointed critics actually read the words on the page? They’re terrific. The language tightens the scrotum, it’s so good. O.K., maybe it’s just one riff of the novel Ellison spent 45 years trying to finish. Maybe it’s not a novel at all. I have my doubts about whether a novel with vast American themes, a novel that embraces “realism extended beyond realism,” as Ellison described his perpetual work in progress, is achievable, not unless your name is Melville. (The whale got away. Let’s admit that.) But Juneteenth contains the most resonant and alluring uses of the American idiom I’ve read in a while. It’s got dream speech and movie talk and the music of the revival meeting and the language of the juke joint all rolled into one. It rolls and riffs. Get down to the bookstore and open it and read, brothers and sisters, read.

Juneteenth doesn’t quite have a plot. What it has is an extended two-character interaction that at times forms itself into a coherent narrative and other times seems to follow more the baggy logic of a dream. In the beginning, we are in 50′s Washington, D.C., and Adam Sunraider, a xenophobic racist senator, lies in his hospital bed, victim of an assassination attempt. He is kept company by a black preacher named Reverend A.Z. Hickman, a.k.a. God’s Trombone. What can be the connection between the two men? Two hints emerge: Sunraider’s oratory sounds a lot like preaching; and he starts calling Hickman “Daddy.” Intermittently, Sunraider regains awareness. The aged Reverend Hickman nods off. Their states of consciousness merge. Their trains of thought meet in a kind of oblique call and response–and ultimately a story gets told.

Sunraider was Hickman’s adopted son, it turns out, a light-skinned boy he named Bliss (as in ignorance is …). Hickman had trained Bliss for the family business. His main job was to pop out of a huge coffin at revivals and cry out: “Lawd, why hast Thou forsaken me?” Was Hickman behind the assassination attempt? Was he trying to put Bliss in a coffin for real? After all, Bliss had turned against his own people. He had exposed black weakness as only one of their own could. Bliss, for his part, imagines he has successfully fled his blackness. His

“hi-yaller”skin allows him to steal the perquisites of superiority in a racist society. The truth turns out to be more complex. As Hickman and Bliss delve deeper into their past, we learn the secret of Bliss’ birth. He is white. Hickman knew it, but raised him in the black community, hoping to create a man who could bridge the gap and bring people together, a new Lincoln.

This makes the book sound cleaner than it is. In fact, there are a lot of loose ends, big and small. Some are probably the result of the crewcut the volume’s editor, John F. Callahan, gave the original manuscript; others come from the fact that the manuscript was far from finished when Ellison died, age 80, in 1994. It’s not clear to me whether a white woman who tries to kidnap the 6-year-old Bliss at a revival meeting is the same woman who, it is revealed later, gave birth to him and abandoned him to Hickman. The ending of the novel, a dream sequence in which Sunraider wanders into an eerie bird shoot, is wonderful–but I can’t see how it brings this particular story to an end. Bliss seems one chapter short of being as full a literary creation as Hickman.

If nothing else, Juneteenth leaves you with a strong sense of what Ellison was trying to do during the mid-50′s, when most of this text was written. He was already after a very different book than Invisible Man (1952), which became a best seller and won the National Book Award. Ellison’s writing wasgrowing broader and more exuberant. Invisible Man ‘s paranoiddreamlike movement is like Dostoyevsky. Juneteenth is denser, darker (pun intended) and more gothic. The descriptions are Faulknerian, the dialogue by the more ascetic moderns, Joyce and Eliot. Ellison was abandoning “proper English” for the vernacular. There’s plenty of room for the reader to explore what the behavior of a white man raised by a black man to think he is a black man means, but the point here is language. I had not expected Ellison to move on from Invisible Man with such speed. He was an astonishing learner. Reading Juneteenth , I understood the stories that circulated over the years about how Ellison was just too fond of this book to publish it; he liked sitting at home reading it, chuckling to himself. He was watching himself get better. It’s only a shame time ran out, but then, I suppose, it had to.

Here’s a representative passage, Hickman and Bliss’ call and response as they explore slavery at a revival meeting. The occasion is Juneteenth, a holiday that commemorates June 19, 1865, the date that Union soldiers brought the slaves of Texas the news–two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation–that they were free.

What was it like then, Rev. Bliss? You read the scriptures, so tell us. Give us a word.

WE WERE LIKE THE VALLEY OF DRY BONES!

Amen. Like the Valley of Dry Bones in Ezekiel’s dream. Hoooh! We lay scattered in the ground for a long dry season. And the winds blew and the sun blazed down and the rains came and went and we were dead. Lord, we were dead! Except … Except …

… Except what, Rev. Hickman?

Except for one nerve left from our ear …

Listen to him!

And one nerve in the soles of our feet …

… Just watch me point it out, brothers and sisters …

Amen, Bliss, you point it out … and one nerve left from the throat …

… From our throat–right here !

… Teeth …

… From our teeth, one from all thirty-two of them …

… Tongue …

… Tongueless …

… And another nerve left from our heart …

… Yes, from our heart …

… And another left from our eyes and one from our hands and arms and legs and another from our stones …

Amen, hold it right there, Rev. Bliss …

… All stirring in the ground …

… Amen, stirring, and right there in the midst of all our death and buriedness, the voice of God spoke down the Word …

… Crying Do! I said, Do! Crying Doooo–

–these dry bones live?

He said: Son of Man … under the ground, ha! Heatless beneath the roots of plants and trees … Son of Man, do …

I said, Do …

… I said Do, Son of Man, Doooooo!–

–these dry bones live?

Amen! And we heard and rose up. Because in all their blasting they could not blast away one solitary vibration of God’s true word…. We heard it down among the roots and among the rocks. We heard it in the sand and in the clay. We heard it in the falling rain and in the rising sun. On the high ground and in the gullies. We heard it lying moldering and corrupted in the earth. We heard it sounding like a bugle call to wake up the dead. Crying, Doooooo! Ay, do these dry bones live!

So if publishing Juneteenth was a mistake, let us have more of them.